JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- How can anybody object to favorably comparing the New England Patriots to any of the great NFL champions now?
It's three championships in four years and counting. Chuck Noll's Pittsburgh Steelers never did that. The Bill Walsh/Joe Montana San Francisco 49ers never did it. Neither did John Elway's Denver Broncos, nor Joe Gibbs's Washington Redskins. You wonder, now that they've got three in the bag, what the Patriots will do next. Go after the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins? They just might.
The Patriots won the equivalent of a 15-round unanimous decision Sunday night over the Philadelphia Eagles. New England was just a little bit better at every important phase of the game. The only thing the Patriots couldn't do was stop the wondrous Terrell Owens, who in victory would have been the MVP and one of the best stories in 39 years of Super Bowls. Owens, with his performance Sunday, ought to have bought himself a respite from criticism for at least a year, maybe a lifetime.
But Owens and his sublime performance will be reduced to a footnote in Super Bowl history because the Patriots are superior in too many areas and proved it once again against the Eagles. While the Patriots got better as the game went on, the Eagles hit their high note early, when they took a 7-0 lead. But late, when champions separate themselves from contenders, the Eagles weren't up to the task physically and played lackadaisically over the last four minutes, like they had taken a shot to the chin and didn't know what round they were in.
You think the Patriots, trailing by 10 points, would have been strolling out of a huddle with two minutes to play in the Super Bowl? The Eagles, for some strange reason, couldn't even get themselves organized in the final minute with a chance to win, couldn't run a two-minute offense crisply, could barely get themselves to the line of scrimmage.
"We've got smart, talented players, a brilliant and tireless coach and a great personnel department led by Scott Pioli," Patriots owner Robert Kraft said. "I'm proud we could win this stressing team and not individual accomplishment."
There was another line that came out of Kraft's mouth that really strikes at the heart of what's so special about the Patriots these last four years. "The NFL," he said, "is the great leveler of all sports."
One of the league's great architects, former commissioner Pete Rozelle, designed the modern league to make sure bad teams could improve quickly and dramatically and pull the best teams back to the pack. The league is designed to prevent a team from winning three times in four years or back-to-back championships. The college draft, free agency, the salary cap all work against the top teams. Yet, the Patriots keep winning.
As Belichick said afterward, "They met all comers this year." And last year, and two years before that. So now, we start talking history. The Halas Bears of the 1940s. The Cleveland Browns of the 1950s. Lombardi's Green Bay Packers of the 1960s. The Steelers of the '70s, 49ers of the '80s, Cowboys of the '90s, Patriots of the Oughts.
You think Lombardi's 9-1 playoff record is great? How about Belichick's 10-1?
He's a great coach with a great team, starting with a great quarterback, and Tom Brady was just a little better than Donovan McNabb.
Brady's the closest thing the Patriots have to a star. And he's reluctant to be one. But the winning and the Golden Boy looks work against his modesty. No doubt People magazine will come calling. But Brady's the only one. Oh, the Patriots are loaded with great players, from Willie McGinest to Richard Seymour to Tedy Bruschi to Rodney Harrison on defense, to Deion Branch to Corey Dillon to place kicker Adam Vinatieri on offense. Yet, because they hardly ever strut or preen or do the stuff that invites attention, they don't appear to be lavishly gifted athletically. "But we've got the most ring-filled fingers of any overachievers I've ever seen," Troy Brown said.
While interviewing Patriots players on the field immediately after the game, Terry Bradshaw, who has four Super Bowl rings, asked Brady, "This is not easy; you do know that?"
I'm not sure Brady knew exactly what Bradshaw was talking about.
The true testament to the Patriots' success is how former great players, like Bradshaw, are so willing to praise New England's team. That isn't often the case in a day when former players, now in the their fifties and sixties, resent today's players for making so much money while failing to live up to a standard of performance and comportment set 50 years ago.
But the Patriots live up to it and then some, by being smarter than other teams, better prepared than other teams, more gracious in victory and dignified in defeat than other teams. And they're becoming quite practiced at the formula, having won so much since 2001. That's why the word "dynasty" is being thrown around so much and will until they are dethroned. But don't expect any one of the Patriots to use the word in a sentence, unless repeating someone else's question.
"When you're living it," outgoing offensive coordinator Charlie Weis said, "you don't think about what you're doing. 'Dynasty?' That's something you talk about 10, 15, 20 years later."
Weis won't be around for any further winning. He leaves for Notre Dame immediately, just as defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel leaves to coach the Cleveland Browns. So we'll find out quickly if Belichick suffers as much in their absence as Bill Parcells did when his top lieutenant, Belichick, left.
But Belichick isn't riding lone ranger in this effort. Kraft, Pioli and a whole posse of smart, talented, under-celebrated players will be around for another run. And it's going to take quite an effort for the Eagles or anybody else to overtake them.