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THE 2002 Super Bowl—Patriots 20, Rams 17—had been over for a few hours, and Bill Belichick, the New England coach, shook his head and mumbled to the few people near him, "Can you believe we won the Super Bowl with this?"
It was hard to believe then that Belichick's collection of castoffs and reclamation projects had become world champions. Now it's not so hard. In an era in which dynasties are supposedly impossible because of the salary cap, free agency and so forth, the Patriots under Belichick have marched through the 21st century like medieval warlords. In the last seven years they've won three Super Bowls in four appearances, and they're overwhelming favorites to be back this year.
Oh sure, there's always some tweaking to do. Two years ago they wouldn't pay the price to keep David Givens and Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch, so off went their two top wideouts. "Give me wide receivers," Tom Brady said after the 2006 season, in one of his few public shows of annoyance. So in came a supposedly washed-up Randy Moss, who had an All-Pro year, and Wes Welker, Brady's magician on the hot reads, who tied for the league lead in receptions.
This year's draft was for defense, for need. Most Patriots drafts are. Thirty-nine-year-old Junior Seau was commended for his faithful service but was not invited back. His spot, the coaching staff hopes, will go to top pick Jerod Mayo, a size-and-speed linebacker from Tennessee who brings a lot of wallop but admitted in camp that Belichick's defenses, at times, were "a blur." There are plenty of veterans to help him. Two corners, including All-Pro Asante Samuel, were lost to free agency, but two more, Jason Webster and Fernando Bryant, came in by the same route, from Buffalo and Detroit, respectively.
People know better, by now, than to question personnel director Scott Pioli's drafts and trades. How many players have left the club and blossomed elsewhere? Almost none. Who, aside from the most obsessed draftniks, had ever heard of Logan Mankins before New England took him with a first-round pick in 2005? But in three years he has become one of the NFL's best guards.
The machine grinds on. Distractions are not allowed. You think Spygate couldn't have been a major distraction last year? Three quarters of a million dollars in fines from the league office because of the illicit videotaping, loss of a No. 1 draft choice, ugly stares on the street. Some distraction. The season ended 18--1, and if the Giants' Eli Manning hadn't pulled a Houdini and squeezed out of a rush, and David Tyree hadn't pretended the ball was a long-distance phone call and clasped it to his ear, the Pats would have been 19--0 and Super Bowl champs.
Distractions are kept to a minimum around the Patriots, thanks to a net of security around the club that's tighter than a nosetackle's jersey. Mystery surrounds all players on the PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) list. The league policy on disclosure is muddled, more like, "well, it would be nice if they did come clean." Not the Patriots. When strong safety Rodney Harrison came off the PUP list last month, he was asked, "Why were you on it?"
His eyes sparkled. "Now you know better than to ask me something like that," he said.
Brady addressed reporters when he first came to camp and didn't speak again for another three weeks. Moss didn't meet with the media at all until mid-August.
Whipped dogs, that's what the Boston press corps covering the Patriots has become. Belichick's daily press conferences are now exercises in how many ways he can say, "All we're doing is trying to get better." Assistant coaches are off-limits. The ring of security is tight. And it will be strange indeed if this team is not standing front and center in Raymond James Stadium in Tampa come February.