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Bill Belichick now in pantheon of great NFL coaches

Patriots leader has brought team to two titles in three years

Bill Belichick led the Patriots to 15 straight wins to close the season.

Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Bill Belichick led the Patriots to 15 straight wins to close the season.

HOUSTON -- He allowed himself to smile, to cheer, to show emotion. He allowed himself to mention winning 15 straight games, a second Super Bowl in three years, and the fact that finally the Patriots can be talked about as one of the greatest teams in football history.

”You win 15 in a row and win a Super Bowl championship, that’s pretty good,” said the Patriots coach moments after accepting the Lombardi Trophy following a 32-29 win in Super Bowl XXXVIII last night.

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”I think you’re going to be talked about with so many of the other teams that have had great accomplishments. I’m still on Cloud 9 right now. I don’t know if I’ve had a chance to reflect on that.

”This has been an unforgettable season for me.” At the critical moment of the final game, Belichick coached a team that had two backup safeties -- Shawn Mayer and Chris Akins on the field subbing for the injured Rodney Harrison and Eugene Wilson. Of course Belichick was used to being shorthanded, after a season in which free-agent linebacker Rosevelt Colvin, starting guard Mike Compton, and starting receiver David Patten were lost to injuries.

Belichick’s team won this Super Bowl with great offense after both teams had played great defense. Though the winning points came the same way, with another Adam Vinatieri field goal, this Super Bowl win was arguably more difficult.

”[Belichick] has to be considered among the best [coaches] of all time now,” said linebacker Ted Johnson. “I don’t think there’s any doubt about that now.”

But many Hall of Fame voters wanted to see a second championship as head coach to add to a resume that includes two rings as a defensive coordinator with the New York Giants and a Super Bowl appearance in 1997 when he was the assistant head coach of the Patriots under Bill Parcells. In both Super Bowl wins he’s had the common thread of Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis, coordinators who interviewed but did not land head coaching opportunities. Surprisingly, of the seven NFL teams looking for coaches, not one wanted to replicate, at least in part, the success Belichick and company have achieved in New England. He now has matched his mentor, Parcells, with two Super Bowl rings as head coach. He’s also matched contemporaries such as Mike Shanahan, Jimmy Johnson, and George Seifert with two apiece.

Another common thread in Belichick’s New England run has been Tom Brady. Weis and Belichick deserve credit for taking a chance on the sixth-round pick when Drew Bledsoe went down and never got his job back in 2001. Brady is now a two-time Super Bowl MVP quarterback, and although he’s not as close as Belichick is to the pantheon of his profession, Brady, at 26, is well on his way. “Tom’s got to be mentioned among the best,” Belichick said. “You can’t deny his production. Tom’s a winner. He does a great job managing the game and he makes big plays.”

Although the Carolina Panthers matched the Patriots almost play for play, the Patriots did things the Panthers couldn’t. Belichick tweaked his offense that helped to help the Patriots win. He inserted Mike Vrabel into the short-yardage offense and the linebacker, who had an excellent game defensively, caught a go-ahead touchdown pass in the fourth quarter. He inserted Richard Seymour on short-yardage running plays, and Antowain Smith ran behind the defensive tackle for a 2-yard run with 14:49 remaining to give the Patriots a 21-10 lead.

Critics could question Belichick’s decision to use a squib kick right before the end of the first half. Stephen Davis ran the ball 21 yards to put the ball at the Patriots’ 32 and set up a 50-yard field goal by John Kasay, pulling the Panthers to within 14-10 at halftime.

But the decision didn’t backfire. Great teams overcome such setbacks. Great coaches find a way to win despite adversity.

If this were a regular-season game, Belichick might have uttered the words “some things were better than others.” But those words were not in the postgame speech last night. This was the Super Bowl, and Belichick’s constant praising of the Panthers proved prophetic. After his defense stuffed the Panthers for most of the first half, the Panthers became the offensive juggernaut Belichick had warned they could be.

”This was a terrific game to watch, but a heart attack to coach,” Belichick said. “It was a great team effort. We’ve done it 15 weeks in a row. And I’m really fortunate.”

Patriots owner Robert Kraft took a chance and hired Belichick after the disappointing 1999 season, having to give up a No. 1 draft pick to the Jets to pry Belichick out of his contract. Many questioned whether the effort and payment of a draft pick was worth it. Three years later, he might have given up a No. 1 draft pick every year for Belichick.

”My family and I are proud of this man, Coach Belichick, who instilled the values of the power of team. And because of that today we have seen a true team and a true champion,” Kraft said.

With two Super Bowl championships, Belichick has erased the struggles of his first head job in Cleveland. That is now a blur, to him, to Patriots Nation, and probably to Cleveland Browns fans, who must be wondering what they missed out on.

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