Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NFL [Print without images]

Wednesday, October 13, 2004
Updated: October 14, 3:44 PM ET
Team takes it 'one game at a time'

By Greg Garber
ESPN.com

FOXBORO, Mass. -- Clichés are tired and trite, but they are also true.

The New England Patriots believe in them, which is why they have managed to win one game at a time -- 19 times in a row.

After the Patriots handled the Miami Dolphins 24-10 last Sunday, they celebrated their NFL record by orchestrating what has become the ultimate victory cliché. Richard Seymour and Rodney Harrison doused head coach Bill Belichick with a vat of Gatorade on the sidelines at Gillette Stadium. Nearly two decades earlier, Belichick was Bill Parcells' defensive coordinator when the New York Giants started christening their coach after big victories.

Bill Belichick
Belichick got a Gatorade shower in honor of the team's 19-game winning streak.
Like Parcells, Belichick is a focused, straight-ahead guy. He learned from Parcells that (cliché alert) yesterday doesn't count for anything in the NFL. And after two Super Bowl victories in three seasons, it seems reasonable to say that the student has learned to deliver this "one-game-at-a-time" message to his players better than the teacher -- or anyone else in football, for that matter. The similarity between the transcript of Belichick's first two press conferences each week, typically on Monday and Wednesday, and the players' comments -- particularly quarterback Tom Brady -- are, frankly, astonishing.

Belichick referenced the streak for the first time in the locker room after the Miami game, revealing that he is a student of history, after all. Still, his parting shot to his players was this: "However, we have a great Seattle team coming in."

While the Patriots basked in the glory of their achievement, they clearly had an eye to Sunday, when the 3-1 Seahawks visit. More than any other team in the league, (cliché alert) they live in the here and now.

Linebacker Tedy Bruschi was asked by reporters how long Belichick would revel in the record. He paused for a few beats.

"It's over," Bruschi said, smiling. "Now we're getting into a minute past being over.

"Believe me, I've been around him so much, you can read in between Bill's lines. It's 'Enjoy it now, but don't even say a word about it Wednesday when you come in here.'"

Last Wednesday, Brady advanced the company line about the streak, saying, "That makes absolutely zero difference in the outcome of this game. As many people want to talk about that, no one here cares and I don't care and the coach doesn't care and the players don't care, and we want to beat the Dolphins. We want to go 1-0 against the Dolphins."

And that's exactly what happened. Afterward, however, the players' comments suggested they cared very much indeed about the larger issue.

"It's great to be a part of history, and we understood that as the clock ran out," Seymour said, explaining his stealth Gatorade attack on Belichick. "What we did came naturally. And he didn't gripe for a minute. He's at the top of the list of coaches in this game and we wanted to celebrate going into history."
Patriots ticket
Tickets to the Patriots-Dolphins game included the following references to the streak: a No. 19 on the referee's jersey, the words "SEC. 19 IN A ROW" in the background and jerseys of Pats players with digits that added up to 19.
Harrison concurred. "We just wanted to express our congratulations to the coach," he said. "We did what we did to show him it was OK to loosen up a little bit and enjoy it."

The Patriots organization was acutely aware of the team's accomplishment, too, and commemorated it with a subtle and clever piece of work. According to both major Boston newspapers, the two players featured on tickets to the game were not randomly selected. Defensive backs Tyrone Poole and Eugene Wilson wear numbers 38 and 26, respectively. Do the math and you'll find that those four digits add up to -- you guessed it -- 19. A coincidence? The number on the referee pictured is also 19. And, written across the stands in the background in faint, widely spaced letters is "SEC. 19 in a row."

All of this on tickets pre-printed before the season began. Certainly, the front office was (cliché alert) counting their chickens before they were hatched, but it worked out. They're sure to become a collector's item you'll find on eBay.

If the Patriots' play was always such an artistic success, Belichick couldn't possibly nitpick their performances. As it is, he regularly shows them a reel of mistakes -- the perfect antidote to a swollen head. Still, to win 19 straight games at any level is a remarkable feat. To do it in the NFL, where the salary cap has spread talent so thin and games are almost always open to suggestion, borders on ridiculous.

Consistency has been the Patriots' calling card. Nine of the 19 games were decided by less than a touchdown, including the breathtaking 32-29 Super Bowl XXXVIII victory over the Carolina Panthers. The average score is a modest 24-15, which means (cliché alert) the Patriots always get it done at crunch time. When their game against the Seahawks kicks off on Sunday, the Patriots will have gone 385 consecutive days without a loss -- the last coming to a Washington Redskins team coached by Steve Spurrier, of all people.

Previously, five NFL teams had won 18 straight games over two seasons: The 1933-34 Chicago Bears, the 1941-42 Bears, the 1972-73 Dolphins, the 1989-90 San Francisco 49ers and the 1997-98 Denver Broncos. Because the league does not officially recognize postseason games in winning streaks, the Patriots have officially only won 16 straight games.

This did not prevent NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue from offering his congratulations, calling it an "extraordinary milestone."

"Coach Belichick said it from Day 1, 'I've got a game plan, and if you guys follow that game plan we should be successful,'" kicker Adam Vinatieri said last week. "It's a situation that we dive headfirst into team, and it's worked.

"I think Coach Belichick has probably smacked it into us along the way and said, 'You're going to go my way, or I'll find guys that will.'"

Why don't the Patriots like to talk about the streak?

"Talking about that stuff is kind of a distraction," Vinatieri said. "I mean, if you're starting to believe the hype, you start thinking, 'Maybe we're unbeatable, we're unstoppable' -- and that's not true."

Vinatieri went on to say that the Dolphins were a good team and could very easily have had a 3-1 or 4-0 record going into the game. The Dolphins, who are the No. 32 team in ESPN.com's newest NFL poll, are not a very good team, of course. But as long as Belichick keeps providing a sense of weekly urgency, his players will buy into it.

This week's director's cuts? The Patriots will see Brady completing only seven of 19 passes for 76 yards, and the defense allowing Miami inside the 20-yard line three times in the fourth quarter. Chances are, Belichick will not show the Patriots video of the Seahawks' unconscionable late collapse against St. Louis. Seattle led 27-10 in the fourth quarter, but Marc Bulger got hot and the Rams scored 23 straight points to win 33-27 in overtime. Based on records, anyway, the New England-Seattle matchup is Sunday's best. The Patriots, rest assured, are not looking ahead to the following week's game against the 4-0 New York Jets. Seattle is the focus here, then the Jets in another home game, followed by games at Pittsburgh and St. Louis.

One game at a time.

"It is simple to say and it sounds boring, but we really believe it," Bruschi said. "We live it, we breathe it. I don't think it even goes one game at a time. It goes to one practice at a time, to one meeting at a time, to one film session at a time. So, we break it down even more than that."

As offensive tackle Matt Light said, "It's hard to play them two at a time -- that would be impossible to do."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.