For Bill Belichick, the season begins and ends at Giants Stadium. And how ridiculously symbolic is that, given the diametrically opposed set of circumstances.

It began with a Week 1 win over the Jets and his former ballboy-turned-head-coach Eric Mangini, followed by the mushroom cloud of controversy over Spygate. And now it ends in the same place with a chance for Belichick to accomplish what no one has ever done: Become the first coach to go 16-0 in the regular season.

“With every distraction he’s had, he has come through it stronger,” linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. “It’s probably the best year I have seen him have as a coach. He’s not worrying about outside factors.”

No, he’s just winning games. Like no one has before. And now it comes full circle. Back to Giants Stadium. More on Belichick’s reaction to this unique set of events later.

In the meantime, you have to marvel at how he has dealt with the barrage of criticism over being caught illegally videotaping the Jets’ defensive signals in Week 1. And the fact that he now he is on the precipice of a slice of immortality with a win over the Giants. Say what you will about Belichick, but you can never take away what he’s done this season. And what he’s about to do: Beat his old team in the place where he grew up as a coach during the 1980s, and he will have gone where no coach has gone before.

“There are a lot of fond memories that I have from Giants Stadium and my 12 years with the Giants,” he said Wednesday. “That was a huge part of my career and that will always be with me. There were so many great games there and big wins and exciting moments. It was awesome. I loved those years with the Giants and I loved the success that we had and the players that I coached.”

It is still weird for Belichick when he gets off the Patriots’ bus and heads through the tunnel toward the visiting locker room.

“Turning right instead of left at that tunnel … I mean, I’ve gotten used to it over the years, but that locker room over there on the Giants’ side is one that I spent a lot of time in and coached a lot of games with that team. Everybody has moved on, and I have a job to do, but it’s a lot different walking into Giants Stadium than it is for any other stadium in the league for me.” He spent three years with the Jets as Bill Parcells’ defensive coordinator, but it was his run with the Giants from 1979-90 that elevated him to the elite level. As Bill Parcells’ unsung defensive coordinator, it was Belichick’s ingenious schemes that were at the heart of the Giants’ two Super Bowl championships after the 1986 and 1990 seasons. He grew to adore coaching in the cauldron of New York sports, and developed an affinity for the area that still exists.

Around here, you either win and survive, or else you don’t. It’s as simple as that. Belichick won, he understood what it was to succeed in New York, and that feeling never left him. Even now, when he walks through the tunnel and turns right instead of left, it will be with him.

And if and when his team creates another piece of history Saturday night, how fitting it would occur in the same stadium and against the same team he grew up with. And against a coach who was once one of his closest associates, no less. Giants head Coach Tom Coughlin was the team’s receivers coach from 1988-90.

“We worked together every day, even though we were on different sides of the ball,” said Belichick, who doubled as the Giants’ defensive backs coach. “I would talk to Tom about what was hard on our coverages, about what type of routes or a certain stem or technique or whatever. We had a good working relationship and I maintained a closeness with Tom, whether it was at Boston College (where Coughlin was head coach) or Jacksonville and now New York. He’s hard-nosed, very disciplined and I think that’s reflected in the way his team plays.”

And now it comes to this: A win over his highly respected former colleague, and Belichick goes from the ignominy of Spygate to a place where no coach has ever been. All while standing on the same sideline.

In a word: astonishing.

Not to Belichick, though. I asked him if he found the symbolism intriguing.

In a word: “No.”

Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service

AP-NY-12-26-07 2136EST

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