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The coach who strode to the front of the meeting room the day after the New England Patriots' Oct. 3 road win over the Buffalo Bills didn't look happy. Bill Belichick seldom does. But you'd figure there'd be a a hint of contentment, perhaps even a little smugness, after winning 18 in a row in a dog-eat-dog league that makes Microsoft versus Apple look like an intramural game.
Streak? What streak? Belichick told his players that they may have beaten the Bills by two touchdowns, but their special teams performance had been a disgrace. He told them that it was, in fact, the worst special teams performance he had seen in his 30 years of coaching: zero punt-return yards, a fumbled punt, a kickoff booted out-of-bounds, a 34-yard run by Bills punter Brian Moorman after he had dropped the snap on fourth-and-two and a 98-yard kickoff return for a Bills touchdown. As a result, Belichick announced, there would be changes on special teams. Backup safety Shawn Mayer, who'd missed a tackle on the touchdown return, was released. Starters--notably linebacker Tedy Bruschi and safety Rodney Harrison--would begin to take regular turns on the suicide squads.
"We can't go on like this if we want to be any good," Belichick told his team. "Things are going to change, starting this week. And there will be more changes if these don't work."
This is the kind of calculated ruthlessness, whacking a decent backup safety with the emotional detachment of a Paulie Walnuts, that Belichick employs when something is amiss with the Patriots. And make no mistake, the kicking game (25th in average punt return, 26th in opponent punt returns, 29th in opponent kick returns) was amiss. "You play for Belichick," says linebacker Mike Vrabel, "and every week's a tryout."
After a week of extra special teams meetings and practice, including repeated work on fake punts, New England showed marked improvement on Sunday. The Miami Dolphins advanced but one of five kickoffs past their 27-yard line. Dolphins punter Matt Turk tried to do what Moorman had done the week before but was stopped after a three-yard gain by Patrick Pass. If Pass hadn't gotten him, special teams captain Larry Izzo would have. "I was eyeballing Turk all the way," said Izzo. "There was no way any punter was making a play on us today."
That's only one of the reasons the Patriots keep on winning. They do whatever it takes. The intensely physical 24-10 win over the Dolphins gave New England its 19th consecutive victory (including three in the playoffs), the longest winning streak in the 85-year history of the NFL. Go ahead and debate whether the Patriots are as good as the perfect 1972 Dolphins (box, page 71) or could line up with Lombardi's Packers, or could slow Joe Montana's 49ers in their prime. All the Patriots know is what their Gatorade-soaked coach told them in a fairly businesslike locker room after the game: "You've done something no other team in NFL history has ever done."
In fact New England hasn't been beaten since it suffered a 20-17 road loss to the Washington Redskins on Sept. 28, 2003. Last week one NFL pro scout said his team had approximately 60 players on its league-wide personnel board rated as "blue" (premier players). This scout rated quarterback Tom Brady and defensive end Richard Seymour (page 72) as the Patriots' only blue players. Six teams had more than two blues. New England led the league in "red" players, who are rated just below the blues. The scout's conclusion: New England wasn't good enough to overpower opponents but had enough talent, if coached well, to be a premier team in today's game.
The most amazing thing about the run is the ever-changing Patriots' roster. This is Belichick's fifth year as coach. At the beginning of every season he has had at least 10 starters who weren't in the opening day lineup the previous year, including a dozen guys in '04 who were not in the lineup that opened the season for last year's title team. This year the Pats replaced their running back, the fullback, a wideout, three offensive linemen, the tight end, two defensive linemen, two linebackers and the free safety. By comparison, the lineup for the '72 Dolphins had only three changes from 1971. In '73 Miami changed two starters.
"I think the Patriots' accomplishment in this era of free agency puts their streak on top of all the others," says Ron Wolf, the former Packers general manager and one of the game's most respected talent evaluators. "The Patriots have to deal with so many factors that the teams of a generation ago never did. The secret in today's football is that guys who can coach and teach, like Bill Belichick and his staff, are invaluable. Because if you're really good today, you've got to replace a $10 million player with a $400,000 player almost every year, and the Cadillac has to keep running."