Patriots reflect on how 16-0 became possible
The talk, believe it or not, began all the way back in mid-September.
After just two games in the regular season, the Patriots had already weathered the Spygate storm and come back more focused than ever, routing a talented San Diego team 38-14 in Week 2.
That was enough to get one intrepid national reporter to summon the audacity to ask Pats coach Bill Belichick the unthinkable: Can this team actually go 16-0 this year?
Belichick's response was about what most would expect.
"That's so ridiculous," the coach answered with little effort to hide the scorn he felt for the question. "Seriously, is there anything else?"
Fifteen weeks later, the ridiculous has become reality, and there isn't anything else left for the Pats to accomplish - in the regular season anyway.
New England became the first team in NFL history to go through a 16-game season undefeated with a dramatic rally from 12 points down to edge the New York Giants 38-35 at the Meadowlands on Saturday night.
Still, even after doing it, the Patriots themselves seemed to have trouble processing that a perfect season in the age of a league-imposed ideal of parity through salary caps and free agency actually could have been completed.
"How could you ever think something like this was possible?" asked safety Rodney Harrison. "There's so many teams, so many games, all the competition, injuries. It's an emotional roller coaster of a football season. I mean, you're happy if you lose only one game, let alone not lose any games. So how could I have imagined that? I never imagined that it was possible."
Belichick's tone was slightly different when speaking about this latest historic win, but he still hasn't stopped pushing his charges for even more.
"It's something that we can all be proud of," said Belichick of going 16-0. "But we have a lot of football left to play and the next time we step on the field we'll be 0-0 in the second season."
That second season is the playoffs, which begin in two weeks for the Patriots after a well-earned bye through this weekend's wild-card games. As happy as the Pats were after Saturday's win, they understand that 16-0 won't mean a whole heck of a lot if they're not 19-0 and celebrating another Super Bowl title come Feb. 3 in Arizona.
The Pats aren't the first team to go undefeated in the regular season.
The Chicago Bears did it twice, going 13-0 in 1934 and 11-0 in 1942. Don't remember them? Maybe that's because they both lost in the NFL title game.
Every football fan does remember the 1972 Miami Dolphins, who went 14-0 in the regular season, then rolled through the playoffs and Super Bowl to finish a perfect 17-0. Matching that (and even exceeding it by two wins) is what the Patriots really want.
The Patriots' path to perfection was quite a bit harder than the route Miami took. Those '72 Dolphins didn't face a single playoff team in the regular season, and had to beat just two teams with winnings records, a pair of 8-6 clubs in the form of the Kansas City Chiefs and New York Giants.
New England, meanwhile, beat all three of the AFC's other division winners (Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and San Diego) as well as the NFC's top seed (Dallas) and both NFC wild-card teams (Washington, the Giants). If Cleveland squeaked into the final AFC spot with a Tennessee loss in last night's late game against the Colts, then the Pats will have beaten seven of this year's 11 other playoff participants.
This was no cakewalk for the Patriots, even if their record-setting offense made it seem that way at times.
For now though, the playoffs can wait. The Pats will enjoy their first 16 wins, at least for a few days.
"It really wasn't that big of a celebration," said Harrison of the scene in the New England locker room after Saturday's victory. "You would think that guys would celebrate a little more after winning 16 games, but the guys said to each other, ‘We're going to enjoy it for the next three days, then we'll put it on the shelf and move forward and get back to work on Thursday.’"
That's not to say that Harrison, a 14-year NFL veteran, doesn't appreciate the significance of the club's accomplishment, just that something this big takes a little while to fully register.
"You can't really, truly appreciate what we've done until you sit back on your couch and get a chance to reflect on it," said Harrison. "Right now, it's pretty special, but trust me, years down the line, you're gonna really appreciate it."
And in the meantime, Harrison's friends and family can finally start using up their cell phone minutes again. Harrison has proudly proclaimed in recent weeks that as soon as anyone mentioned the dreaded undefeated word to him, he would immediately hang up, regardless of who was on the other end of the line. Now he knows he's got some phone calls to catch up on.
"I can finally talk to people now," said Harrison, who estimated needing to take "about 150 calls" this week. "Until they start talking about Super Bowls, then I'm hanging up again."
Some things never change. When you're perfect, why should they?
Douglas Flynn covers the Patriots for the Daily News. He can be reached at 508-626-4405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.