HOUSTON -- It is now OK to place the New England Patriots in a historical sentence that few teams are able to utter. You can call them one of the greatest teams of all time, and you can say it without apologizing or blinking or giving a monologue on this era of free agency.
The Patriots are great. Swallow it straight, with no chaser.
A few things became obvious when the Patriots won Super Bowl XXXVIII last night, 32-29 over the Carolina Panthers:
Adam Vinatieri is one of the best clutch athletes New England sports fans have ever seen. We’re not just talking about clutch kickers or clutch football players. We’re talking athletes, regardless of the sport and regardless of the decade.
Vinatieri and his teammates can start their own drama club.
Tom Brady has played in two Super Bowls, has led two winning drives in the final 90 seconds, and has to make room for another MVP Cadillac in his Quincy, Mass., garage.
Bill Belichick is the top head coach in the NFL, Scott Pioli is the league’s leading personnel man, and Robert Kraft is the most exceptional of Paul Tagliabue’s 32 owners.
And, of course, there is this: A team that wins 15 consecutive games has to be considered one of the finest in the history of the league.
”It’s us and it’s the [undefeated] 1972 Dolphins,” Patriots vice chairman Jonathan Kraft said on the floor of Reliant Stadium. He was holding the Lombardi Trophy high above his head when he said it. The trophy had long lost its glitter because it was covered with fingerprints. They were the fingerprints of players, coaches, medical staff, video staff, families, and friends.
That has always been the beauty of this Patriots team. It was brilliantly built, built in such a way that one man cannot disrupt the system. It was built with corny words -- spirit and soul and integrity -- in mind as well.
”The message,” Belichick said, “is that you can do this the right way. You can win with players who are not looking to promote themselves and be selfish. You can win with people who care about the team first.”
A lot of coaches say that, but they say it with a trace of fantasy. Belichick and Pioli have seen it happen twice in the past three seasons.
”Here’s all you have to know about our team,” Belichick said. “We won all those games in a row, and not one person wants to take credit for it. Not one guy. Brady credits the offensive line. The coaches credit the players. Ty [Law] got three interceptions in the AFC Championship game, and he says the pressure from the defensive line made it possible.
”How cool is that?”
Probably as cool as Brady in the fourth quarter last night. The Patriots were leading, 21-16, and were one score from putting the Panthers in a difficult position. On third down at the Carolina 9, Brady threw a pass intended for Christian Fauria. It was intercepted. Carolina turned the turnover into a touchdown that put the Panthers ahead, 22-21.
Then Brady came back with a touchdown to Mike Vrabel -- Mike Vrabel! -- and watched Kevin Faulk complete the 2-point conversion. Carolina responded with a touchdown, and then Brady again put Vinatieri in position to make a winning kick.
”I don’t know if we’re the greatest or not,” Law said. “But I’ll tell you what we’ll do. We’ll compete against any team.”
No, they don’t scare you. They don’t have steel coming out of their chests as the Steelers of the 1970s did. They didn’t win all their games like the Dolphins of ‘72. Belichick doesn’t stalk the sideline like Vince Lombardi, shouting out instructions under the lid of a fedora.
But this team is resourceful. It can win games with defense and it can win by topping 30 points. It can win in nasty conditions, such as the divisional playoff over Tennessee and the AFC East clincher over Miami. It can win ugly games (9-3 over Cleveland, 17-6 over the New York Giants), and it can win games that just may be considered the most thrilling in league history.
The Patriots’ victory over the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI was like that. So was their win last night. They had plenty to talk about as they partied at the Intercontinental Hotel here. The face of the organization had a collective smile last night.
The Panthers? It must be said that the losing team was outstanding in this game. The people of the Carolinas should be proud of the tough team that represents them. If the Patriots are truly a dynasty, and it appears that they are, they will know that the Panthers will be a likely Super Bowl dance partner for the next five years.
New England, though, was just a little better and a little tougher. And that’s the way the Patriots played all season. They were fallible enough to make every team believe it had a chance. They were skilled and creative enough to handle every tough situation.
Even a source as unlikely as rapper Snoop Dogg found that out before the Patriots’ Saturday practice. Snoop, a guest of Willie McGinest’s, was taking pictures with several Patriots. When he saw Belichick, Snoop was surprised to hear the coach’s first words.
”Hey,” Belichick said. “Gin and juice, right?”
That’s a reference to one of the rapper’s songs. Who knew Belichick was familiar with it? Then again, who knew that all of New England would be presented with a team like this?