Sunday December 30th, 2007

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- They say you can't win 'em all. But whoever coined that one apparently never conceived of the 2007 New England Patriots.

The Team That Cannot Lose nearly did Saturday night, but in becoming the first 16-0 club in NFL regular-season history, we saw again their greatness. Their resiliency. And their ability to make the game-breaking play, rather than the game-deciding mistake.

The Patriots earned this one. The hard way. History didn't come easily, but in beating the more-than-fiesty New York Giants 38-35, it came to New England in memorable fashion. And that alone seemed to make the accomplishment even more special than anticipated.

"Everyone is going to enjoy this one,'' said Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who rallied New England from a 12-point third-quarter deficit -- it's largest of the season. "This only happens once every 35 years.''

Let's not get ahead of ourselves. This wasn't the Patriots winning the Super Bowl on Saturday night in Giants Stadium. This wasn't the Patriots pulling even with the 1972 Miami Dolphins of perfect season fame. If New England doesn't finish the job and make it 19-0 with three more wins and a Lombardi Trophy, the history the Patriots just made will ring as hollow as a Bill Parcells retirement announcement.

But the way New England answered the challenge from New York reminded us that this is a team that has broken the mold in so many ways. They've defied the supposed leveling effect of the salary cap era. They've defied the league's sacrosanct concept of parity, and all that "On any given Sunday'' noise. And they've defied the law of averages. They have won them all. They have refused to play by the rules that seemingly govern the other 31 teams in the NFL.

Their work isn't done, but 16-0 is an amazing hurdle cleared in and of itself.

"How could you ever think something like this was ever possible?'' Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said in an emotional New England locker room. "I never imagined it was possible. Going back to Week 1, Week 2, it's so many teams, so many games, all the competition, the injuries and the emotional rollercoaster of a football season. You're happy just maybe losing one game, let alone not losing any games.''

You can't equate the Patriots to the '72 Dolphins in the entire sense of the question at this point. Not with the playoffs still to come. But in my mind, New England's perfect regular season of 2007 trumps what the Dolphins accomplished in their 14-game regular season. And not just by the two-game margin of 14-0 versus 16-0. There's more to it than just the math.

The Patriots' feat is more impressive because in the days of the '72 Dolphins, there was no ritualistic free agent raiding of a Super Bowl caliber roster. There was no NFL scheduling format in place that assured tougher schedules for the previous season's biggest winners. And there was no salary cap to squeeze most teams toward the competitive middle of the league.

It was a different time, and the NFL was a different league, and that puts what these Patriots have accomplished at a different level. A never-before-seen level. And we're now close to placing this team into historical perspective.

"That was some way to finish the season today,'' Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said. "They (the players) came through late like they have all year. We've been behind before. But these guys make plays when they have to make them. It certainly wasn't perfect, but when we had to make plays, we made them. This is a little special.''

Special was the feeling you got watching Brady and Randy Moss make the game's biggest play. When Brady hit Moss in stride on a 65-yard touchdown bomb with 11:06 remaining, it gave New England a 31-28 lead that effectively decided the outcome, just one snap after Moss dropped a potential scoring pass that Brady had underthrown. On the same play, Brady broke Peyton Manning's NFL record of 49 touchdown passes in a season, and Moss erased Jerry Rice's league record of 22 touchdown catches in a season.

That's what we've come to expect from these Patriots. All season long, the magic has been there when they needed it most. In the second half in Dallas. In the final 10 minutes in Indianapolis. In the fourth quarter at home against Philadelphia. In those frantic final seconds in Baltimore. And now you can add this one against the Giants to the list of games the Patriots could have lost -- but didn't.

"I never doubt this team, not at all,'' said Harrison, when asked if his faith began to waver when the Giants grabbed a 28-16 lead on their opening drive of the third quarter. "I never doubt this team for one minute.

"Right now we don't have that appreciation of what we've done. I don't think you can. You can't truly appreciate what we've done until you sit back and get a chance to reflect on it all. Right now it's pretty special, but years down the line we're going to really appreciate it.''

Winning at Giants Stadium was the perfect way for the Patriots to end their perfect regular season. It was the same venue where their historic journey began on Sept. 9 against the Jets. That 38-14 victory of course was overshadowed by the Spygate episode and its aftermath. But the spotlight on the Patriots really never blinked after that game, and by Week 17 every move they made was news, and every game intensified the pressure they carried on their shoulders.

So far, they've dealt with it all flawlessly. They're the NFL's highest-scoring team ever (589 points), and their 19 regular-season wins in a row over two seasons broke their own league record of 18, set in 2003-04. Now there's only way they can top all of that history, and set themselves completely apart from every other NFL team that has ever taken the field.

The Patriots apparently can win 'em all. They believe 19-0 is their destiny. After watching how they made the plays that mattered the most against the Giants, it's hard to argue that anyone can stop them now.

"It'll be a disappointment if we don't finish the way we want to,'' Patriots defensive lineman Richard Seymour said. "We've never looked at it like, 'Hey, let's just try to go 16-0.' It's great to do. It's something that when you walk away from the game one day you will be able to look back upon and say this was a special team. It's just great to be among the elite.''

From the lofty position these Patriots have now staked out, it's getting to be a smaller group all the time.

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