AFC Game against the Jags

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick on the sidelines looking over plays during the first half of the AFC Championship Game between the New England Patriots and the Jacksonville Jaguars at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. 

Amanda Sabga | The Eagle-Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS – Bill Belichick will never win NFL Coach of the Year.

He won’t as long as Tom Brady is taking snaps and calling out audibles.

He won’t with preseason predictions as they usually are; Las Vegas bookmakers had the Patriots as Super Bowl favorites last August.

But there's a case to make for the coach whose team finished 13-3, after losing the heart and soul of the offense, wide receiver Julian Edelman, and their best defensive player, Dont'a Hightower.

That’s not to mention the distractions in December and early January surrounding the departure of back-up quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, Brady's personal trainer and business partner Alex Guererro, and the power-sharing arrangement between Belichick, owmer Bob Kraft and Brady.

This might have been Belichick’s best season.

Or was it 2001, the season of the worst-to-firsters who saw Drew Bledsoe benched in favor of an unknown named Tom Brady and went on to shock the St. Louis Rams and the world at the Super Bowl in New Orleans?

Or was it 2003, when the Pats lost the opener 31-0 in Buffalo, five days after releasing Lawyer Milloy, but then turned around a 2-2 start with 12-straight regular season wins, en route to Super Bowl No. 2?

Or was it 2004, which piggy-backed on 2003 for a 21-game winning streak, not to mention holding the No. 1 offense (Colts) to three points and putting up 41 points on the No. 1 defense (Steelers) the next week?

Or was it 2006, when Brady's receiving corps included Reche Caldwell, Doug Gabriel, Jabar Gaffney and a barely hanging-on Troy Brown, was barely ousted in the AFC title game, having blown a 21-3 lead, to Peyton Manning at the RCA Dome?

Or was it 2007, the year that saw the Patriots win all 16 regular season games by an NFL-record average 19.7 points per game, before losing the Super Bowl in a flukey, last-minute play to the Giants?

Or was it 2008, when Brady was hurt in the first game with a torn ACL, and replaced by a quarterback, Matt Cassel, who’d never started a game ... in college ... and finished 11-5?

Or was it 2010, when after a pair of "down" years and controversy with the trade of Randy Moss, the Patriots won 14 games, including the last eight in row, before being stunned by the Jets in the playoff opener?

Or was it 2011, which saw probably one of Belichick's mediorce rosters as Patroits coach, in which they again won 14 games, including eight straight to end the regular season, and were one Wes Welker drop from winning a Super Bowl?

Or was it 2013, another 12-4 season, with loads of drama including Welker's free agency, Aaron Hernandez's arrest over a murder charge, two Rob Gronkowski injuries, and a receiving corps whose best speed guy was Kenbrell Tompkins? It ended with a loss to Denver in the AFC title game.

Or was it 2014, which started 2-2 and saw the Patriots blown out 41-14 on a Monday night in Kansas City, prompting comments that "The Dynasty" was officially over? The Pats ended up finishing 12-4, stealing the AFC title over Baltimore (see "ineligible receiver" rule) and winning first Super Bowl in a decade.

Or maybe it was 2016, another No. 1 seed at 14-2, having overcome a four-game suspension of Brady and a season-ending injury to Rob Gronkowski, and whose best wide receiver not named Edelman was Chris Hogan? This team was later defined by its 28-3 deficit late in the Super Bowl, which it eventually won in overtime, 34-28.

Or maybe his best season was the one we just witnessed.

Rebuilding this team meant adding incredible depth at running back and Belichick signing his first uber-free agent in Stephon Gilmore, then turning maybe the worst defense he has ever coached in New England (allowing 32 points per game through four games) to arguably the best defense in the NFL from weeks five through 16.

What might be most impressive is this: Repeating is hard — really, really hard.

It's hard for a head coach to demand full effort again, from a team with a target on its back almost every weekend from September through early February.

Remember, there hasn't been a back-to-back champion since the Patriots completed the feat in 2004, and before that it was the Broncos in 1998.

Was this Belichick's best year as coach? Compared to other years (my personal favorite was 2001), who knows?

"Best coach I've ever seen. He could win Coach of the Year every year," said former Jets and Bills coach Rex Ryan. "Is this his best year? It might be. Then again, he's had seven other teams in the Super Bowl.

“Honestly, I don't think he cares much about Coach of the Year trophy,” noted Ryan. “It's that other one he really wants."

Here we are, again, in late January and early February – the eighth time in 17 years – debating Belichick’s greatness.

Rather than give him the Coach of the Year award every year, maybe just name it after him.

You can email Bill Burt at bburt@salemnews.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @burttalkssports.

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