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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

The Patriots were Tomato Cans at one point, even under Bill Belichick

Early in his second season as Patriots coach, did Bill Belichick believe he was close to being fired?
Early in his second season as Patriots coach, did Bill Belichick believe he was close to being fired?(Bill Kostroun/AP)

The Patriots have an important home game against the Vikings on Sunday. The Patriots currently are the No. 2 seed in the AFC and stand a chance to earn the conference’s top spot over the last five weeks of the season. New England is primed to win its division for the 10th consecutive season and we fully expect the Patriots to be in the AFC Championship game for the eighth straight year. A ninth Super Bowl for Bill Belichick and Tom Brady is certainly a possibility for Feb. 3.

It wasn’t always like this.

And I’m not talking about Billy Sullivan, Rod Rust, or the Foxborough Follies of the 20th century.

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Anybody remember when Bill Belichick was the local football doofus and the Patriots were the Tomato Cans of the AFC East?

It happened.

In this century.

With Belichick as head coach.

On Sept. 23, 2001, the Jets beat the Patriots, 10-3, in Foxborough, and winless New England was in last place in the AFC East — which is exactly where the Patriots had finished in 2000, Belichick’s first season as coach.

Belichick was 5-13 in his first 18 games as Patriots coach. In that moment, he was 41-57 as an NFL head coach. He was a loser. And his job might have been in jeopardy.

According to Ian O’Connor’s best seller “Belichick,” before the Patriots-Jets game on Sept. 23, 2001, Belichick told Jets coach Herm Edwards, that he (Belichick) was likely on his way to getting fired. According to Jets assistant coach Mike Westhoff, Belichick told Edwards, “I don’t know if I’ll make it through the year. We stink.’’

Edwards, naturally, has denied the story. Belichick, well, he’s on to Minnesota.

But the fact is that it was bad here in the early days for Bill.

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I was there. And here are some nuggets from my coverage of Bill in 2000:

■  (Oct. 1): “Everyone knew Belichick’s task was formidable, but no one expected 0-4 . . . How could a 48-year-old man age five years in five weeks?’’

■  (Nov. 12): “It’s been 10 painful weekends and there is nothing left to say other than the once unthinkable refrain: ‘Bring back Pete Carroll.’ . . . The wreck of the SS Robert Kraft washed up on the shores of Lake Erie yesterday and it was an ugly sight. This must be the bottom. Your young Super Bowl team of 1996 officially plunged to the nadir, losing to a second-year team that had dropped seven straight games and hadn’t scored a touchdown since Oct. 15. It took less than four years, but the hubris and blundering of Messrs. Kraft, Carroll, and Bobby Grier have created a team that can lose to the new Cleveland Browns by a hideous count of 19-11. We are back to the days of Clive Rush and Rod Rust. The Patriots have lost 14 of their last 18 football games. Bill Belichick is in charge of bringing respectability back to New England football, but right now fans would settle for a little dignity, which was in short supply on Bloody Sunday in Ohio . . . This was absurd. The Patriots’ season is over.’’

■  (Dec. 4): “On a cold night when almost 10,000 Patriots fans had the wisdom to stay away, the local 11 staggered to the finish, beating the Chiefs, 30-24. At the end it was like watching two drunks wrestling for the final bottle of beer after last call . . . The no-show count had to be 40,000 for the last play of the game . . . It was depressing to see how far the Patriots have fallen and to know that all of America was in on the joke . . . The anger and outrage fostered by the Pete Carroll era have given way to benign acceptance of a losing team under Belichick . . . and it may be a long time before the people from ‘Monday Night Football’ return.’’

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Belichick’s second season at the helm in Foxborough started equally badly.

Nobody cared much about football after the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, but when the NFL resumed its schedule, New England committed four turnovers in the 10-3 loss to the Jets. The Patriots dropped to 0-2, which made Belichick 5-13 as Patriots coach.

Tom Brady, seen in 2001 with Drew Bledsoe, led the Patriots’ turnaround that made them go from 5-11 in 2000 to Super Bowl champions a year later.
Tom Brady, seen in 2001 with Drew Bledsoe, led the Patriots’ turnaround that made them go from 5-11 in 2000 to Super Bowl champions a year later.(Jim Davis/Globe Staff)

“There is no reason to expect anything else to change,’’ wrote Ron Borges of the Globe.

Things did change. Right away. Led by Tom Brady, the 2001 Patriots won the Super Bowl. Since that 5-13 start — since Brady replaced Drew Bledsoe — Belichick is 217-64 as Patriots coach.

In this season of giving thanks and waiting for the Patriots to get their annual preferred path to the Super Bowl (first-round bye, second-round home game, AFC Championship game in Foxborough), it is important to remember that it was not always like this in New England. Not even when Bill Belichick was head coach.

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Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dan_shaughnessy.