The Chicago Bears are characterized by defense, the Miami Dolphins by passing, the Los Angeles Rams by running. And the New England Patriots are characterized by chaos.

In a perfect world, Patriots games would not be shown on NBC, CBS or ABC, but on PBS, where viewers are conditioned to the pleadings of Pledge Week. There is no ownership in the NFL more in need of help, love and money than the accident-prone Sullivans of Boston, now apparently facing their Last Hurrah in pro football. If you won't send them a check, you can at least pledge them your love by rooting for them on Sunday against Miami. And as their precocious and pugnacious general manager, Patrick (call me John L.) Sullivan, might say between rounds at the family dinner table: My father thanks you, my mother thanks you, my brothers thank you, my sisters thank you -- and on behalf of Don King and the Jacksons, our creditors thank you.

Think of the Patriots this way: They're not a team, they're a miniseries.

Until they beat the Jets two weeks ago, they were the only one of the eight original AFL teams that had not won a playoff game in the 20 years since the announcement of the merger. They have had bad management and bad labor.

Moving from the general to the specific, they have not beaten Miami in the Orange Bowl since 1966, Miami's first year in the league. (David Shula, said to be the new coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, was 7 years old at the time and confining his Xs and Os to alphabet soup.) New England's losing streak here has reached 18; in those 18 games the Patriots have been outscored by a mere 300 points. An entire generation of fans has grown old enough to vote without seeing its team win one here against the Flipper.

Not all of those years were lean -- just most. For example, from 1967 through 1975 the Patriots were 37-88-1, and in a turbulent six-year stretch between 1968 and 1973 they had five head coaches, including the legendary Clive Rush, who is remembered mainly for his introduction to the Boston media. The microphone was not grounded, and when Rush grabbed it to address the group, he was jolted and almost fried. Rush had some strange quirks, one being his insistence that, among other rooms, his locker room and his hotel room were being bugged by unknown agents with varying motivations. Rush was obsessed with media coverage, once leaving the selection of his starters to the beat writers. Upon meeting a new sportswriter, Rush often asked, "Are you fact, or flair?"

Rush was not the only coach to be in and out of New England under strange circumstances. Chuck Fairbanks, who had shaped a contender in his tenure, was "suspended" with one game to go in the 1978 season when owner Billy Sullivan learned that Fairbanks intended to bolt for the University of Colorado as soon as the season ended. The Patriots were 11-4 at the time of the suspension, and finished the regular season by losing here, as usual. Fairbanks was reinstated for the home playoff game against Houston, and to no one's surprise a demoralized Patriots team lost that, too.

You also may remember Ron Meyer. It was only last season when he was felled by a palace coup. Meyer fired defensive coordinator Rod Rust on Wednesday, and was himself fired on Thursday. Raymond Berry replaced Meyer, and immediately rehired Rust. Patrick Sullivan tried to make sense of it all of by explaining, "I really oppose disruptions in the middle of the season." The Patriots were 5-3 at the time, and it was very much in the middle of the season. The Patriots are the only NFL team to ever fire a coach with a winning record in midseason. But you could have guessed that, right?

A clearcut fourth in hometown fan popularity behind the Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics, the Patriots were an orphan franchise before moving into Schaefer (now Sullivan) Stadium in 1971. They flitted from field to field in the early years: Boston University, Boston College, Harvard, Fenway Park. They played one 1968 home game in Birmingham, Ala. Don't ask.

They've had more than their share of odd players and odd moments, this retrospective courtesy of Leigh Montville of the Boston Globe: There was Joe Kapp, who stayed just long enough to file suit against the NFL. There was King Corcoran, a fabled raconteur and minor league quarterback who came to camp driving a limousine that once belonged to Robert McNamara. There was linebacker Steve Kiner, who arrived driving a bus trailed by the police after skipping all the tolls on the Connecticut Turnpike. There was Bob Gladieux, a running back cut from the team who was sitting in the stands having a cocktail before the game when he heard himself paged -- and wound up in uniform to return the opening kickoff. And we haven't even mentioned the plan to change the team's name from the Boston to the Bay State Patriots, which was scotched when someone realized it wouldn't take the headline writers long to call the team the BS Patriots.

As for the Sullivans, well, they appear destined to sell the Patriots, regardless of what happens between now and the Super Bowl. They can't afford not to. Billy tried to buy out the minority stockholders, but a court ruled that the tender was ridiculously low. Chuck, the executive vice president son, is said to have lost millions promoting the Jacksons' Victory Tour, a tour that grossed zillions. Other interesting Sullivans include Pat, the general manager son who last week behaved like a heckling ferret, and Kathleen, a daughter who is married to Joe Alioto, the lawyer who helped Al Davis beat the whole NFL, including the portion controlled by her family.

Why root for the Patriots, you ask.

Because they've suffered enough.