As a new season gets under way tonight, the New England Patriots appear to be a better team than the one that outlasted the Carolina Panthers in a thrilling Super Bowl in February for the franchise's second championship in three seasons, qualifying it as a mini-dynasty in this share-the-wealth era of the NFL in which the salary cap and free agency force even the best teams to turn over about one-third of their rosters each offseason.
And that, of course, guarantees the defending champions of absolutely nothing.
The Patriots are chasing history as they host the Indianapolis Colts this evening in the league's season-opening game. They won their final 15 games last season -- 12 in the regular season and three in the postseason -- after a 2-2 beginning. They last lost to the Washington Redskins on Sept. 28, 2003.
Unofficially, they are in pursuit of the Chicago Bears of 1933-34 and 1941-42, the 1972-73 Miami Dolphins, the 1989-90 San Francisco 49ers and the 1997-98 Denver Broncos -- each of which amassed 18 consecutive victories, counting postseason games.
But officially, the NFL does not count postseason games in its list of the longest winning streaks. So the Patriots, by that measure, have only 12 triumphs in a row and are chasing the record of 17 straight by the 1933-34 Bears. The 1941-42 Bears, the 1971-73 Dolphins and the 1983-84 Dolphins won 16 consecutive regular season games, and the 1960-61 Los Angeles/San Diego Chargers and the 1989-90 49ers won 15 straight.
The Patriots have the sport's current coaching king, Bill Belichick, and two of its best coordinators, offensive chief Charlie Weis and defensive boss Romeo Crennel. They have the game's ultimate winner at quarterback in Tom Brady, and they have a defense stocked with solid, veteran players who have bought into the system of Belichick and Crennel and do precisely what is asked of them.
They have not been a club that regularly overwhelms opponents -- not yet, at least. They've won only two games by more than 12 points and one by more than 14 points during the streak. But Belichick and front-office chief Scott Pioli dramatically upgraded the team's roster during the offseason. They said their goodbyes to tailback Antowain Smith, defensive tackle Ted Washington and guard Damien Woody. But they traded for Cincinnati tailback Corey Dillon to replace Smith, signed Keith Traylor to take Washington's place and added defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and tight end Ben Watson in the first round of the draft. They welcome back linebacker Roosevelt Colvin, a high-priced free-agent acquisition who was shelved by a hip injury last season.
Dillon, in particular, changes the outlook, giving Brady a prospective 1,300-yard rusher to keep defenses honest after the Patriots averaged only 3.4 yards per rushing attempt last season. Dillon, at 29, still is relatively young, and he joined Eric Dickerson, Barry Sanders and Curtis Martin as the only runners in NFL history to top 1,000 yards in each of their first six seasons in the league. He had his streak ended last season, slipping to 541 yards and losing his starting job to Rudi Johnson, and he was perpetually disgruntled during his seven-year stay with the Bengals. But he was well worth the second-round draft pick that Belichick and Pioli traded for him, and he has little choice but to fit in on a team in which sacrificing for the greater good is not only accepted, but expected, in the locker room.
The Patriots demonstrated last year that they don't need a smooth ride to win a title. Rampant injuries forced Belichick to juggle the lineup repeatedly, and he had a near player revolt to face after he released team leader Lawyer Milloy just before the season when the popular safety refused to accept the pay cut proposed by the club. These Patriots are a harmonious bunch in comparison, with the ugly offseason spat between Belichick and Ty Law over the cornerback's contract now a fading memory and the team intent upon proving that it can repeat after going 9-7 and missing the playoffs in the 2002 season on the heels of its first Super Bowl triumph.
"If they stay injury-free,'' former Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe said during a CBS Sports conference call this week, "they're the odds-on favorite to repeat.''
But there are obstacles, for sure. Belichick would have to turn to Jim Miller or Rohan Davey at quarterback if Brady gets hurt. And the NFL's competition committee cracked down in the offseason on the aggressive, physical tactics employed so successfully by the Patriots' defensive backs, ordering game officials to strictly enforce the rule prohibiting contact with a receiver more than five yards downfield. Tonight brings a sneak preview of how that rule modification will be called during the regular season. It's a rematch of the AFC title game in January in which the Colts emerged furious at some apparent uncalled defensive-holding penalties by the Patriots in the game's final minutes.
Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, the reigning league co-most valuable player, threw four interceptions in the AFC championship game and has thrown 15 interceptions (seven of them by Law) while going winless in five career starts in Foxboro, Mass. Manning is 2-8 overall against the Patriots in his career.
But Dillon gets little help tonight because backup tailback Kevin Faulk is slated to miss the game because of a knee injury and a personal matter. The Patriots are coming off an exhibition season in which they went 1-3 -- significant only because Belichick hadn't had a losing preseason previously as an NFL head coach. No Super Bowl champion has repeated since the Broncos in '98, and former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms said during the CBS conference call that it's oh-so-difficult for a team to duplicate the special feeling that comes during a championship run.
"Are you willing to sacrifice again the following year? It just takes tremendous want, tremendous craving,'' Simms said. "It's like food: How can you crave it after you just stuffed yourself?''
Gordon Unlikely to Help in Opener
Lamar Gordon, obtained in a trade with St. Louis on Wednesday, probably will become the Dolphins' starting tailback soon. But he's unlikely to be much of a factor Sunday in Miami against the Tennessee Titans. Coach Dave Wannstedt probably will split carries among Travis Minor, Sammy Morris and perhaps Leonard Henry in the opener, then work Gordon into the mix next week.
Gordon had ankle surgery four weeks ago but logged 22 carries for 77 rushing yards against Oakland in the Rams' final preseason game, as St. Louis showcased him for the Dolphins and any other potential suitors. The Rams' willingness to part with Gordon signals that they not only are confident in first-round draft selection Steven Jackson, but they also believe that Marshall Faulk's knees will hold up for at least one more season . . .
Wannstedt is emphasizing that his choice of Jay Fiedler over A.J. Feeley as Miami's starting quarterback is for the first game only, leaving open the possibility that the Dolphins will have a revolving door at the position this season . . .
The Dolphins traded a third-round draft pick to the Rams for Gordon after getting a third-round choice and wide receiver Marty Booker in the trade that sent defensive end Adewale Ogunleye to the Bears. So Miami, in essence, got Booker and Gordon for Ogunleye, last season's AFC sack leader with 15. . .
Jason Sehorn's NFL career could be done after he failed his physical for the Rams on Wednesday, trying to return to the club after agreeing to a one-year contract. The safety thought the foot that he broke in training camp last year finally was healed, and he changed his mind after appearing intent upon retiring over the weekend.
The Rams' luck wasn't much better with safety Zack Bronson, signed on Sunday. In his second practice with the team Wednesday, Bronson hurt his ankle and probably will be out for a while. St. Louis is shorthanded in the secondary and might have to promote cornerback Dwight Anderson from the practice squad . . .
Another concern for the Rams is wide receiver Torry Holt, who continues to be plagued by the back spasms that kept him out of the final exhibition game. He was limited in practice Wednesday . . .
Buffalo has ruled Milloy out of the opener because of the fractured forearm that the safety suffered during the preseason. Former starter Coy Wire replaces him in the Bills' lineup. Milloy didn't miss a game in his previous eight NFL seasons, playing 137 in a row . . .
The Bills kept one of their key players, defensive end Aaron Schobel, off the free agent market next spring by signing him Wednesday to a five-year, $23 million contract extension that runs through the 2009 season. Schobel, who had 11-1/2 sacks last season, gets a $6.75 million signing bonus and a $2 million roster bonus next year. But the Bills still must worry about two more potential unrestricted free agents, offensive tackle Jonas Jennings and defensive tackle Pat Williams . . .
Quarterback Chris Redman begins the season out of the NFL but hopes to be available to sign with a team in October after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery for a torn labrum.
Packers Pick Hawthorne
Green Bay is going with Michael Hawthorne, ahead of first-round draft pick Ahmad Carroll, as its starter at the cornerback spot opposite Al Harris, in place of holdout Mike McKenzie. Carroll is penciled in as the nickel cornerback for Monday night's opener against the Panthers . . .
Recently signed free agent Chad Eaton becomes a starter at defensive tackle for Dallas with Leonardo Carson serving a one-game suspension for violating the league's conduct policy . . .
The Cowboys are concerned about the availability of rookie tailback Julius Jones for Sunday's opener against Minnesota. Jones sat out the final preseason game because of a rib injury . . .
The Patriots released veteran guard Bob Hallen on Wednesday . . .
Cleveland is preparing to be without tailback Lee Suggs for Sunday's opener against Baltimore because of a pinched nerve in his neck . . .
Jacksonville tailback Fred Taylor missed the final two preseason games because of a strained foot but should be at or near full speed Sunday against the Bills . . .
Tennessee added Doug Johnson as its third quarterback. Titans punter Craig Hentrich attempted field goals during Wednesday's practice after kicker Joe Nedney was placed on the injured reserve list because of the hamstring injury he suffered Tuesday. The Titans already are in contact with veteran kicker Gary Anderson, who replaced an injured Nedney last season and likely will replace him again this season. The club also scheduled a workout with youngster Aaron Elling, just cut by the Vikings, in case a deal with Anderson falls through . . .
Houston plans to start Jerry DeLoach at nose tackle ahead of Seth Payne, who has undergone three surgeries since tearing a knee ligament early last season.
Bears Eye McCardell
Chicago, needing to replace Booker, could be in the running for Keenan McCardell if the Tampa Bay Buccaneers opt to trade the holdout wide receiver. The deal probably would cost the Bears a mid-round draft pick but the Buccaneers, at least for now, maintain that they're not planning to trade McCardell and are prepared for him to sit out the entire season in his contract dispute . . .
Former Denver starter Brian Griese appears to be ahead of second-year pro Chris Simms, at least for the early stages of the season, in the competition for Tampa Bay's No. 2 quarterback job behind starter Brad Johnson, but the Buccaneers love Simms's potential . . .
Robert Gallery has gotten some work at right tackle in practice, adding that to left tackle and left guard as potential positions for the second overall selection in the draft by Oakland . . .
Today's practice likely will determine whether 49ers defensive end Brandon Whiting will be able to play this weekend. Under the terms of the settlement reached to complete the Terrell Owens trade, Philadelphia would owe San Francisco an additional seventh-round draft pick next year if Whiting, who is recovering from shoulder surgery, is on the inactive list for the opener, and the choice could end up being as high as a fifth-rounder if he remains unable to play in subsequent weeks . . .
The Dolphins will be without defensive tackle Tim Bowens, who is suffering from bulging disks in his back, and fullback Rob Konrad, who had surgery Tuesday for an infected bursal sack in his thigh, against the Titans . . .
Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey practiced again Wednesday and continues to aim to be in the lineup Sunday at Philadelphia even after missing the entire exhibition season because of foot surgery in June and a strained hamstring . . .
Cincinnati could be without left guard Eric Steinbach for its opener against the Jets because of an ailing elbow. Larry Moore would fill in. The Bengals hope to have center Rich Braham back in the lineup after his arthroscopic knee surgery.