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THE LAST month's victories have provided a true measure of the franchise's culture. The Pats caught America's attention in September and October with glitz and big scores but have kept it with solid performances more emblematic of their foundation. They do not court Football Nation's affection or scrutiny, but inside their walls they embrace the simplest concepts—selflessness, rigor, tunnel vision—until they are reflex. The concepts are not novel. Every football team at every level from Pop Warner to the NFL seeks the same discipline, but the Patriots have come closeset to achieving it.
The chain of command begins with owner Robert Kraft, a Boston-area native who once sat on the cold aluminum seats at old Foxboro Stadium as a season-ticket holder in the 1970s, paid an outrageous $172 million for the downtrodden franchise in 1994 and now oversees one of the most valuable properties in professional sports (estimated worth: nearly $1.2 billion). "There are plenty of people who want to take credit when things go well and then head for the hills when they don't," Kraft said last week in his office at Gillette Stadium, the $325 million facility christened in 2002. "We try to get people who subjugate their egos."
Daily execution of that task falls to Belichick, whom Kraft hired in 2000 against the recommendations of many advisers. Some sent tape of Belichick's painfully uncooperative press conferences during his first tenure as an NFL head coach, with the Cleveland Browns from 1991 through '95. (He is Jon Stewart these days compared with the Cleveland Belichick.) "To me, he was the right guy," says Kraft. "I am not into the lipstick and powder so much as I am into the substance of what I think is right."
Belichick embraces the job of ego management, revealing little in his briefings to the press and scarcely more to his players. "With us, Bill was a lot like he is with the media," says Joe Andruzzi, who played guard under Belichick on the previous three Super Bowl teams and is recovering from Burkitt's lymphoma, for which he was treated last summer. "He would tell us just as much as we needed to know to do our job and nothing more. He would tell us, 'Worry about the next game, not the one after that.' Or, 'Worry about the next play, not the next series.' You really understand what needs to be done."
Wide receiver Jabar Gaffney, who on Sunday caught a 12-yard touchdown pass from Brady that gave the Patriots a 14--6 second-quarter lead, met with Belichick as a free agent following the 2005 season. "He just puts it all on the line," says Gaffney. "He told me, 'I don't know how it was wherever else you played, but this is how it is around here. We win as a team.' You come away and you realize there's no foolishness. Nobody is bigger than the team."
All players—but especially young ones—are subtly discouraged from giving lengthy interviews that come off as glory grabs. "Nobody takes credit," says seventh-year guard Stephen Neal. "If you say, 'Look what I did,' there's a target on your chest."
THE CHIEF praise deflector is also the biggest star—when Belichick was explaining the Patriot Way to Gaffney, the coach summarized by saying, "Just listen to Tom." But though the karma may begin with the star quarterback, it hardly ends there. "Brady is an important guy in that sense," Belichick told SI last week. "But it's not one guy; it's a group of guys, and we have a lot of them. It's almost like a high school or college team that has a lot of seniors. You often see a team like that do well, even better than a team that supposedly has more talent." He went on to list players beyond Brady, starting with strong safety Rodney Harrison and defensive end Richard Seymour, and soon the list was more than a dozen players long.
This atmosphere leaves the Patriots almost impervious to distraction, be it Spygate or last week's contretemps, when Moss was slapped by a Florida court with a temporary restraining order after being accused by a woman of battery. In a rare meeting with the media, Moss vehemently denied the accusation and, tellingly, said, "As much as I love the game of football and love my teammates and coach, I would never put myself or them in a situation like this."
In a purely football sense Belichick has created an environment in which details are prioritized and hammered home. "One of the first practices I was here," says eighth-year running back Sammy Morris, who signed as a free agent in the off-season, "Junior Seau, who I played with in Miami, came up to me and said, 'Here, we major in the major and minor in the minor.' They don't let little things get in the way."
Tight end Kyle Brady, who has been in the NFL for 13 years but signed with New England only last spring, says, "There is a professionalism and a businesslike attitude here. They take film study seriously. They take game-planning strategy seriously. There's an awareness of what's required to be successful that might be pleasantly surprising anywhere else, but here, it's just expected."