FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Bill Belichick isn’t surprised by a season of surprises.
The Patriots’ impressive win over the Steelers one week after an embarrassing loss to the Browns? A three-touchdown game by rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski following a mistake-filled performance? Unexpected results throughout the league?
Happens all the time, New England’s coach says.
“It’s been like that in the NFL for 35 years,” a tired Belichick said Monday barely 12 hours after his team returned from a 39-26 win at Pittsburgh.
“Teams are in last place one year and they’re in first place the next year. Teams that nobody thinks are going to win a game, like Miami ended up winning the division two years ago. I think you see it every year.”
In his 11th season in charge, these Patriots are a tough team to figure out.
On one Sunday, New England’s young defense gets exploited in a 34-14 loss at Cleveland, which entered that game with a 2-5 record. Then the next Sunday it sacks the tough-to-tackle Ben Roethlisberger five times in dominating a team that began the day at 6-2.
Belichick is waiting to see which Patriots will show up for next Sunday’s home game against the Indianapolis Colts.
“Each week’s its own new week, so we’ll see,” he said. “It all starts all over again today.”
The Patriots are tied with the Jets for the best record in the AFC — and the AFC East — at 7-2. New York already has beaten New England, 28-14 after trailing 14-10 at halftime.
Two of the Patriots wins have been by just three points. But much of what occurs during games depends on three days of practice starting on Wednesdays. A lack of focus in the run-up to the Cleveland game was costly.
So the Patriots bore down, paid attention and were ready for Pittsburgh.
“If we learned from that (Cleveland) game, and if that loss helped us do things better in this (Pittsburgh) game or in future games, then that’s an unfortunate positive that we could take out of that game,” Belichick said. “There’s such a fine line in this league between being good and being bad that, in a lot of cases, it doesn’t take a lot for that differential to show up, one way or the other.”
Belichick said the Patriots probably were more focused because of the blowout by the Browns.
They definitely were more emotional. One glance at Tom Brady animatedly talking and gesturing to teammates on the bench made that clear.
That was another surprise to fans who recognize the cool, in-control Brady so often seen, not the fiery, competitive leader his coach and teammates know.
“He has enough experience and understanding to know what’s right and what’s wrong,” Belichick said. “He’s very encouraging when guys make good plays. … If there’s a mistake, whether it’s his mistake or somebody else’s mistake, then he’ll talk about that.
“He’s not only a great quarterback, but he’s a great leader, and he certainly is in command of our offensive team.”
That led to a much improved performance.
“The execution level of the game, the alertness, the awareness of the situations,” Belichick said. “Being able to complete a pass on third-and-20 to get the ball into field goal range to kick a field goal even though you don’t get a first down, things like that, those end up being big plays.”
Brady had an outstanding performance against the Steelers — no surprise there.
He began the day with a 5-1 record against them, including playoff games, and 3-1 in Pittsburgh. On Sunday, he completed 30 of 43 passes for 350 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions or sacks.
Another statistic that made the win a bit more predictable: The Patriots were 24-2 after a regular-season loss starting with the 2003 season. Make that 25-2.
But their 103-yard ground game against the NFL’s top-rated run defense that had allowed just 58.3 yards rushing going into the game was a shocker.
The celebration was short lived. After the post-midnight flight back home, Belichick went to work on next Sunday’s opponent, the Colts.
“This will be another big challenge,” he said. “It would be nice to sit around and celebrate this one for a while, but there’s just no time for that.”
Not if the Patriots want to beat a team with a 6-3 record that’s likely to be an underdog without a slew of injured key players.
Then again, the Colts have won five of the past six meetings between the teams, including the AFC title game after the 2006 season when they stunned the Patriots by rallying from a 21-6 halftime deficit to a 38-34 win.
Surely, there should be a few more surprises on Sunday.
“You see teams that aren’t expected to win, win. You see other teams that are expected to win, not win,” Belichick said. “That certainly happens from week to week. That’s the National Football League.”