DENVER — The greatest trick Bill Belichick ever pulled was convincing the football world to lower expectations for the Patriots.
On his quirky injury report, we are 'Duped, probable.'
We laugh at his Emo press conferences. We chuckle at a wardrobe of torn-sleeved hoodies. We deify his three Super Bowl rings, including one in the past 10 seasons.
We are the fools, not he.
There's a myth going around that Belichick, who brings the Patriots to meet the Broncos for Sunday's AFC championship, should be coach of the year in the NFL.
Two words: for real? Sounds like someone spiked the chowder.
There's enough greatness in the Belichick era that we needn't resort to myths. He's on the short list of the most successful coaches in NFL history. No doubt about it.
How has he done it?
He's done it largely against Larry, Moe and Curly, who must be running the other three franchises in the AFC East. Over the past decade, the Bills, Dolphins and Jets all have averaged fewer than eight wins per season. That's for real. I looked it up.
Belichick's Patriots are not only consistent; they also start the season with five wins in the front pocket of their torn-sleeved hoody. Over the past decade, the Patriots average five wins against AFC East rivals. This is a fine way to win division titles, of which Belichick's Pats have 11.
Know what division titles get you? Home games in the playoffs. Know what home games in the playoffs get you? An excellent chance to advance in the playoffs.
"Their record speaks for itself," Tony Carter told me.
The Broncos cornerback spent the 2010 season with the Patriots.
"It's different there. It's definitely different than here," Carter said. "There, it's a lot more like a business, I would say."
And business is good. To beat the Patriots, the Broncos will need their best game of this season, last season, or any other season since John Elway and Terrell Davis won back-to-back Super Bowls to close the 1997 and 1998 seasons.
Tom Brady and the Patriots are embracing — get this — the underdog role. If it works, I suggest the United States does the same at the Sochi Olympics.
"If Tom's going to embrace it, I'm going to embrace it," running back LeGarrette Blount told reporters Monday.
It's a good life plan, to do what Brady does. It's a better plan to hang with a coach who must hide a lucky horseshoe, next to a Voodoo doll, under his pillow at night.
This is thin ice, scrutinizing the Dark Lord of Foxboro. But when there's a trip to the Super Bowl at stake, when it's Brady vs. Manning, all angles are scrutinized through a microscope. On this stage no one's record is above scrutiny.
The narrative this time around is how the Patriots are surviving through great attrition. It's true, too. Their journey through injury is worthy of a Sam Adams toast.
But not more so than the Broncos, whose duct-taped defense enters the AFC championship without Von Miller, Kevin Vickerson and Chris Harris, for sure, and Rahim Moore and Derek Wolfe, most likely. Champ Bailey missed most of the season; Duke Ihenacho and Wesley Woodyard missed parts.
In Week 12, the Patriots beat the Broncos when Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie injured a shoulder — on a useless Hail Mary pass to end the first half — and Brady went to work on a rookie cornerback, Kayvon Webster.
We don't hear about all that. We hear Belichick is grinding through his best coaching job. The narrative misses a critical point: Belichick contributed to the attrition.
He's in charge of personnel decisions, last we heard. He drafted a gang member the other 31 teams wouldn't touch with a pair of leg irons. He let Wes Welker get away.
Credit the Dark Lord of Foxboro for overcoming the string of injuries that line his roster. But in the interest of fair assessments, don't include Aaron Hernandez and Welker on the list of standout players the Patriots are surviving without.
Belichick is without those guys because Belichick got cocky. Spare us the violins.
Considering Belichick a coach of the year candidate is like rewarding a college coach for outperforming expectations with a rotten roster. The college coach recruited that rotten roster.
Belichick is brilliant. Highlight that in bold. I learned this way back in 2003, up in the 500 section at Invesco Field at Mile High, in the same building that will host the AFC championship game a decade later.
Trailing 24-23 late in the fourth quarter, Belichick ordered his long-snapper, Lonie Paxton, to snap the ball through the end zone. Belichick took the safety and later won the game, 30-26.
How many coaches would take that risk? Brilliant.
So brilliant, it seems, the details of his coaching record are above a closer look.
The Patriots have been so good, for so long, it's easy to forget the Broncos owned the Patriots, and an 11-game winning streak in the series, in the 80s and 90s.
That was before Belichick arrived and struck fear in the AFC East. But there's no magic wand under his pillow, a reason to fear the Dark Lord of Foxboro, who stands between the Broncos and a berth in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Just a horseshoe and a Voodoo doll, maybe.