HOUSTON Bill Belichick shies away from the ''D'' word. Yet even after winning their second Super Bowl in three seasons, the New England Patriots seem to be as close to a dynasty as any team can be in an era of parity.
But if ''D'' doesn't mean dynasty, it could certainly mean dominant.
''I don't want to get into all of that,'' Belichick said Monday, less than 12 hours after the Patriots beat the Carolina Panthers 32-29.
''The NFL is so competitive, 32 teams on a level field banging their heads to get here. It's hard to think that way.''
On the surface, the Patriots seemed dominant. They finished with 15 straight wins, joining the unbeaten 1972 Dolphins (17-0) as the only teams to accomplish that feat in a single season.
But nine of New England's 15 straight victories were by eight points or less, and only a 31-0 win over Buffalo in the regular-season finale was truly one-sided. Both of the Patriots' Super Bowl wins have come on last-second field goals by Adam Vinatieri, unquestionably the best clutch kicker in the game.
Still, in a league where the salary cap and free agency make it difficult for a successful team to keep its players, New England is in a unique situation.
The Patriots have so many players chosen for their ability to play a specific role, it should be easier for them to keep their roster nearly intact, unlike Baltimore, which won in 2001 and has just started to rebound after shedding a number of high-salaried players.
But the Patriots do have some cap problems.
Quarterback Tom Brady and cornerback Ty Law, will count somewhere around $17 million against the $79 million cap next season.
The 26-year-old Brady, who won his second Super Bowl MVP trophy, certainly isn't going anywhere. But Law, who had three interceptions in the AFC title game and who will be just 30 next season, could go unless he restructures his contract.
Still, the Patriots separate themselves from the pack by their ability to plug in an obscure player for a solid starter and not lose a thing.
For example, Belichick cut safety Lawyer Milloy just before the start of the regular season. Rookie Eugene Wilson, a cornerback in college, took his place with little dropoff.
Rookies also could be a big part in next season's Patriots.
Six made major contributions this season, and New England will have two first-rounders in April's draft the 21st and 32nd overall. That could allow the Patriots to trade up for a prime player or simply sit back and take what Belichick prefers: guys who fit specific roles.
Expected to return to the lineup is pass rusher Rosevelt Colvin, lost in the second game of this season with a broken hip.
Most importantly, the Patriots are a ''team' in the true sense of the word.
None of the Patriots' three top receivers second-year men Deion Branch and David Givens and 11-year veteran Troy Brown is a star. Yet Branch had 10 catches for 143 yards in the Super Bowl, while Brown had eight for 76 and Givens five for 69.
''I wouldn't trade that group of receivers for any in the league,'' Brady said.
The offensive line, which held Carolina's powerful front four without a sack, also included no-name players. Three were fill-ins with very little NFL experience: rookie center Dan Koppen; right tackle Tom Ashworth; and left guard Russ Hochstein.
So, count on the Patriots to contend, especially if they continue to draft as well as they have in past years.
Sure, they missed the playoffs a year ago, finishing 9-7 and losing the NFC East on a tiebreaker, and they could go 9-7 again next season they can't win EVERY close game.
''I don't know about our legacy,'' offensive coordinator Charlie Weis said. ''But two titles in three years in the environment of the NFL these days is quite an achievement.''
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