I heard a couple of scouts talking in the tunnel underneath Heinz Field on Sunday night, after the Patriots had hung their 41--27 defeat on the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game.
"Isn't it strange," one of them said, "how all through the playoffs what you heard was, 'We've got to stop Daunte Culpepper'--or Randy Moss or Donovan McNabb or Peyton Manning or Jerome Bettis. But not once did you hear anyone say, 'We've got to stop Tom Brady.' And all he's done is beat everyone every time he's had a chance."
"Weird, huh?" Brady said after New England won the right to meet the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX. "I guess that means that I haven't yet reached the status of what you'd call a marquee player."
"It's a put-down, a put-down of Tom and our whole team," strong safety Rodney Harrison said. "People have been putting us down all season."
"Nah, it's not that," Brady said. "It's just that there are so many guys on this team capable of busting out and having a big game. It means that I'm surrounded by great athletes. The other team doesn't know who to stop first."
Philadelphia knows all about Brady. He picked the Eagles apart the only time he faced them, in Philadelphia on Sept. 14, 2003, when the Patriots handed the Eagles their worst loss of the season, 31--10. Brady completed 30 passes, mostly dinkers, against a banged-up secondary that was missing two starters. It was one of those games in which things just snowballed and kept getting worse for Philly--something like New England's Halloween loss to Pittsburgh this season. Donovan McNabb had his worst game of the year. He threw two picks, fumbled twice, got sacked seven times. The fans were yelling for A.J. Feeley. On ESPN's pregame show two weeks later Rush Limbaugh made his infamous remark about how the media were pumping up McNabb because he was an African-American.
"Oh, I remember the Patriots," Eagles tight end Chad Lewis said on Sunday. "It'll take a heck of an effort to beat them because they have the experience and they've proven they're one of the best of all time."
Best of all time? Well, it depends on how you look at it. Four Patriots were chosen for the Pro Bowl, but two-- Larry Izzo and kicker Adam Vinatieri--are special-teamers. Brady and defensive lineman Richard Seymour were the only regulars picked to go to Honolulu. ( Seymour is nursing a bad knee and was inactive for both playoff games.) Fifteen other teams have more offensive and defensive Pro Bowl representatives than New England, including Philadelphia with seven.
By now everyone knows the story of the Patriots, the triumph of the team concept over an individual's ego, the knack they have for signing people and plugging them right in, and the confidence to promote players from within and not miss a beat. It makes you wonder why other teams can't do the same thing.
"Because they don't have the touch--the ability to look at players and see right away what they can do--like our coaches and personnel staff have," said wideout David Givens. "Take a guy like Hank Poteat. There's a guy who hadn't played all year, but we signed him last week, and he was out there today playing in our dime defense, like he'd been doing it all season. It's weird. There are guys on the team who haven't even spoken to him. I'm one of them."