THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Dan Shaughnessy

To them, nothing to speak of

Email|Print| Text size + By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / December 10, 2007

FOXBOROUGH - The streak is all anybody around here cares about, yet the local football team dares not speak its name.

Walking hand in hand with history, the 2007 New England Patriots improved to 13-0 with a 34-13 thrashing of the chest-thumping Pittsburgh Steelers at Gillette Stadium yesterday. The Patriots became the fifth team in NFL history to start a season 13-0. Only one made it to 14-0 - the 1972 Miami Dolphins, who finished 17-0 in Super Bowl VII.

The Patriots don't talk about it. They don't even mention the sensational start in the official press notes. It's downright Kremlin-esque. The Patriots' crack PR staff will tell you the team's record in games played at 34 degrees or less and it will tell you that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are the winningest coach-QB tandem since 1970 (fairly arcane factoids), but it will not mention the only thing anyone cares about anymore: the unbeaten season.

Champagne-toting Mercury Morris is going to be on television a lot in the next few weeks. The Patriots, who can find motivation in the most minimal slight, face the 3-10 New York Jets in Foxborough next week.

The Jets, of course, are the team that called out the Patriots as cheaters, which resulted in the loss of a first-round draft pick and considerable reputation.

The 0-13 Dolphins are next, and they should be the largest underdogs in history when they visit Gillette.

Finally, the Patriots will take on the playoff-bound Giants in the Meadowlands Dec. 29. There is a strong likelihood the Giants will have no incentive in that game other than to stay healthy for the playoffs.

In other words, the Patriots have effectively clinched a 16-0 record. Only an injury to you-know-who or an unexpected force of nature can deny them their place in NFL history.

But don't expect them to talk about it.

"It's hard not to pay attention to what's going on," said wide receiver Randy Moss, who spent most of yesterday embarrassing young fool Anthony Smith (remember Fred "The Hammer" Williamson?) and eating candy off the head of Ike Taylor. "But we won't look back and reflect 'til after the season. It's hard to look ahead because of the coach we have."

That would be Belichick, who wrapped himself in a Gore-Tex fluffer jacket yesterday (Costanza and Peterman would have been proud), then went to the postgame podium and flatlined, "That was a good win today for us."

His Hoodiness, of course, is an NFL historian on a par with the late Will McDonough. Belichick owns the most expansive football library this side of Canton, Ohio. When his childhood friends were playing tag and tug-of-war, Billy Belichick was studying the work of Amos Alonzo Stagg, Clark Shaughnessy, and Paul Brown. When his friends listened to George Harrison, Belichick hummed the play list of George Halas.

All of which makes it a tad ironic that Belichick today is the only coach in the football world who will provide no opinion on the Patriots' place in history. He knows it's too early, that it's folly to look past this week's opponent. If Belichick managed a baseball team with a record of 160-0, he would not take questions about a perfect season until victory No. 161.

"Right now all we're thinking about is one game, and that's the Jets," said the coach. "We'll do the same thing we've been doing for the last however many weeks it's been. Twelve. Thirteen. Whatever it is."

"We're not focusing on the media or what everyone is saying," said veteran safety Rodney Harrison.

Moss said he did not even know the identity of the upcoming opponent.

This, of course, is part of what separates the Patriots from all the teams they beat. The New England locker room is no country for young men who run their mouths. Talking about 16-0 when you are 13-0 would be like boasting about surpassing Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak when you have hit in 46 straight games.

We tried posing the question in another form. Once the Patriots know they have nothing left to play for other than posterity - once they have secured home field throughout the playoffs (a Colts loss last night would have settled everything) - would 16-0 mean something?

Brady pondered the prospect for about one-10th of a second and said, "Fourteen and oh would mean something to me. That's as far as I'll go."

The QB, like the rest of his teammates, does not need a timeout or an audible to make this call. He knows the Belichick playbook.

"We think about one game in a row," said linebacker Tedy Bruschi. "I remember a few years ago when we had everything wrapped up at the end and we were playing the 49ers and I told my coach, 'Don't take me out. I want to play.' That's how I feel this year."

"Around here, there's a higher goal than 16-0," noted offensive tackle Matt Light.

Obviously, the Super Bowl is the ultimate goal. If the Patriots lose a playoff game after going 16-0, they'd be mocked by their legion of haters (ESPN's Tom Jackson said his young daughter thought yesterday's matchup featured "the Cheaters against the Stealers"). The 2005 Colts started 13-0 but lost their first playoff game, to the Steelers. And we all laughed.

So the march to history moves forward.

Jets this week. Wonder if Belichick has any motivation for victory?

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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