I CAN'T CALL THE CURRENT PATRIOTS TEAM A DYNASTY, BECAUSE DYNASTIES do not crop up once or twice a decade; dynasties come around in a sport once or twice a century. A dynasty is not the Cowboys winning three championships in the '90s, or even the 49ers winning five in 14 seasons.
You think the Ming dynasty lasted only four years?
A dynasty has to be something closer to pure dominance over an extended period. A dynasty is the Celtics winning 11 championships in 13 years (1957--69), or the Canadiens winning 15 Stanley Cups in 24 seasons, or the Yankees winning 16 World Series between 1936 and 1962. Maybe in 2011, when the Patriots have won their eighth Super Bowl in 10 years, I will be ready to have this dynasty discussion.
The NFL has had only two teams come close to what I would define as a dynasty. In the 10 seasons from 1946 through 1955, the Cleveland Browns played in the championship game of their league 10 times, winning seven. (The first four titles came in the All-America Football Conference, a rival pro league. The Browns joined the NFL in '50; they won three championship games and lost three in their first six years in the league.) Beginning in 1960 the Green Bay Packers won five NFL titles and lost in the championship game once in an eight-season span. But the Browns probably trump the Pack because Green Bay was a nonfactor before '60 and all but fell off the face of the earth after winning Super Bowl II following the '67 season.
There is, however, something special about the mark the Patriots have made on NFL history after winning three Super Bowls in four years. In the 39-year Super Bowl era, only one team has won as many as three titles in four years--the Cowboys, in 1993, '94 and '96. Though Dallas had part of its run after the salary cap was instituted, in '93, the guts of that team, and the contracts for the players on that team, were done before the cap period. Once the cap began forcing teams to make smart financial decisions, the Cowboys crumbled; they've won one playoff game in the last nine years.
The Patriots have not passed the test of time yet. Even so, what is different about this team, what makes us even dare to consider the word dynasty, is the dominance New England has shown within the streak. The Patriots won an NFL-record 21 in a row through the middle of this past season, and they are now 32--2 since Sept. 28, 2003. The Packers' best 34-game mark during their reign was 30--4. In those days, players didn't move from team to team with the swiftness they do now, yet the Pats, from a pure won-lost perspective, have been more dominant over the past two years than the Packers ever were.
So where do these Patriots rank in the pantheon of the greatest teams in the 85-year history of the NFL? Probably slightly ahead of the Cowboys of Jimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones, simply because of how difficult it is to build such a juggernaut with today's economic realities. To be exact, I'd rank them sixth alltime--behind the four-time champion Steelers of the '70s, the Browns of the postwar era, the '60s Packers, the 49ers of the Bill Walsh era and the annual contender that was the Chicago Bears in the first 25 years of the NFL.
Which is just what Bill Belichick likes to hear: There are more hills for his players to climb. The Patriots are one of the best teams ever, but to be in the argument for the best of all time, as insane as it is to fathom now, three out of four just isn't enough. They've got to stay great against the huge odds the NFL throws in their path every off-season.