Tom Brady and Bill Belichick could have ridden off into the sunset after the Patriots overcame a 28-3 deficit in Super Bowl LI to capture their fifth championship together as the undisputed greatest quarterback and coach of all-time, respectively, and hardly anyone would bat an eyelash at the notion.
Two years later, New England is set to take the field for its second Super Bowl in as many seasons since blasting the Atlanta Falcons into oblivion.
The statuses of Brady and Belichick haven’t changed, nor will they regardless of the outcome on Sunday, but four Super Bowl losses is a lot of empty calories.
Still, being denoted as the “Greatest of All-Time” should come with an irrevocable hold for at least a generation.
Think about it. Brady has no contemporaries at this point, but say he did, they’d be Peyton Manning (retired), Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger. Brady is set to appear in his ninth Super Bowl on Sunday, the same number as those four quarterbacks combined. Should the Patriots win, he’ll match their combined total of six Super Bowl victories.
New England can’t lose and all of a sudden Brady’s hierarchy among the elites is up for debate. He’ll match Jim Kelly for the most Super Bowl losses by a quarterback, with four, but his five rings would still stand out among all others from Joe Montana to Terry Bradshaw to John Elway and so on and so forth.
So, what can Brady truly gain with a sixth championship on Sunday?
In-depth news coverage of the Greater Boston Area.
The ability to continue running up the score. The ability to do to the record books in the NFL postseason what Wayne Gretzky did to the NHL record book. What Babe Ruth once did in a bygone era of baseball.
To create so much space between yourself and second place that you have to double check the numbers and make sure there’s no mathematical error. To make it look like you’re top-seeded Duke playing a plucky sub-.500 team from the Big West in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
Brady can match the same number of Super Bowls won by an entire franchise on Sunday, equaling the total of six won by the Pittsburgh Steelers. He can match Michael Jordan, whom many believe to be the greatest basketball player of all-time, with six championship rings. Bill Russell’s 11 rings remain in the distance, but if Brady is serious about playing into his mid-40s…
Belichick is in almost exactly the same boat as Brady. His five Super Bowl titles are already the most of all-time.
Unlike Brady, however, Belichick has no one even remotely in his galaxy when it comes to coaching contemporaries in the 21st century. He has as many championships as every active coach in the NFL combined and will surpass the group of Mike Tomlin, Sean Payton, John Harbaugh, Pete Carroll and Doug Peterson with a win.
He’s already lapped the field.
Losing would match him with Marv Levy, Dan Reeves, Don Shula and Bud Grant for the most losses by a coach in Super Bowl history with four, but of that group, Shula (with two) is the only one to win a Super Bowl as well.
The only coaches since the dawn of time with a résumé worthy of comparing to Belichick’s are George Halas, Curly Lambeau and Vince Lombardi.
Halas and Lambeau won six championships each, the majority of which came before World War II -- heck, Halas won his first title with Chicago's NFL franchise when it was sitll known as the Staleys in 1921.
Lombardi, meanwhile, who won two Super Bowl titles, but five total NFL championships, given that his career overlapped with the NFL-AFL merger.
Football purists may still point to Lombardi as the greatest coach of all-time, but a win on Sunday for Belichick would one-up the namesake of the Super Bowl trophy in total championships.
The notion that the Patriots are playing with house money is incorrect because every dynasty has a shelf life, even this one. And just in case another coach and quarterback ever team up the way Brady and Belichick have – unlikely as it may be – the duo might as well take advantage of whatever time they have left and make it even more impossible than it already is for the next generation to have any say on who the G.O.A.T. is.