A near-perfect team with a less-than-perfect image

Unbeaten Patriots chased by critics

Email|Print| Text size + By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / November 25, 2007

There is no such thing as a perfect game. That's what their redoubtable, hooded coach, Bill Belichick, tells them each week after they've dominated another opponent.

But the Patriots may be as close to flawless as any team in the history of professional football.

Already the National Football League's team of the decade as winners of three Super Bowls since 2001, New England has become a team for the ages. The Patriots, 10-0 entering tonight's game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Gillette Stadium, are threatening to become only the second team in NFL history to author an undefeated season, joining the 1972 Miami Dolphins, and the first since the league adopted a 16-game regular-season schedule in 1978.

The prospect of going undefeated is impressive enough, but it's how the Patriots have gone about it that has turned their pursuit of perfection into must-see TV.

In a league that prides itself on parity and close games, the Patriots, led by quarterback Tom Brady and rehabilitated wide receiver Randy Moss, have turned heads, bruised egos, and sparked debates about poor sportsmanship by posting an average margin of victory of 25.4 points per game and averaging 41.1 points per game, which would be an NFL record. They have jumped out to big leads and then kept scoring against demoralized opponents.

"To beat them you have to be perfect," said Buffalo Bills safety George Wilson last Sunday, after the Patriots pummeled his team, 56-10.

How rare are such decisive victories? The largest average margin of victory ever recorded by an NFL team - 26.5 points per game - belongs to the 1942 Chicago Bears, who went 11-0 during the regular season. Since the NFL introduced a cap on how much teams could spend on players and introduced free agency in 1993, at least 44 percent of the games each season have been decided by 7 points or fewer.

While New England's record is spotless, the team's reputation around the country is not. In September, the league found the Patriots guilty of illegally taping opposing teams' defensive signals. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell fined Belichick $500,000, fined the club $250,000, and stripped it of a first-round draft choice.

The rule-breaking is one reason the Patriots have not been embraced nationally and the football cognoscenti, while acknowledging their remarkable play, are holding off on crowning them the greatest team ever. Don Shula, the coach of the '72 Dolphins, suggested there should be an asterisk attached to an undefeated season by the Patriots, although he later equivocated.

Mike Ditka, who led the Chicago Bears to a 15-1 record in 1985, said he didn't think it was possible for a team to be as dominant as the Patriots in the salary-cap era.

"It's pretty amazing," said Ditka. "What they're accomplishing is very significant. People say it's the best of all-time. To say that would be presumptuous . . . but they're really good. In this era, they're the best of the last 10 years, the last 20 years."

Before they were historically great, the Patriots were already good. Last season, they were one minute away from their fourth Super Bowl appearance in six seasons, losing, 38-34, to the eventual Super Bowl champions, the Indianapolis Colts, in the AFC Championship game.

After the stunning defeat, Belichick, vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli, and owner Robert Kraft plugged the small cracks in New England's armor and in doing so acquired even more firepower. The team signed the best available free agent defensive player, linebacker Adalius Thomas, to a five-year, $35 million deal; picked up reliable wide receivers Wes Welker and Donte' Stallworth to boost what had been a pedestrian receiving corps; then topped it off with a draft-day deal for Moss, a singular performer who has bonded with Brady.

With 411 points and 54 touchdowns in 10 games, New England is on pace to shatter the NFL record for points (556) and touchdowns (70) in a season.

Brady has thrown at least three touchdown passes in every game this season and has 38 total for the season, putting him on track to break the record of Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, who threw 49 in 2004. Moss, Brady's favorite target, already has broken the franchise mark for touchdown receptions in a season with 16 and has a chance at the NFL mark of 22, set by 49ers wide receiver Jerry Rice in 1987.

"I've never been one that is big on statistics; you can do anything with a statistic you want to do, but they're setting records that are unheard of," said former Green Bay Packers general manager Ron Wolf, who spent 35 years in pro football.

However, as the wins and points have piled up for the Patriots, so has the resentment toward Belichick, a coaching genius with a dour public demeanor. The plucky little-team-that-could - the underdog persona the team acquired after winning its first Super Bowl in 2002 - has become a runaway train, rolling over the league. That has sparked allegations that Belichick, embittered and embarrassed by the signal-stealing flap, is humiliating opponents to prove his point.

Earlier this season, according to an report, Washington linebacker Randall Godfrey approached Belichick after the Patriots pounded his team, 52-7, and told the coach to "show some class."

"There shouldn't be [resentment]," said Bills general manager Marv Levy, who as a coach led Buffalo to four consecutive Super Bowl appearances. "My feeling about 'running it up' is it's up to us to stop them from scoring again."

Winners of 13 straight regular-season games dating back to last year, the Patriots would break their own NFL record for consecutive regular-season wins if they finished 16-0. They won 18 straight regular-season games between 2003 and '04 as part of a 21-game winning streak, including playoffs.

But Belichick won't even address that possibility, sticking to the one-game-at-a-time bromide, which is one of the cornerstones of the team's success. That focus could help secure the '07 Patriots a place in the pantheon of pro football, whether they're welcome or not.

"Greatness is in its time," said Ditka. "You don't really know who the best is. They're awfully good, and if they were to run the table, then you would have to say they rank up there with all the great ones of all time."

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