THE LOCKER room slowly emptied on Sunday evening, and the clusters of media thinnned. The New England Patriots had beaten the San Diego Chargers 21--12 to earn a place in Super Bowl XLII, and now equipment managers emerged from a laundry room and began hanging gear from the metal hooks in players' dressing cubicles: numbered (but nameless) white jerseys with blue pants for the offense, blue jerseys with gray pants for the defense. Mesh bags with socks and undergarments for everyone.
This is an article from the Jan. 28, 2008 issue
"For practice?" a writer asked.
"Yup," said one of the equipment guys. "Practice this week."
Here was a small act measuring greatness. There will be practice this week in Foxborough because it is nearly the end of January and the Patriots play on, writing history with each passing game. They will face the New York Giants on Feb. 3 in Arizona, seeking their fourth Super Bowl title in seven years and trying to become the first team in NFL history to go 19--0. A long ride is nearly over. "The next team meeting," said veteran linebacker Tedy Bruschi, "is about Super Bowl tickets and our families and how we're getting to Arizona. And that's always a fun meeting."
The Pats have been center stage since before Labor Day; their every game has been hyped as the next step to immortality, to which they've answered with the mantra It's a one-game season. "No other method would work," says New England linebacker Mike Vrabel, an 11-year NFL veteran. "So we do it this way." They shrugged off the blowback from the Week 1 Spygate controversy and averaged more than 40 points a game in the first half of the season, prompting accusations that coach Bill Belichick was needlessly running up scores on defenseless opponents and suggesting that a perfect record and fourth title for the franchise were foregone conclusions to be judged only subjectively, like beauty pageants.
However, five of the Patriots' last eight victories—three of six down the stretch in the regular season and both of their playoff wins—have hung in the balance into the fourth quarter. They narrowly averted upset losses to the Philadelphia Eagles and the Baltimore Ravens just after Thanksgiving and preserved their unbeaten regular season only by scoring 22 consecutive points to overtake the Giants on Dec. 29 in New Jersey. In the divisional playoff round they pulled away from a halftime tie for a 31--20 victory over a Jacksonville Jaguars team whose exceptional game plan was executed to near perfection.
And then in the AFC Championship Game, even with injuries hobbling quarterback Philip Rivers and tight end Antonio Gates and limiting running back LaDainian Tomlinson to two carries and one pass reception before he left the game, the Chargers ignored the memo declaring that they were too beat up to be competitive. They intercepted Tom Brady three times (one more than his total number of incompletions in the Jacksonville game, when he went 26 for 28) and trailed only 14--12 early in the fourth quarter.
These are not the Patriots of October. While the public fixated on 19--0, New England remade itself into a resourceful outfit that has won with guile and toughness. Over the last two weeks Randy Moss, who set an NFL regular-season record with 23 touchdown receptions, has caught two passes for 32 yards, but second-year running back Laurence Maroney has rushed for 122 yards in each game.
On Sunday, Brady's leading receiver was veteran back Kevin Faulk, who caught eight passes for 82 yards. The team rushed for 149 yards, often in a three-tight-end set. The exclamation point, delivered on a raw, windy afternoon, was a 15-play, 65-yard drive that protected the lead and closed out the game. The last six plays (before two kneel-downs) were handoffs. "It makes life a lot easier when you just go to the ground and run the ball," said Pro Bowl tackle Matt Light.
In the coming days it will become popular to highlight the Patriots' recent battles as evidence of their vulnerability. In fact, the opposite might be true, especially after the defense held the Chargers to four field goals, three in red-zone opportunities, two of those coming after San Diego had first-and-goal. New England seems capable of winning any type of game.
THE LAST month's victories have provided a true measure of the franchise's culture. The Pats caught America's attention in September and October with glitz and big scores but have kept it with solid performances more emblematic of their foundation. They do not court Football Nation's affection or scrutiny, but inside their walls they embrace the simplest concepts—selflessness, rigor, tunnel vision—until they are reflex. The concepts are not novel. Every football team at every level from Pop Warner to the NFL seeks the same discipline, but the Patriots have come closeset to achieving it.
The chain of command begins with owner Robert Kraft, a Boston-area native who once sat on the cold aluminum seats at old Foxboro Stadium as a season-ticket holder in the 1970s, paid an outrageous $172 million for the downtrodden franchise in 1994 and now oversees one of the most valuable properties in professional sports (estimated worth: nearly $1.2 billion). "There are plenty of people who want to take credit when things go well and then head for the hills when they don't," Kraft said last week in his office at Gillette Stadium, the $325 million facility christened in 2002. "We try to get people who subjugate their egos."
Daily execution of that task falls to Belichick, whom Kraft hired in 2000 against the recommendations of many advisers. Some sent tape of Belichick's painfully uncooperative press conferences during his first tenure as an NFL head coach, with the Cleveland Browns from 1991 through '95. (He is Jon Stewart these days compared with the Cleveland Belichick.) "To me, he was the right guy," says Kraft. "I am not into the lipstick and powder so much as I am into the substance of what I think is right."
Belichick embraces the job of ego management, revealing little in his briefings to the press and scarcely more to his players. "With us, Bill was a lot like he is with the media," says Joe Andruzzi, who played guard under Belichick on the previous three Super Bowl teams and is recovering from Burkitt's lymphoma, for which he was treated last summer. "He would tell us just as much as we needed to know to do our job and nothing more. He would tell us, 'Worry about the next game, not the one after that.' Or, 'Worry about the next play, not the next series.' You really understand what needs to be done."
Wide receiver Jabar Gaffney, who on Sunday caught a 12-yard touchdown pass from Brady that gave the Patriots a 14--6 second-quarter lead, met with Belichick as a free agent following the 2005 season. "He just puts it all on the line," says Gaffney. "He told me, 'I don't know how it was wherever else you played, but this is how it is around here. We win as a team.' You come away and you realize there's no foolishness. Nobody is bigger than the team."
All players—but especially young ones—are subtly discouraged from giving lengthy interviews that come off as glory grabs. "Nobody takes credit," says seventh-year guard Stephen Neal. "If you say, 'Look what I did,' there's a target on your chest."
THE CHIEF praise deflector is also the biggest star—when Belichick was explaining the Patriot Way to Gaffney, the coach summarized by saying, "Just listen to Tom." But though the karma may begin with the star quarterback, it hardly ends there. "Brady is an important guy in that sense," Belichick told SI last week. "But it's not one guy; it's a group of guys, and we have a lot of them. It's almost like a high school or college team that has a lot of seniors. You often see a team like that do well, even better than a team that supposedly has more talent." He went on to list players beyond Brady, starting with strong safety Rodney Harrison and defensive end Richard Seymour, and soon the list was more than a dozen players long.
This atmosphere leaves the Patriots almost impervious to distraction, be it Spygate or last week's contretemps, when Moss was slapped by a Florida court with a temporary restraining order after being accused by a woman of battery. In a rare meeting with the media, Moss vehemently denied the accusation and, tellingly, said, "As much as I love the game of football and love my teammates and coach, I would never put myself or them in a situation like this."
In a purely football sense Belichick has created an environment in which details are prioritized and hammered home. "One of the first practices I was here," says eighth-year running back Sammy Morris, who signed as a free agent in the off-season, "Junior Seau, who I played with in Miami, came up to me and said, 'Here, we major in the major and minor in the minor.' They don't let little things get in the way."
Tight end Kyle Brady, who has been in the NFL for 13 years but signed with New England only last spring, says, "There is a professionalism and a businesslike attitude here. They take film study seriously. They take game-planning strategy seriously. There's an awareness of what's required to be successful that might be pleasantly surprising anywhere else, but here, it's just expected."
Word spreads. Kraft finds it both flattering and vaguely humorous that at the end of Patriots games, opposing players will approach him. "A guy will come up to me and say, 'Mr. Kraft, you wear the best suits in the league,' and I'll think to myself, 'Is he a free agent?' And usually they are."
Yet the grandest test of Patriot Culture remains. New England has spent five months swatting aside talk of winning every game and instead addressing only the next one. "I'm not unaware [of the historical element]," Belichick, in no small admission, said before the San Diego game. There is no need for circumlocution; the game and the quest are one.