Because they do not beat you over the head with their excellence or beat their chests in triumph, the New England Patriots are forever being cast as commonplace champions. They are great in the way that a chocolate milk shake is great, as poised and proficient as the Beach Boys' doing background harmonies onstage. What we are slowly but surely learning from the Pats as they forge the first football dynasty of the 21st century is that dominance comes in many forms, and that sometimes doing the little things well can provide the biggest satisfaction of all. � As these Patriots keep escaping with three-point victories and kicking dirt on the Super Bowl's heritage of wretched excess, skipping individual pregame introductions and engaging in comparatively low-key locker room celebrations, isn't it time we stop being perplexed by their success? Yes, New England's 24-21 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX on Sunday night in Jacksonville was another testament to teamwork, tenacity and the strategic acumen of coach Bill Belichick and his staff. But in vanquishing a brasher opponent to claim the NFL's ultimate prize for the second consecutive year--and the third time in four seasons, matching the record run of the Dallas Cowboys from 1992 to '95--the Pats' players proved they are even more potent than typically perceived.
"Someday I'm going to have kids and tell them I played on one of the greatest teams of all time, a team with a whole lot of great players," said 11th-year outside linebacker Willie McGinest, whose deployment at defensive end was the key to New England's surprise scheme change for the title game. "You might not call them stars, but they just went out and embarrassed people in the biggest game of their lives, so why wouldn't they be stars? It doesn't matter if we won by three or 103--we don't give a damn if people downplay our accomplishments, because all we want to do is win."
So before the coronation of the plucky Patriots as the team of the decade, let's get this much straight: As they proved again in front of 78,125 fans at Alltel Stadium and an estimated 80 million television viewers worldwide, the Pats are more than Belichick's brain and quarterback Tom Brady's golden right arm. Defenders like McGinest, fellow linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel and strong safety Rodney Harrison, whose second interception of Donovan McNabb iced the game with nine seconds remaining, showed that they're elite players, while unheralded wideout Deion Branch (LIFE OF REILLY, page 84) seized footballs out of the cool night sky and the MVP award from Brady's grasp.
"It's awesome to see a guy like Deion win it," said Brady (23 of 33, 236 yards, two touchdowns), a two-time Super Bowl MVP. "The guy has done everything he can for this team, and this is a team full of guys who cheer for one another. The MVP is nice, but that's not why you play. I'm playing for that diamond ring that's as big as a belt buckle."
New England's first two titles came courtesy of Adam Vinatieri field goals in the final seconds--and this victory was only slightly less tense. Again, the Pats relied on their patented formula of individual opportunism, selflessness, innovative game-planning and emotion fueled by perceived disrespect. The last of those came after the Patriots received a copy of an e-mail sent from an Eagles official to a member of the Boston Red Sox organization seeking advice on a prospective victory parade, a missive that Belichick milked for maximum effect during his address to the Pats on Sunday morning at the team's hotel in St. Augustine.
But it was the Eagles, despite being seven-point underdogs, who supplied the bulk of the pregame bluster, from wideout Terrell Owens's assertion that God would heal his right ankle in time to play to fellow wideout Freddie Mitchell's digs at Harrison and the other New England defensive backs. Even Chuck Bednarik, the 79-year-old Hall of Famer and former Eagle, popped off, saying his bitterness toward the Philadelphia organization would compel him to root for the Patriots. Meanwhile, rowdy Eagles fans, who greatly outnumbered their New England counterparts, flocked to congested downtown Jacksonville.
The Patriots didn't make much noise, but behind the scenes they had issues. In an effort to keep McNabb from scrambling, Belichick and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel junked their 3-4 set in favor of a 4-3 alignment--the Cali front, so named in honor of California native McGinest--in which the veteran linebacker shifted to pass-rushing end. The idea was to cut off the edges and form a semicircle around McNabb, thus discouraging him from throwing to the inside or running.
Going back to Cali unnerved the Pats, who hadn't practiced that alignment since the preseason. When Crennel streamlined the game plan on the Monday before the game, "there were some raised eyebrows," admitted veteran linebacker Ted Johnson. Practices on Wednesday and Thursday, fellow linebacker Roman Phifer added, were "horrible" for the defense, marred by bad communication, erroneous presnap reads and other frequent mental mistakes.
Rather than rail at his charges, Crennel adhered to the Patriot Method, polling the players on what they thought would fix the situation. The consensus: Simplify the scheme. "If you keep hearing from your players that there are too many checks, that means there probably are," Crennel said. "So we cut it back. After the Friday practice we were able to sleep easier."
While the Pats' defense flustered McNabb (30 of 51, 357 yards, three touchdowns) from the outset, ultimately sacking him four times and intercepting three passes while limiting him to zero rushing yards, New England's offense began the game as if in a slumber. Having fallen behind 7-0 on McNabb's six-yard scoring pass to tight end L.J. Smith with 10:02 left in the second quarter--just the second time in their last 27 games they'd failed to score first--the Patriots drove to the Philly four, only to lose the ball when Brady fumbled after bumping into running back Kevin Faulk on a play-fake.