There are people in the NFL who have spent much of their careers studying everything Bill Belichick does, and they say what he is doing this season with the Patriots defense is unprecedented, even for him.
As coaches have prepared to face New England, or have looked at the Patriots' game tape to steal tricks and ideas, they've all come away thinking the future Hall of Fame coach has created the most disciplined, effective and well-rounded defense they've ever seen. Some—I spoke to four assistants total—say the Patriots defense is the best example yet of how Belichick blends talent with a total team concept.
"This is the 'Do Your Job' concept times a billion," said an NFC West team assistant, referring to the Patriots' motto.
There are "easily three or four players on that defense who would each be huge stars in this league, but they blend in there, and that's the just the starters," an AFC East assistant said.
To be sure, the defense is loaded with talented players, from a linebacking corps that includes Jamie Collins, Dont'a Hightower and Elandon Roberts to a secondary that boasts Devin and Jason McCourty as well as Jonathan Jones. Where Belichick has impressed his coaching counterparts is getting all of that talent to operate as one dangerous unit.
That may sound easy, but it's not. Look at all the talent on the Browns offense and how it's struggled to function as one.
Belichick, on the other hand, continues to get players to sacrifice individual glory for overall team success. No one has been better at this in the history of football. And it was all on display again in New England's 35-14 win over the Giants on Thursday night.
The Patriots weren't flawless. They allowed a Daniel Jones 64-yard touchdown pass to Golden Tate (which prevented the Patriots from becoming only the fourth team since the merger in 1970 to not allow a touchdown pass in the first six games).
But over the course of the night, what you saw was a defense that is not only athletic and has a sense of togetherness, but also uses its considerable smarts to anticipate what's headed its way and counteract it. To be blunt, this is one of the smartest defenses I've ever seen.
In the first quarter, Jones was under constant pressure. So the Giants countered with shorter pass routes and a screen play. The Patriots knew the Giants were going to do this and reacted accordingly, stuffing the short routes and chasing down the screen immediately after it developed.
(The touchdown to Tate was the Giants reacting to the Patriots' jamming the shorter routes by going deep. I know that you know that I know...)
Jones also found out firsthand what a nightmare a smart and physical defense can be. On his second interception, he had time to throw. He moved right, then drifted left and still had time. Then two Patriots defensive linemen burst right into Jones' face, and he chucked it into the arms of safety Duron Harmon.
On Jones' third pick, Patriots defensive back Stephon Gilmore looked like a receiver. New England disguised its coverage, but it wasn't complicated: The safety dropped back and Gilmore, knowing he had help, just jumped the route. It was the Patriots' 15th takeaway, already good for tops in the league, but they weren't done yet.
With the game still close late, the defense all but put the win away with a play that typified what this Patriots defense does and how technical it is. In the fourth quarter, Collins tackled running back Jon Hilliman. But it was no ordinary tackle. He put his shoulder pads right in Hilliman's gut, knocking the ball loose. It was recovered by linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who ran it back for a touchdown and a 14-point lead late in the fourth quarter.
One sign of a truly outstanding defense, a historic one, is what it does to opponents on third down. That's when offenses get desperate. The Patriots this season have allowed teams to convert on third downs only 10 times out of 73 opportunities. That's a 13.7 percent conversion rate. The fewest converted third downs allowed in a 16-game season since the league began tracking is 49 by the 1991 Saints.
And if you're looking for overall marks of success, the Patriots are on a historic pace there, too. So far, New England has allowed just 48 total points. Drawn out over the entire season, that rate would shatter the 2000 Ravens' mark of 165 points. Through six games that year, the Ravens had allowed 65.
"It is fun," Gilmore said of playing for the New England defense after the win, according to a Patriots transcript. "If one person makes a play, then everyone is excited. There are no selfish squares. Everyone is just happy for one another."
Takeaways aren't just about athleticism or hustle or smarts. It's a combination of all those attributes. And while you can move the football on the Patriots, they make it hard, and you must play close to perfect. Every down. Every drive. Almost every moment.
The Patriots will need this defense to be exceptional because they're still having issues with the offensive line. It was still just a seven-point margin late in the game because the Patriots offense was stumbling.
It's true the Giants are a bad football team ravaged by injuries. It's also true the Patriots' schedule has been soft with games against Pittsburgh, Miami, the Jets, Buffalo, Washington and the Giants. Of those teams, only the Bills (4-1) have a winning mark, and the combined record of all those teams is 7-22.
However, this defense is so good, it would likely be effective against almost any offense.
As Tom Brady himself said after the Patriots' win over Washington: "We obviously have a great strength in our defense. They turn the ball over and make it so hard to complete every pass. We realized that in training camp. It's amazing to watch those guys play right now."
During his weekly radio interview with WEEI the following day, he added they're "playing as well as any defense I've ever played with."
This is Brady's 19th season as New England's starting quarterback.
And in a remarkable coaching life, Belichick is doing things that surpass even what he's done.
That's a pretty amazing statement in itself.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.