Protecting their legacy

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But with about five minutes left in the call, Don Shula was asked how he would react if the Patriots lost to the Giants in the Super Bowl on Sunday. Perhaps he was tired of being polite. Perhaps he was sick of holding his tongue. Or more likely, he was just overcome by a moment of unfettered honestly. "I'll be jumping up and down," he said.

The '72 Dolphins cannot lie. It is part of their legacy, right along with their 17-0 record. Even when they try to lie, they fail. For instance, quarterback Bob Griese said last week the Dolphins never drank champagne together after undefeated teams lost.

Safety Dick Anderson interrupted: "Bob, you weren't home when we started it."

For this, they are labeled as grumpy and selfish. But in their golden years, the '72 Dolphins have become more relevant than ever. While other Super Bowl champions are cast aside and never heard from again, the Dolphins pop up every few years, when the Bears or the Broncos or the Colts start 10-0 and bring back the notion of a perfect season.

Invariably, the '72 Dolphins are asked to gauge their level of anxiety. If they are nervous, the threat is real. You knew the Patriots were good when they played the undefeated Colts in Week 9 and the Dolphins rooted for the Colts -- because they considered the Patriots a better candidate to finish the season undefeated.

"Right now, I look down the road, and I just don't see anybody that will beat the Patriots," former Dolphins' tight end Jim Mandich said in the days leading up to that game. "They are a powerhouse. They have distanced themselves from the rest of the league in a way that I have not seen in 30 years of watching NFL football."

The Patriots did beat the Colts, improving to 9-0, and a week later the Dolphins fell to 0-9. Several members of the '72 team sat in the alumni suite at Dolphin Stadium, including defensive back Charlie Babb. When asked what would be worse -- the Patriots going undefeated or the Dolphins going winless -- Babb asked for another option.

Finally, Babb made the unpleasant choice. "If the Dolphins go winless, they can still get the No. 1 pick in the draft, come back next season, maybe even win the Super Bowl," he said. "If the Patriots go undefeated, then it will never be the same again."

Call them curmudgeons, but they are correct. If the Patriots finish 19-0, they will go down as the best team in football history. The Dolphins can only hope to be second. They know that. It is why they have held their record so tightly for the past 35 years.

Only recently have they started to loosen their grip. Should the Patriots win Sunday, Mercury Morris said he will tip his hat to them. Anderson said he will congratulate them. Shula said he will call Belichick and welcome him to the club.

But what will happen next season, if the Cowboys or the Chargers sprint out to 10-0? We won't get any of Anderson's toasts or Shula's jabs or Morris's colorful reminiscences. We will only get Belichick, standing behind a podium, saying nothing at all. Even if the '72 Dolphins are a little grumpy, at least they are not aloof.

They are still in the picture, for one more weekend. Shula will be at the Super Bowl on Sunday. Most of his players will be spread around the country, watching on television. They have not planned any big reunion. They will have to cheer quietly.

But make no mistake, they are holding out hope for an upset. Only they can fathom the pressure that the Patriots are under. And they are happy to pour more on.

"If we would have gone 16-0 and then lost the Super Bowl, that season would have been a complete failure," Shula said. "That's where New England is right now."