- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The coach and the quarterback. The quarterback and the coach. Put Bill Belichick first and Tom Brady second, if you like. Or vice versa.
It doesn't really matter, because here they are again, on the cusp of another impressive NFL breakthrough.
If the New England Patriots defeat the Baltimore Ravens in Sunday's AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium (CBS, 3 p.m. ET), Belichick and Brady -- or Brady and Belichick, if you prefer -- will become the first head coach/starting quarterback combination in NFL history to reach five Super Bowls.
The Pittsburgh Steelers had Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw, the Buffalo Bills Marv Levy and Jim Kelly, and the Dallas Cowboys Tom Landry and Roger Staubach. Each of those duos went to four different Super Bowls. This would break the four-way tie.
No, we didn't need the reminder that Belichick and Brady, right there with owner Robert Kraft, are the greatest things to happen to the New England Patriots franchise. But there it is anyway, the coach and quarterback's relentless, never-wavering approach serving as the primary catalyst for the Patriots' consistent presence deep in NFL postseason play.
Belichick might say "it is what it is," but in this case, the unforgettable words of former Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green fit better: "They are who we thought they were." Feel free to pound the nearest table for greater effect.
Both are driven, focused, competitive and consistent. They just don't change, which is why their laser-sharp approach leading into this game has been no different than the past 17. They don't allow themselves to get caught up in the traffic. Instead, they plow through it, avoiding the dangerous highs and lows that inevitably are part of every season.
Let's start with Belichick, who often seems a step or five ahead of his competition, like the time he called up NBA executive Jerry West to learn more about basketball's salary cap before it came into effect in the NFL. It was that type of thinking that led Kraft to make the then not-so-popular decision to hire Belichick in 2000.
"I think he'll go down as the greatest coach in the history of the NFL, because he's really competing in the era of the salary cap. I think a lot of great coaches had difficulty understanding how to balance the economics of the game and the budget. His product knowledge is so great," said Kraft, who first came to appreciate Belichick's ability to mix football X's and O's and economics in 1996, when Belichick was an assistant on Bill Parcells' New England staff.
"I think Bill's brilliance is understanding what fits for our team. Life, in any business, you want to build complementary forces. It's not like it's rocket science where you have to have engineers designing something with exact science. This is touch and feel."
Kraft pointed to Belichick's early-career responsibilities as a special-teams coach (1976-82) for helping him develop such a solid feel.
"I think growing up understanding the importance of special teams and players, and then blending that into the defense and offense, and then understanding value and the salary cap ... he has a unique knowledge that is very special in this era of the salary cap," Kraft said.
Then there's Brady, who Sunday could tie his boyhood idol Joe Montana for most postseason wins by a quarterback (16). Kraft often tells the story of first meeting Brady at Foxboro Stadium, with "the skinny beanpole" Brady, pizza box in hand, informing the owner that he was the best decision the Patriots ever made.
Twelve years later, what a run.
"Watching Tommy grow and evolve and watching from being a single guy in the marketplace to getting married and going to his wedding and seeing the kind of father he is, he's just a very unusual young man and a great leader," Kraft said. "He's matured beautifully and he's still kept his humility. I'm really happy that we have him as our quarterback."
There are 52 others in the locker room who seem to feel the same way. Receiver Deion Branch, now in his second go-round with the Patriots, said, "It starts and ends with Tom. All of the guys jell around him and follow his lead."
"Any time you see a guy that is as great as he is, with all the physical talents and mental strengths, and the way he's prepared, the way he focuses, and his competitive level on a day-to-day basis, it is something to be proud of," added veteran offensive lineman Brian Waters, who is in his first year with the Patriots after 10 with the Kansas City Chiefs. "[I'm] definitely proud to play with [him]. It also drives you that you don't want to disappoint that guy because you know how much effort, energy and time that he's putting into it."
Brady and Belichick meet each week, and Kraft sees a mutual respect that makes the quarterback/coach combo click.
It's been four years since they've been in this spot, back in the AFC Championship Game. It's fair to say things have broken nicely for them this year, the weakened AFC not providing the same level of competition as it has in past years, and some contenders being felled by injuries.
At the same time, it's not like the Patriots didn't have their own obstacles to overcome. Led by Belichick and Brady, they've done just that.
"I hope we have the best quarterback and coach in the history of the game," Kraft said. "I guess to prove that we have a little more execution that we have to do over the next few years. I certainly hope we do it."
Two more wins in these playoffs is a good place to start.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.