4 UNPREDICTABILITY ON OFFENSE AND DEFENSE
YOU KNEW what you were getting with the Cowboys of 10 years ago--a steady dose of Emmitt Smith every Sunday, with Troy Aikman throwing just enough to keep defenses honest. The 49ers of Bill Walsh always ran well, but they moved the chains by throwing. Until late in their reign, the Steelers mashed defenses with a methodical running game. The Patriots? Look at the defense they've used in the playoff wins over Indianapolis and Pittsburgh. Against downfield-minded Peyton Manning, they clobbered all receivers (above, Asante Samuel hits Brandon Stokley) in the five-yard bump zone, then dropped a middle linebacker back as a deep safety on a score of passing downs, spacing the safeties out wider. So what Manning saw were three punishing hitters ready to separate Colts receivers from the ball 20 yards downfield; his longest completion on a frustrating day was 18 yards.
5 OWNERSHIP THAT IS SUPPORTIVE, NOT INTRUSIVE
OWNER Bob Kraft (above, with Deion Branch) has been a good assist man for the football side of the building. After saddling the team with guaranteed-money problems by overpaying quarterback Drew Bledsoe and cornerback Ty Law early in the Belichick era, Kraft has let Belichick and Pioli figure out how much to pay whom. Kraft has set a good tone for the organization in building a stadium, much of it with his own money, and mandating first-class facilities, behavior and fan services during the team's championship run.
6 A SOLID SCOUTING DEPARTMENT
ONLY SEVEN players of the 63 under contract to New England were Patriots before Belichick and Pioli arrived. Quarterback Tom Brady came in the sixth round of the 2000 NFL draft, center Dan Koppen (left, snapping ball) was a fifth-round pick in '03, and guard Stephen Neil signed off the street after only wrestling in college. All are key starters for an explosive offense. Pioli's staff unearthed a few lesser lights on defense, too--notably defensive backs Randall Gay (who was a part-time starter his senior year at LSU but got nine starts this year because of cornerback injuries) and former Steelers kick returner Hank Poteat (signed in January after not playing football all fall). This New England team has shown an amazing ability to pick up the slack after seemingly anyone goes down.
7 GOOD PLAYERS ON BOTH SIDES OF THE BALL
IT'S become fashionable to talk about what a genius Belichick is, what a terrific owner Kraft is and what a good scouting job Pioli has done. True all. But players play. No linebacker in football chases down runners and plugs gaps better than Bruschi. No defensive lineman is more versatile than tackle-end Richard Seymour (93). No kicker has performed more ably under pressure than Adam Vinatieri. And few running backs produce with the speed and power of Corey Dillon. They may not get the individual awards that their peers on other teams rake in, but that is only because of the unselfish nature of this team. This is a talented group that will be very good for at least two more years if it stays together.
8 THE TOM BRADY FACTOR
EVERY great team needs a triggerman, and this team has been led by the unassuming Brady, who at 27 appears to be mentally and physically built for the long haul. He also seems as well-grounded as the quarterback he's compared with the most: Joe Montana. Brady has more wins than Montana (48 to 28) through his first five years and is 9--0 in playoff games. His career record sounds like a lopsided score, 48--14. It's more than just talent with Brady, though, it's also the ability to play at his best when the stakes are highest. "He never seems to get rattled by the situation," Belichick said. "I'd take him as my quarterback over anyone."