It’s almost inconceivable that the same franchise that endured the football equivalent of a nuclear winter during the days of Rod Rust and Dick MacPherson can claim the NFL’s historical high ground with a win in Super Bowl LI next Sunday. History is written by the victors, and the Patriots head to Houston to face the Atlanta Falcons with their pens poised.
Winners of four Super Bowls since the 2001 season, the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady Patriots are already recognized among the great houses in NFL history. But if they lift the Lombardi Trophy for a fifth time they’re the greatest dynasty in modern NFL history — the best combination of longevity, consistency, and championship jewelry, forged in the era with the highest degree of difficulty.
The D-word, dynasty, being thrown around in a sports setting is anathema to some. It is to be revered and reserved for teams whose excellence spans both decades and double digits, such as the New York Yankees, UCLA basketball, and the Red Auerbach/Bill Russell Celtics.
But given the fruit-fly-like life spans of football players’ careers and the ephemeral nature of eminence in modern professional sports with the greatness constraints of salary caps, free agency, and 30-plus-team leagues, a run that stretches back to 2001 in the most physically unforgiving and popular sport in America qualifies.
Patriots fans can recite the numbers like the Pledge of Allegiance. Deep breath and . . . the Patriots have 16 straight winning seasons, 14 straight seasons with double-digit victories, and seven straight with 12 or more wins. They’ve played in 11 conference championship games, including six consecutive. Brady and Belichick are the only quarterback and coach to reach seven Super Bowls. They can become the first ones to win five. The Patriots would be the first NFL team to win five Super Bowls with the same head coach and quarterback.
The Patriots have carved out their place in history in an era designed specifically to prevent prolonged winning. The NFL is a 32-team league that is not built for parity but rigged to mandate it. It has never been harder to make a football team great again and again.
Brady and Belichick are the Canton-bound constants, but what defines the Patriots’ dynasty is that while the players change, the winning doesn’t. The Patriots’ ability to turn over talented pieces of their core — from Lawyer Milloy, Ty Law, and Adam Vinatieri to Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins — and keep on winning is their trademark. It’s what separates them historically.
Unlike their 2016 schedule, the Patriots’ historical competition is full of formidable teams that can challenge their preeminence.
The team the Patriots are most often compared to is the one Brady rooted for growing up in San Mateo, Calif., the San Francisco 49ers. Bill Walsh and Joe Montana are the Pepsi to Belichick-Brady’s Coke.
The 49ers are the gold standard of sustained excellence in the modern NFL. Their run lasted from 1981-98 with two Hall of Fame quarterbacks, Montana and Steve Young, and three coaches.
San Francisco won double-digit games in 16 straight seasons from 1983-98. The streak is really longer. Montana and Walsh won their first Super Bowl in the 1981 season with a 13-3 mark. The 1982 season was interrupted by a strike, and the 49ers finished the truncated season 3-6.
However, only one of the 49ers’ championships came in the salary cap/free agency era, their 1994 win with Young. The NFL had a form of free agency called “Plan B” starting in 1989. It allowed teams to protect 37 players on then-47-man rosters and have the right to match any deal with those players.
The 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers are the paragon of post-merger dominance. They won four Super Bowls in six years from 1974-79 and played in six conference title games from 1972-79. But the curtain came down on the Steel Curtain too soon.
The Vince Lombardi Packers featured 11 Hall of Famers and won five championships from 1961-67, including the first two Super Bowls. The Packers won back-to-back titles in 1961 and ’62 and three straight championships from 1965-67. However, the Packers won during an era when the AFL was siphoning off talent and the NFL had half as many teams as now.
Like the Patriots, the Cleveland Browns benefited from a marriage of genius coach and clutch quarterback with Paul Brown and Otto Graham. From 1946-55, the Browns played in every championship game. They won seven championships, three in the NFL (1950, ’54, and ’55). The Browns were the class of the All-America Football Conference, founded in 1946. They won the league’s championship all four years of its existence, including a perfect 15-0 season in 1948.
(Late Browns owner Art Modell has the dubious distinction of firing both Brown and Belichick.)
While the Patriots possess a strong case for the top of the historical heap, no accounting of this Patriots epoch can be complete without addressing the perception that the Patriots are habitual envelope-pushers. Whether that’s envy or reality, it’s part of their legacy.
The fact they’ve twice been docked first-round picks by the NFL in cheating scandals serves as a historical demerit in the minds of detractors. Those folks point out that the two most pivotal figures in the Patriots’ success were at the center of the rule-breaking sagas of Spygate and Deflategate. No matter how much the Patriots put those cheating charges in proper context they can’t be expunged from the official record.
The other primary argument against the Patriots — that they’ve lost two Super Bowls — is specious. One of the losses (Super Bowl XLII) featured a catch that should be granted miracle status by the Vatican.
Please. It’s illogical to punish the Patriots for reaching the Super Bowl and to reward San Francisco and Pittsburgh for failing to do so more often.
When and how does failing to play for a championship ever make you a better team, historically or otherwise?
Five Super Bowl titles, seven Super Bowls, and the only 16-game perfect regular season in NFL history over 16 seasons, that’s a compelling case.
If the Patriots can win one more game they can claim to be the fairest football dynasty of them all.
Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.