MEXICO CITY -- Coach Bill Belichick never allows it to be about him, but in this case, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft insisted.
Belichick moved past legendary Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry into third place on the NFL's all-time wins list. In what was described as receiving an “awesome response” and an “amazing” moment, Belichick’s accomplishment was acknowledged by Kraft, who presented him a game ball after the team’s 33-8 win over the Oakland Raiders on Sunday.
Of course, no one would have known it based on the way Belichick talked about leapfrogging Landry with his 271st career win.
“That’s a credit to our players. Players win games,” Belichick said, which is his oft-repeated refrain when the topic of his place in NFL history is broached. “I think what it means is, No. 1, I’ve been doing it for a long time. No. 2, I’ve coached a lot of great players. So I’ve been fortunate to have a great coaching staff, great players and had a great opportunity to direct those people.”
That is true, and to deflect credit is often the mark of a great leader, but the excellence of the 65-year-old Belichick and how he runs his program has been on full display over the past few weeks.
The team’s weeklong stay at the Air Force Academy after the Nov. 12 game in Denver was a brilliant stroke, and not solely because of altitude acclimation and team bonding leading into Sunday’s game against the Raiders in Mexico. It was, as he explained to Scott Zolak in his pregame interview on 98.5 The Sports Hub, a way to keep the team fresh.
“The big thing for us was not having to fly back to New England after the game, but being able to stay in Colorado and get right into our preparations on Monday and Tuesday, so when we went on the field Wednesday to practice, we were really ready to go and not suffering from a lot of jet lag, dehydration and fatigue,” he said.
Belichick thinks of everything, with few stones left unturned. Safety Devin McCourty said Sunday that even the long, uphill walk through the stands to the locker room at Estadio Azteca had been mentioned to players. Also, Belichick had talked to the team about situational football and how kicker Stephen Gostkowski’s range might extend to 70 yards in the high altitude in Mexico, which was prophetic after Gostkowski drilled a career-long 62-yarder at the end of the second quarter.
And then, of course, he’s relentlessly demanding. McCourty said one of the first work days at the Air Force Academy began with a meeting at 6:30 a.m., which is the type of hard grind that has fostered what he described as a team with a “blue-collar mentality.”
But players and coaches respond to Belichick because the results speak for themselves; as McCourty has said, they might not win every game, but they know they'll always have a chance. Consider how penalties were a concerning issue for the team at the midpoint of the season (59 in eight games), yet coming off the bye week, the Patriots were called for one penalty last week against the Broncos and just two against the Raiders.
That’s one recent example of coaching from Belichick and his staff, as the Patriots have outclassed Denver and Oakland in back-to-back road games. Belichick’s team has now won a franchise-record 13 straight games away from home, which is the second-longest streak in NFL history.
So it was a well-deserved game ball for Belichick, a moment for those in the locker room to acknowledge his place among some of the best coaches of all time, and his standing as the leader of a Patriots team that has clinched a .500 or better record for the 17th straight season, which ties for the second-longest streak in league history.
As someone in the locker room said, “He deserves all of it. He’s just an amazing coach. It’s just special to be part of it.”