- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 7, 2004

What the New England Patriots are doing is supposed to be impossible in the Free Agent Era. So many things conspire against a team reeling off 18 victories in a row: the incessant roster turnover, the corrupting influence of big contracts, all the close games. NFL, remember, stands for Not For Long.

But the Patriots have defied the odds. Somehow. And Sunday against the Dolphins they’ll try to set the all-time record, breaking the one shared by such legendary teams as the Monsters of the Midway, the Undefeated Dolphins, the Montana 49ers and the Elway Broncos. Who would have imagined?

All those clubs won 18 straight in much more impressive fashion than the Patriots. The Pats’ average margin of victory during their streak is a mere 8.9 points (average score: 24-15). The ‘97-98 Broncos won by an average of 15.2 points, the ‘89-90 49ers by 14.7, the ‘72-73 Dolphins by 13.3, and the two George Halas entries by 12.9 (‘33-34) and 24 (‘41-42).

And yet here the Patriots are, about to surpass the Bears of Bronko Nagurski and Red Grange and helmetless Bill Hewitt, about to outdo the 49ers of Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Ronnie Lott. Indeed, it would be a monumental upset if the 0-4 Dolphins derailed the Pats in Foxboro. The last time they visited New England they failed to score a point — and that was when they had Ricky Williams.

No, the Patriots are going to break this record — and possibly put it out of reach. After all, it’s taken 85 years for a team to win 19 consecutive games (assuming New England prevails Sunday). How many more will it be before a team wins 20 or 21? The Pats’ next three games are at home (Dolphins, Seahawks, Jets), then it’s off to Pittsburgh and St. Louis. Maybe The Streak will end in that stretch — or maybe it won’t. (I’m betting it reaches at least 22.)

It seems strange to be talking about these Patriots in historic terms, to be comparing them to the ‘41-42 Bears. Now there was a ballclub. All 18 of their victories were by 10 or more points, and their record streak came in the midst of an incredible 33-2-1 run. This was the first great modern team, the team that unleashed the T formation on the world. Sid Luckman, George McAfee, Bulldog Turner — the Bears had six Hall of Famers in all. (And they were so well put together that even when Halas went into the Army in the middle of the ‘42 season, they kept right on winning.)

Six Hall of Famers seems to be the magic number for clubs with 18-game win streaks. The ‘33-34 Bears also have six players in Canton, as do the ‘72-73 Dolphins (Bob Griese, Larry Csonka, Paul Warfield, Larry Little, Jim Langer, Nick Buoniconti). The ‘89-90 49ers only have two so far, Montana and Lott, but it’s early. Rice, Steve Young and Charles Haley seem certain to make it — and perhaps Randy Cross, too.

In the ‘90s, however, with addition of four more franchises and the onset of free agency, the talent on clubs began to get thinner. The ‘97-98 Broncos might wind up with only three or four Hall of Famers (Elway and … choose two from among the following: Terrell Davis, Shannon Sharpe, Steve Atwater). The Patriots, meanwhile, might have fewer than that. Of course, it’s a young team, which makes it harder to project; but after Tom Brady, does anybody really strike you as a lock? Ty Law? Rodney Harrison? Richard Seymour? Corey Dillon probably needs to rush for 5,000 more yards to have a chance — and at almost 30, that’s no sure thing.

Maybe that’s their secret. Maybe the Patriots have achieved what they’ve achieved because of their dearth of superstars. They remind you of the ‘80s Redskins, actually — a lot of good-to-very good players but only a few great ones, a highly motivated team with terrific chemistry. The Pats, like the Gibbskins, always seem to be picking one another other up. When the defense gives up 34 points against Indianapolis, the offense, no juggernaut, scores 38. When the offense manages only nine points against Cleveland, the defense allows three. They go on like this, week after week, and all of a sudden they’ve got an 18-game winning streak.

The record-tying victory at Buffalo over the weekend was classic Patriots. They got burned for a kickoff return touchdown, fumbled on the goal line and looked eminently beatable at times, but they scored a defensive touchdown in the late going and pulled away to a 31-17 win. And now Bill Belichick has them focused, as he always does, on the next opponent — and only the next opponent. Number 19.

By sundown Sunday, the Pats figure to have done something the Lombardi Packers never did (or Chuck Noll’s Steelers, for that matter). Nineteen straight victories would be a feat for the ages — and would answer all questions about the ‘03-04 Patriots. No matter how you analyzed it, they’d have to be considered one of the best teams not just of their time, but of all time.

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