DYNASTY, ACCORDING TO WEBSTER'S, SECOND edition, is "the continued lordship of a race of rulers." High and mighty terms. The Packers of the 1960s, the Steelers of the '70s--now those were dynasties. How about the Patriots, are they dynasty material?
One more NFL title might swing it. And this is precisely the kind of talk that brings a look of disgust to the face of coach Bill Belichick. "I don't care what everybody else believes--as long as we don't believe it," he says.
He posted signs around the team's training complex that read, DON'T BELIEVE THE HYPE! Beneath that headline is the wreckage of the five Super Bowl teams from 2000 through '02--Giants, Rams, Patriots, Raiders and Bucs--that crashed the season following their title-game appearance.
That's right, in 2002, one year after winning the Super Bowl, New England was out of the playoffs (9--7)--sunk by the same things that ended the dynasties: Starters got old, stars lost their shine. An overhaul was delayed. "We tried to hang on with what we had," Belichick says. "We didn't make it."
The offense was young, but the defense was aging. So four of the first five '03 draft choices were used on defensive players. The top two free-agent imports were pass-rushing linebacker Rosevelt Colvin and safety Rodney Harrison.
In '03, for the first time in Belichick's four years with the team, New England finished in the top half of the league in defense, ranking seventh. And for the first time in the 44-year history of the franchise, the team allowed the fewest points in the league. The Patriots won their second Super Bowl, but they're still rebuilding. Four of the first five selections in last April's draft were defenders. And New England made a dramatic change on the other side of the ball as well. Corey Dillon, the former feature back in Cincinnati who was acquired in an April trade, joined an offense without superstars, just super-clutch performers such as quarterback Tom Brady, who is 6--0 in postseason play and 7--0 in overtime games.
This is Brady's team, no question. And he's joined by 29-year-old Dillon, an elusive back who can run with power and toughness. So the defending champs, on the verge of a dynasty, have gotten younger and more talented. Are they still hungry? Belichick will get his answer soon enough. -- Paul Zimmerman
--Reprinted from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, Sept. 6, 2004