Of the six NFL teams that have won 18 straight games (including playoffs), the New England Patriots have by far the lowest margin of victory.
That's no surprise to the Patriots or anyone who has watched them as they seek their 19th straight win Sunday against Miami. They don't dominate, they simply make big plays when they need them -- over and over again as Bill Belichick and assistants push exactly the right buttons.
Just look at some of the plays that have extended the streak:
-- Willie McGinest's sack in the dying seconds on opening night that pushed Indianapolis back just far enough to miss a potential tying field goal. Last year, McGinest's fourth-down stop at the goal line in Indy saved a game.
-- Tedy Bruschi's strip of Drew Bledsoe as Buffalo threatened to tie last Sunday's game. Richard Seymour returned it 68 yards for the clinching touchdown. McGinest and Bruschi seem to be the biggest big play men: Bruschi's interception return last season was the only TD in a 12-0 win over Miami.
-- Rodney Harrison's interception of Peyton Manning's pass in the end zone on Indianapolis' first possession in last year's AFC title game set the tone for New England's victory. Harrison is the classic Patriot, an aging Pro Bowler discarded by San Diego who proved to be the ultimate team player on a winning team.
-- Long kick returns by rookie Bethel Johnson that led to wins last season over Tennessee and Indianapolis, one reason the Patriots got home-field advantage in the playoffs, where they beat the Titans and Colts again.
That's not even counting numerous big plays from quarterback Tom Brady and the huge kicks by Adam Vinatieri, including two that won Super Bowls in the final seconds -- and two in the snow at Foxboro that won a 2001 playoff game with Oakland that propelled New England to its first title. Or Troy Brown's 55-yard punt return for a touchdown that sent the Patriots on their way to an upset of Pittsburgh in the AFC title game that year.
''They just don't make mental mistakes,'' says Don Shula, whose unbeaten 1972 Miami Dolphins also won 18 straight, a streak that carried over to 1973.
''They make big plays in big games defensively. McGinest in the Colts' opener this year. Last week, end of the ballgame, they strip the quarterback and run it in for a touchdown. It's what you expect from a championship team.''
Adds Seattle coach Mike Holmgren, an assistant on the San Francisco team that won 18 straight:
''They've had five or six games in that stretch where they could have lost. Somebody came up with a big play. I like their team because they appear to not care who gets credit.''
The Patriots' average margin of victory during the streak is 8.9 points per game.
That's four points lower than the Denver Broncos of 1997-98, another of the 18-win teams. And it goes up from there: the '89-90 49ers at 13.3; Shula's Dolphins at 14.7; the 1941-42 Bears at 15.2; and the 1933-34 Bears at 24.1.
That reflects this era in which free agency and the salary cap have promoted parity. But that also demonstrates the remarkable nature of the Patriots' streak.
Even 15 years ago, the 49ers were one of a half-dozen teams (most of them in the NFC) at a level above the rest of the league, an imbalance that provided some easy wins. Denver's streak came during the salary cap era, but it turns out the Broncos were cheating. They have been fined twice by the NFL and forfeited draft choices for cap circumvention during that period.
The Patriots' system is perfect for the cap.
They don't necessarily get the best individual, although Seymour, McGinest and Ty Law all were first-round draft choices and are certified Pro Bowlers. They traded a second-rounder this year to get Corey Dillon, also a name player, to upgrade the running game.
But don't give them much credit for spotting Brady and taking him in the sixth round; if any team had known how good he'd become, he would have been drafted much higher.
Many Patriots are like Bruschi, a 250-pound lineman at Arizona who was a third-round draft choice in 1996, when Belichick was an assistant to Bill Parcells.
''I think that there are certain players that sometimes you can't even find the right word or the right identification, but you just know that they are playmakers,'' Belichick said this week. ''They have an instinct for the ball or an instinct for the situation. Tedy is one of those players. He's very instinctive. He's been a high producer at every level of football he's ever played, regardless of what position it's been at -- line, linebacker, special teams. Whatever he's asked to do, he's a good football player. He's the type of guy you want on the field in every situation.''
The Patriots come up with players like that more often than other teams. They now are trying to turn Dan Klecko, an undersized defensive lineman taken in the fifth round last season, into a linebacker, with Bruschi as one of his tutors.
''I remember when we sat in the draft room and took him,'' Belichick recalled, talking again of Bruschi. ''The conversation was, 'Look, we're taking him. We're taking a good football player. We don't know what we're going to do with him exactly, but we figure we'll find something.' It was a significant pick. It wasn't like it was a throwaway guy in the ninth round or something.
''It was clear pretty quickly that, not only was he going to make our football team, but he was going to help our football team and he did in his rookie year. He's a great guy to coach. ...
''He's a football player.''
And he defines the Patriots.
DIRTY DOZEN: The top six and bottom six teams based on current level of play:
1. New England (3-0). No. 1 until they lose.
2. Philadelphia (4-0). Didn't play their best, but won on the road. That's a good team.
3. Seattle (3-0). A win Sunday over the Rams and they're close to the NFC West title.
4. Indianapolis (3-1). Even when the defense rests, there's enough firepower to overcome it.
5. Atlanta (4-0). The defensive turnaround is remarkable.
6. New York Jets (3-0). No really impressive wins, but no losses either.
27. Buffalo (0-3). The NFL's best winless team.
28. Washington (1-3). Forget big-name coaches and players. The most important guy on any team is the owner. And Dan the Fan's track record speaks for itself.
29. Cincinnati (1-3). Back in familiar territory, alas.
30. San Francisco (0-4). At least the 49ers are losing with youth.
31-32 (tie) Central and South Florida (0-4). Jon Gruden's Bucs aren't much better than Dave Wannstedt's Dolphins and the Wannstedts have excuses.
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