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Christopher L. Gasper

The Patriots’ main rival in 2017 is their own glorious past

After a record comeback in Super Bowl LI, what’s left for Tom Brady? A sixth Super Bowl title, of course.
After a record comeback in Super Bowl LI, what’s left for Tom Brady? A sixth Super Bowl title, of course. File/Jim Davis/Globe Staff

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The Patriots are chasing history while everyone else in the NFL is chasing them. That’s the subtext of the 2017 NFL season.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick always says that every team and every season are different. He’s right, but the backdrop for this Patriots season has been forged by the Patriots teams that have come before them from 2001 to 2016, by the remarkable, metronomic success of the organization wedded to football’s ultimate power couple, Belichick and Tom Brady.

Here’s a question as the Patriots prepare to kick off their season on Sept. 7 and pursuit of a sixth Super Bowl title since 2001: Who is the Patriots’ biggest rival right now? You have to think long and hard about it. There was a time when the answer was easy. It was the Indianapolis Colts in the aughts. Then, Peyton Manning transferred his personal rivalry with Belichick and Brady from Indy to Denver in 2012, beating the Patriots in two AFC title games in the 2013 and 2015 seasons. But Manning is a retiree now.

The Baltimore Ravens have given the Patriots a run for their money and a pair of painful home playoff losses to end the 2009 and 2012 seasons, but Baltimore has missed the playoffs three of the last four years. The Pittsburgh Steelers never beat the Patriots when it really counts and haven’t beaten Belichick and Brady in the playoffs. The closest team the Patriots have to a rival might be Pumped and Jacked Pete Carroll’s Seattle Seahawks, who don’t get pushed around by the Patriots and can push them to their limits. But the teams are infrequent opponents, thanks to the NFL’s scheduling formula.

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The truth is the Patriots are unrivaled. Their genuine rivals are historical teams, not contemporary ones, at this point. The Patriots are competing with ghosts of past greatness, with the Green Bay Packers of the 1960s, the Steelers of the 1970s, and the Bill Walsh-built San Francisco 49ers of the 1980s and 1990s for the historical high ground among NFL dynasties.

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The 2017 Patriots will be measured not against their competitors, but against their Patriot Place predecessors, against The Standard. New England is seeking to become the first team to repeat as Super Bowl champions and win three titles in four seasons since . . . the New England Patriots of Brady and Belichick won back-to-back Lombardi Trophies in 2003 and ’04.

The names and the seasons change, but the winning stays the same in Fort Foxborough. Belichick and Brady are the essential elements for life at the top of the NFL ecosystem.

“They’re the best team in the league,” said Houston Texans head coach and former Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien in the NFL’s 2017 Kickoff Information Guide. “They’ve been there for a while. We’re all chasing them. I’ve said that before. They set the tone right now. We all know who we need to beat.”

Brady is the only quarterback to win five Super Bowls and Belichick is the only coach to win five Super Bowls. They planted that flag against the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI in February. How do you top the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history? Get the Super Bowl ring six-pack for posterity.

The 2017 Patriots begin their season with enormous expectations. The idea of 19-0 seems far-fetched now that trusted wide receiver Julian Edelman is out for the season with a torn ACL and pass rusher Kony Ealy flunked out of Belichick U in the preseason. Their draft class looks like a washout with the top two picks, defensive end Derek Rivers (out for the season with a torn ACL) and offensive tackle Tony Garcia (reserve/non-football injury list), hurt. There is pressure on marquee offseason acquisitions cornerback Stephon Gilmore and wide receiver Brandin Cooks to look the part of Patriots immediately without a gridiron grace period.

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But you really have to talk yourself into the Patriots not advancing to a seventh straight conference title game, extending their own NFL record. The division looks like a fait accompli, given the fact that both the New York Jets and the Buffalo Bills appear to be punting on 2017. With Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill out for the year, Jimmy Garoppolo is the second-best quarterback in the AFC East.

The Patriots are at the point now where every season, every victory enhances their legacy and the footprint of their dynasty in football history. Even a generic 12-4 season with a division title — those are words 31 other NFL fan bases would love to utter — sets NFL records.

New England has recorded a winning record in 16 consecutive seasons (2001-16) and can surpass San Francisco (1983-98) and Dallas (1970-85) for the most consecutive seasons with a .500 or better record since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.

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The Patriots have won eight consecutive division titles, an NFL record, and are the only team to win 13 division titles in a 14-year span in NFL history. With a playoff berth, New England would tie Dallas (1975-83) and the Manning Colts (2002-10) for the most consecutive playoff appearances (nine) in NFL history.

The Patriots have won 10 or more games in 14 consecutive seasons, two off the 49ers’ record run. Their five seasons of 14 or more wins (2003, 2004, 2007, 2010, and 2016) are already the most in NFL history.

Brady is 40 years old now. No. 12 is an NFL institution, the greatest quarterback of all time, and the winningest QB in NFL history with 208 victories. Brady can extend his NFL records for most Super Bowls (seven) and conference championship games played in (11).

Belichick can’t avoid history either by simply doing his job this season. He needs eight victories to surpass Tom Landry (270 career wins, including the postseason) for third on the all-time coaching list. His Hoodiness owns the NFL coaching record for postseason victories with 26. He will set the record for postseason games coached when the Patriots make the playoffs, breaking a tie with Don Shula and Landry (36).

If the Patriots win a sixth Super Bowl, Belichick would join George Halas and Curly Lambeau as the only NFL coaches to win six league championships.

The Patriots have outlasted their rivals during a run of success that is unrivaled in the salary cap era. The young Oakland Raiders or the upgraded Steelers might emerge this year to knock them off their perch of preeminence and spark a new rivalry. The NFL would welcome that.

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But as the 2017 season commences, the Patriots only real rival is the past.


Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.