Without a doubt, they're the best
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Could there possibly be any more doubts?
The best team in football has just concluded a grueling three-week exam period in which it faced three completely different challenges from three very good football teams. You can make a case -- in fact, I'm going to -- that this was the most difficult postseason task ever presented to a team attempting to win a Super Bowl.
The grades? A-plus, A-plus, and A-minus. The scores? 20-3, 41-27, and, finally, 24-21. Yup, for the third time in four years the Patriots have become the champions of the known football universe with a 3-point victory. But 3 or 30, it doesn't matter. The idea is to score more points than the other guys, and no team this century has found the weekly formula to do just that better than the New England Patriots.
Think about it: The New England Patriots are the unquestioned Team of the Century.
They are now in the enviable position of being able to judge championships. The first was, obviously, sweet. The second was vindicating and harrowing. But this one demanded a level of overall excellence that should make everyone involved feel incredibly proud. For what the Patriots have done in defeating these three particular teams in four weeks is nothing short of awe-inspiring.
"Indianapolis, we all know what kind of a team they are," said Bill Belichick. "Pittsburgh was the best team in the AFC all year. Philadelphia went wire-to-wire all year. I can't think of three tougher teams in my experience in the postseason."
This was a Patriots season unlike any other. After getting off to a 6-0 start, the entire season was threatened by the devastation of the secondary, forcing Belichick and his defensive staff to start improvising with players and schemes that made them the talk of both the NFL and the world of football in general. The brain trust had to make do with a converted wide receiver, a converted linebacker, and assorted people from the waiver wire. They kept winning and they made it look easy.
It was not.
The secondary nightmare continued right through last night, when starting free safety Eugene Wilson broke his arm while performing special teams duty late in the second quarter. This vaulted rookie Dexter Reid, a fourth-round pick from North Carolina, into the lineup. Were there scary moments? Oh, yes. Greg Lewis beat him for a touchdown pass in the fourth period, but the only thing that mattered was that he wasn't beaten more. He was good enough to get the job done, and on this team, Getting The Job Done is the only criterion for maintaining employment.
But it wasn't easy, and finding a way to compete with the personnel at hand may have been the toughest challenge of Belichick's coaching career.
"I can't say enough about these players," said Belichick. "These guys have worked so hard for the last six months. They just stepped up, kept working, kept fighting, and they did it again today."
This game was work. The Eagles came completely as advertised defensively, holding Tom Brady & Co. to one first down and no points in the first quarter. Brady looked curiously uncomfortable in the kind of Big Game that has made his reputation.
It didn't last, of course, because Tom Brady really is Mr. Cool, and it was only a matter of time before he and his mentor, Charlie Weis, found out what would and wouldn't work against an aggressive, speedy Philly defensive unit. With the typical Patriot lack of flamboyance, the offense calmly executed five excellent drives after falling behind, 7-0.
The first ended in frustration when Brady botched a handoff to Kevin Faulk and wound up fumbling the ball away after he had apparently recovered it. But three of the next four resulted in marches of 37, 69, and 66 yards for touchdowns and the following drive culminated in a 22-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri that provided the Patriots with the eventual margin of victory.
We are used to seeing Brady do whatever is necessary to win. He is now 9-0 in three playoff visits. But Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jim Johnson apparently needs to see just a little more before he becomes a true Brady admirer. "Brady is on his way to being one of the better quarterbacks," he noted.
Thanks, coach. We'll keep our eye on him.
All week long, people peppered Belichick with questions about whether a third Super Bowl championship in four years would constitute a dynasty, and all week long he responded to such queries with the verbal equivalent of a stiff-arm. Naturally, people wanted to know if he would care to comment on that possibility now.
"We don't look at it that way," he explained. "We didn't look at it that way two days ago and we don't look at it that way now. We started out like everyone else -- at the bottom of the mountain, and now we're at the top. When next season starts we'll start out at the bottom again."
Well, coach, how do these championships differ?
"If it's a scale of one to 10," he said, "they're all tens."
This season has to go down as an 11. The Patriots went 14-2 in the regular season, with the Pittsburgh loss loaded with asterisks and the second Miami game a complete giveaway. And leave it to Belichick to point out that "we also beat both of those teams, so we can say we took [on] and defeated all comers."
They also peaked at precisely the right time, playing brilliant all-around games against the Colts and Steelers and then probing and adjusting against the Eagles until getting the thing calibrated just so.
We can get started with the historical judgments in due time. Right now all that needs to be said is that the Patriots once again met every challenge and are -- how great does this sound? -- the Team of the Century.
Leave early for a good spot at the parade.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is email@example.com.