On Sunday in Foxboro, Mass., the New England Patriots will battle for their 19th straight win, a streak spanning much of last season and the first three games of 2004. If successful, the defending Super Bowl champions will establish a new mark for consecutive wins in the National Football League.
The pursuit of the record stirs fan interest, but garners terse acknowledgment from Patriots players and coaches. After defeating the Buffalo Bills last weekend to tie five other NFL teams with 18-game streaks - Denver (1997-98), San Francisco (1989-90), Miami (1972-73) and two separate runs by Chicago (1933-34 and 1941-42) - New England displayed little appreciation of its accomplishment.
Quarterback Tom Brady, among others, has made it clear that many on the team don't even view the streak as a streak since it spans two seasons and includes post-season victories.
"It is a totally different team," he says. "It is a completely different team with a different attitude and different camaraderie.... I don't think the players look at it any other way."
Nor does Bill Belichick, the fifth-year head coach credited with turning the Patriots into a powerhouse. Belichick has instilled a game-by-game focus in his players and coaching staff.
That influence is crucial, since NFL rosters are controlled by a salary cap that was ushered in with the 1994 collective bargaining agreement. With limits on what teams can spend on player salaries, as well as a free-agent system that lets players seek new employment with greater ease, the continuity of coaches has become crucial.
Dynasties such as the New York Yankees in baseball or the Michael Jordan-era Chicago Bulls in the NBA are all but obsolete in football. The dominant teams of earlier eras - Green Bay in the 1960s, Pittsburgh in the 1970s, and San Francisco in the 1980s - would all have lost too many star players under the current system to assemble powerful teams year after year.
With the cap firmly in place, the Patriots are the closest thing to a dynasty football may have to offer for a long time. New England went 5-11 during Belichick's debut in 2000, but, since then has won 43 of its past 57 games and won the Super Bowl in two of the past three years.
"You have to be a good team [to win in today's NFL], but you also have to stock your roster with competent players," says Michael Holley, author of "Patriot Reign," which explores the Patriots' championship run last season. "The Patriots do that better than anyone else because Bill Belichick is an economist at heart. He thinks like a football coach and an economist at the same time."
Belichick did, in fact, graduate from Wesleyan University with a degree in economics in 1975. Working with Scott Pioli, the team's vice president of player personnel, Belichick has shown a penchant for avoiding burdensome long-term contracts that can limit a franchise's roster flexibility. Stars such as Antowain Smith, Ted Washington, and Lawyer Milloy have all gone to other teams after seeking huge pay raises.
Belichick would rather take a chance on a $500,000-a-year player rather than a stellar performer who commands $5 million, Mr. Holley says. "He'll go with [the lower-paid] guy and think, 'I can coach him up [another level],' " he says. "And, most times, it's worked."
Faced with such scenarios, the Patriots' win streak may be more impressive than those compiled by earlier dynasties, Holley and others say. At the same time, the reliance on good-but-not-great players might lead some to argue that the Patriots are not among the greatest teams in league history. For example, the famous Pittsburgh teams of the 1970s won four Super Bowls and placed eight players in Pro Football's Hall of Fame. Of the current Patriots roster, perhaps only Brady could be earmarked for enshrinement.
In a fitting piece of football theater, New England's opponent for the potential record-setting win is Miami. The Dolphins don't resemble the 1972 squad that went undefeated through the regular season and playoffs - a feat no other NFL team has managed in the Super Bowl era. At 0-4, this year's Dolphins have been hurt by injuries and rocked by the sudden retirement of star running back Ricky Williams.
Even so, NFL teams have become so evenly matched that few games are decided by more than a touchdown, making New England's run all the more impressive.
"Any team that puts together a streak like they have deserves a lot of credit," says Marty Hurney, general manager of the Carolina Panthers, the team New England defeated in the Super Bowl last February. "Every week there are close, tight games. Games in this league are won from confidence and preparation. That starts from the top and it comes from having a cohesive organization. They have that."
Even with a win Sunday, sticklers may point to the record book and demand more evidence. The NFL goes by regular-season victories in its record book, which would mean the Patriots' post-season wins don't apply. By that measures, the Chicago Bears of 1933-34 hold the record with 17 consecutive wins. New England, with 12 regular-season wins to close 2003 and three more this year, needs two more victories to tie the Bears.
No matter the perspective on streaks, New England's run is impressive. "They deserve to be commended because I think it's harder to stay on top in today's game," says Marv Levy, who led the Buffalo Bills to four consecutive Super Bowls as head coach during the 1990s. "They've been winning the close games, which is the mark not of a team that's lucky, but of a good team."