A chemistry forged by triumph, failure

"And, in terms of actual football, it's invaluable. You spend so much time together that when you call a play, he's already thought of it in his mind. You have an idea, and he's already got the same one.''

When Favre was young, Holmgren said he was incredibly hard on his QB, "probably the way Bill was with Tom,'' he surmised. "Brett was in the principal's office a lot.''

The challenge with a young quarterback, Holmgren said, is to limit his mistakes. It requires discipline and some difficult and humbling conversations.

"I remember distinctly when it turned,'' Holmgren said. "It was in Brett's second year. He sat next to me on the plane, the seat no one wanted to sit in. He told me, 'I get it. I finally get it. Things are slowing down for me. I see what you mean now.' I said, 'Did you ever think I wasn't trying to help you?' Brett was always a bit of a gambler. To his credit, he changed his game a little for me. For that, I'll always be grateful.''

Holmgren watched with interest as Belichick, the coach Bill Parcells nicknamed Doom, pushed the young Brady, sometimes to the brink.

"People say all the time you have to treat your players the same,'' Holmgren said. "You don't. You have to treat your quarterback a little differently.

"Bill could be very tough on his players and his coaches. But once Tom started establishing himself it became a different deal. It's like that famous conversation between Bart Starr and Vince Lombardi. He said, 'Coach, if you want me to be the leader of this team, you can't be ripping my butt all the time.' To Bill's credit, he realized that with Tom.''

It shouldn't surprise anyone that the current longest-tenured coach-quarterback duos (Brady-Belichick, Eli Manning-Tom Coughlin, Drew Brees-Sean Payton, Ben Roethlisberger-Mike Tomlin) have one thing in common: They've won a Super Bowl together.

In recent years, the Patriots' narrative has been pocked with disappointment: a knee injury, a foolhardy taping scandal, a gnawing pattern of "almost.''

The pristine Super Bowl record was shattered by Eli, Peyton's kid brother, who made Big Throws in the Big Game against Belichick, Brady and the Patriots -- twice. So now it's been nearly nine seasons since the coach and the quarterback have won a Super Bowl. Their three championships are second only to Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw (they won four), but in this here-and-now sports vacuum, the "gold standard" duo is scrutinized and criticized for its recent haul of bronze and silver.

They will have to win in Denver against old friend Peyton Manning in the AFC Championship Game to quiet the chatter that their time has passed.

I asked Belichick on Wednesday how his relationship with Brady would assist him in a game of this magnitude. His dismissed the query: "I don't really look at this game any different than a lot of the other games. I meet with Tom on a regular basis, meet with the quarterbacks on a regular basis weekly all year long.''

(Translated: none of your business.)

Persistence occasionally proves to be successful in these situations, so I asked, "When was the last time Tom Brady surprised you?"

"This morning,'' Belichick replied, with a hint of a smile.

And how did he surprise you?

"We'll keep that between Tom and me,'' he answered, his Cheshire grin in full bloom.

Belichick was more expansive in an interview last week with former Steelers coach Bill Cowher on the CBS pregame show.

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