- The Washington Times - Monday, February 7, 2005

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The best football teams are chameleons, capable of being whatever the situation requires. That, certainly, has been the Patriots’ special quality these past four seasons. If they needed to score 37 points to win a track meet at Indianapolis, they did. If they needed to pitch a shutout to prevail in the snow against the Dolphins, they did that, too. If they needed to throw, needed to run, needed a turnover in the red zone — consider it done.

It’s the only way a club, in this age or any other, could reel off 21 straight victories and capture three championships in four years. It’s also why some folks have trouble ranking the Patriots with the Mount Rushmore teams of the past — the Lombardi Packers, the “Steel Curtain” Steelers, the Montana 49ers and the rest. Bill Belichick’s boys just don’t knock your socks off in any one area; their true greatness lies in their completeness — right down to Adam Vinatieri’s tippy-toe. It’s not their strengths so much as their utter lack of weaknesses that make them so indomitable.

Last night in the Super Bowl the Patriots found themselves in an unfamiliar place — behind. While they were still struggling to get their cleats under them, committing uncharacteristic penalties and even a turnover, the Eagles were marching 81 yards to take a 7-0 lead on a 6-yard touchdown pass from Donovan McNabb to L.J. Smith.

Many a Super Bowl entrant would have gotten a bit panicky in such circumstances, but the whatever-it-takes Patriots simply donned their “rally helmets” and soldiered on. Usually initiators, guys who like to land the first blow, they became, instead, counter-punchers — and scored 24 of the next 31 points to take control of the game. They also crossed up the Eagles by deviating from their standard 3-4 defense and throwing four defensive linemen and five linebackers at Donovan McNabb and Co.

“We thought this was going to be a passing game,” Belichick explained. “So we put our best pass rushers in there and went with our best pass defenses.”

So it is with chameleons. You think you’ve got ‘em — or might have ‘em — and then you realize you have no idea who They are. Or rather, you realize they are All Things — a total football team (the worst kind if you’re on the other side of the line of scrimmage).

The Eagles are a wonderful club, the best the NFC has seen in the Salary Cap Era. Reaching the conference title game four years in a row — and the Super Bowl this year — is a tremendous accomplishment. But they’re still Garfunkel to the Patriots’ Simon, Sonny to the Pats’ Cher. They gave New England their best shot, set the defending champs back on their heels early, and still came away 24-21 losers.

Maybe that’s the best argument for the Patriots, the one that cements their place in history. In the season’s biggest game, they spotted the second-best team in the last decade — we’re talking about sustained excellence here — seven points and stormed back to win. It might not have been the blowout some predicted, but it was the most clear-cut of their three Super Bowl victories. (Translation: It wasn’t, mercifully, decided by a last-second Vinatieri field goal again.)

Tom Brady was his typical near-flawless self last night, throwing for 236 yards and two touchdowns, but the Pats are so much more than him. Deion Branch, the game’s MVP, followed a monster performance against the Steelers in the AFC Championship game with an 11-catch, 133-yard torching of Philly’s fine secondary, and Rodney Harrison and Tedy Bruschi (three interceptions and a pair of sacks between them) came through with their usual heroics.

When the Pats lost yet another defensive back to injury near the end of the first half — this time free safety Eugene Wilson — they somehow made do with rookie Dexter Reid. This is why Jimmy Johnson was suggesting last week that Belichick might have done “the best coaching job in NFL history” in recent years. It’s not, after all, as if New England has the smoothest of sailing; its offensive line was dismembered last season, and its secondary took several hits this season.

But the Patriots kept coming up with heroes when they needed them, whether it was Randall Gay, another rookie, stepping in at cornerback for Ty Law, linebacker Mike Vrabel sneaking out to grab a touchdown pass or “Jugular” Josh Miller slamming the door on the Eagles by dropping a punt on the Philadelphia 4 in the closing seconds.

The Pats are a team — T-E-A-M — in every sense of the word. “In four years,” said Brady, “I’ve never had a receiver complain about not getting the ball, I’ve never had a running back who said he wasn’t getting enough carries.” Which is, of course, another aspect of their completeness — the spiritual aspect, the chemistry aspect.

In these watered-down times of free agency and 32 teams, even the best clubs are supposed to have a hole here and there. But the Patriots, it’s clear, have everything you could want — terrific players, brilliant coaches, exemplary ownership, enviable camaraderie.

And now they have the immortality that comes with winning three Super Bowls in four years.

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