More than with his other two Super Bowl squads, Belichick truly liked this team, from the start of the season to the finish. On his first championship team, Belichick had to tiptoe through the Drew Bledsoe headaches; he really didn't like Bledsoe much as a quarterback from the time he took the job, and the transfer of power to Tom Brady in 2001 was awkward. On his second championship team, Belichick cut team leader Lawyer Milloy five days before the regular season, which created some coldness. But this season, the harmony and stick-to-itiveness was palpable all year -- through the injuries that blew apart the secondary, the midseason funk of a 34-20 loss in Pittsburgh, the late-season doubt created by the greatness of the Colts and Steelers, and the Week 16 loss to woeful Miami.
But has a team ever had a better postseason? The Patriots vanquished one of the best offenses of all time -- the Colts' -- 20-3. They blew away the league's No. 1 defense -- Pittsburgh, a team on a 15-game winning streak -- on the road by a 41-27 score. And they handled Philadelphia, the best team wire-to-wire the NFC had to offer, 24-21.
"You had Randall Gay, a guy who didn't start at LSU last year, manned against Terrell Owens tonight," I said to Belichick in the quiet of the coaches' locker room after the game. "You lose Eugene Wilson at safety, and you plug in Dexter Reid. And they all just make plays."
"These players, I can't tell you how proud of them I am," Belichick said. "They've just been awesome. They've faced every team's toughest competition every week. I pushed them hard. I demanded a lot. They've worked so hard and never made excuses when they lost or played poorly."
After Belichick left the room for the team bus, Weis was the only coach left. "It's my last NFL game," he said. "Your biggest fear working for Bill is being the reason why you lost, not being the reason why you won."
That says it all about coaching and playing for the Patriots.
It's not time to coronate them as the best team ever. They have miles to go before they sleep to earn to that honor, though they get into the front door of the argument by winning three Super Bowls in four seasons during the salary-cap era, the hardest period in NFL history to keep a great team whole.
I believe Cleveland, which advanced to the championship game of its league for 10 straight years from 1946-55 and won seven titles, is at the head of the pro football class, with Green Bay's five wins in eight years ('61-'67) and Pittsburgh's four in six ('75-'80) above New England's current run. But I ran this stat by a few Patriots last night, and they were in awe of it: Neither Pittsburgh in the '70s nor Green Bay in the '60s ever had a 37-game run like this Patriots one. New England is 34-3 since, coincidentally, routing the Eagles in Week 2 of the 2003 season.
I tried asking Belichick about losing his coordinators and perhaps secondary coach Eric Mangini (the brains behind a lot of what the Patriots do in defending against strong passers like Peyton Manning) to other teams. He refused, even off the record, to say a word about any of it. "It just wouldn't be right," he said. "We said all along we would do everything we could to win this game, and we have, and those are issues for a few days down the road."
He's right. For a day or two, let's just roll around in our heads what we've just seen. And what we're seeing. This is an unselfish oasis in the middle of a me-first sporting desert. Guys sign for less money to stay in New England. Offensive players who don't get stats don't bitch. Tom Brady includes teammates in his commercials so they can make money too.
For a day at least, I don't want to know about the future. I just want to appreciate the present.