Within minutes of the Patriots beating the Giants, the diminishing process had begun and it didn’t let up through Sunday’s games and recap shows.

They looked beatable in four of their games.

You know, they were just lucky to survive two of their games.

Hey, the really hard part, the playoffs, hasn’t even started yet.

Their “perfect season” will be tainted by the cheating incident in the first half of the first game of the season.

The Patriots can now put their exhibition season behind them.

The New York Times even suggested that Coach Bill Belichick was unable to enjoy the moment because he has had his emotions and sense of humor surgically removed.

Good grief. If the coach had been gushing about the victory he would have been criticized for gloating.

Saturday’s victory was, of course, a genuine sports milestone, arguably the biggest one of 2007, given Barry Bonds’ legal problems and alleged steroid use.

No, the Pat’s performance, unlike that of the 1972 Dolphins, does not (yet) include a Super Bowl victory.

But most of the TV pundits this past weekend didn’t seem willing to incur the wrath of retired coach Don Shula and his loyal band of 1972 players by saying the obvious: having a perfect regular season today is much, much tougher to do than it was in ’72.

First, winning 16 games is clearly tougher than winning 14. The Pats had to put their streak on the line two more times than the Dolphins did in ’72.

But the real difference between now and then is parity. Since that era, the National Football League has been restructured to keep teams like the Pats from doing what they did – beating all of their opponents.

There was no salary cap and free agency system for players in those days. In 1972, teams could hold onto their best players, preventing them from moving to other teams.

Free agency has had a leveling effect, allowing the best players to go to the highest bidders.

Also, since 1972, the league scheduling system has been changed so the best teams from the season before are forced to play the other toughest teams from that year. Unlike college football, NFL teams don’t get a few patsies on their schedule to tune up for the season or rest their top players.

Indeed, the expression “on any given Sunday” is reality. On any game day, almost any team can have a good week and beat any other team – as the Patriots nearly saw in recent weeks against both the Ravens and Giants.

Still, week after week, the Patriots found a way to get it done, a way to beat their opponents.

Sure, they may get knocked off in the playoffs or lose the Super Bowl. If they do, the ’72 Dolphins will remain the only truly perfect team.

If, however, the Pats do go all the way, they will have exceeded the accomplishments of that team and every one since.


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