THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Bob Ryan

A lot went into first 15

Email|Print| Text size + By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / December 29, 2007

Fifteen one-game winning streaks down, one to go.

That's the way Coach Bill would put it, anyhow.

He knows, all right. He knows, and he knows that we know that he knows that we know, but if refusing to acknowledge in public what's at stake at Giants Stadium tonight enables him to work harder and better at his job, then we might as well go along with it. Humor him, you know? Anyway, it will be fun to hear what he says sometime around 11:45 tonight, when his team has put its 16th one-game winning streak of the 2007 NFL season in the books.

"Aw," he'll say, smiling broadly at his friends in the press corps, "you guys know I was just messin' with ya. You knew that I knew that you knew that I knew that you knew that I WANTED TO GO UNDEFEATED WITH EVERY FIBER AND CORPUSCLE IN MY BODY. I WANTED THIS MORE THAN I'VE WANTED ANYTHING IN MY LIFE!!!"

Well, no, that's not going to happen, either, but I think we can expect some acknowledgment, however brief, that he realized very early in this extraordinary season that something special was going on, and that there was quite a legitimate chance to make history that would set both his team and him, William Stephen Belichick, apart from all other teams and coaches in the history of the National Football League. OK, all but one, and who other than Don Shula and his guys is going to deny that 16 is two more than 14?

And, that done, he will remind one and all that 16-0 is nice, but it won't be worth a book of 1963 game plans if his team doesn't win three playoff games. In fact, from this moment until the final gun on Feb. 3, the 16-0 will be an extreme nuisance. The burden of being undefeated will become an official "distraction" as his team maneuvers through the postseason, and Coach Bill won't be able to do a thing about it.

You don't go into an NFL season with a goal of being undefeated. You just don't. You prepare to play well, and you go into every game assuming that your combination of preparation and execution will result in a victory, but you are always intellectually prepared to accept at least an occasional defeat. There is nothing in the experience of anyone currently playing in the National Football League to suggest that an undefeated season is truly possible. There are many players in the league who played with or against such outstanding teams as the 1998 Vikings (15-1, 3-point losers to Tampa Bay in Game No. 8), 1998 Broncos (13-0 before losing two straight), and 2005 Colts (also 13-0 before losing two straight). Randy Moss is one of them. Had you asked any of these players moments before the opening kickoff of their opening game if they thought any team in the league would be heading into its 16th game having compiled 15 consecutive one-game winning streaks, the unanimous answer would have been an emphatic no, perhaps preceded by a naughty word or two.

Going undefeated is not easy.

To go undefeated a team needs to be good and it needs to be lucky. And it needs to be lucky in two ways, starting with good health.

The Patriots have been good all year, no question. They started the season by abusing the Jets, a playoff team a year ago, 38-14. The result was quickly filed away as the primary topic of conversation became the transgression known as Spygate.

If Spygate was bad for Bill Belichick, who was fined $500,000 (approximately 12 percent of his estimated $4.2 million annual salary), and bad for the team (which was fined $250,000 and had its own 2008 first-round draft choice taken away), it turned out to be far worse for the opponents, at least if you subscribe to the widely held theory that an avenging Coach Bill was now going to show the rest of the league that, with the weapons he now had at his disposal, he didn't need no stinkin' video cams to kick their butts from here to Neptune.

A Patriot W became a given. Soon the issue was mercy, or the perceived absence thereof. As the scores mounted (38-14 a second time, 38-7, 34-13, 34-17 (late TD), 48-27 (late TD), 49-28, 52-7, etc.), the issue became running it up. Tom Brady, Moss, Wes Welker, and the rest of the receiving corps could not be stopped, except by their coach. Was Coach Bill guilty of a major breach in coaching etiquette? Posh and poppycock, he declared. We're just playing the game the way it was meant to be played.

Then, a real game. The Patriots came from 10 points in arrears (with 10 minutes to go) to beat Indianapolis on a classic, clutch catch-and-run by the invaluable Kevin Faulk.

Enter Phase II. Starting with a 31-28 victory over the gritty Eagles Nov. 25, the Second Season featured games in which the Patriots were called upon to do the basic things good and great teams must do to subdue inspired (and talented) opponents. Just for laughs, the Patriots even had to defeat Mother Nature in Week 15.

So they've been good. We know that. As for the first part of the luck factor, consider their basic good health. Yes, they started the season without Richard Seymour, and they have lost Sammy Morris and Rosevelt Colvin for the season (in addition to backup defensive lineman Mike Wright), and, yes, guard Stephen Neal has had ongoing shoulder issues, and, yes, they've been forced into Plans C, D, and beyond in the tight end department, but in the Big Scheme of NFL Things all this is nothing compared with what many others have been subjected to, most notably their archrivals, the Colts.

Now let's talk about L-U-C-K in its most basic sense. Let's talk about being down, 24-20, late in the game in Baltimore. It's fourth and 1 at the Ravens' 30 and Brady is stopped on a sneak, but someone had called time out before the snap, and that someone is Baltimore defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. Thank you, Coach Ryan. When play resumes, Heath Evans has lost a yard but, wait, there's a flag and, what? Russ Hochstein made a false start? No play? Oh, wow.

It's fourth and 6 now and Brady scrambles for a first down. Two plays later, his pass deflects off Welker and hangs in the air. A gaggle of Ravens are in the vicinity, but none of them can grab it before it falls to the ground. Whew! OK, so soon it's fourth and 5 at the Baltimore 13 and Brady's pass to Benjamin Watson is too high. What? Another flag? Yup, cornerback Jermaine Winborne was caught grabbing Watson's jersey. Lordy, Lordy, what can happen next? Well, Brady can hit Jabar Gaffney moving right to left at the left edge of the end zone. He's got both feet down before he goes out of bounds, but is he juggling the ball as he exits the playing field? The play, of course, was reviewed, but the officials ruled it a touchdown. Trust me, it was a verrrry close call, but it went the Patriots' way.

The mentor could not possibly look you in the eye and take credit for any of this. In one sequence, the Patriots exhausted all their allotted good fortune for the rest of the season. And playoffs. From that point on, they would have to be on their own.

To get this far, to have those 15 consecutive one-game winning streaks, the Patriots have had the total package. They've been good. They've been healthy. And they've been smiled upon by the Pigskin God. Here they are, 15-0.

Coach Bill knows what's at stake tonight. All his life he has studied football history. Tonight, he wants to make it.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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