Monday, December 31, 2007

History in the making

The NFL might be the most competitive sports league in the world. Very little separates the winners from the losers. The Miami Dolphins finished the season 1-15 while the New England Patriots achieved regular season perfection winning all 16 of their games…Including two victories over the hapless Dolphins. Still these teams were much closer than the 15 game difference in their final records.

Consider that six of the Dolphins’ losses came courtesy of a three point margin. Even games where the Dolphins lost by more points they were pretty competitive. The Dolphins just didn’t get any breaks. They lost key players to injuries, had big plays called back by penalties and saw the ball bounce the other team’s way in more than one contest. Looking back over the Dolphins’ season it’s hard not to believe in luck.

The Patriots didn’t seem lucky. They were just good. They obliterated opponents all season long. Granted there was a stretch where the Patriots seemed to lose motivation and they found themselves in close games down the stretch but when they needed a defensive stop or a long scoring drive they managed to get it. Still, luck was on their side. Imagine how the Patriots might have fared if they’d have lost Tom Brady to a severe concussion or Randy Moss to a torn ACL. Although the Patriots made their own luck on the field, the fact that their key players managed to stay healthy all season was remarkable.

The 1972 Dolphins weren’t that lucky. They lost their starting QB early in the season and had to rely on their backup QB. Of course that back-up happened to be a wily veteran who had intimate knowledge of Don Shula’s game plan but Earl Morrall was still a reserve. How many teams could qualify for the playoffs, let alone win every game with a reserve QB calling the signals?

Of course football was different in 1972. Players didn’t have as much power as they do today and teams were able to load up on talent and Shula’s Dolphins were loaded. They had a fantastic line and a powerful running game. They weren’t known as a passing team back in the 1970s. Bob Griese wasn’t the greatest QB in NFL history. Larry Csonka was the weapon of choice and Miami’s line allowed him to build up a head of steam. In fact, of all the players the Dolphins could lose to injury, the QB was probably the one they needed least. When you think about the way the game was played back then and the way it’s played today the Patriots 16-0 is far more impressive than Miami’s 14-0 run.

Of course the regular season feat doesn’t matter. Miami continued the perfection into the post season winning the divisional playoffs, the conference title and finally sealed the deal with a 14-7 Super Bowl win over the Redskins. New England has to match that feat and in today’s NFL there’s very little separating one playoff team from another. If New England doesn’t beat all three of its post season opponents the 16-0 regular season record will become a running joke. Teams are judged by the championships they win, not overall records. Just ask the Buffalo Bills who dominated the 1990’s by winning 4 straight AFC Championships, but the albatross the members of those teams will forever wear is the 0-4 record they hold in the Super Bowl. Nobody cares that they made the playoffs every year from 1988 through 1993 or that they won 70 regular season games in that span…an average of more than 11 wins per season.

If the Patriots make good on the promise their 16-0 season committed them to, there’s no denying where they stand in NFL lore. The nature of today’s game makes their accomplishment so much more significant than anything anybody’s done before. Football is at its pinnacle. Players in the league are more athletic and work harder at the game than the players in seasons past. There’s very little difference in talent. Now more than ever the “any given Sunday” adage is true. The Patriots ran a gauntlet to get to 16-0 and now they will face three monumental tests. If they succeed there will be no denying how great this team is.

In fact, it’s hard to deny it now. When you think about how fierce the competition is in the NFL, the fact that they actually went 16-0 should be enough to hold them in high esteem. If the Patriots fall in the playoffs or come up short in the Super Bowl, is it fair to relegate them to anonymity? Can we make fun of a team that goes 18-1?

Sadly, the answer is yes. If the Patriots don’t win in the post season people will speculate that they were so focused on that perfect regular season record that they lost site of winning a championship and in the world of professional sports that’s a cardinal sin. Teams don’t start training camp in the middle of summer so they can win 16 games, they do it because they want to win the Super Bowl. That’s the prize. Now the Cleveland Browns can take solace in winning 10 games, and the Packers can bask in the glory of capturing a division title but ultimately every player on every team starts the season with the goal of winning a Super Bowl. Out of all the games a team plays throughout the season the only one that matters is the one that ends the journey. For the Patriots that game hasn’t arrived yet, for the Browns that was last week when they lost to the Bengals, for the Dolphins, Raiders, 49ers, Bears and Ravens, that game came along months ago.

9-7, 11-5, 16-0...Those are just numbers. The only thing that matters is whether or not you get to the playoffs. The Tennessee Titans are as successful as the Patriots at this point. Now it’s a single elimination tournament. The only thing that matters is winning. Everything else is just talk. The team that wins it all will be the team that wants it more. Stats, rest, injuries fatigue, home field advantage…none of that really matters. It’s a new season and the best team will win. Everybody has a chance to make history.

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