A hostile stadium spewing venom at him, at his team, never bothered Bill Belichick, and it didn’t matter which team was waiting in ambush for the Patriots over the course of two decades.
But when Belichick walks into the bitter arctic chill Saturday night at Highmark Stadium, into the belly of a championship-starved beast that proudly calls itself the Bills Mafia, for the first time in his legendary career he will be walking into the postseason without Tom Brady.
So when Belichick, after a one-year absence from the playoffs, begins his desperate quest for a seventh Super Bowl championship, for the first time since no one knew the young Brady as the GOAT, he will not have the better quarterback along for the ride.
He has a rookie quarterback, Mac Jones.
The Bills have Josh Allen.
Brady will be in Tampa either studying the playbook for his wild-card game against the Eagles or stealing glances at his old coach bundled up in his hoodie on television … or both.
Jones mastered big games for Nick Saban at Alabama, he beat out Cam Newton for the Patriots’ starting job, he was better than Trevor Lawrence and every other quarterback in his draft class … he even beat the Bills in Week 13, completing two passes in three attempts for 19 yards on a windy Western New York night, when the Patriots played Bully Ball and rushed for 222 humiliating yards.
The Bills, their manhood and pride challenged, intercepted Jones twice and returned the favor in Week 16 at New England.
Which sets up The Thrilla in Orchard Park.
The heavyweight slugfest of the Super Wild Card Round.
Sixty minutes — or more — of bone-crunching mayhem and take-no-prisoners brutality in the center of the ring.
Now understand what this means to each side:
Not only did Belichick miss the playoffs last year in his first season without Brady, but then he had to watch Brady beat him to a seventh Lombardi Trophy by winning the Super Bowl at home in Tampa with Bruce Arians.
So Belichick the general manager spent $159.6 million in guaranteed money at the whirlwind start of free agency to give Belichick the head coach enough to be dangerous again.
Now try to put yourself in the shoes of Bills fans:
When the Bills hosted a playoff game for the first time in 25 years last January, COVID-19 restrictions allowed no more than 6,722 in the stadium. That was a beloved Bills team, remember, that had broken Belichick’s 11-year stranglehold on the AFC East title.
The Bills, with Marv Levy as head coach and Jim Kelly at quarterback, lost four consecutive Super Bowls from 1991-94. While Belichick and Brady were fronting their six-ring dynasty, Bills fans could only dream about winning their first.
Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane have built a power that was 60 minutes from Super Bowl LV and defends Highmark Stadium now as back-to-back AFC East champs.
Allen has a 60.8 completion percentage in four playoff games with five touchdowns and one interception, and 237 rushing yards and another TD. “He’s hard to defend,” Belichick said.
Allen is 2-2 in the postseason. Brady was 30-11 with Belichick.
Jones is 0-0. And he will be greeted by the NFL’s No. 1 defense.
“You have to realize that there’s not a lot of room for error,” Jones said. “That’s kind of what makes it fun.”
The kid is a cool customer, poised beyond his years. The heat’s on him to get Belichick back to the only place he coaches to be. Jones had better show up with ice water in his veins, and hope it doesn’t freeze over. Because a cold-blooded team and a cold-blooded town will be waiting for him and his coach.