Patriots might just keep on winning

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- When NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue handed the gleaming Vince Lombardi Trophy to Patriots owner Robert Kraft on Sunday night, he offered his congratulations.

"And keep it up," Tagliabue said, in an alarming breech of impartiality.

They just might.

There has been some loose talk about designating three cities -- think New Orleans, Miami, San Diego -- as permanent Super Bowl sites.

How about taking the concept one step further and making the New England Patriots the permanent AFC entry in the ultimate game? The television networks will get behind this; while many Super Bowls are one-sided, the Patriots always play it close.

Despite the fact they were two-touchdown underdogs, they capped the 2001 season with a heart-stopping 20-17 victory over the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. Last year, it was a scintillating 32-29 win over the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII. This year's 24-21 defeat of the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX was slightly less cathartic, but the Eagles still had a chance to tie it at the end.

All three-point victories, all close to the vest. There are no points in the NFL for style, so the Patriots do just enough to win. They now own a nifty trifecta of three-point victories.

Even without a league mandate, the Patriots just might be the automatic AFC entry for the next several years. Yes, they are that good. They won their third Super Bowl in four years and almost everyone in the vicinity of ALLTEL Stadium -- with the notable exception of the Patriots -- invoked the D-word when it was over.

The Patriots matched the achievement of the Dallas Cowboys of the middle 1990s, but within the context of today's free agency system, New England's feat is vastly more impressive.

Next on the Patriots' agenda are two of the greatest teams in NFL history -- some would say the two greatest teams in league history.

The Pittsburgh Steelers of 1974-79 won four of six Super Bowls. With one more in the next two seasons, New England can match that. The 1961-67 Green Bay Packers won five NFL championships in seven seasons. It is not unreasonable to imagine the Patriots winning two more Super Bowls in the next three seasons.

History colored this game on many levels.

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has now won 10 of 11 playoff games -- including the last nine in a row. He has now surpassed Vince Lombardi, the man whose esteemed name is on the trophy, as the most successful head coach in the postseason.

As the seconds were counting down, Belichick was flanked by his 86-year-old father, Steve, a longtime assistant coach at the Naval Academy. That was where Belichick learned the game as a boy. His hours in the film room with players like Roger Staubach have made him the best coach in the game and, if five Super Bowl rings mean anything, one of the greatest ever.

Are the Patriots a dynasty, wondered Fox broadcaster Terry Bradshaw, the quarterback for those great Steelers teams?

"This trophy belongs to the players," Belichick said. "They play their best in the big games and they deserve it, they really deserve it.

"It was a lot of hard work. It was a lot of sweat, a lot of blood left out on that field, a lot of energy to go through that whole process of over six months, and 120 practices and all that.

"But it's worth it."

Not coincidentally, quarterback Tom Brady is now an unnerving 9-0 in the playoffs for his career.

He had a typically low-key Brady line: 23-for-33, 236 yards. But also typical were his two touchdown passes and zero interceptions. That's five touchdown passes and no interceptions in three playoff games. His numbers in those nine playoff games -- 11 touchdowns and three interceptions.

He may not have been the MVP -- that honor went deservedly to wide receiver Deion Branch, who had 11 catches for 133 yards -- but who threw him those balls? This was one of those dicey decisions that faced Super Bowl XXIII voters when 49ers wide receiver Jerry Rice won it with 11 catches and 215 yards, but was served nicely by Joe Montana, who completed 23 of 36 passes for 357 yards.

"I know I haven't had a day off in seven months, and it's all for this," Brady said. "Wait until you get that Super Bowl ring and go to the White House and hopefully have another parade again and it's another championship for the city of Boston."

At the age of 27, Brady probably has another decade to win his third Super Bowl MVP award and equal the record of his childhood idol, San Francisco's Joe Montana.

In the last two seasons, New England has now won a staggering 34 of 38 games. The scary thing? This is the Patriots' best team among their triumvirate of champions. With Corey Dillon carrying the offense along with Brady, this offense -- with all due respect to departing offensive coordinator Charlie Weis -- could carry an aging defense for several more years.

The Patriots, although flux is a fact of life in the NFL, never seem to change.

This is how the Patriots do it:

  • The team that played down stretch without All-Pro cornerback Ty Law and defensive end Richard Seymour, lost starting safety Eugene Wilson late in first half with a injury to his right side. Operating with two rookies in the defensive secondary, Dexter Reid and Randall Gay, the Patriots kept the hammer down on the Eagles.

  • Vrabel is a linebacker by trade, and a pretty good one. He now has five touchdown catches in his career -- and one each in the last two Super Bowls. The Eagles' Terrell Owens can't say that.

  • Dillon is the New England horse in the backfield, but Kevin Faulk gained meaningful yards in the go-ahead touchdown drive. He wound up with 10 touches, good for 65 yards.

    The Patriots take a lot of grief for being a vanilla locker room full of generic quotes, but that's who they are. They say they take them one game at a time and that's precisely how they play them. Call them vanilla. Call them boring.

    Call them champions -- just not a dynasty. To their faces, anyway.

    "You guys all want me to say it," Brady said, smiling, "but I'm not going to say it."

    After the game all Brady wanted to talk about was that the Patriots were 0-for-4 on first downs to open the game. Seriously, it's the way this team is conditioned to think.

    And next year?

    "We're going to approach it just like we approached it this year," Brady said. "We realize how difficult it is and how tough teams are going to make it on us, just like they did all year."

    Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.