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With free agency, the salary cap, and assistant coaches on the move, conditions in today's NFL make sustained success harder than ever -- and the Patriots' run among the best of all time

The Patriots, including nose tackle Vince Wilfork (second from door) and offensive lineman Ryan O'Callaghan (fourth), board a flight from T.F. Green Airport in Warwick, R.I., to Indianapolis and a possible date with history -- a fourth Super Bowl trip in six years. (MARK WILSON/GLOBE STAFF)

FOXBOROUGH -- It was just one exchange in another mundane interview session with Bill Belichick, but it was enough to awaken you from your slumber. The back-and-forth between reporter and coach had revolved around the Patriots' rookie kicker, Stephen Gostkowski, and the (presumed) lower level of confidence in him than had been present seasons before with Adam Vinatieri.

Does he coach differently at the end of a game (to get Gostkowski closer) than he did in previous seasons?

"No. I would say no," said Belichick. "Definitely not."

It continued with another couple of questions, different approaches to get to the same point, when finally the coach called time out.

"Look," said Belichick, "we are trying to make plays regardless who the kicker is. It could be Lou Groza. It could be Bert Rechichar. I don't care who it is."

Bert Rechichar?

The same Bert Rechichar who was traded along with Don Shula from Cleveland to Baltimore in 1953? The same Bert Rechichar who in his first game with the Colts made a 53-yard field goal that stood as the NFL record until Tom Dempsey converted from 63 17 years later? Indeed, that is the Bert Rechichar to whom Belichick was referring, and while nearly everyone in the room was soon running Google searches to discover just who this Bert Rechichar is, there was no mistaking the point the coach had made.

You want a crash course in NFL History 101? He's Britannica.

Unless, that is, you want to put his ongoing Patriots saga into historical perspective. Then he's Sgt. Schultz. He knows nothing.

"I'm not really worried about career rankings," said Belichick, a point he has made in a variety of ways to a variety of questions in a variety of settings. "I'm just trying to coach our team and get our team to play well [against the Colts]. That's where my focus is."

So if the Patriots beat the Colts tonight in Indianapolis and earn their fourth Super Bowl appearance in six years, you'll be wasting breath asking him to put it into historical perspective. And, no, don't bother with his players, either. They are molded in their coach's image: a sweatshirt crowd with a work ethic that may keep them out of the spotlight and out of the Pro Bowl but has them one game from the Super Bowl.

"The past is in the past," is Tedy Bruschi's response to questions about how great a run the team is on. "I won't talk about [historical significance] when it comes to my team. I'll maybe let some teams in the next decade talk about us, but I won't talk about that."

How about you, Richard Seymour?

"We just all, collectively, try to come together and just try to win football games," he said.

It is a signal to go elsewhere for historical perspective, and when you do, the voices are of admiration and utter amazement. While on one hand, Charlie Casserly will offer that the New York Giants of 1986-90 "would be a better team than this New England team," he immediately qualifies it with a viewpoint shared by many within NFL circles.

"In fairness," said Casserly, who worked in the Redskins' front office during a 10-year run in which they won three Super Bowls, "that New York Giants team didn't lose free agents like the teams do now, so if you write a story comparing today's teams to those from other eras, you're writing a story about apples and oranges."

Stories about fruit don't excite Casserly or his NFL brethren, Gil Brandt included. But Brandt, who served 30 years as vice president of player personnel for the Cowboys, takes those apples and oranges, slices them up, and serves a fruit salad for perspective.

"What this team has done," said Brandt, "is the most unbelievable accomplishment in the history of football."

Place in history
The word is thrown around far too loosely, and you won't hear NFL types even whisper it. Read up on the Mings during a 276-year period starting in 1368. Now that's a dynasty. Coming back to the world of sports, you have the New York Yankees' 44-year reign (1921-64) in which they won 29 pennants. The Montreal Canadiens? Fifteen Stanley Cups in a 24-year stretch (1955-79). As for your Boston Celtics, 11 NBA titles in a 13-year period (1956-69), and eight in a row, qualifies as a dynasty.

Whether four Super Bowls in six years is considered a dynasty is a debate for another day; talk of such an accomplishment, however, leaves NFL voices in awe.

"If they do that, boy, they'll be up there in rarified NFL air," said Ron Wolf, who was the architect of the Green Bay teams of the mid-1990s that played in three straight NFC title games and went 1-1 in the Super Bowl.

Said Ernie Accorsi, who has retired as head of football operations for the New York Giants, thus wrapping up a 37-year career in football: "In this day of modern football, to win that many championships, they absolutely belong up there [with the best teams ever]."

And which other teams belong "up there"? There are a number of entries from which to choose. For instance:

  • Dallas is the only team other than New England to win three Super Bowls in four years, pulling off the trick between 1992-95.

  • The San Francisco 49ers won five Super Bowls, over a 14-year span (1981-1994).

  • The Redskins won three Super Bowls between 1982-1991, but did not get back-to-back titles.

  • Miami played in three AFC Championships, but lost both Super Bowl appearances during a four-year run starting in 1982, and the Dolphins of 1971-73 won three straight AFC titles, the last two leading to Super Bowl triumphs.

  • There were three Super Bowl victories for the Raiders, but it required eight seasons (1976-83) and two cities as their home base.

  • Buffalo attracts muffled laughter and even some ridicule, but the Bills (1990-93) won four consecutive AFC Championship games (OK, so they fell short each time in the Super Bowl).

  • For old-school devotees, the Cleveland Browns of 1950-55 went 3-3 in six straight NFL Championship appearances.

    But ask for a consensus as to what teams the Patriots will be judged against and there are just two that stir emotions:

  • The 1960-67 Green Bay Packers of Vince Lombardi who won five NFL Championships, including the first two Super Bowls. "You can only judge teams by what they did in their era," said Casserly, and Accorsi seconded that sentiment. "They absolutely belong up there among the greatest," Accorsi said.

  • The famed Pittsburgh Steelers from 30 years ago, a unit so special they earned a nickname that still resonates. The Steel Curtain. They were so awesome, so superior that nine prized players -- Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, Mel Blount, Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Franco Harris, Mike Webster -- have been enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, along with coach Chuck Noll. They won Super Bowls in 1974-75, then again in 1978-79, and it is into that stratosphere -- four Super Bowl titles in six years -- that the Patriots are threatening to venture.

    Which begs a comparison of the teams, but this is where NFL voices toss out the red flag.

    "The eras were just too different. I would never want to be the one to say that this team is better than that team or that team is better than this," said Accorsi. "The 1976 [Steelers] team might have been, player-by-player, purely on talent, the best of them all. The 1962 Packers were also great, player by player."

    Different era
    In 1976, the Steelers overcame an injury to Bradshaw to finish 10-4, but it's what they did over the final nine weeks that leaves historians in awe. From 1-4, the Steelers won nine straight, five by shutouts, and in that stretch they allowed just 28 points. That computes to 3.1 points per game, yet with Bradshaw stymied, the Steelers lost the AFC Championship game to Oakland.

    Brandt, who was part of a Dallas regime that reached the NFC Championship game 10 times in 13 years (1970-82), was an eyewitness to the dynamic Steelers. But he insists what the Patriots have done since 2001 is more remarkable.

  • "When we played the Steelers in the [1978] Super Bowl, we had 43-man rosters. Pittsburgh didn't have one guy who had played for anyone other than Pittsburgh. The Cowboys had one guy who played somewhere other than Dallas -- and we got him from Pittsburgh," said Brandt. "You didn't have the turnover in personnel like you do now. Even your backup guys stuck around."

    You want further proof that you'd feel as if you'd be traveling back in a time tunnel if you compared the 2001-06 Patriots with the 1974-79 Steelers? Digest these numbers:

  • Noll had 12 starting players who took part in all four Super Bowls, including three on the offensive line and his five skill positions (Bradshaw at quarterback, Harris to run, Stallworth and Swann to catch, Rocky Bleier to run and block) and the heart and soul of his impenetrable Steel Curtain defense -- Greene at defensive tackle, L.C. Greenwood at defensive end, the incomparable Lambert and Ham at linebacker, Blount perhaps the best cornerback of his era. Belichick hasn't had such a luxury. Instead, he has just five players who would be starters in all four Super Bowls -- quarterback Tom Brady, left tackle Matt Light, linebackers Mike Vrabel and Bruschi, and Seymour, a defensive end.

  • Noll in his 23-year coaching career with the Steelers probably didn't have to make the roster moves Belichick has had to juggle in any of his seven seasons with the Patriots. If the Patriots win tonight and we project a 53-man roster for the Super Bowl, it likely will include 25 men who haven't played in any of the previous three Super Bowls. That would increase the count to 107, as in the number of players New England has activated for its four Super Bowls.

    In other words, the NFL in 2006-07 is not your father's NFL (never mind your grandfather's NFL of the 1950s and 1960s).

    "It's just that it's harder to win now," said Brandt.

    "The thing that's truly remarkable," said Casserly, "is that Belichick and the Patriots have done what they said couldn't be done in this age of parity."

    Which is win, reload and win again, then reload and win again -- confined by a salary cap, free agency, schedules that sometimes require more time to prepare, and the moving of assistant coaches, a piece of the puzzle that some find remarkable.

    "It's harder to coach today, what with all the new players, then your assistants leave and you're teaching the teachers," said Accorsi, who considers Belichick's losses perhaps more severe than others. Coordinators Romeo Crennel (defense) and Charlie Weis (offense) left, so did quarterbacks coach John Hufnagel and promising defensive mind Rob Ryan. After grooming Eric Mangini to become a defensive coordinator, he left, too. All found greater control and piles of cash; Belichick slipped into his gray sweatshirt and found replacements to integrate into his system, just as he did when heralded players were either cut or went off on their own, guys such as Adam Vinatieri, Damien Woody, David Givens, Deion Branch, Joe Andruzzi, Ty Law, Lawyer Milloy, and Willie McGinest. Injuries to key personnel such as Rosevelt Colvin, Rodney Harrison, Eugene Wilson, and Randall Gay? Belichick shrugged and never complained, never once moaned, "Oh, to be coaching back in the old days."

    "The competitive balance is tougher today," said Brandt, who loves to crunch numbers and came up with this gem last week: 18. It is the total victory margin, in points, of the four conference divisional games this season, the lowest since the NFL went to conference playoffs in 1970. "Games used to be much more one-sided."

    Brandt doesn't take lightly what his Cowboys accomplished all those years ago. It's just that he sees the variety of ways in which teams and coaches are handcuffed today and finds the Patriots' numbers astounding: 70-26, a winning percentage of .729 in the last six seasons, 12-1 in the playoffs, and the foundation poured for a possible fourth Super Bowl.

    How have they pulled it off? The NFL voices offer praise to all, but focus on two names: Belichick and Brady.

    "Belichick is one of the top coaches in NFL history and Brady is one of the top clutch quarterbacks in NFL history," said Casserly.

    No one is suggesting the Patriots of today could beat the Steelers of the mid-1970s or even the Packers of the 1960s, or some of those 49ers, Cowboys, or Redskins teams, for that matter. Only the video generation could produce such matchups. Instead, "this is about what you have accomplished as a team, not how you would match up player by player," said Accorsi. "I always say, if there was free agency in the mid-1970s, there's no way the Steelers would have stayed together like they did, which is what makes this New England story so incredible."

    It is also what makes the Patriots one of the best teams in NFL history, arguably sharing the loftiest penthouse views with the Packers of the 1960s and Steelers of the 1970s. Just don't ask Coach Belichick if he agrees.

    He has a selective appreciation of NFL history and it doesn't include today.

  • Audio AUDIO SLIDESHOW: Documenting the Dynasty