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NFL Coaches Who Doubted Patriots Now Say It's Time to Fear Them Again

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterDecember 27, 2019

FOXBOROUGH, MA - NOVEMBER 24: Tom Brady #12 talks to head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots before a game against the Dallas Cowboys at Gillette Stadium on November 24, 2019 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

There was a time this season, only weeks ago, when teams stopped fearing the Patriots.

Privately, even as the Patriots kept winning, and even as their defense became one of the most dominant in the sport, some assistant coaches, in both conferences, spoke about how they and their players were no longer afraid of New England.

Make no mistake...every team was scared of them in the past—well, except for maybe the two Giants teams that beat them in the Super Bowl. Or that Super Bowl Eagles team. But everyone else? Scurred out of their minds because the Patriots always outsmarted, outworked and thoroughly outplayed almost every team they faced. 

But, as these coaches explained, the league had caught up to Bill Belichick's schemes and innovations. They said, albeit not publicly, that Tom Brady was no longer the Tom Brady, and he could be fooled with blitzes, and he had increasing physical limitations.

We've heard these doubts in past years, but I had never heard them to this degree before. Ever. It was, at times, genuinely shocking to hear.

It was also wrong.

When checking in with those same people now, about a month later, they say something completely different. They say Belichick has done his best job in years and has been the second-best head coach in football, behind the Ravens' John Harbaugh.

Why? "On offense, this is the least talented team he's ever coached," said one NFC offensive assistant, "and he still has 12 wins." 

These coaches say Brady has been far better than people think.

This isn't about the normal Patriots-observer cliche of Watch out for them. This is something different. This is: The Patriots have been far better than we think, and they aren't just a sleeping tiger. They are a sleeping bear, tiger, elephant, Klingon, Hulk, Superman—all wrapped into one.

What these coaches say is that as the playoffs loom, it is time to fear the Patriots again.

B/R Gridiron @brgridiron

11 straight AFC East titles 💪 Patriots beat the Bills, 24-17 https://t.co/6TUo3ZmXcW

What changed the minds of some of these coaches was last week's win against Buffalo. The offense looked smooth against a tough Bills defense, and Brady threw for 271 yards with a touchdown while also completing nearly 80 percent of his passes.

What teams underestimated—what they have underestimated for years—is the mental toughness of the Patriots. Especially, without question, Brady's. The Patriots might be the most mentally sturdy team in NFL history, and Brady's toughness sets the standard.

Now, throw into that mix the fact that the Patriots are one win away (against the Dolphins) from a home playoff game, and you can see why the fear is back.

There was one recent piece of information that did not make a splash but was an important look into the Patriots' mindset. It showed why fear of them is justified.

NFL Network's Peter Schrager relayed during a Good Morning Football segment a conversation he had prior to the Bills-Pats game, where a win would give New England the AFC East crown and leave them needing only a Week 17 win over the Dolphins to secure a bye and home-field advantage for the divisional playoff:

"Thursday afternoon, myself, Mike Tirico, Kurt Warner—we had a chance to spend time with both Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in a very casual setting," Schrager said. "... We said to Tom Brady...'OK, you guys have lost to the Chiefs, the Texans and the Ravens. And we know the playoffs are coming up, and you might not have the easiest path with your offense.'"

Brady responded that if the Patriots do get that bye, "Looking at history, I would take our chances at home field against whoever is coming our way. ... We got a one-game, elimination-round playoff game against somebody in [our] building."

"'One-game elimination round,'" Schrager continued, "and [Brady] looked at us and was like, 'I'll take our chances. I'll take our chances.'"

I'll take our chances.

That's Brady-speak for Doubt us at your own peril, chumps. The reason he likes their chances "looking at history" is that starting with the Tuck Rule win in January 2002, the Patriots are 12-1 in divisional playoff games at home.

Yes, this is definitely a different Patriots team. It's not as potent as past ones that had the top-ranked offenses in football. Any team that loses a weapon like tight end Rob Gronkowski is going to be different.

But, it's time to be afraid of the Patriots again, and coaches can see it now.

     

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.