THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Jackie MacMullan

As promised, party was quite subdued

By Jackie MacMullan
Globe Columnist / October 11, 2004

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FOXBOROUGH -- History never felt quite this ho-hum.

For weeks, cautious Patriots players downplayed their run at the record book, insisting their systematic construction of a winning streak dating back to October of 2003 was of little or no consequence. We were chastised for forecasting the possibilities and discouraged from attaching significance to a milestone that would not produce a championship ring.

Dutifully, we recorded player after player insisting they would not celebrate even a little if they made NFL history.

Hey, guys. Now we believe you.

Here's the bottom line from yesterday's 24-10 dismissal of the Miami Dolphins: As expected, New England established an NFL record for consecutive victories, including postseason, with 19, yet no plaques were distributed, and no champagne was uncorked.

Truthfully? I wouldn't have wasted any of my expensive bubbly on this outing, either.

"It's weird," said tight end Christian Fauria. "I came into the locker room wondering, `Why are we so bummed out? We just won.' The problem is we have such high expectations for ourselves, and sometimes we just don't reach them."

The mark of any great team is to play poorly and win. The flip side of playing championship football is that you reach a point when nothing but a near-perfect performance will suffice. The Patriots have done this to themselves. They have set the bar ridiculously high, and all too often cleared it with ease. Thus, even a win over a division opponent for national recognition -- not to mention a 4-0 start -- can be anticlimactic, or even a little disappointing.

"That's because we understand that we are never going to play that perfect game," said safety Rodney Harrison. "Our goal is to play the perfect game. We win this one today, but I get called for a penalty that takes away a Willie McGinest sack. That's what's going to haunt me the next couple of days.

"It's never about what we did well with this team. It's always about what we screwed up."

The miscues were more plentiful than normal against a winless Dolphins team. Although Miami's offensive gaffes have been well documented, the Dolphins do have a respectable defense that kept their team in the game far longer than one would have thought.

The Dolphins certainly played a role in reducing New England's offensive output to pedestrian, as Patriots quarterback Tom Brady -- gasp! -- actually threw some errant passes, and -- horrors! -- dared to throw an interception across the middle early in the first half. His final numbers (7 of 19, 76 yards, 2 TDs) were hardly worth celebrating, but, per usual, were efficient enough to get the job done.

It should be noted that receivers Deion Branch, Bethel Johnson, and Troy Brown all were pregame scratches, leaving David Givens (4 receptions, 33 yards) as the primary target. With limited weapons (Corey Dillon was in and out with an injury), Brady had limited results.

Even so, when time finally expired, coach Bill Belichick revealed a hint of a smile, and offered a small, yet significant pump of a fist to acknowledge the obvious. He offered his congratulations to his players following the game for accomplishing something no other team had done.

Then he immediately launched into instructions to prepare for Seattle next week.

"[The streak] is great, but we're glad it's over," said cornerback Ty Law. "We're happy to own a piece of history, but we're not done. We look at this as an opportunity to get another division win. That's more important right now than 19 in a row."

You wonder how the veterans reacted to Belichick's ban on streak talk as the record approached. You wonder if they smiled and winked the way we all did in the days leading up to this event.

"If you've been around Bill long enough, you know the routine," Law said. "You know he's going to pump up [the opponent], whether he thinks they're good or not.

"It actually helps the younger guys to get ready. They walk out of here thinking, `Man, he's crazy,' and we tell them, `No, that's just Bill.' "

While the coaches and players were busy ignoring the possibility of 19 straight, and encouraging others around them to do the same, some creative, albeit cocky, mind in the organization decided to enjoy a little subliminal fun.

Go back and grab your ticket from yesterday's game. If you examine it closely, you will notice some small white lettering along the bottom. The words are so light, and spaced so discreetly, that you might never notice it on your own. But the message is there - 19 - in - a - row. Furthermore, the two players pictured on yesterday's ticket were Tyrone Poole and Eugene Wilson. Think about it. Poole's number is 38. Add 3 + 8, and you get 11. Wilson's number is 26. You've got it: 2 + 6 = 8. Any sharp second-grader will tell you that 11 + 8 = 19.

We may never know if Belichick was made aware of such a brazen act. Had the Patriots lost, the ticket would have been a collector's item for all the wrong reasons, in the tradition of Dewey defeats Truman.

The players did not appear to be aware of the ticket's secret code. Nor would they have cared. Fauria said as he came out of the shower late yesterday it dawned on him the streak he was most excited about was being 4-0 to start the season.

"I've never been on a team that's started 4-0," he said.

"You want to talk about streaks?" said Law. "Then talk about the Pittsburgh Steelers in the '70s. They won four Super Bowls in six years. They were the team of the decade. Or you can talk about the Cowboys, who won three Super Bowls in four years. They are the teams that have done something we're trying to do."

It has now been 378 days since the New England Patriots lost a football game. In that time, they've won a Super Bowl, upended the vaunted Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts (twice), and survived a mediocre performance against the Miami Dolphins.

"Our best game is still out there," said Fauria.

You can be sure the Patriots will start looking for it this morning.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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