What the Patriots have done almost as well as coaching their established players is developing talent--and paying below-market prices to keep it. Top left tackles command more than $6 million a year; last week Matt Light, one of the top 10 players at his position, signed a six-year, $27 million deal. "It's going to be great playing with these guys for the next few years," Light says. "It's not always about being the highest-paid guy." Bruschi, one of the best defensive playmakers and leaders in the game, could have become a free agent after this season, but in June he signed a four-year, $8.12 million extension. That deal would make him the 12th highest-paid player on the Cincinnati Bengals. He doesn't care.
"You turn on the TV and watch the highlights," says Bruschi, "and you see a bunch of individuals making plays and celebrating as individuals. We don't play to make highlight shows. Watch how we celebrate--with our teammates. Always. You play the game to be on a team like this. Our attitude is we don't want to be good one to 22. We want to be good one to 53."
One to 22 led the way against Buffalo, win No. 18 in the streak. Down 24-17 the Bills had driven inside the New England 20 when Bruschi sacked and stripped Drew Bledsoe; Seymour picked up the loose ball and ran 68 yards for the clincher. The Bills blitzed on 42 of 56 plays and knocked Brady down nine times, but he wasn't sacked and threw no interceptions--while passing for 298 yards and two touchdowns. "No errant throws," marveled Bills defensive backs coach Steve Szabo. "People talk about Peyton Manning and Steve McNair. They're good, but I've been on the other side of the fence from all of them, and Brady's better."
The Patriots needed one to 53 on Sunday. The Dolphins beat the tar out of Brady--he left the stadium with four stitches above his chin and a swollen lower lip--but Corey Dillon (18 carries, 94 yards) picked up the slack on offense. Dillon, the former Bengal who was supposed to be an outlaw, took a $1.55 million pay cut after being acquired in an April trade. So far he has been a model citizen while running for 417 yards in four games. "Money couldn't buy me happiness anymore," says Dillon.
With Dillon sidelined for a spell in the third quarter by an ankle injury, Rabih Abdullah, a September waiver-wire pickup, plowed into the end zone with the first touchdown of his seven-year career. And two rookie defensive backs--safety Dexter Reid, a fourth-round pick out of North Carolina, and Randall Gay, a free agent out of LSU--came up with a fumble and an interception, respectively, to stop Miami drives. Gay, who played half the downs at nickelback on Sunday, might be the ultimate find for Scott Pioli, the Patriots' vice president of player personnel. Gay didn't even start for the Tigers' co-national championship team last season, but Pioli knew he was getting an athlete who had been battle-tested while playing for LSU coach Nick Saban, a former assistant under Belichick and a good friend.
Belichick is a student of the game like no other NFL coach; the library in his suburban Boston home has a wall of football-related books, from Amos Alonzo Stagg to Dave Meggyesy. In the locker room of this unique team on Sunday, Belichick finally paused to consider his accomplishment: The team he directs has done something George Halas, Paul Brown, Vince Lombardi and Bill Walsh never did--win 19 straight games.
Belichick smiled. "It's great to be in the history books," said the man who's read them all. ?
By virtue of their win over the Dolphins on Sunday, the Patriots have the longest winning streak in NFL history, but just as impressive is the record 48-game unbeaten string of a team that plays another kind of football: Arsenal owns the longest streak in English top-division soccer history. Here are the longest winning streaks in North American major sports.
[This article contains a table. �Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]