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Winner's circle

By any comparison, Patriots' season ranks among the game's best

Drop that record book, and walk away now, quietly. Leave those memories, and all those teams and all those games, to rest in NFL annals. The Patriots, participants in Super Bowl XXXVIII a week from Sunday, are riding a 14-game winning streak that just last Sunday had New England quarterback Tom Brady shaking his head in near-disbelief, saying, "Fourteen wins . . . I mean, who does that? . . . Nobody does that."

Well, the Miami Dolphins did all of that, and more, with their unblemished 17-0 run in 1972, a storybook romp that included their win over Washington in Super Bowl VII. Is it fair to compare? Ex-Patriot Nick Buoniconti, the star linebacker of the Dolphin dynasty in the early 1970s, doesn't think anyone should go there.

"Why would you want to do that?" said the 63-year-old Buoniconti, reached yesterday in Florida. "Really, I don't know why anyone would compare the Patriots, or their streak, to what we did in Miami, or to what the Bears did [15-1 in 1985], or any of that. They're their own team, and what they're doing is just great."

By and large, that was the consensus opinion the last couple of days among some of the game's great former players, including the likes of Joe Theismann, Howie Long, Phil Simms, and coaches such as Bill Walsh and Marv Levy. The game has changed so significantly in recent years, most of them said, that it makes it nearly impossible, if not unfair, to compare.

"I'm not really big on comparing eras, simply because of the evolution of athletes over time," said ex-New Englander Long, the Hall of Fame defensive end with the Raiders who is now a Fox analyst for NFL broadcasts. "How do you compare that Miami Dolphin team to this New England team? Today's athletes are bigger, faster, stronger . . . you didn't have a Julius Peppers, a 6-foot-6, 285-pound defensive end running 4.65's back then. You didn't have a [6-5, 365] Ted Washington. It's just such a bigger, faster league now than it was even in 1984."

But with the agility and speed that he once used to corral running backs and punish quarterbacks, Buoniconti quickly transitioned to one obvious and striking similarity between his Dolphins and New England's Patriots. Like those Dolphins of old, he said, the Patriots consistently displayed a knack for pulling out victories late in games, either by reversal of fortune or clinging to leads.

"That 17-0 year, we did that a lot," recalled Buoniconti. "I remember games like that we had against Buffalo and the Jets, just like it was yesterday."

For comparisons, said Buoniconti, the Patriots have their regular-season game at Indianapolis, where he vividly recalls Willie McGinest stopping Edgerrin James at the 1-yard line, preserving New England's win. They have a key Brady pass here, a dead-on-the-money Adam Vinatieri kick there, artful pickoffs by Ty Law and Rodney Harrison in the secondary.

"It seems like whatever the situation, someone stepped up and made a great play, really did the job when it was needed," said Buoniconti. "I'd say the two clubs are nearly identical that way. But comparisons, honestly, that's been a problem here with the Dolphins through the years, because the standard for every Dolphin team, no matter what, has been what we did in those years, '72, '73, and '74. Even if they've started off pretty good here, they're always compared to us, and too often it's proven to be unnecessary pressure for them."

Different approaches Theismann, who quarterbacked some outstanding Redskins teams from 1974-85, believes the wins provide common links between eras. But, the ESPN analyst noted that New England's methods of achieving those victories are vastly different from some of the powerhouse franchises of the past, such as Miami, Chicago, Washington, Dallas, San Francisco, and Pittsburgh, just to recall a few. They're also playing in a time when the balance of power is spread more evenly through the league, a distinct difference from past eras when, say, upward of five clubs constituted a small pyramid of power.

"It's being done, but in a different way . . . and I think it's important to put that in perspective," said Theismann, who tossed a pair of TD passes when his Redskins defeated the Dolphins in Super Bowl XVII. "Yes, they've found ways to win very close games -- just look at their wins this year against Denver and Indianapolis. And the common denominator has been different people, different weeks, making plays. What they've done is put together a team, a season, of lots of stars, rather that one or two stars. And, boy, they're as complete a unit as there is in today's NFL."

Levy's Buffalo Bills never won the Super Bowl, but over four consecutive seasons at the start of the 1990s they averaged 14.5 wins, leading to four successive Super Bowls. Now retired, Levy splits his time between homes in Chicago and Williamsburg, Va., but he has been impressed by the "magnificent" season New England has put together under coach Bill Belichick.

"What I've seen is a tremendously focused team," said Levy. "It's very obvious that they're not doing it with stars, although maybe Tom Brady doesn't get enough credit for the season he's had, and his leadership he's brought out there. If I had to compare, I'd say maybe they're most like the Bears of the mid-'80s. They had great team defense, not talent galore, but they would blitz you on every down. The Patriots are as effective on defense, but they do it more with zone coverage and combinations -- not what I would call schemes, per se, but execution of fundamentals."

In all of that, said Levy, he sees the fine hand of Belichick, drilling and coaching a club down to the most minute detail.

"You can see it just the way they go after tipped balls," said Levy. "That's not luck, believe me, that's taught in drills. He has his people alert to it. You can get very exotic with X's and O's, but they don't mean anything if you don't have the players out there aware, and executing. Wasn't it another New Englander -- Ralph Waldo Emerson -- who said that a brilliant idea is a job half done? I think that was Emerson. Well, they've got the game plan, and they're taking care of the other half."

Asked if he were in awe of New England's 14 consecutive wins, Levy said, "Absolutely! Especially in today's NFL, that's a remarkable achievement."

Dynasty in making? Among the greatest changes, when comparing NFL eras, is not just the size and strength of the athletes, but the evolution of the rulebook and the financial structure that governs the league. Amendments to the rulebook have made for a somewhat safer and far more wide-open game, secondaries no longer allowed to hogtie and blast receivers with menacing abandon, quarterbacks made less vulnerable to career-ending body slams. The advent of salary caps, hand in hand with free agency, certainly have made for a near-perfect profit model, but they've also made it extremely difficult for clubs to maintain their core talent and remain perennial contenders.

Just in recent years, mention of dynasties-to-be in places such as St. Louis and Tampa Bay has melted away faster than the ice sculptures at their respective Super Bowl victory celebrations.

"But I'd say this New England team is on the verge of being considered a dynasty," said Walsh, who coached his San Francisco 49ers to Super Bowl victories in January 1982 and '85. "If they can win this next one -- and I think they will --and they win one more in the next couple of years, I think they'll have their place in history. That's all the more impressive, because I think all of us felt, the way the game is today, there's no more room for dynasties. It's a great run for New England -- one of the greatest of all time."

Former Patriot linebacker Steve Nelson rates the 14 consecutive wins, "the most remarkable of anyone, outside of the Dolphins." Like Levy, he is impressed with his former club's focus. Unlike Walsh, though, he's somewhat hesitant to inch them toward "dynasty" status.

"I don't think you can do that yet," said Nelson, head coach of Curry College, enlisted regularly on radio and TV for his NFL/Patriots analysis. "But I think you can put them down as the most successful franchise today. They've become the model of how to do things."

With Belichick's guiding hand influencing virtually every personnel decision, the Patriots are headed back to the Super Bowl for a second time in three years. In the 2001 season, they made the monumental, controversial shift at quarterback from Drew Bledsoe to Brady. They continued to draft well. They augmented the roster wisely with free agents, most notably this year with the addition of safety Harrison. They made wise trades. Witness: the Washington monument.

"When they go shopping, it's at Wal-Mart and Kmart, for the Blue Light specials," said an admiring Theismann, effusive in his praise of Belichick, his assistant coaches, and the work of Scott Pioli, the club's vice president of player personnel. "They just have a knack for bringing in the right guys at the right prices. And now, with two No. 1's [draft picks] and two No. 2's this year, imagine what they'll do when they're shopping at Gucci's and Nordstrom's. I can tell you, they aren't going away."

Theismann, who has predicted for weeks the Patriots will win the Super Bowl, figures the blend of coaching, player acquisition, and on-field motivation and execution should keep New England among the league leaders for years.

Dynasty?

"That's so tough to find in today's game," he said. "Think about this 14-game winning streak. I mean, how many times could there have been just one play, one run, one pass, that changed everything? There is just a slim margin for error in this game. Think about that [playoff] game with Tennessee. If [Titans receiver] Drew Bennett catches that ball, then it's a whole different outcome, and we're not talking about 14 wins right now. One play!

"But, you know what? As thin as that margin is, I wouldn't bet against New England being that next team of destiny, or the next dynasty in the NFL."

CBS analyst Simms, who'll be working alongside Greg Gumbel next weekend in Houston, remembers his days as a Giants quarterback when the somewhat-quirky Belichick was as assistant coach.

"I can't explain how hard he worked," recalled Simms. "He was legendary. I mean, he'd pull out his exercise machine in front of the projector, and he'd be there exercising as he watched films. We kind of made fun of him. But that's Bill Belichick. He wants to be a good football coach, he's a plodder, doesn't change much, and he's built a tremendous organization in New England.

"He just plods along. He's so not cool, he's hip."

To win 14 in a row, said Simms, takes some breaks. But, he added, it also says a lot about what the Patriots have done and who they are. Don't discount the mounting pressure that comes with each win, he said, again crediting Belichick for helping them to persevere. Just as their coach is a plodder, by Simms's eye, the Patriots have become the ultimate grinders, never giving up or backing off.

"It's like they just wear other teams out," he said. "It's like their opponents eventually just say, `Hey, OK, here, you can take it.' "

All things considered in today's game, said Simms, just making it to the final game twice in three years is a tremendous accomplishment.

"Now, if they win, is that a dynasty?" said Simms. "Well, if they do, that will be the story of training camp, that's for sure. And by the time training camp is over, they all will have heard that question about 5,000 times and they'll be sick of it. Are they? I don't know. But it's a nice story, and a good debate."

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