THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Dan Shaughnessy

It's not easy to knock your socks off

Email|Print| Text size + By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / February 1, 2008

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - Does a 19-0 season go down in the books as the greatest New England sports story of them all?

Is this Patriotic path to perfection potentially bigger than the story of the 2004 Red Sox throwing off 86 years of heartbreak and hard luck? Is it bigger than Winthrop's Mike Eruzione and some other local boys beating the Russians and winning the 1980 gold medal at Lake Placid? Is it bigger than the night in New Orleans when Adam Vinatieri kicked a field goal as time expired to give the Patriots their first Super Bowl win against the heavily favored Rams?

It's time to contemplate. Time to argue. We're only two days from potential perfection and for the first time all season, Patriot players are acknowledging the possibility of American sports immortality.

"I think it's the biggest game of all of our lives," Tom Brady said yesterday on the final day of player availability. "We're going to be remembering this game for as long as we live. Win or lose, we're either going to have great memories of this experience or we're looking at truly a missed opportunity. Not too many teams in the history of the NFL - none, in fact - have been 18-0 going into this game."

Not too many teams. None, in fact.

"I think what they are doing is the greatest story in sports," said Fox analyst Howie Long, a Charlestown native and Super Bowl winner.

Scientists and stat geeks need not bother with this topic. It's pure speculation. One's birth date has much to do with one's response to the question. A 20-year-old sophomore at Holy Cross can't possibly know that the 1967 Red Sox - who lost the World Series in seven games - were a far more important team than the 2007 world champion Sox who swept the Rockies. The 1975 Sox are eternally beloved in Boston. There's no one alive who can tell us what it was like when the 1912 Sox won the Series in the first year of Fenway Park, but it doesn't make the '12 baseball campaign any less remarkable.

Let's face it, New England always has been a baseball-first region. Same way Pittsburgh is a football town. The Pirates could win 10 consecutive World Series and never grip their city like the Steelers. Like it or not, your Patriots play in a region long populated by devout baseball fans. The Patriots were not even invented until 1960.

The Celtics enjoyed more success than any Boston sports team, winning eight straight NBA titles, 11 in 13 years, and 16 banners from 1957-86. But as a "big" story, the Bill Russell Celtics never got off the parquet. The NBA Finals weren't even televised in the pre-Larry Bird era and tickets to the Garden were easy to get - even for playoff games. Things changed in the Bird years. The 1983-84 Celtics beat the Lakers in a memorable seven-game championship and the 1985-86 Celtics were similar to today's Patriots (try 50-1 at home including playoffs), but I can't remember them holding a grip on the region like today's Patriots or Red Sox.

Old-schoolers remember the golden days of Bobby Orr and the Big Bad Bruins and certainly Orr's iconic flying-through-the-air game-winner (1970 Stanley Cup clincher) ranks with the top New England sports moments of the last two centuries. Doug Flutie's Hail Mary pass to Gerard Phelan falls into the same category, and Harvard-Yale 1968 (the 29-29 tie) is probably our best-remembered college football game.

But none of the above can compete with the Red Sox and the Super Bowl. And that's where this gets tricky.

"19-0 is unbelievable," said ESPN sports guru Chris Berman. "It doesn't come around very often. But I think in the New England region - after all those stories I heard about people visiting gravesites of loved ones after the Sox won - I think you have to go with the Red Sox' win. But that's just in the region."

Ask yourself. Ask your friends. Are you as juiced about 19-0 as you were in 2004 when the Sox came back and beat the Yankees after trailing, three games to none? Does this path to perfection match the excitement of Super Bowl XXXVI when the 14-point underdog Patriots shocked the world? Is it possible that this 19-0 season won't even go down as the most exciting of Patriot seasons? Is any championship ever as good as the first championship?

The Patriots could be established as the greatest team to play America's most popular sport. But for many of us, the Patriots' perfection still won't be the biggest local sports story of all time.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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