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Let's face it: We haven't seen a franchise like New England since the 49ers of the 1980s and '90s or the Steelers of the '70s. Both those superteams kept their dynasties alive by winning in different ways, with different players. The Steelers' Super Bowl teams of the mid-1970s won with defense and the running game; by the time 1979 rolled around, Terry Bradshaw was winning championships by playing bombs away. The 49ers won titles first with Joe Montana throwing strikes to Dwight Clark, then with Steve Young dissecting defenses with Jerry Rice.
That's the model for winning over the long term in the NFL: You build a solid base, and you change the pieces around that base. Like the Steelers and the 49ers before them, the Patriots have extremely stable ownership; Robert Kraft is to his team what Dan Rooney and Eddie DeBartolo Jr. were to theirs. But unlike Pittsburgh and San Francisco, the Patriots—who won three Super Bowls between 2001 and '04 and went to a fourth after the '07 season—seem destined to make a second run at greatness with the same coach and quarterback. It feels as if the Patriots are as hungry as they were before they ever won a Super Bowl. Quarterback Tom Brady is 33, has everything a red-blooded man could want, and the level of fame he has achieved can be intoxicating. Yet he says he burns to play football into his 40s. ("What else would I do?" he said last year.) Bill Belichick is 58, as acerbic as he was on his first day in coaching, and says he doesn't want to do anything else either. Could they stay together for another six or eight years? If so, they could turn into the Browns of the post--World War II era, who won seven pro titles in 10 years. Or the Packers of the 1960s, who won five championships in seven years.
Based on the results of this year, that's very possible. The Patriots enter the postseason on a bigger roll than any of the four previous New England teams that made it to Super Bowls. Look at how they played in the last half of each of those four seasons and how they played in the last eight games this year.
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The Patriots' success starts with the pillars they have at quarterback, on the sideline and in the owner's box, but the amazing thing about this season is how well they have worked in new personnel in other areas. They have changed both primary running backs from last year, with BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead replacing Fred Taylor and Laurence Maroney. Four of this year's top five receivers weren't with the team last season. The right guard spot has a new starter, and the best player in the secondary, cornerback Devin McCourty, is a rookie. Most impressive this year has been the offense's transition from a wideout-based passing scheme (goodbye, Randy Moss) to one that uses tight ends as deep weapons. Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, both rookies, combined for 87 catches and 16 touchdowns. That adaptability begins with Belichick's mastery of the draft. The Patriots have had some blown draft choices in the past few years, but they haven't suffered because they stockpile picks better than any team in football. If it wins the Super Bowl, New England could dominate February and April: It owns three of the first 33 picks in this year's draft.
As the Patriots set out to win their fourth Super Bowl in a decade, they might be the most complete team the franchise has ever sent to the playoffs. They certainly are playing the best of any New England team entering the playoffs: Anchored by nosetackle Vince Wilfork (page 66), the defense held four of its final five opponents to seven points or fewer. But getting themselves in position to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in Dallas will be difficult. Look at the teams that could be in their path. The Patriots beat the Colts by three points in November, but Peyton Manning strafed them for 396 passing yards. Baltimore waxed New England in the playoffs last year and lost to the Patriots by only a field goal this season. The Packers, who I think will survive a tough NFC road, battered Brady last month and, with backup quarterback Matt Flynn playing for the concussed Aaron Rodgers, were driving for the winning score when the clock ran out.
So there will be no gimmes this postseason—but no team in football is playing like these Patriots. They're complete, they're young with just enough veteran influence, and they've got the best on-field leader among NFL quarterbacks. If they lose, it'll be an upset on the level of what the Giants did to them in the Super Bowl three years ago. That won't happen this year. I think the Colts and the Ravens could throw scares into the Patriots. Green Bay might too: The Packers' massive defensive front has overrun some foes. But these Patriots look like a better team than the 2007 squad that entered the Super Bowl 18--0. Fewer flaws.
Last summer I picked Pittsburgh and Green Bay to make the Super Bowl, but I can't see the Steelers' offensive line holding up. So I'm moving to the Patriots. I like New England over Green Bay in Dallas next month, with the Packers overcoming a lousy running game and winning three road games to get there. They'll study how the Giants gashed the Patriots' offensive line in that Super Bowl, and surely Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers, with his bottomless bag of tricks, will expose a weakness or two. But Belichick lost the coaching war to then Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo in that game. He won't let it happen again.