KANSAS CITY — It’s that time of year. Final exams for NFL coaches and players.
And yes, even Bill Belichick is nervous this time of year.
You wouldn’t think someone as accomplished as the Patriots head coach would be daunted by taking on a second-year quarterback who has never been to the Super Bowl and a head coach who is trying to get back there for just the second time.
“Nervous, yeah. Sure. You want to go out there and do well,” Belichick admitted Friday. “There’s an anxiety. We all have things in the game that we have to do. You want to perform them well, not let your team down because everybody’s counting on you to do your job. You’re counting on everybody else to do theirs.”
But in Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid, Belichick may be facing his biggest postseason test as a coach.
Well, a thorough look back through the history books offers perspective. (And we all know Belichick loves his history).
Super Bowl XXI: Belichick as Giants defensive coordinator schemes a way to hold John Elway in check, holding the Broncos to 10 second-half points in a 38-20 win.
1990 NFC Championship: Belichick’s Giants stop the 3-peat dreams of Joe Montana and the 49ers when they hold San Francisco to seven second-half points at Candlestick Park and 0 in the fourth quarter. Matt Bahr is good from 42 yards at the gun, and the Giants win, 15-13.
Super Bowl XXV: Belichick follows up the NFC title game with a game plan to stop the “K-gun” offense of Jim Kelly and the Bills, using just two down linemen and daring the Bills to run Thurman Thomas. The Bills waited till the second half and the Giants win on “Wide Right” 20-19. That game plan winds up in Canton.
Super Bowl XXXVI: Belichick schemes against Marshall Faulk and puts Willie McGinest on the RB, gets physical with the receivers of the “Greatest Show on Turf” and pulls off the greatest upset to date in Super Bowl history, beating the high-powered Rams, 20-17.
2003 AFC Championship: Ty Law intercepts Peyton Manning three times and the Patriots roll over the high-powered but dome-dependent Colts at Gillette, 24-14, holding the Colts scoreless in the first half.
2004 AFC Championship: Tom Brady and the offense carry the load and the defense picks off Ben Roethlisberger three times in Pittsburgh as the Patriots walk away with a 41-27 win over the 16-1 Steelers at Heinz Field.
2006 AFC Championship: One of the rare times that a Belichick defense simply ran out of gas. Leading 21-3 just before half, the Patriots allow a field goal to make it 21-6. Then, the Colts, playing at the RCA Dome, got their engine heated up in the second half, scoring 32 points and hanging on for a 38-34 win.
Super Bowl XLIX: Malcolm Butler saves the day at the end and the Patriots overcome a 10-point fourth quarter hole to win, 28-24, over the favored Seattle Seahawks in Arizona.
Super Bowl LI: The greatest comeback in Super Bowl history was initiated by pressure defense on Matt Ryan, as Dont’a Hightower and Trey Flowers came up with huge sacks to turn the momentum and help the Patriots overcome a 28-3 deficit late in the third quarter.
Super Bowl LII: The only Super Bowl loss for Belichick where the defense had a systemic failure and inability to defend from start to finish in the contest forever known as the “Butler Benching” game. Nick Foles sliced and diced the Patriots defense for 374 yards and four touchdowns.
Of all the games listed above, only three came on the road. And two of them offer the best perspective on what faces the Patriots on Sunday at Arrowhead. In the 1990 NFC Championship, Belichick’s Giants had to find a way to slow down Joe Montana and the 49ers offense. They did with Ottis Anderson. And this is the game that perhaps offers the best insight to what the Patriots need to accomplish against the Chiefs, but likely in a much different way. Brady can certainly make big plays to Julian Edelman and James White in the passing game, as he did against the Chargers but Sony Michel will need to run effectively behind the healthy offensive line to keep Mahomes off the field, like Giants did with Montana.
In 2006, the Patriots defense was brilliant on the road in the first half, with Asante Samuel’s pick-6 serving as the highlight, putting the Patriots up, 21-3, midway through the third quarter. This type of score would go a long way to quieting the Arrowhead crowd early and give the Patriots a fighting chance. But this game also serves as a cautionary reminder that against a team as gifted as the Chiefs, the effort must be sustained.
On top finding a way to counter Andy Reid’s multiple offense with a uniquely gifted and transformational quarterback, Belichick won’t have the Gillette Stadium crowd behind him
In 1990 and 2006, Belichick’s teams weren’t facing what they’ll be up against Sunday.
The atmosphere here will be as loud as the Patriots have ever experienced on the road. Yes, the Patriots and Belichick spent a good part of the week, they’re playing the Chiefs. Very true, as I pointed out in explaining how they’re not playing the stadium not fearing Arrowhead. But playing the Chiefs in the loudest outdoor stadium in America is also not insignificant.
“You don’t worry about everybody else,” Belichick added. “You just worry about doing what you can do and make sure you don’t screw up what you’re supposed to do, what you’re responsible for, because nobody else can do that. That’s your job, and we all have jobs to do. We all want to do them well.”
“I’m nervous before every game. I’m nervous before a preseason game I think,” Jason McCourty added. “There’s those same pregame jitters. You’re getting ready to go out there and play in the game, you prepare all week, a lot goes into it. I think when the results are so big, when the stakes are bigger, you’re probably a little bit more nervous then. The one thing is it’s something that you’ve done numerous times, over a hundred times playing in a NFL game so I think once you get out there, once the game gets flowing, you settle down quick.”
In 2014, the Monday night of 41-14 “Onto Cincinnati”, Chiefs fans set the Guinness world record for loudest outdoor stadium.
What makes this exam all the more daunting for the most accomplished coach in the modern NFL are the variables he’ll have to deal with come game day against one of the coaches he respects more than any other in the NFL.
Belichick also agreed with the suggestion Friday that Peyton Manning’s historic offense with the Colts in the 2000s was relatively consistent in formations, with not a lot of variations. With the Chiefs, Reid could have Mahomes calling a different formation every snap.
“That’s interesting. I think it points to the scheme that teams play and how those schemes evolve. Everybody doesn’t do the same thing,” Belichick said. “There are a lot of different ways to be effective. Within whatever system it is you used, you just have to be able to handle the things that are presented from your opponents. I’ve been in both systems. I’ve been in systems that have a lot of moving parts. I’ve been in systems that had very few moving parts.
“One thing I learned early, very early, was they both can work, but they’re not the same and you have to figure out how to handle certain problems in one system and then you handle them differently in another. It’s not, maybe, the same answer. That’s OK, you just have to have an answer. Yeah, you’re right – I mean the Colts, they didn’t move their receivers. Those guys lined up on the same side of the field on every play. There was no X, there was no Z, there was just left and right. So, yeah, same formation, rare to see anything different formationally. You get their formations done in about five minutes, but they had an answer for everything within their system.”
And with the Chiefs?
“Andy’s offense is, I’d say, one that’s continually evolved,” Belichick said. “It started out as a West Coast offense and what he ran in Philadelphia was, I’d say, very West Coast-based. That’s evolved to now RPO’s and a multitude of other run-pass combination type of plays, different routes and route progressions – obviously, a lot of one-back sets and empty sets that were never really part of the one-back offense or a minimal part of it. So, he’s been able to adapt very well and certainly he’s had the mobility at quarterback, from [Donovan] McNabb to [Michael] Vick to [Alex] Smith to [Patrick] Mahomes, so he’s always had guys that have been athletic at that position. That’s been kind of a common denominator, but the offense has evolved. It will probably evolve again this week.”
The Patriots defensive players know they have to keep tabs on Mahomes all day when he is on the field, something the scout quarterbacks have drilled into them all week.
“They’ve done a good job of obviously knowing what he does, trying to do some of the things as far as scrambling, trying to roll out and be able to buy time and make throws down the field,” Jason McCourty said. “They’ve done a good job of challenging us, especially in the back end, of making sure we’re keeping our eyes on the quarterback and we’re doing the necessary things throughout the entirety of the play to make sure we end up on the successful side.”
“I’m sure we’re going to see something that we’re not working on this week that will be a new wrinkle that we’ll have to adjust to during the game,” Belichick added. “That’s what he does, he does a great job of it, and they execute it well. Usually, when he puts in something, it’s a little bit different. It’s a problem and it works. That’s not always the case sometimes – a team does something new and they don’t execute it very well. It’s hardly ever the case with Andy. His offenses are extremely – there’s a lot of precision to them and they execute it right on the money most of the time. Very well-coached.”
And, considering the environment, the weather and what’s at stake, the biggest test of them all for Bill Belichick.