INDIANAPOLIS -- On the surface, they are an exceptionally odd couple, separated by more than 25 years and a vast void of social and cultural differences.
The coach is short and solid, a brilliant defensive tactician, most comfortable in a hand-hacked hoodie. The quarterback, one of the most dangerous offensive weapons ever, the current GQ cover boy, is long and lean and married to one of the most beautiful women in the world.
Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are a curious yin-yang puzzle, far greater than the sum of their shining parts. They are also very much brothers in arms.
We saw them together in last year's excellent NFL Films documentary, "Bill Belichick: A Football Life," filmed during the 2009 season. After a 38-17 Monday night loss at New Orleans, Belichick says plaintively to Brady: "We have no mental toughness. We can't play the way we need to play. I just can't get them to play the way they need to play on a week-to-week basis.
"It's so [expletive] frustrating."
Brady, commiserating, nods and says, "We got our [expletive] kicked.
It's a marvelous moment because it underlines the fact that Belichick and Brady, despite their obvious differences, are really hard-wired the same way. Belichick is the de facto boss, but he seems to have accepted Brady as a rare peer, a colleague even. This enduring partnership is the chief reason the New England Patriots find themselves in Super Bowl XLVI.
Perhaps they have come to see the world the same way because they have traveled the same twisting path.
Belichick was a failed head coach in Cleveland. After going 37-45 from 1991 to 1995, he was fired before the Browns took the field as the Baltimore Ravens.
At every level, Brady has entered as the low man on the depth chart. He was drafted in 2000 almost as an afterthought. In weekly meetings, across a dozen seasons, the two men have fed each other's fire to succeed.
After winning their first 10 playoff games together, they're 6-5 since.
They're still angry after all these years, eager to prove themselves. If you doubt that, watch them running the no-huddle offense when they're up by three touchdowns in the fourth quarter. In independent news conferences, they seem to finish each other's bland, intentionally innocuous sentences.
"What makes them great is they're both perfectionists and competitors of the highest order," said Patriots president Jonathan Kraft. "They demand perfection of themselves, first and foremost, and they demand that perfection of those around them.
"They love to win, but even more, I think, they hate to lose."
That charged dynamic has produced historic results:
• Belichick and Brady are the first coach-quarterback combination to reach five Super Bowls, surpassing Chuck Noll-Terry Bradshaw, Tom Landry-Roger Staubach and Marv Levy-Jim Kelly.
• With another playoff win, Belichick will move into third place on the all-time list with 18, ahead of Joe Gibbs.
This past season, "Bradychick" became the winningest coach-quarterback duo in the regular season. The total stands at 124 -- and is likely to wind up somewhere well past 150. Scan our list and you will see many of the great names of the Super Bowl era. For some bracing context, consider that two combinations not among the top 10 are No. 11 (Mike Holmgren-Brett Favre, with 74 wins) and No. 12 (Tony Dungy-Peyton Manning, with 73).
In 11 seasons, including playoff games, Belichick and Brady have won an astonishing 140 games -- and lost only 40. You do the math. That works out to a fortuitous percentage that wins every time in Las Vegas: .777.
"I feel like I have a good player-coach relationship with Tom," Belichick said in October. "We have spent, through the years, a decent amount of time together on a regular basis. We talk regularly during the week about what's going to happen, how we're doing it, and then we review what did happen, and then we move on to the next stage.
"It's a continuous cycle that we've kind of been in that routine for a lot of years now. So I think it's important that both philosophically and from a game-management standpoint that the coach and quarterback are on the same page."
The Patriots were leading the Broncos 45-10 in the fourth quarter of a divisional playoff game when Brady, on third-and-10, lined up in shotgun. He hoisted a 48-yard quick kick, down to Denver's 10-yard line.
Brady later downplayed criticism that the Patriots had embarrassed the Broncos.
"I was happy with the call," he said. "We've been practicing it for seven years."
It was their private joke, something to ward off the boredom of a five-touchdown lead. After a dozen years together, they continue to operate in their own insular world, vibrating -- like a high-pitched whistle to a dog's ear -- at a frequency only the other can hear.
Drinking the Kool-Aid
Growing up in San Mateo, Calif., Brady would come home from high school football practice at 6 p.m. for dinner. He'd do some homework, then head to the gym for a few hours. He'd return home and finish his homework, usually around midnight. The family has San Francisco 49ers season tickets and his role models were the great Montana and Steve Young.
As a child in Annapolis, Md., Belichick had heroes, too, like Heisman Trophy winners Joe Bellino and Roger Staubach. They played at the Naval Academy, where his father, Steve, was a longtime assistant. Belichick also played high school and college football, but he made his bones in the film room, where he spent hours breaking down X's and O's -- starting at the age of 10.
"He had a huge impact on my childhood, my love for the game and my involvement as a coach," Belichick said earlier this week about his late father.
At New England, Belichick had the same impact on Brady, whose work ethic won him over immediately. Owner Robert Kraft, too, was impressed.
"I still have that image of him being that skinny, beanpole guy coming down the old stadium steps, introducing himself to me as our sixth-round draft choice," Kraft remembered. "And he gave me that dead stare, that cold stare right in the eye, and said 'And I'm the best decision this organization has ever made.'
"He said it in a way, it was not cocky or arrogant, he just said it the way I think he leads today."
As a result, the Patriots made the unusual decision to keep four quarterbacks in 2000 -- Drew Bledsoe, John Friesz, Michael Bishop and Brady. The next year, Belichick quietly moved Brady ahead of free-agent acquisition Damon Huard in training camp. When the Jets' Mo Lewis knocked Bledsoe out of action early in the season, Brady became the starter.
He quickly embraced Belichick's world view. The last time the Patriots were in the Super Bowl, against these same Giants, Tom Brady Sr. explained the relationship this way:
"He has bought into Belichick's Kool-Aid," he said. "Bill Belichick rips into him every bit as much as anyone else, maybe more. It's good for guys like Randy Moss and Corey Dillon to see that. No sacred cows. Everyone's equal.
"Tom believes that, too."
On Tuesday, Brady was asked whether he carries a chip on his shoulder after being a sixth-round draft choice. His answer sounded a lot like Belichick.
"You go through a college career and think you do a decent job -- not that you get overlooked, it's just that there are other guys who they feel can do a better job," Brady said. "So you just keep working hard, you just keep believing in yourself and looking for your opportunity.
"I always tell young players, 'How do you expect me to be confident in you when I look at you and see that you're not confident in yourself?' You're always bringing that level of confidence so guys look at you and say, 'I know he's going to get it done, so this is how I'm going to prepare myself.'"
Brady has learned not to doubt his mentor.
"Coach comes in every Wednesday morning and says: 'These are the things we need to do to win,'" Brady said in mid-January. "And he's right damn near 100 percent of the time."
Building mutual respect
It is this level of implicit trust that helps create a valuable long-term bond between coach and quarterback.
"Yes," Don Shula said last week from his home in South Florida, "trust and respect is the key. You respect his skills and abilities and you hope he respects you to put him in a position to succeed."
This Shula understands probably better than anyone. He won 347 games in the NFL with the Baltimore Colts and Miami Dolphins, more than any other coach in history. Moreover, he is the only man on the top-10 list of most prolific coach-quarterback combinations whose name appears twice. He won 116 regular-season games with Dan Marino from 1983 to 1995, the total that Brady and Belichick surpassed this season. Shula also won 82 games with Bob Griese from 1970 to 1980.
"I don't know if I would describe it as a marriage," Shula said, laughing. "I think the most important thing in a coach-player relationship is that the coach has to analyze the talent the player has and adjust the game plan, the entire team, to that. I never asked Marino to do the things that Griese did, and vice versa.
"Griese was a field general and a guy who really knew how to run the offense. Marino was, in my mind, the best pure passer who ever played the game. I don't know the particulars of the Belichick-Brady relationship, but whatever they're doing, they're doing something right."
Levy broke into the NFL in 1969 as a special-teams coach. By the time he was named the head coach of the Buffalo Bills in 1986, he had more than a passing understanding of the offense. Still, he often deferred to Kelly, whom he had seen torch the United States Football League with the Houston Gamblers.
"We'd be running the no-huddle and I'd be communicating with him through my headset to his helmet," said Levy from his winter home in Palm Springs, Calif. "A lot of the time he might point at himself, you know, 'I've got a play, I've got a play.' Ninety percent of the time I pointed back to him, 'Yeah, OK, try it.' He had the intuition."
Said Kelly, from his home outside Buffalo, "I knew going in what the best third-and-short plays were, or third-and-long. I was very blessed to have Marv and that coaching staff behind me. Here was a guy putting his job security on the line to let me call plays. It was like, 'Man, you screw this up, we're all going get run out of here.'"
Instead, the Bills advanced to four consecutive Super Bowls. The two won a total of 99 regular-season games, No. 4 on the all-time list. Belief, Levy said, was the critical component in his relationship with Kelly.
"I believed in Jim and he believed in me," Levy said. "We're close. We still see each other a few times a year at various functions. I'll play in his golf tournament and, hopefully, see him at the Hall of Fame at Andre Reed's [potential] induction ceremony.
"Resilience is another thing. You see that with Tom and Bill. They don't fall apart when things go wrong. That's because they're always prepared to the utmost. You get paid to prepare for Sunday. Playing the games, that's the fun part."
Kelly, who counts Brady as a friend, said he had his run-ins with Levy, but they always came to terms.
"Thank goodness they didn't have those cameras watching the sidelines back in my day," Kelly said. "Tom goes off the deep end at times. I'm sure he and Bill get into it. But in the end, that respect takes you a long way."
Heart of a dynasty
Almost exactly a decade ago, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady landed, unexpectedly, in their first Super Bowl together. Brady, whose chief weapons were Troy Brown and Kevin Faulk, drove the Patriots down the field, and Adam Vinatieri kicked the winning field goal as time ran out.
In the aftermath, Belichick, looking quite young, actually patted Brady -- gangly and all close-cropped hair, cheekbones and smeared eye-black -- on the head like a proud father.
The Giants' head coach, Tom Coughlin, worked with Belichick as a fellow assistant with the Giants from 1988 to 1990. As much as anything, he admires Belichick's approach to preparation -- and his wide-ranging skill set.
"He's always been an exceptional defensive coach trained by the best, by [Bill] Parcells," Coughlin said this week. "He's also become an outstanding offensive coach and Tom Brady has helped him to really diversify and get into areas offensively that only lead to the particular strengths of the individuals involved."
Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien, the new head coach at Penn State, sees the same kind of astonishing attention to detail in Brady.
"Last year, when we were getting ready to play Buffalo, he had remembered a play he ran against Buffalo in 2002," O'Brien said Tuesday. "It was a double-move by a receiver that they hit and he felt like that was a similar play that we could use in that game. Sure enough, right hash, home game, going toward the lighthouse. Look it up."
This is the Patriots' fifth Super Bowl appearance in 11 years, a dynastic run that ranks among the best of the modern era. The Dallas Cowboys made five championship games from 1970 to 1977, but won only two. The Dolphins and 49ers both reached five Super Bowls in a span of 14 years; San Francisco won all of its games. The best concentrated excellence belongs to the Pittsburgh Steelers, who won four Super Bowls in six years. But Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw flourished in the 1970s, when dominating the game was far more simple.
"Bill and Tom are, in my opinion, the best at their position that's ever existed in the game," insisted Jonathan Kraft. "That's because they do it in an era of 32 teams, free agency and a salary cap. That can't be said enough "
And then he said it again.
"Watching them work," Kraft added, "has been a privilege."
In a league where a half-dozen head coaches or more are routinely fired each year and free agency has leveled the talent field, Belichick and Brady have achieved a rare continuity.
"There are certain plays in our offense that I've literally run thousands of times," Brady said. "You make a lot of mistakes over the course of those plays, and you learn from them and hopefully you don't make them again. It's been a huge benefit."
Said Robert Kraft of Brady: "He's the same guy he always was. He's humble, he's a caring person, very intelligent, can absorb information but is always empathetic. I think that's what makes him a great leader in the huddle.
"And some of my boys are concerned that he's the fifth son, and in for the inheritance. That's a pretty good fifth son."
One of the emerging storylines in Indianapolis is the supposed mellowing of Belichick. Players have been peppered with questions about their coach's fleeting flashes of humor -- and even humanity. Truth is, he hasn't changed much in 37 NFL seasons. He can be wickedly funny and deadly serious, but although he will turn 60 in April, Belichick will still out-think you, out-work you and then beat you.
"I think that's why Coach Belichick has been so successful," Brady said. "He never takes his foot off the gas pedal."
These two probably have a few years left together. Brady has said he wants to play until he's 40, which means five or six more seasons. Belichick just might stick around that long before he retires to fishing from his boat "V Rings." Or "VI Rings" or "VII Rings."
Five years later, they'll be reunited in Canton.
Greg Garber covers the NFL for ESPN.com.