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Jerry Sullivan: For Brady and Belichick, the legacy is ongoing

HOUSTON -- It's been a quiet week so far, no misbehavior or crazy talk. You know what this Super Bowl could use? LeBron James, who ripped his biggest critic, Charles Barkley, on Monday and said "I'm not going to let him disrespect my legacy like that."

Imagine that, an athlete actually uttering the "L" word. The Patriots wouldn't think of such a thing. As far as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are concerned, talking about legacy is lunacy, a departure from the selfless, buttoned-down culture the Patriots have worked so hard to create.

A great deal will be at stake next Sunday when the Pats take on the Falcons here in Super Bowl LI. It's a chance for Belichick and Brady to win a fifth Lombardi Trophy, separating themselves from all the other coaching and quarterbacking legends in NFL history.

Belichick and Brady are already the most successful coach-quarterback playoff tandem ever. They have the most regular-season (183) and playoff (25) victories and the most Super Bowl appearances (this makes seven). In the eyes of the unconverted, a fifth title could cement their status as the greatest ever at their respective jobs.

Just don't expect them to talk about it. Brace yourself for the customary cliches, the ones we hear twice a year on those regular-season conference calls before Bills-Pats games.

"I don't think anything about a personal legacy," Brady said during a Super Bowl interview session at the team hotel early Tuesday afternoon. "I mean, those words would never even come out of my mouth, unless I just repeated them. So those things have never been important to me."

Brady is the all-time leader among quarterbacks in NFL playoff wins, (24), touchdown passes (61) and passing yards (8,628). He's tied with Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw with four Super Bowl wins. He and Montana are the only players with three Super Bowl MVP awards.

Belichick has reached a record 11 AFC title games in 16 years since Brady became his starting QB in 2001, breaking Tom Landry's record for the most since the 1970 merger. The Hoodie has seven conference titles, a record. He is tied with the Steelers' Chuck Noll with four Super Bowl titles.

Amazingly, it has all come during a salary cap era, which is intended to prevent teams from winning so often. So it doesn't matter who wins Sunday. If you ask me, Brady and Belichick have already established themselves as the greatest of all time.

Many coaches and quarterbacks work their entire careers and never get to the big game. Why should it tarnish their legacies to get there for a seventh time and lose a third one? What if they were, say, 6-4 in Super Bowls? Would the four losses disqualify them?

"I really don't think about any of that," Belichick said Tuesday, to the surprise of no one. "I'm just trying to think about how we can prepare and compete, perform our best Sunday night against the Falcons. The legacy, it's a good question and it's a thing for you to write about.

"I'm just trying to get ready to coach the game," he said. "The Falcons are a great football team, they have a great organization, a lot of great players. Very difficult to play against."

I've heard those same words more than two dozen times during the Bills' playoff drought. It doesn't matter how good the opponent, or the talent on its roster, Belichick acts as if he's about to face Lombardi's Packers or the 1985 Bears.

That is part of his genius, a grinding repetition and unwavering respect for the tiniest competitive detail, including the imperative to say nothing that inspires the opposition or betrays any sense of frivolity or ego. Belichick spoke for five straight minutes about watching his father scout football games during his youth. But his own legacy? That can wait.

It's a living legacy, a work still in progress. Belichick found the perfect leader in Brady, whom he identified early in Brady's career as a tireless worker and cerebral quarterback who took nothing for granted and could express his vision of winning football.

You don't talk about your accomplishments, you're too busy with the task at hand. Brady, for all his glamorous reputation, has always viewed himself first as a teammate, showing the way for the other guys. That's his legacy.

"Coach talks about mental toughness," Brady said. "That's probably the best trait for any athlete. Put away any outside things and focus on your task. Our coach does a great job of keeping us focused every day. Every day is an important day in his mind.

"He walks into the team meeting room every day and goes, 'All right guys, this is a big day!' And he means it. He doesn't just say it the Wednesday of Super Bowl week. He says it Wednesday in April. He understands it's all part of the building process to get to this point."

The building truly began when Robert Kraft bought the team on Jan. 21, 1994, nine days before the Bills lost their fourth Super Bowl to the Cowboys. So in a larger sense, it's Kraft's legacy. He is the only owner in history to reach eight Super Bowls. Hiring Belichick in 2000 was the smartest move he ever made.

Belichick, 64, shows no signs of slowing down. There's talk that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who withdrew his name from consideration for the Niners head job, is sticking around because he's the heir apparent. But it's hard to imagine Belichick walking away when he's on such a roll.

McDaniels and Kraft both said recently that the winning never gets old. That much is obvious. How could a team get to six straight conference championships if an ounce of complacency had crept in? Belichick and Brady manage to keep it fresh. Sure, they think about their legacies in most tranquil moments. But when the prize is there for the taking, they never stray from the task at hand.

"I think winning this Super Bowl is important because it's this one," Brady said. "You can't do anything about the ones we won and lost in the past, or next year's. This is the only one we got. You have to put everything aside so you can have your best performance Sunday night.

"I never could have dreamed after 17 years, I'd still be doing this. So it feels very much like it's still ongoing, you know? There's no time to look back or look ahead. I've enjoyed every minute of it and I want to keep playing. After this game, I'll probably take a week or two off, and then get back to work."

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