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 As the New England Patriots blew out teams by scores like 52-7 and 56-10, the feeling was Bill Belichick was running it up because of the folks who suggested New England won three Super Bowls because it cheated.
But those blowouts also fueled talk about the Patriots being the best team ever.
Maybe, but maybe not. At least wait three games to see if they win the Super Bowl.
There were five games during the regular season the Patriots could have lost: at Dallas, at Indianapolis; Philadelphia; at Baltimore; and Saturday night's finale, the 38-35 win at the Meadowlands over the Giants that made them just the second team to finish the regular season unbeaten in the modern era.
If they had dropped just one of those, at this point they would simply be categorized as ONE of the outstanding teams along with two of four others that finished 15-1 since the merger. Those four: the 1984 49ers; the 1985 Bears; the 1998 Vikings and the 2004 Steelers.
Those Chicago and San Francisco teams are two of the best of the last quarter-century, certainly in the discussion with the Patriots when great teams are discussed. The other two never even made it to the Super Bowl, the Vikings losing the NFC championship game at home in overtime to Atlanta and the Steelers doing the same in an AFC title game to ... New England.
How ``great'' are ``great'' teams?
The 1989 and 1994 49ers belong in that category. The '89 team was 14-2 and the '94 squad 13-3. The 1993 Cowboys, who were just 12-4 in the regular season, belong in the discussion - they started 0-2 when Emmitt Smith held out.
When you ask folks in Pittsburgh about the best of the Steelers teams that won four Super Bowls during the 1970s, they will tell you it was the 1976 edition, which was 10-4 in the regular season, despite a bunch of injuries. Pittsburgh lost 24-7 to Oakland in the AFC title game because so many starters were out, something even ex-Raiders acknowledge.
That Minnesota playoff loss after the '98 season was a classic case of how one play can change everything. Gary Anderson, who had made every one of his 39 field-goal attempts that season, missed one with 2 minutes and 7 seconds left that would have given Minnesota a 10-point lead.
Atlanta won in overtime.
That's one thing Belichick stressed Sunday when he talked about the AFC playoffs. Jacksonville, San Diego and Indianapolis all could be on the Patriots' radar and all could be extremely dangerous.
``The next time we step on the field we'll be 0-0 in the second season,'' he said.
But he and his team know they had their share of luck, including a relative lack of injuries to key players - defensive lineman Richard Seymour missed the first half of the season with knee problems and linebacker Rosevelt Colvin is on injured reserve.
They also had their share of close calls.
Take the game in Baltimore, against a team that had lost five in a row. Weather - wind in this case - was the great equalizer.
The Ravens led the Patriots 24-20 with 1:48 to go and New England faced a fourth-and-1 at the Baltimore 31. Heath Evans was stuffed, but the play was blown dead because the Patriots' Russ Hochstein had jumped, and New England converted a fourth-and-6.
With 55 seconds left, it was fourth down again, this time with 5 yards to go at the Baltimore 13. Tom Brady's pass was incomplete but Baltimore's Jamaine Winborne was called for defensive holding, one of those, ``maybe it was or maybe it wasn't'' calls.
Then the Patriots won on a TD pass from Brady to Jabar Gaffney.
The Patriots had the benefit of one of those ``maybe'' whistles Saturday night, when an illegal contact call on New York's Corey Webster negated a sack on Brady on a 3rd-and-14. The Patriots went on to score a touchdown in what turned out to be a 3-point win.
Of such calls are unbeaten seasons made although both certainly looked legit when they were shown on replay. Still, there are plenty of other games in which those kind of calls aren't made.
That's why it's so hard to finish unbeaten. And it's why, good luck or not, the Patriots' season is so remarkable.
One factor, obviously, is talent.
Last season, the Patriots finished just 10-6 in the regular season, but led 21-3 in the AFC title game in Indianapolis and only an interception by Marlon Jackson on New England's last possession sealed the Colts' victory.
In the offseason, New England added Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte' Stallworth to what last season was one of the NFL's worst receiving corps.
Now it's the league's best. Brady set a single-season record with 50 touchdown passes; Moss set a mark with 23 TD catches; Welker finished with 109 receptions.
And Belichick keeps pounding and pounding, even in celebration. The coach didn't use the ``U'' word (unbeaten), although Brady did and Robert Kraft, the owner who has set the tone for the perfect franchise, talked to his players about one of the great accomplishments in NFL history.
Belichick?
He wasn't happy about the 35 points the Giants scored, the most against the Patriots this season.
``When you give up 35 points on defense and special teams, that's not where you want to be,'' he said on Sunday, a day he said he would use to sit back and appreciate what his team had accomplished. ``That's not going to win every game for you in this league, that's for sure.''
That's why he wins.
He just can't help keeping the pressure on his players ... even on what is supposed to be a day off.

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