As a sports culture we like to throw our arms around the pursuit of history. Record chases bind us to an athletic heritage that lives on in yellowed paper volumes (along with Google searches and, blessedly, the occasional YouTube video) and connects to greatness in a language that we can understand and speak at picnics. How about those Celtics? And such. Whatever the milestone, we usually want to see it, touch it, remember it, celebrate it.

Then there is the relentless march of the New England Patriots through the autumn of 2007, pursuing the sainted Miami Dolphins of 1972.

Football Nation bears witness to a dominance never seen before, yet for much of the autumn it was treated with hostile cynicism. SpyGate broke between the Patriots' first two wins, casting a shadow over coach Bill Belichick's administration. During three consecutive October victories New England rolled up 149 points against the Dallas Cowboys, Dolphins and Washington Redskins, and juvenile accusations of piling on -- this is not high school football -- obscured the Pats' breathtaking efficiency.

Understand, it is hardly unprecedented for a major sport to be ruled by antiheroes. The Oakland Raiders and the Oakland A's of the mid-1970s were populated by a gallery of miscreants and malcontents who Just Won, Baby. But that was a decade when rebellion was celebrated. A better approximation might be the late '80s Detroit Pistons, who won two NBA titles by administering nightly beat-downs to the rest of the league in the dead zone between the eras when Bird-Magic and Jordan were preeminent.

Yet pro football is America's Game, and the sanctity of the Dolphins' unbeaten season would seem to demand reverential treatment for any NFL team that approached it. The Patriots have been piling up wins since late summer, but only lately have they begun to tunnel their way into most people's hearts. There is a lesson here: Victory is one thing, but appreciation is something else. Joe Frazier hammered opponents; Muhammad Ali is beloved. The Pats at last are getting a grip on America's collective soul.

This is for the best. Long after Tom Brady has stopped throwing touchdown passes and Belichick has shelved his hoodie, NFL fans will talk about the fall of Oh-Seven, when New England won 'em all. It will be sweet history in the telling. This is like seeing the '27 Yankees in the flesh.

Close calls made the Patriots human. Late in the season the Philadelphia Eagles and the Baltimore Ravens took leads deep into the fourth quarter, and on both occasions New England rallied to win. Where so many earlier victories looked so easy, these seemed hard-won, and there is nothing more American than triumphing in the face of adversity.

But on Sunday the Patriots made short work of Miami (not even a shadow of its former self), easily moving to 15-0 with only a road game against the New York Giants, on Dec. 29, in the way of a perfect regular season.

If the whole is unprecedented, the pieces are stunning. Brady has pushed himself to a level at which perhaps a handful of quarterbacks have played. Randy Moss has morphed into a team-first version of his younger self. The offensive line is a symphony of protection. The defense is an underrated embarrassment of playmaking riches -- whether it is Mike Vrabel or Asante Samuel or Richard Seymour -- so fixated on the final result that they don't care if they get the credit.

And this is the best part: In an age of narcissism, the Pats have embraced the sweet old concept of playing as one. Now they close in on the '72 Dolphins and roll inexorably toward Super Bowl XLII. And if they should win the championship in Arizona and stand beneath a shower of confetti falling from the night sky, perfect in every way, all the game will be better for having witnessed their journey. -- Tim Layden

For all the momentous news -- good and bad -- that reverberated through the NFL this year, the game still comes down to something as simple as this: the joy on the faces of the league's rising young stars. Players such as Buffalo Bills rookie running back Marshawn Lynch, who was miked at midseason by NFL Films and practically giggled his way through the game, and Cleveland Browns third-year kick returner Josh Cribbs, who says the only way he can play to the max is to be openly happy in his work. "It's a game," says Cribbs, who after 15 games had two kick returns for touchdowns and a 30.7-yard average (second best in the league). "If you don't have fun, why are you playing? You know what puts a smile on my face? When fans meet me and say, 'We don't go to the bathroom on kick or punt returns anymore, because we have to see you.' I live for that."

Last year when Tony Romo, then the Dallas Cowboys' new starting quarterback, was chatting up singer Carrie Underwood on the sideline before a game, smiling and laughing, you could imagine NFL traditionalists cringing. One former coach, who saw the scene on television, said, "He better hope [then Cowboys coach] Bill Parcells didn't see that." This year Romo threw four interceptions in the first half of a game at Buffalo that Dallas had no right winning; but afterward, while flashing a big grin, he said, "Really, it was four? I thought there were about seven." At least three or four times a game, it seems, the camera will catch him, on the field or on the sideline, looking just as gleeful. He makes no apologies.

"Early in my career I remember walking into a meeting and a coach telling me, 'You've got to quit smiling so much,' " says Romo, who sat on the bench in Dallas for three seasons before getting his chance. " 'You've got to quit laughing out there. You've got to get the respect of the players and coaches. They won't respect you if you're always smiling.' So for a week, week and a half, I stopped smiling. I got serious around the locker room and at practice. It was the most boring, uncomfortable week of my life. So I decided, if I'm going to come to work each day and have to act like that, I'll have to do something else. Maybe I'll go down in flames, but at least I'll be myself.''

Romo remained true to his nature, and this year, if not for Tom Brady, he would be the leading MVP candidate. The Cowboys have had two Hall of Fame quarterbacks, Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman, but in 2007 Romo set single-season franchise records for touchdown passes (36, with one game left), passing yards (4,125) and megawatt photo ops (Underwood, Jessica Simpson) while leading Dallas to its first bye in the playoffs since 1995.

Make no mistake, though -- Romo has felt the anguish of failure. That happened last January, when he bobbled the snap on a potential winning field goal in Parcells's last game with the Cowboys. Seattle won that wild-card playoff, 21-20. Romo didn't leave his apartment for a week. "I hurt so many people," he says. "Then you just figure, If that's the worst thing that happens to you, you've got a pretty good life." Romo used what he learned from that mishap to get through the ridiculous October night in Buffalo, when he finished with five interceptions -- two of which were returned for touchdowns. "At one point in the second half," he said, "I grabbed a towel, pressed it to my face and just started laughing. I was so bad you just had to laugh." -- Peter King

The new year was two hours old when gunfire sounded on an icy Denver street. Fourteen bullets tore through the exterior of a white Hummer limousine. One struck 24-year-old Broncos cornerback Darrent Williams in the neck, killing him.

Nearly 11 months later four young men broke into the South Florida house of Redskins safety Sean Taylor at around 1:30 a.m., according to police. Taylor, 24, awoke and confronted the intruders, one of whom shot him in the groin. The bullet tore open his femoral artery, causing massive blood loss. When Taylor died the following day, the NFL's year had found a tragic symmetry.

For all the excitement and enjoyment pro football provided most weeks, 2007 will go down as the darkest year the league has endured. In the months between those murders, Tennessee Titans cornerback Pacman Jones was involved in a strip-club brawl, which was followed by a shooting that left a club manager paralyzed; Chicago Bears defensive tackle Tank Johnson was jailed on gun charges; and over a span of eight months, America witnessed the astounding plummet of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick. When news broke in April that investigators had found evidence of a large-scale dogfighting operation on his property in rural Virginia, Vick, then 26, was the picture of pomposity. Called before NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, he professed his innocence; even after a federal indictment, he remained defiant.

Only when evidence mounted and his accomplices began to turn on him did Vick appear contrite. In August he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to operate a dogfighting enterprise. On Nov. 19 he moved into a jail cell in Warsaw, Va. And on Dec. 10 the man whose NFL replica jersey once outsold all others stood in court in prison garb to hear his sentence: 23 months in federal prison. He still faces state animal cruelty charges in Virginia.

Whether the players were victims or perpetrators, these cases stirred discussion about race and class and about violence and athletes. Some said that in the case of Vick, you have to look at where he came from; others said it was time for professionals to stop making excuses and be men. But is this good, useful talk -- or just good talk radio? While the games go on and we ponder that question, this much we do know: Williams left behind a seven-year-old son and a four-year-old daughter, and Taylor an 18-month-old daughter. -- Damon Hack

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.