Bill Belichick brilliantly kept Patriots afloat despite key personnel losses

Bill Belichick watches action in the first half

Bill Belichick watches action in the first half of a game against the Baltimore Ravens. (Dec. 22, 2013) (Credit: AP)

DENVER - There have been plenty of extraordinary coaching performances by Bill Belichick, including his three Super Bowl wins, but this one may be the best of all.

Belichick has overcome plenty of adversity -- both on and off the field -- to get his team in position to reach its sixth Super Bowl on his watch. Given the extraordinary circumstances he has faced, it would be a remarkable accomplishment.

The season hadn't even begun when Belichick heard the news that his star tight end, Aaron Hernandez, had been implicated in the murder of Odin Lloyd last June. The media frenzy was intense and persistent up to and including the start of training camp, and Belichick shepherded his players through the experience, mostly by ensuring that they concentrate on their jobs, not their ex-teammate, who was released from the team the day he was charged with murder.

Once the season started, the Patriots faced injuries at several key positions. First it was veteran defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, who suffered a ruptured Achilles. Then it was linebacker Jerod Mayo, their leading tackler, who went out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle. And then the most crushing injury of all: Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski, whose return from offseason back and wrist surgery keyed a midseason offensive resurgence, was lost for the year with a knee injury.

The Patriots dealt with setbacks that only a coach of Belichick's caliber could overcome. After winning the AFC East title and getting a first-round bye with a 12-4 record, the Patriots advanced to the conference championship game by beating the Colts at home in the divisional round.

Belichick typically downplays his contributions, offering a shrug and his trademark dour expression when he's asked to talk about himself. Just part of the job, he says.

In fact, that's exactly he tells his players.

"What he's been saying the whole season, what he's been preaching -- just do your job and put the team first and you should be fine," defensive end Chandler Jones said of Belichick's mantra.

The Patriots have done their job just fine, thank you.

Now they face a Broncos team they beat in miraculous fashion during the regular season, rallying from a 24-0 halftime deficit to stun the Broncos in overtime, 34-31, on Nov. 24. Will we see a similar game in the rematch?

Doubtful, says Belichick.

"I think we're going to see a different game," he said. "We have some players that are playing in this game that didn't play in that game, and so do they. There are some new faces out there as well. We'll just have to see how all that unfolds. It's just like any time you play a team twice: I think you look at what happened, but you have to erase the board and start all over again."

Peyton Manning would agree. He knows his work is cut out against Brady and Belichick; Manning is 4-10 when facing the Patriots' quarterback/coach combo.

"Coach Belichick is the best coach that I've ever competed against," Manning said. "I think it's safe to say that he'll go down as the greatest NFL coach of all time. The teams that he has coached that I've competed against have always been well-coached, always well-prepared, always played hard for 60 minutes."

Manning expects nothing less this time, especially with the Super Bowl on the line. He can earn the right to play in his third Super Bowl (he's 1-1 with the Vince Lombardi Trophy on the line).

"[The Patriots] have had a number of injuries, so some great players have gone on injured reserve," Manning said. "But like they've done many, many times in the past, it's just been 'next man up' and [they've] just replaced some of the other guys that are healthy and raised their level of play and played even better. They really were just able to keep chugging along, so it's always been impressive."

But Manning has been impressive, too. Historically impressive. At age 37, he set NFL records for most touchdown passes in a season (55) and most passing yards in a season (5,467). His 115.1 rating was the second best of his career.

And now it's all about the Super Bowl. Two years after not knowing whether he'd be able to play again because of a neck problem that required four surgical procedures, Manning is one step away from getting there.

"We're excited about the opportunity," said Manning, who is 10-11 in the playoffs in his career. "There is no question that we have come a long way in the two years that I have been here. I have certainly come a long way. A lot of people have helped me and have certainly put a lot of hard work into it, and it is very rewarding when you put [in] a lot of hard work and it pays off with the opportunity to play in a game like this.''

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