For coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady of the New England Patriots, there is much more at stake Sunday against the Denver Broncos than just a trip to Super Bowl XLVIII. With a win in that game and in the Super Bowl, Belichick and Brady have a chance to be remembered as the greatest NFL coach and quarterback of all time. That's pretty significant.
There is no right or wrong arguments in these best-ever debates. There are just opinions. It's not crazy to suggest Vince Lombardi or Chuck Noll or Bill Walsh is the best coach or that Joe Montana or Johnny Unitas or John Elway is the best quarterback. But it's also not crazy to go with Belichick and Brady.
The NFL's most productive coach-quarterback pairing has won 11 division titles in the past 13 seasons and is trying to get to its sixth Super Bowl. The Patriots won the championship after the 2001, 2003 and 2004 seasons and lost after the 2007 and 2011 seasons. The 2007 team was 18-0 when it lost to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII because of a fluke catch by Giants wide receiver David Tyree.
This season might be Belichick's greatest coaching job. Before the season, he lost tight end Aaron Hernandez, who is facing a murder charge. The Patriots played much of the season without injured stars Rob Gronkowski, Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork. Belichick refused to allow his team to use any of the injuries as an excuse.
No less than Bill Cowher gives Belichick his endorsement as the greatest coach.
"He's been pretty amazing what he's done there when you look at all the different moving pieces. It's hard to keep a team together with this salary-cap era that you have. There's always going to be change. That, to me, is why his record speaks for itself."
Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning also said this week that Belichick will be remembered as the NFL's best coach.
Cowher, by the way, opined that Manning is the best quarterback.
I'm much more of a Brady man, at least compared to Manning. Brady is more responsible for the Patriots' long-term success than Belichick, who wasn't nearly so smart as a coach when he was with the Cleveland Browns in the early 1990s and had Bernie Kosar, Mike Tomczak and Vinny Testaverde as his quarterbacks. The only year the Patriots missed the playoffs since 2000 was 2008 when Brady was lost for the season with a knee injury in the first game. What he has done with a constantly changing cast of running backs and wide receivers is incredible. It's impossible to overlook his wins and championships. If he wins a fourth Super Bowl, he will match Montana and Steelers Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw for the most titles during the Super Bowl era.
Belichick and Brady could win four more Super Bowls and it wouldn't be enough for their critics. The two always will be tarnished, in the minds of many, because of Spygate, the September 2007 incident when the Patriots were caught during a game using an on-field camera to steal the New York Jets' defensive signals. The Patriots, who allegedly had been stealing signs since 2000, Belichick's first season as their coach, had been warned that sort of thing was against NFL rules. Commissioner Roger Goodell fined Belichick $500,000, then the stiffest punishment ever given to an NFL coach. The Patriots also were fined $250,000 and lost a No. 1 pick in the 2008 draft.
A number of former Steelers, including Hines Ward and Joey Porter, have screamed they feel cheated by the Patriots and said the Steelers could have and should have won the AFC championship games after the 2001 and 2004 seasons. I never bought their argument. Special teams beat the Steelers in the title game in January 2002. An exquisite Brady pass that seemed to drop out of the sky from heaven on a brutally cold day at Heinz Field for a 60-yard touchdown by Deion Branch and an 87-yard interception return for a touchdown by Rodney Harrison beat the Steelers in the January 2005 game.
It turns out Cowher -- the Steelers' coach at the time -- didn't buy the argument, either.
"We didn't lose the  game because of any Spygate, because of them having any additional things," Cowher said this week on 93.7 The Fan's Morning Show.
Cowher went on to say the Steelers also tried to steal signs. "It was something that everybody does." The difference is the Patriots were caught on tape. "I think if they're guilty of anything, they're guilty of arrogance because they were told not to do something ...
"What happened when we lost that game is they outplayed us. It had nothing to do with stealing signs or cheating or anything else. They were the better football team on that day."
The naysayers will argue the Patriots are 6-5 in the postseason since Spygate. They ignore the fact the team has made it to two Super Bowls during that time. They won't be able to ignore the Patriots if they win it all this season. They won't be able to keep Belichick and Brady out of the best-ever conversations.
Ron Cook: email@example.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.