CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The man in the hood is back in his 'hood, the playoffs, and for New England coach Bill Belichick, the early expectations in many quarters are that he and his Patriots will be atop the NFL throne again in five weeks.
We don't disagree.
Three titles in four seasons, a feat only accomplished once in the Super Bowl era (Dallas in 1992-93, '95), probably would elicit the "D" word. Even with the Patriots only the No. 2 in the AFC, behind the Pittsburgh Steelers, many pundits still consider New England the team to beat. And that includes players from the team that nearly defeated the Patriots in the 2003 title game.
"Part of what you're facing when you play (New England) is the mystique of Belichick," acknowledged Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme, whose Panthers nearly forced the Pats into overtime last year before falling in Super Bowl XXXVIII. "You have to get beyond this feeling that, no matter how much you know going into a game, he knows more. That's a good team, for sure, but (Belichick) can get inside your head. When you think about the Patriots, to be honest, he's the guy you think about first, right?"
Certainly, if the Patriots are to become the NFL's newest dynasty franchise, at a time when continuity is principally a misplaced commodity and the salary cap and free agency have conspired to render obsolete the true dominance demonstrated by past powerhouse teams, Belichick will be the primary reason why.
Forget the odds spewed out by the Vegas bookmakers. Here are the numbers that count: Belichick is 7-1 in postseason play, 2-0 in conference championship matchups, and 2-0 in Super Bowl games. His last postseason defeat was 10 years ago, a 29-9 loss at Pittsburgh in the divisional round of the '94 playoffs, when he was the Cleveland Browns' coach.
He more than atoned for that lopsided defeat by beating the Steelers, in Pittsburgh, in the 2001 AFC Championship Game, on the way to a Super Bowl XXXVI victory.
The numbers, as they say, folks, don't lie. Belichick's postseason winning percentage, a gaudy .875 mark, is by far the best among the dozen head coaches whose clubs qualified for this year's Super Bowl derby. The rest of the field sports a pedestrian aggregate mark of just 42-45, for a mundane .483 success rate.
The 11 other playoff coaches are 6-12 in conference championship games, own just three Super Bowl titles, and don't possess the aura that Belichick does.
If you think the numbers aren't pertinent, think again, because coaching and preparation are even more critical in the playoffs than in the regular season. And, truth be told, which of the sideline counterparts that he might confront in the 2004 playoffs is clearly superior to Belichick?
Certainly, by the numbers, no one.
Mike Shanahan of the Broncos has the second-best winning percentage, at .700, but the man dubbed "The Mastermind in Denver" hasn't notched a postseason victory since John Elway retired following Super Bowl XXXIII and his résumé includes three first-game losses. The Steelers own home-field advantage in the AFC bracket, but Bill Cowher is just 7-8 in the postseason and his teams have twice lost in their initial playoff appearance.
And possessing home field hasn't exactly been a boon to the Steelers, who under Cowher dropped conference title games at home in '94, '97 and '01. Plus, the Steelers have the lone rookie starting quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger) in the playoffs.
Cowher's mentor, Marty Schottenheimer of San Diego, is just 5-11 in the postseason and his teams have suffered seven (mostly ignominious) first-game pratfalls. Victimized by "The Drive" in 1986 and "The Fumble" in 1987, each coming when Schottenheimer was the Browns head coach, he is 0-3 in conference championship games.
Tony Dungy of Indianapolis is 0-2 in conference title tilts and the New York Jets' Herm Edwards has yet to shepherd a team beyond the divisional round.
The NFC bracket features a pair of playoff first-timers, in Jim Mora of Atlanta and Mike Tice of Minnesota and only one man, Seattle's Mike Holmgren, with both a conference title game victory and a Super Bowl ring. Mike Martz of St. Louis lost to Belichick in the 2001 Super Bowl. Green Bay's Mike Sherman now owns three division championships but just a 2-3 postseason record. And while Philadelphia's Andy Reid has five wins in nine outings, unless you've resided in a cave the past three years, you know all about that NFC championship game thing, right?
The point is, there may be teams better than the Patriots (and we're not even prepared to concede that), but no one better than the New England coach. Even if we're wrong about that, and we doubt it, everyone else assumes Belichick is the wizard. It isn't fair to dismiss his head coach counterparts as a bunch of guys hiding behind the curtain and just pulling a lot of levers, but Belichick enjoys an unmistakable psychological advantage of which no one else can boast.
Given the adversity that Belichick was forced to overcome in 2004 -- any other playoff coach start a career linebacker at free safety, an undrafted rookie at cornerback, and play a wide receiver at nickel back during the race to the Super Bowl derby? -- this might have been his finest season. And he might yet get even better, particularly if cornerback Ty Law is ready for postseason play.
A few more numbers: In a season in which Belichick was forced to perform even more juggling than the opening act for a vaudeville show, New England still managed to score the fourth-most points in the league (437) and to surrender the second-fewest (260). The points differential, 177, was the NFL's widest. That was reflective, perhaps, of the wide edge Belichick seems to have over his peers.
"He is," allowed Patriots strong safety Rodney Harrison, "a very wise man."
Which is why the smart money says that Belichick is once again the man to beat in the playoffs.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.