- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 3, 2008

PHOENIX — They were the first team to make it through a 16-game regular season undefeated. They scored a record 589 points. And a final victory in Super Bowl XLII today would make them the second franchise to win four Super Bowls in a seven-year span.

So will the New England Patriots be the NFL’s greatest team if they beat the underdog New York Giants to cap a 19-0 season today?

The case can certainly be made.

“There’s a category called good, there’s a category called great and there’s a slim category called ever,” Patriots linebacker Junior Seau said. “We have a chance.”

The Chicago Bears of the 1940s and the Green Bay Packers of the 1960s won four and five titles, respectively, when seasons were shorter, postseasons lasted a game or two and players stayed put as long as the coach wanted to keep them.

The Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s won four Super Bowls in six years, but their Hall of Fame-laden roster remained stable. And the San Francisco 49ers of the 1980s, who endured more of a shakeup during their run, needed nine years to win their four Super Bowls.

And even the 1985 Bears lost once. But these Patriots can be perfect during an era in which free agency and the salary cap can produce major obstacles to sustained success.

“You can’t argue with 19-0,” former 49ers receiver Jerry Rice said.

Larry Little can. The Hall of Fame guard still advocates for his 1972 Miami Dolphins, for at least one more day the only perfect team of the Super Bowl era.

“Every time a team goes undefeated [deep into a season], you guys bring us back from the dead,” Little said. “If [the Patriots] should win the game, they’ll be one of the best teams in history. But I don’t think they’ll be better than us. If we had to play 19 games instead of 17, we would’ve won all 19.”

Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Bruce Allen, whose father, George, coached the Washington Redskins who lost Super Bowl VII to those Dolphins, said the Patriots would merely match that team.

“Undefeated is undefeated,” Allen said.

New England won its three previous Super Bowls by three points apiece. Despite quarterback Tom Brady’s excellence, the Patriots were the NFL’s best team from 2001 to 2006 as much from tenacity as talent.

“Tough is not a good enough word for them,” said Phil Simms, who led the Giants to a victory in Super Bowl XXI “They’re hardened veterans and they’re willing to fight longer than everybody else. The Patriots never relent. They have a huge group of those players and that’s why they’ve had so much success over the years.”

But the 2007 Patriots, led by Brady and receiver Randy Moss, both record-setters, are seemingly on a different level.

“It’s like going against the [2004 Indianapolis] Colts with so many different weapons — just so much talent … unstoppable,” veteran Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said of his team’s offense.

Unlike those 1972 Dolphins, who didn’t beat a team with better than an 8-6 record until the playoffs, the Patriots defeated six playoff teams plus the 10-win non-qualifier Cleveland Browns during the season.

So although linebacker Tedy Bruschi, one of nine players and five starters remaining from New England’s 2001 championship team, said the Patriots don’t consider themselves “invincible,” they definitely have been tested.

“The Giants are undefeated in the playoffs,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “We’re undefeated in the playoffs. Only one team will be left standing on Sunday night, and we hope it’s us. That’s all we’re really thinking about.”

A loss to the Giants, whom they beat 38-35 in the regular-season finale, would do more than cost the Patriots the title. It would also ruin their rendezvous with history.

“We’re going to be remembering this game for as long as we live, win or lose,” Brady said.

Said Harrison: “This is the biggest game of our lives. We have an opportunity to do something special that no one else has done. If we win, you guys will have much to talk about … and so will we.”

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