Wednesday, December 19, 2007 Updated: December 20, 3:40 PM ET
The Patriots' place in history
By Eric Neel Page 2
Maybe the best measure of how good the Patriots have been this season is that we've sensed, from the moment they dismantled the Chargers in the second week of the season, that they were playing for history.
History usually comes after-the-fact. We witness something, absorb it, and come to recognize its significance upon reflection. But the Patriots have looked so dominant, so consistent, so unflappable (even in their close calls), that their run at a perfect season hasn't felt dramatic so much as inevitable, something we can't help but anticipate.
Maybe it's too early to put them in the conversation with the greatest teams of all time (two regular-season games and three playoff games stand between them and a perfect championship season), but it doesn't feel too early. It feels right. It feels obvious.
I wonder if it felt that way with the 1972 Dolphins. Did they seem a foregone conclusion as the weeks went by? When you watched them play were you thinking beyond their opponents on the field to how they stacked up against giants of the past? Did they invoke and invite comparisons? Did they stir echoes the way the Patriots do?
Most of sports (most of life) has to do with performing against long odds, mixing failure and success, being vulnerable to the law of averages. A great hitter makes an out seven times out of 10, a hot shooting team misses on 40 percent of its attempts, and even the 1985 Bears can be beaten (if only one time). The elite teams turn that truth on its head, reverse our expectations.
I can't say precisely where a perfect Patriots' season will rank next to the all-time great team feats (I'll leave that to the wisdom of the masses and the results of our listranker). But I can say I can't imagine them losing a game the rest of the way, and I can say I have no trouble at all imagining them carrying their streak deep into next season, either.
I'm no lover of the Patriots. I tire of the smug, cheerless way they seem to go about their business. But for me that invincible perception, that odd expectation, against the grain of almost every NFL season in the last 35 years, and which is somehow more than the 14 wins so far, and which is somehow more than the fact that they've outscored their opponents by nearly 300 points in those 14 wins, is what makes them great, what makes them exceptional, what makes them historical. That perception, that gut feeling, that certainty that they'll do this thing, even before they finish out the season, is what puts their anticipated accomplishment in the same league with most impressive things any team in sports has ever done.
So I made a list here. It's subjective. It's surely incomplete. It's not the resolution of the question but maybe the beginning of a discussion. Where do they rank? What is the company they keep? If their work-in-progress progresses, how rare is the air they breathe?
If they finish the deal (when they finish the deal), I'd have them, based on just this season, below UCLA's 88-game streak, the Lakers' 1972 season, which featured a 33-game win streak and a 39-3 start on the way to a title, the Braves' run of 14 consecutive division titles, the Canadiens' four-year grip on hockey in the mid-'70s, and maybe the Yanks of '98.
But that's just me. And the impulse to make the list in the first place is my endorsement, without reservation, of this year's Pats.
So what's your list look like? When you watch the Patriots, beyond the doomed opponent on the field, who else do you see?
Here's my pantheon (arranged chronologically):
Chicago Cubs, 1906
Though beaten in the World Series by the crosstown rival White Sox (4 games to 2), the Cubs won 116 of 152 regular-season games (a .763 winning percentage). They finished 20 games ahead of the second-place New York Giants in the National League, scored 705 runs (80 more than the Giants), and posted a team ERA of 1.75.
Cleveland Browns, 1946-1951
The Browns ruled the upstart All-American Football Conference for four years, going 52-4-3, including 15-0 in 1948. In their "expansion" year (1950) in the NFL they picked up right where they left off, going 12-2 to win the league championship, and going 11-1 the next year, before losing to the Los Angeles Rams in the championship game. Over six seasons, including the playoffs, the Browns were 76-7-3 on their way to five titles.
Oklahoma Sooners Football, 1956
The team that capped a 47-game Sooners winning-streak by going 10-0, holding six opponents scoreless, and averaging 47 points per game.
UCLA Bruins Basketball, January 23, 1971-February 1, 1974
Those are the dates of the Bruins' two losses to Notre Dame. In between the two losses they racked up 88 consecutive wins and three (of the Wooden-era 10) national championships.
Los Angeles Lakers, 1971-72
The 1995-96 Chicago Bulls (who won 72 games and an NBA championship) may have been better, but the Lakers' 33-game winning-streak is the spirit-crushing, jaw-dropping pro sports gold standard. It's DiMaggio in '41, it's Jerry Lewis for a million straight Labor Days ...
Montreal Canadiens, 1975-1979
The Edmonton Oilers of the mid-'80s were mighty strong, too, but give me Les Habs who, en route to four consecutive Stanley Cup victories, outscored their opponents by an average of 172.5 goals per season, including a differential average in 1976 of 2.26-to-1.
Iowa Hawkeyes Wrestling, 1978-1997
The Dan Gable Years. After owning the international amateur wrestling scene for nearly a decade, Gable coached the Hawkeyes to nine consecutive NCAA championships between 1978 and 1986 (they won 15 NCAA titles in his tenure), and under his direction, their overall record in dual meets was 355-21-5, including 21 consecutive Big Ten titles.
Chicago Bears, 1985
If only the Patriots were as fun as the Bears. If only we could trade the hoodie for the headband and Brady's bland cool for Sweetness' stylish strength. I know from the record books that the Bears lost a game in 1985 (to Miami), but I still can't quite believe it. They went 15-1 in the regular season and outscored their playoff opponents, 91-10 in three games. Plus, they gave us the "Shuffle."
San Francisco 49ers, 1989
They lost two regular-season games (by a total of five points), so the Pats will have that over them, but it'll be hard to match a Super Bowl victory by 45 points, and average a 33-point margin of victory throughout the playoffs.
Atlanta Braves, 1991-2005
Fourteen consecutive division titles, five World Series appearances, and a world championship in 1995. Brian McCann was in kindergarten when the streak started and behind the plate when it ended. Much is made of the Braves only winning one Series title, but their sustained record of excellence in an era of free agency is insane.
Nebraska Cornuskers Football, 1995
According to the Sagarin rankings, the best college football team in the last fifty years. They scored 52-plus points per game, never won by less than 14 points, trailed only once all season, and beat number 2 Florida in the Orange Bowl by a score of 62-14. It was their second consecutive national championship and their 26th straight win.
New York Yankees, 1998
Like the 1906 Cubs they finished more than 20 games ahead of their closest competition. Unlike the 1906 Cubs they also rolled to a World Series title, losing only two games in the playoffs.
Arsenal Football Club, 2003-2005
Dubbed "The Invincibles," over two seasons they went undefeated in 49 consecutive matches. In the 2003-04 season they were 26 wins and 12 draws en route to the English Premier League crown.
Eric Neel is a columnist for Page 2. You can reach him here.