If the New England Patriots can beat the Miami Dolphins for their NFL record-setting 19th straight victory Sunday, the locker room is likely to feature a conspicuous absence of champagne.
The Patriots almost certainly will sip a little Gatorade, smile a lot and tell the world it's been a great run, one they'd love to keep going. But they remain focused on another goal -- a third Super Bowl victory in four seasons -- an accomplishment that they believe will do more than a winning streak to mark their status among the league's great teams.
"We don't care anything about a record," Coach Bill Belichick said a few minutes after the Patriots tied the record with a 31-17 victory over the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, a message many of his players also delivered that day. Still, the team has won 18 in a row, dating from a 20-17 loss to the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field in Week 4 of the 2003 season.
"We're playing one game this week," Belichick said a few days before the Bills game. "The ones we've already played don't matter. The ones down the road, that will all take care of itself in due time. There is nothing we can do about any of them right now. Our goals are about what can the team accomplish this year."
Despite Belichick's nonchalance, many around the league believe the 18-game streak, a record shared with three other modern-era teams -- the 1972-73 Dolphins, 1989-90 San Francisco 49ers and 1997-98 Denver Broncos -- is a significant achievement.
"I'm here to say that I have nothing but admiration and respect for New England's accomplishment," said Jim Mandich, a Dolphins radio broadcaster who was a tight end on the 1972-73 Miami team that got its 18 straight the hardest way possible, by winning all 17 games in the 1972 season, a feat that has never been duplicated.
"To me, what they've done is tantamount to what we did in 1972. Why? Because of continuity. I played on a Don Shula roster for eight years when you could name the same starting lineup almost every year. It didn't change very much. But now, in the NFL of 2004, there are forces that erode excellence that did not exist in 1972. Am I proud of that 17-0 year? You're damned right I am. Do I hope every year there's no unbeaten team in the league? Hell, yes, I do. But do I recognize the excellence of what New England has done during this streak? You bet. They should be very proud of it."
The Patriots say they are, sort of, and only to a point.
"They say we accomplished something by getting to 18 in a row, but if we don't make it to the playoffs, who's going to remember the team that won 18 straight?" veteran cornerback Ty Law told the Boston Herald this week. "It doesn't mean anything like the '72 Dolphins. They were unbeaten, man, and there is nothing that compares to that. We've accomplished something here . . . but that [17-0 Dolphins season] was monumental."
Shula, the Hall of Fame coach of that '72 team, agreed with Law that 17-0 in one season and the 18-game winning streak over two really should not be compared.
"It's a different streak we're talking about," Shula said. "If they win 19 in a row, then that's what they've done. Our streak is a perfect season. I think you have to look at what happens in one season. Bill's win streak has been done by five or six teams. It's a record I'm sure he'll be proud of, but knowing Bill, the record he wants is the Super Bowl at the end of the season."
Six NFL teams have won 18 in a row. Two Chicago Bears teams did so in 1933-34 and 1941-42. (The Cleveland Browns won 18 in a row in 1947-48, but they were playing in the All-America Football Conference.)
Of the four modern-era teams with 18 straight victories, the Patriots have had the most difficult path in terms of playing more close games. Their average margin of victory in the streak has been 9.5 points, and eight victories were by six points or less.
The Dolphins' average margin of victory 32 years ago was 14.9 points, with six wins by six or fewer. The Broncos won by an average of 15 points a game, with six victories by six or fewer and the 49ers won by 15.1 points, also with six games decided by six points or fewer.
The Patriots' and Broncos' streaks have come in the era of free agency and the salary cap, when most teams have close to a 33 percent yearly roster turnover rate. Players, and particularly valuable starters, come and go now with far more frequency than in the pre-1993 days.
Going into this season, for example, the Patriots lost two of their three defensive line starters, including massive run stopper Ted Washington. They lost two key members of their offensive line, Damien Woody and Mike Compton. And they also took a gamble in bringing in veteran running back Corey Dillon, a player with a reputation for being a malcontent who has been a major contributor so far this season.
All of those changes also provide major challenges for the coaches, one area in which the Patriots have been superior, particularly at the top.
Belichick has always been acknowledged as one of the game's masterful defensive tacticians, and he's managed to keep his two coordinators, Charlie Weis on offense and Romeo Crennel on defense.
"It's etched on my Super Bowl ring from '72 -- Winning Edge," Mandich said. "That was Shula's approach and that's Belichick's approach. How do you find the edge to beat your opponent? When you go against a Belichick team, he is so intellectually sharp, he always seems to take away what you do best and forces you to do something you're not comfortable doing."
Still, Bob Kuechenberg, an outstanding guard on the '72 Dolphins, doesn't buy the notion that current teams have a more difficult task in dominating over a long stretch, as the Dolphins, Packers, Steelers, Cowboys, Redskins and 49ers often did before free agency and the cap.
"Now all it takes is money," Kuechenberg said. "If you have an injury or you still have weak spots after the draft in April, you can go make trades or go buy the players you need to fill in. There's a market there that is created to fill your needs if you can manage the money the right way. Back then, if you were weak after the draft, you were stuck with that weakness and you had to compensate in other ways. Now, it's a heck of a lot easier to get the talent to fill your needs."
Still, Kuechenberg also had no difficulty offering praise for what New England has been able to accomplish the last three years. He said the Patriots very much remind him of his own Dolphins teams of the early 1970s, and Belichick certainly has a lot of Shula in him as well.
"I have the utmost respect for Belichick," Kuechenberg said. "He's hands on, just like Coach Shula, a dominant personality and a coach who obviously believes in discipline. Belichick probably gets more out of his players than lots of them out there now, as Shula did, too. The NFL and sports in general are no different than corporate America. It's all about management, and [in New England] they all seem to be on the same page, from the owner on down."
Unlike the modern-era teams they share the 18-game streak with, the Patriots do have a significant distinction. Unlike the Dolphins, 49ers and Broncos, teams loaded with current and future Hall of Famers, the current Patriots are made up mostly of players who are not stellar, with the possible exception of quarterback Tom Brady.
"This is the quintessential definition of team," said Mark Schlereth, who played on the Broncos' streak team. "Last year, they're 17th in offense and they win the Super Bowl. I do think they're right up there with some of the dominant teams, but they do it by dotting all the I's and crossing all the T's, understanding how the game is played, subjugating their egos to the team, and finding a way to win.
"When I was in Washington, Joe Gibbs used to say 'lose yourself and put the team ahead of everything.' They don't care who the hero is. I love watching these guys play. And their front office does the best job in the NFL as far as scouting guys who will fit into their system, and will buy into the program."
It's a simple formula, but that doesn't mean it's easy: Focus on the present, don't look back, play one game at a time.
"In the league now," Schlereth said, "you have to think that way. You see it every week. There are teams that have no business beating you, doing exactly that. With the cap, every team has closed the gap. There was a time you could maybe overlook a team and you didn't have to play your best game to squeak by and win. Now, you better have at least your A-minus game, because if you bring your B game, I don't care how good you are, you're gonna lose. These guys [the Patriots] always bring their A-game. That should be pretty obvious by now."