There are countless anecdotes and accomplishments that aid our appreciation of what the Patriots have accomplished during the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick era.
Here’s one: They never won fewer than nine games during a regular season, and they’ve won at least 12 nine times, including the past five years.
Another of less consequence: When this run unofficially began 13 Januarys ago with that rather eventful victory over the Raiders in the Foxboro Stadium snow globe, that Hall of Fame hypocrite Jerry Rice was still playing. Wonder how that Stickum worked for him in the snow.
I don’t believe the vast majority of Patriots fans require further context to appreciate this era. But thanks to that confluence of talent, preparation, instinct and intelligence that led to an exhilarating victory over the Seahawks a dozen days ago, contemplating the context of precisely what these Patriots have accomplished is easier — and more fun, naturally — than ever.
Now, I’m not suggesting that the fourth Super Bowl victory is not closure on anything. With the youngest roster ever to collectively hoist a Lombardi Trophy and a 37-year-old quarterback who isn’t just defying age but punching Father Time in the mouth, let’s just say the Duck Boats could be called into action for the next couple of Februarys.
What I am suggesting is that the fourth Super Bowl acts as a bookend for the time being to the first one, at least until another bookend replaces the last. To win four Super Bowls in a span of 14 seasons — with the same coach and quarterback, but a roster that in the salary-cap era has been built and rebuilt again and then again — and to genuinely compete in every season in the interim simply must be considered the greatest team achievement in the Super Bowl era.
And somewhere, deep down beneath their Stickum-encased exteriors, at the very core of their bitterness, the Jerry Rices and Marshall Faulks and Ray Lewises know this, too. It’s why their extraordinary collective success is accompanied by a nagging sense of unfulfillment, which they cannot hide in retirement.
For 14 years, the Patriots have been on the premier prolonged run in the history of the NFL. They have denied so many wonderful players the victories and gaudy rings they coveted. And they are not done doing so.
It’s amazing to consider the peaks and valleys of the Patriots’ AFC rivals through the seasons while they have remained at consistently lofty heights.
Some rivalries — the Colts and Ravens — have come and gone and come back again, with different featured players. To be reminded of names like Kordell Stewart and Edgerrin James now … well, it feels like they came from a different era. You know why? Because it was a different era — that is, for every other franchise other than the Patriots. Their era continues onward, deep into its second decade.
Others were never really rivalries at all. The Steelers of Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin never had to go through New England en route to their Super Bowls. The Chargers were a speed-bump, the Jets an occasional nuisance when they weren’t a butt-fumbling punch-line.
The Broncos’ window is slamming shut, with Peyton Manning, the second-best quarterback of his generation, seemingly intent on making more than twice as much money next season as Brady, his now-irrefutably superior peer.
Perhaps the greatest tribute that can be paid to the Patriots at the moment is that all these years into this run, it’s debatable whether they even have a rival in the conference at the moment. It will not be the Andrew Luck-helmed allegedly emerging version of the Colts, who will continue to suffer the vengeance of Belichick and Brady for starting the Deflategate nonsense.
I suppose it could be the resilient and tough Ravens, who nearly derailed this season’s playoff run before it could truly begin. But the Patriots’ roster is younger, deeper, and better, particularly if Darrelle Revis and Devin McCourty stick around.
Oh, and the coach and quarterback are still pretty good, too. A decade-and-a-half into this remarkable thing, they remain the exceptional constants. Meanwhile, all of the other would-be contestants rise and fade, caught up in the NFL’s calculated cycle of parity that never makes it to Foxboro. Such brilliance is a concept no one should require Stickum to grasp.