The Patriots are keeping things low-key as they attempt to do what no NFL team has done before.

FOXBORO, Mass. (AP) – Tom Brady didn’t use the words “Super Bowl.” Nor did he say “three straight,” “threepeat” or anything suggesting the New England Patriots are on the cusp of history.

Just the same, he alluded to his team’s quest to become the first to win three consecutive Super Bowls. You just wouldn’t know it from reading the team’s transcript of his chat on a practice field with a small group of reporters – that part was excised, either by Bill Belichick or someone acting on the coach’s orders.

Here’s what the Patriots’ star quarterback said on a pleasant August morning:

“Everyone knows what the goal is. But you’re so far away from that goal, you can’t begin to think about it. We haven’t even played an exhibition game yet, we haven’t played a regular-season game, we haven’t made the playoffs yet. That’s when you start thinking about it.”

Think, yes. Talk about it, no – a point made clear when the transcript of Brady’s interview was e-mailed to the media a few hours later.



At least Brady said something. Anyone who asks Belichick about it gets, at best, a dismissal and a nasty look. Lesser players won’t even broach the subject.

In truth, trying to forget February’s goal in August isn’t a bad idea.

When the Buffalo Bills went to consecutive Super Bowls from 1990-1993, Marv Levy would tell his players at the start of each camp to wipe the slate clean. They were starting from scratch and whatever they had done the previous season was forgotten.

But the Bills lost all four of those Super Bowls, three of them badly. The Patriots don’t have the stigma of losing.

Not only can they become the first team to win three straight Super Bowls, but if they capture the Vince Lombardi Trophy again, it will be their fourth in five years, something not even the great Steelers of the 70s did. Pittsburgh won four in six years: 1974, 75, 78 and 79.

The others to win two straight: Green Bay in the first two Super Bowls after the 1966 and 67 seasons; Miami, which went unbeaten in 1972 and then won the title again in 73; San Francisco in 1988 and 89; Dallas in 92 and 93 (and again in 95); and Denver in 1997 and 98.

All were great teams, all dynasties of a sort, although the Packers of the late 1960s were an aging team without some of the players on Vince Lombardi’s great teams that won NFL titles in 1961, 62 and 65. In fact, Lombardi temporarily retired after the second Super Bowl win and the Pack went 6-7-1 under Phil Bengtson, his hand-picked successor.

The first five did it without the limitations of a salary cap. The Cowboys won at the start of the salary cap era, when teams could still keep their best players.

The Broncos? They had John Elway and Terrell Davis and still ended up being penalized by the league for salary cap circumvention. Elway retired after the second victory, Davis seriously injured his knee and the Broncos haven’t won a playoff game since.

But all those teams had one thing in common: They had to overcome injuries, the bad luck that plagues all teams in all sports, and the fact they were targets for every opponent, every week.

“It’s that kind of a thing. It comes down to the bounce of the ball,” says newly minted Hall of Famer Steve Young. “If the Patriots do it, it’s one of the magnificent things in sports.”

Young knows about bounces.

He took over at quarterback for an injured Joe Montana in the fourth quarter of the 1990 NFC championship game with the 49ers holding a 13-12 lead over the New York Giants.

He led the 49ers on a long drive, looking to put them on their way to Tampa for a chance to play Levy’s Bills for their third straight title. Then Roger Craig was hit by nose tackle Erik Howard and fumbled right into the arms of Lawrence Taylor with 2:46 left in the game.

The Giants drove down the field for Matt Bahr’s winning field goal and New York went on to win the Super Bowl when Buffalo’s Scott Norwood missed a field goal as time expired.

That game illustrates a phenomenon the Patriots don’t face in the salary-cap era – teams that were good stayed good over an extended period of time.

You can argue that the 49ers, who won five titles between 1981 and 1994, were the greatest team of the Super Bowl era because they played in a conference that had a half-dozen strong teams over that span. NFC teams won every Super Bowl between the 1984 and 1996 seasons. During those 13 seasons, San Francisco won four, the Cowboys three, the Redskins and Giants two each. The Bears’ 1985 winner was one of the best teams ever.

The Cowboys also exemplified the strength of the NFC. They had their run of three wins in four seasons broken by a San Francisco team featuring Young and Jerry Rice that beat them 38-28 in San Francisco to win the NFC title, then totally stampeded San Diego in the Super Bowl. Those Cowboys had lost coach Jimmy Johnson after the 1993 season in a dispute with owner Jerry Jones, and new coach Barry Switzer wasn’t close to Johnson in ability.

In the 70s, it was the AFC that dominated, led by the Dolphins and the Steelers.

The Dolphins eventually lost Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield to the fledgling World Football League, hastening their fall from powerhouse to simply a good team. Oakland, Baltimore and Denver were all strong at various times, making the Steelers’ accomplishments even more remarkable.

Pittsburgh owner Dan Rooney thinks the best of those Pittsburgh teams was one that didn’t win a title, the 1976 squad that might have made it three straight had it not lost in the AFC championship game after a slew of late-season and postseason injuries, including Franco Harris.

“We basically had the same core team through that period,” Rooney says. “But that was a really good Raiders team we lost to and without Franco it was just too tough.”

That’s the perfect example why winning three in a row is so hard – one key injury, especially during the playoffs, can end it all.

New England enters the 2005 season after an offseason that would test any team.

First it lost the coordinators who were such an integral part of Belichick’s stratagems. Charlie Weis left the offense and became the head coach at Notre Dame. Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel took over the Cleveland Browns.

Tedy Bruschi, the inspirational inside linebacker, is sitting out this season after suffering a stroke shortly after the 24-21 Super Bowl win over the Eagles last February. Ted Johnson, last year’s other starting inside linebacker, has retired. Their replacements (for now) are injury-prone 35-year-old Chad Brown, a Pro Bowler as an outside linebacker in Pittsburgh and Seattle; and Monte Beisel, a converted lineman who has only nine starts in 55 NFL games, all last year on a bad defense in Kansas City.

Those changes can be huge when the margin of victory is so small. After all, the Patriots’ “dominance” consists of three Super Bowl wins by three points – the first two on last-second field goals by Adam Vinatieri.

They are well aware how close those victories have been.

On the wall of owner Robert Kraft’s office is a panoramic picture of the Louisiana Superdome with the Patriots holding the ball at their 27, the score tied at 17 and a minute-and-a-half left in the 2002 Super Bowl against the Rams, who came in as two-touchdown favorites over New England.

“That’s where we were when John Madden said we should sit on the ball and wait for overtime,” Kraft says with a laugh.

Instead, they drove 53 yards and Vinatieri kicked the winner as time expired.

With all the injuries, the Patriots still seem to hold one edge: the ability to lose stars and fit in previously undistinguished role players like Beisel without losing anything.

Last season, they lost Ty Law, their best cornerback, midway through the season. They still won a title with Randall Gay, an undrafted rookie, as a starter and veteran wide receiver Troy Brown filling in as an extra defensive back. Law just signed with the New York Jets, the team that seems best equipped to challenge the Patriots in the AFC East.

But New England won without Law last year. This year, the Patriots brought in Duane Starks and Chad Scott, two veterans of no great distinction, to help fill the gap.

If there is an indispensable Patriot, it might be Bruschi – beyond Brady, perhaps defensive lineman Richard Seymour and Belichick, of course. Not only was he the team’s most inspirational leader, but he seemed to almost always make a big play when things seemed darkest.

Not only was he the team’s most inspirational leader, but he seemed to almost always make a big play when things seemed darkest.

Bruschi is still around, tutoring Beisel and defensive lineman Dan Klecko, who could be slotted into an inside linebacker position. Just another example of the Patriots’ true team concept.

Still, a lot of people seem convinced that Belichick and Scott Pioli, the personnel guru who has just been signed to a contract extension, will come up with someone if the other are found lacking.

“Now that we’re used to the salary cap, teams that have figured it out have a leg up,” says Young, now a television analyst. “The Patriots have figured it out.”

OK, but there’s still luck.

Remember that their first Super Bowl victory came when Vinatieri kicked two field goals in the snow after referee Walt Coleman reversed a Brady fumble in the famous “tuck rule” replay.

The odds say that kind of good fortune can’t go on forever.

But the Patriots have been defying those odds for four years.

AP-ES-08-11-05 1458EDT

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