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HE KNEW precious little about the New England Patriots. There were those three Super Bowl rings. There was the coach in the gray sweatshirt who seemed so imperious and distant. "He never smiled," says Adalius Thomas, a Pro Bowl linebacker who spent seven seasons with the Baltimore Ravens before reaching the open market last winter as an unrestricted free agent. There were the players, enemies whom he scarcely knew. ¶ Something made them different. On March 3 Thomas signed a five-year, $35 million contract with the Patriots. With it came a silver helmet, a blue-and-white jersey and, most important, a key to the inner sanctum. ¶ There he found his answer. "You've got to remember, I'm coming in from Baltimore," says Thomas. "People there wanted the limelight, people sought out the limelight, starting with the head coach. It was a star-studded system. Here it's about as different as you can get. Everybody here shies away from being the star guy. Nobody on this team beats his chest. They just all go about their business. And win."
They won again on Sunday in Texas, pulling away from the Dallas Cowboys in the final 20 minutes and turning an inter-conference matchup of unbeatens into a convincing 48--27 victory that left the NFC's best team rightly questioning its worthiness. "We wanted to be one of the elite teams, but obviously we're not," said Cowboys coach Wade Phillips. The rest of the NFC should be thinking along those same lines.
Again the central character for New England was quarterback Tom Brady, who passed for 388 yards and a career-best five touchdowns to four different receivers, while getting scant support from a running game that had just 14 yards in the first half. It was a brilliant performance that left Brady with a ridiculous 128.9 quarterback rating for the season, more than 20 points higher than that of runner-up Peyton Manning. Yet Brady's veteran teammates were scarcely moved beyond shrugs. "What can I say?" asked linebacker Tedy Bruschi. "I've seen him do the same thing in much bigger games."
The Patriots are 6--0 for the first time since 2004, their last Super Bowl year, but they will tell you until your ears bleed that it's still early. "The season really starts after Thanksgiving," Brady coolly explained on Sunday in the belly of Texas Stadium. And they're right. Leaves are still clinging to the trees in much of New England, and there is ample time for the Patriots' fast start to be undone by injury or a few bad bounces. But if it is much too early to award the Lombardi Trophy, it is not too soon to conclude that the winner of the Nov. 4 Patriots-Colts game in Indianapolis will become the solid Super Bowl favorite and (if still unbeaten) a serious contender to be the first team since the 1972 Miami Dolphins to finish a season without a loss.
New England's start represents a rebirth, by the franchise's high standards. Two years ago the Patriots went 10--6 and lost at Denver in the divisional playoff round. Last year they were an uncharacteristic 6--3 as a cranky Brady bemoaned the loss of favorite receiver Deion Branch. They won six of their last seven games and fell one drive short of beating Indianapolis in the AFC Championship Game, but they missed the Super Bowl for the second consecutive year.
Coach Bill Belichick and personnel boss Scott Pioli aggressively added players—most notably Thomas and the wide receiving trio of Randy Moss (from Oakland), Donte' Stallworth (Philadelphia) and Wes Welker (Miami). More impressive, the team has thus far seamlessly absorbed those new bodies. To wit: On Sunday, Welker caught 11 passes for 124 yards and two touchdowns, all career highs. Stallworth and Moss each caught a touchdown pass, as did another newcomer, tight end Kyle Brady. Of Tom Brady's league-leading 1,771 passing yards, all but 396 have been to players who were not with New England a year ago.
The Patriots have restored themselves to a position atop the NFL while embracing the hoary concept of selflessness and deftly navigating the roster turnover that undermines other clubs. "That's this league, and that's this team," says center Dan Koppen. "Personnel changes. You've got to win with the guys you've got, and everybody does a great job around here of letting people know what's expected of them." Another case in point: Laurence Maroney, the No. 1 running back, missed his third straight game with a groin injury. Sammy Morris, who had rushed for 219 yards in wins over Cincinnati and Cleveland in Maroney's absence, went out with a chest injury on the second play of the third quarter. In stepped veteran Kevin Faulk to rush for 50 yards on 13 carries in the second half.
In a larger sense, if the Pats are a slick, corporate football machine (and they are), they have also been boosted this season by an unexpected emotional push. After New England was caught videotaping the New York Jets' defensive signals on opening weekend, Belichick was called everything from a petty sideline sneak to a flat-out cheat. A shadow was cast over the Patriots' Super Bowls. But the controversy only served to tighten the bond between players and coach. After a Week 2 victory over San Diego in their home opener, the Patriots spilled into the locker room and commenced their postgame ritual—a series of expressions shouted over the din and answered by a collective "Aw, yeah!" Bruschi bellowed, "How do we feel about playing for Bill Belichick?" And the response shook the walls.
The passion hasn't ebbed, in part because media and opponents continue to press the issue. In the week before the Dallas game, SI's Peter King reported that Phillips had said that the videotaping controversy represented a "black mark" on New England's Super Bowls. (Phillips denied using that language.) "I don't think we've forgotten about [the criticism]," Bruschi said before the Cowboys game. "Bill is our coach. We stand behind him, and we want him to know that. We consider ourselves to be a family. And when you single out somebody in our family and criticize him, we rally around him. We say, 'Come here, you're one of us.'"
Such battles are easier to fight with Brady aboard. Sunday's showdown matched him against Dallas's Tony Romo, who was making only his 16th start since taking over for Drew Bledsoe in the middle of 2006 (Brady also inherited his job from Bledsoe, early in the 2001 season) but has quickly come to be regarded as one of the best young quarterbacks in the league.