FOXBOROUGH - It's been the siren song playing in the background for the Patriots all season - 16-0.
Now, the undefeated chorus has grown so loud, reaching a crescendo with the Patriots needing only a victory over the New York Giants tomorrow night to pull off the first 16-0 regular season in NFL history, that even the one-game-at-a-time gang can't ignore it.
"I think it is obvious to all of us, if we win this game, what can we achieve, and it is something that has never been done before in the history of the NFL and we acknowledge that," linebacker Tedy Bruschi told the New York media Wednesday.
"But in the locker room we have to say to ourselves, 'Well, how did we get to this point in the first place?' And the formula has always been, 'OK, who is the next opponent? And let's focus on winning that game.' "
Don't expect external pressure to foil the Foxborough bubble now. The pressure to perform from within has prepared the Patriots for this moment. New England has stayed perfect by knowing it is far from it. Veteran players said coach Bill Belichick has pointed out as many flaws in his seemingly flawless team this season than any other year.
"I have been around Bill awhile, and if there was any year where he could possibly throw us a bone, or take care of us because of any type of success we had, it would be this year," said Bruschi, whose 12-year Patriots career predates Belichick's arrival in 2000. "But he has coached us harder this year than he has ever done in previous years. I think that is a testament to him for keeping his focus."
It's been Belichick's way of compensating for the creep of perfect-season talk into his team's psyche. Safety Rodney Harrison may hang up on callers who mention 16-0 to him, but the Patriots' pursuit of perfection has become a football fascination for the nation.
The Giants game is so important that the NFL Network broadcast is going to be simulcast across the nation by NBC and CBS, and the story has expanded beyond the boundaries of the sports pages. It's inevitable that some of the hype would have leaked into the New England locker room.
"Hopefully, we didn't [pick it up], but it's like you're going to hear about it," running back Kevin Faulk said yesterday. "You're going to hear people talk about it, but at the same time you got to believe in what you know is true and that's just about our team."
The truth about the Patriots is on film for all of the players to see after each game. The videotape never lies, and Belichick is the ultimate truth seeker, according to his players. Perfect team? Perfect season? Belichick has repeated there is no such thing as a perfect game.
"He comes in every week and lets us know pretty much straightforward the mistakes that we've made, the things that we've done as a team that we have to correct," said Faulk. "And it's legitimate stuff where you really have to be like, 'Wow, if we play like this next week, we're going to lose.' "
Former Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson, who won back-to-back Super Bowls with the Cowboys in the early 1990s, said Belichick's approach is, well . . . perfect.
"Well, what I have found out and the way it was in Dallas, the more success you have, the harder the head coach has to be," Johnson said yesterday. "It's human nature to be complacent and even the assistant coaches assume that the veteran player knows what to do, and they're not as hard on the veterans as they were previously. The head coach has to be the one that's demanding.
"If you're the head coach, that's what you have to do. You have to demand that they continually improve. That's your role. You never let up on them when they're in the building, and the more respect they have for you, the more they'll carry that out of the building."
Belichick has been balancing the plaudits heaped on his players all season, insulating them from 16-0 talk so that the rhetoric could become reality.
"That's why he's our leader," cornerback Ellis Hobbs said recently. "That's why he's our coach, because he shows us this is how you win. This is how you go into the next game. The whole just kind of distasteful looks he gives is just a sense of being focused, and that he's staying focused on the task at hand."
The focus permeates the Patriots' locker room and has fed their drive to become the first team to author an undefeated regular season in 35 years (the 1972 Miami Dolphins, who went 14-0 and won three more postseason games to become Super Bowl champions). The 1934 and 1942 Chicago Bears went undefeated during the regular season, 13-0 and 11-0, respectively, before losing in the NFL Championship game.
There's no doubt the Patriots want to go 16-0 - no team has done that since the league went to a 16-game schedule in 1978. They've come this far, but veteran linebacker Junior Seau said outside pressure pales to the peer pressure to perform to the standards of the team.
"There is an accountability for every player to do what they need to do to help this team win. It's as simple as that," Seau said yesterday. "It overrides anything else. What you have is you have to be accountable to this culture and the culture is what it is, and that's team first."
It could also be the culture of the first team to go 16-0. Just don't call it a perfect regular season.
"I really feel you can have a perfect record. I don't know if anybody's perfect," said quarterback Tom Brady. "I haven't experienced that. We all make mistakes, and we all try to learn from them and try to work hard to achieve [our] goals."
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.