JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The man whose team is poised to present him with a third Vince Lombardi Trophy on Sunday, who has presided over the construction of a franchise so complete that it has become the model club that everyone else in the NFL aspires to be, approached the D-word on Sunday night as if it were a hissing snake.
New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft, schmoozing a bit with a few media members following a press conference in which his typically guarded coach barely acknowledged the team's two previous Super Bowl victories, could hardly bring himself to articulate the term "dynasty" or agree that his team is just a few days away from such an imprimatur.
"I'm saying, and it's not just coach-speak here, that a lot of people don't understand just how good (the Philadelphia Eagles) are," said the typically natty Kraft, an owner who has taken a moribund franchise and turned it into the league's gold standard. "To achieve what they have, going to four straight championship games in this day and age, that really is incredible. We found out in 2002, when we didn't even make the playoffs, just how fragile this whole thing can be. But here's a team that has done it year after year. I'm not so sure you shouldn't be talking to them about all this dynasty stuff."
Ah, yes, what could have been. A few plays here, a fortunate bounce there, and Eagles coach Andy Reid, not New England counterpart Bill Belichick, might be the guy toting the genius tag into Super Bowl XXXIX.
But the dynasty handle in any sport is validated by being the one team that finishes the season without a defeat in the final game -- hey, if you don't believe it, ask Marv Levy -- and by doing so with some degree of frequency. If you're not the team puffing on the victory cigar when the scoreboard clock registers triple zeroes, then you are just part of the ashes, and the Eagles, for all their brilliance since 2001, are merely a component of the residue left behind from the last three seasons.
Since the start of the '01 season, the Eagles own four dozen regular-season victories, tied for the league lead in that department. But the franchise that shares the top perch also has a pair of Super Bowl victories and so, while Bob Kraft terms the Eagles' achievements as "incredible," its postseason failures have rendered Philadelphia ignominious.
The Eagles are, in truth, a curiosity item. They were, let's be candid, a team that most fans wanted to see tossed into the crucible of another NFC championship game last week, mainly to see if they would suffer a fourth consecutive meltdown. And even after having exorcised some of the demons, the Eagles veterans understand the purge really cannot be complete without a Super Bowl XXXIX win.
People don't speak in terms of only conference superiority, or lionize the franchise that is second-best in a given season, let alone for four straight years. For sure, the Eagles have been dynamic, a team that has found a formula for perpetuating success, both on the field and in the front office. But dynastic in their own NFC hemisphere of the league's universe? Philadelphia players don't want to even consider such a suggestion.
"You don't see any rings on these fingers, do you, man?" said free safety Brian Dawkins, the spiritual leader of the Eagles defense and a prideful player obviously wounded by the fact it took nine seasons for him to finally arrive at a Super Bowl site. "We feel like we have been the best team in the league, not just the NFC, the last four seasons. But the fact is, we haven't finished the deal, right? And, in this league, being close just means being like all the other teams that didn't win the Super Bowl."
But just how close did the Eagles come, from 2001-03, to entering this season as the franchise branded with the dynasty tag? Some would argue that, in the three conference title game defeats, Philadelphia actually regressed. Fact is, there is ample evidence that the Eagles' best shot at advancing to a Super Bowl was their first opportunity, when they lost at St. Louis by just five points in the 2001 NFC championship matchup.
Playing in a hostile environment, against the NFL's most explosive offense, Philadelphia led the Rams 17-13 at halftime. St. Louis rallied behind the running of tailback Marshall Faulk in the second half, though, and cornerback Aeneas Williams intercepted a Donovan McNabb pass with 1:47 remaining to choke off a potential Eagles comeback.
In the 2002 title game, at home, Philadelphia was routed by Tampa Bay, 27-10. The '03 championship defeat to the upstart Carolina Panthers wasn't quite as lopsided, 14-3, but might actually have been more of a sound beaten than the previous year's loss to Bucs since the Eagles were barely competitive even before McNabb exited with a chest injury.
Three defeats by an average of 11 points. That hardly defines close. Yet, like Kraft, most observers rely strictly on superlatives in any discussion of the Eagles' terrific run of the past four seasons.
Certainly the praise is justifiable. Like New England, the Eagles are a well-designed organization, from top to bottom. Team president Joe Banner is arguably the top salary cap manager in the league. Personnel director Tom Heckert has demonstrated in the draft and free agency that he has a sharp eye for talent. Reid clearly has one of the premier staffs in football. And the talent, well, as Kraft was quick to note, the Eagles placed nine players on the Pro Bowl squad (10 with running back Brian Westbrook's addition on Monday) this season.
"Hey, look, that's a great team," said Patriots guard Joe Andruzzi. "You don't do what they have done, maintain that kind of success over such a long period, and not be a great team. They've had a run, when you really think about it, that is pretty historic."
And yet history has all but relegated the Eagles, at least to this point, to the same sports scrap bin where already resides some of the best non-champion teams in history. Over the course of the past four years, Philadelphia has literally matched New England victory for victory in regular-season play. In that same stretch, the Patriots are 8-0 in the postseason and the Eagles are 6-3.
It isn't the three more losses the Eagles have absorbed, as much as it is the two more wins the Patriots have recorded, which sets the franchises apart. Some of the Eagles players may not know the definition of oxymoron, but they understand that, in the NFL, there really is no such thing as second best.
"You're either the best team, the guys holding up the Super Bowl trophy, or you're not," said Eagles cornerback Lito Sheppard. "We've had a chance to be those guys and now we've got another (opportunity). The one way we can put behind us everything that's happened in the past is to win on Sunday night. We do that, and then we've earned the right to have people say nice things about us."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.