FOXBOROUGH -- Their relentless quest for perfection is almost complete. The undefeated New England Patriots need just one more victory to establish themselves as the 1927 Yankees of football: Greatest team ever.
The journey started one year ago Monday when the Patriots were humbled by the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship game. The Patriots returned to the conference title game Sunday and beat the San Diego Chargers, 21-12, at frosty Gillette Stadium to advance to Super Bowl XLII.
The Patriots belong to the world now. There'll be no more games this season in the icy Foxboro football palace where the end zones are paved with gold. Already owning the best record in league history (18-0), walking where no NFL cleats have trod, the 2007-08 Patriots will play the New York Giants in the uber game in Glendale, Ariz., one week from next Sunday.
Only one team in pro football history ever finished undefeated and the Patriots have already won more games than the 1972-73 Miami Dolphins (17-0).
''I'm happy we could win this at home, with all of you,'' Patriots owner Bob Kraft told the sellout crowd as he hoisted the Lamar Hunt Trophy after the final whistle sounded early last night. ''We did what has never been done before.''
Ever-stoic Patriot coach Bill Belichick told the fans, ''All the credit goes to the players. The players played great all year and they did today. I'm really lucky to coach this team. Now we can look ahead.''
Looking ahead is what the Patriots studiously avoided since early September. As they piled win upon win, they were asked about their place in history and always they stopped the music and recited the mantra: ''We're just thinking about the next game.''
Finally, the next game is the big game, the game that can seal their place in history.
Veteran linebacker Tedy Bruschi who has been around since Bill Parcells took the Patriots to Super Bowl XXI against the Packers after the 1996-97 season, acknowledged,
''If there was a time I felt any pressure this year it was before the final game against the Giants. We realized [a 16-0 regular season record] was possible to be achieved. There was history on the line all year.''
History walks hand-in-hand with these Patriots. They have won three Super Bowls since 2001-02, but no NFL team has finished 19-0.
Since closing the regular season with a 38-35 win over the Giants at the Meadowlands, the Patriots have faced the prospect of an ignominious ending. Losing any playoff game, particularly one before the Super Bowl, would have made them targets of ridicule. The September Spygate episode and a succession of games in which they ran up the score made the Patriots the target of jealous fans around the nation.
Playing at home against the Eagles after Thanksgiving, the Patriots demonstrated new vulnerability and have been repeatedly tested in close games since beating Philadelphia, 31-28. Sunday was no exception. The wounded Chargers intercepted Tom Brady three times and trailed by only 2 points (14-12) after three quarters. It was a pretty good showing for a team playing without the NFL's leading rusher (LaDainian Tomlinson carried the ball twice in the first quarter, then went to the sideline for the rest of the day because of a knee injury).
Last weekend the Chargers advanced to the AFC title game with a gutty upset of the defending Super Bowl Champion Colts in Indianapolis. But the victory came at an enormous price. Tomlinson and quarterback Philip Rivers were wounded at the RCA Dome and all-world tight end Antonio Gates aggravated a toe injury. Gates was able to make only two catches Sunday and Rivers hobbled through the full four quarters, looking like the Knicks' Willis Reed limping at Madison Square Garden in the 1970 NBA Finals.
All of the above hindered the visitors at Gillette, but it was New England's ageless defense that kept the Chargers out of the end zone. Three times San Diego advanced inside New England's 10-yard line and failed to come away with a touchdown. It was the difference.
Brady, meanwhile, completed 22 of 33 passes, including two touchdown strikes, but was bothered by the three interceptions. New England's offense was repeatedly rescued by Laurence Maroney (122 yards on 25 carries) and Kevin Faulk (eight catches, 82 yards).
The Patriots led, 14-9, at halftime but the Chargers looked ready to take a third quarter lead when they moved the ball to the New England 4-yard line. That's when 39-year-old Junior Seau stuffed Michael Turner for a 2-yard loss on third down, forcing yet another Nate Kaeding field goal.
New England made it a two-score game with an eight-play, 67-yard drive to take a 21-12 lead early in the fourth quarter. The Chargers took over, moved the ball to the Patriot 36-yard line, then inexplicably punted on fourth and 10 with 9:21 left. A bold move, it was not. In the fine tradition of former coach Marty Schottenheimer, Norv Turner had clinched defeat for San Diego. The Chargers never got the ball again.
''Every time I've played in the Super Bowl, I've cherished that,'' said Brady. ''It never gets old. Standing up there and accepting the Lamar Hunt Trophy for the fourth time is pretty outstanding.''
The next trophy is the Lombardi Trophy. That's the one you get when you win the Super Bowl.
Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at email@example.com.