By Larry Fine
HOUSTON (Reuters) - Observers have speculated that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was driven more than ever this season, embittered by the four-game suspension handed down by National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell for his role in Deflategate.
New England coach Bill Belichick bristled when the hypothesis was hinted at in Monday's Super Bowl news conference following the remarkable 25-point comeback and 34-28 overtime win over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday night.
According to Belichick, Brady could not have played with any more purpose this season, because he always gave 100 percent in previous years.
"I think it's really inappropriate to suggest that in Tom's career he's been anything other than a great teammate, a great worker and has given us every single ounce of effort, blood, sweat and tears that he has in him," an unusually emotional Belichick said.
"To insinuate that this year was somehow different, that this year he competed harder or did anything to a higher degree than he ever has in the past, I think is insulting to the tremendous effort and leadership and competitiveness that he's shown for the 17 years that I have coached him."
Brady, 39, has been at the top of his game since rejoining the team in Game Five, helping the Pats finish a 14-2 regular season capped off with three postseason wins for New England's fifth Super Bowl title in the Belichick-Brady era.
"It's been like that every year, every day, every week, every practice," Belichick said. "I don't care if it's in May, August or January. Tom Brady gives us his best every time he steps on the field."
Seated off to the side of the stage, Goodell, reviled in Patriots' territory for suspending Brady, nodded in appreciation and warmly shook Belichick's hand after the press conference.
Belichick, who set his own record with his fifth Super Bowl victory as head coach to move past Chuck Noll of the Steelers to top the list, also revealed a lighter side rarely displayed.
The coach acknowledged the name of his boat was being changed to VII Rings, including two Super Bowl rings he earned as New York Giants defensive coordinator in 1987 and 1991.
More to familiar form, Belichick noted one drawback to winning the Lombardi Trophy.
"As of today, as great as today feels and as great as today is, in all honesty we're five weeks behind in the 2017 season," he said about preparations for the NFL draft and free agency that have been on hold during the playoffs.
"If you don't do a good job with your football team in February, March and April you're probably going to see that in November, December and January."
Belichick said his down time would kick in between the end of the off-season program in mid-June until the start of training camp in July.
"Then I'll be on VII Rings at some point," he said.
"When you're as far behind as Atlanta and New England right now relative to the '17 season, we've got some catching up to do, but it's where we want to be, so no complaints."
(Editing by Andrew Both)