FOXBOROUGH, Mass. &
The Patriots had just won their first Super Bowl championship and coach Bill Belichick was praising the MVP of the game.
Tom Brady, making his 17th pro start, shocked the heavily favored St. Louis Rams by leading a late drive that led to a last-minute field goal, a 20-17 win and the title after the 2001 season.
"Nobody has worked as hard as Tom has and nobody deserves it more than he does," Belichick said after the game. "He has accomplished so much, and its due to a lot of hard work and perseverance on his part."
Fast forward nearly six years and that's something Belichick could have said after each of Brady's games this season. He's thrown at least three touchdown passes in all eight of them, an NFL record to start a season. His 30 touchdown passes are his single-season high. He's thrown only two interceptions.
New England (8-0) is off to the best start in its history, winning each game by at least 17 points.
The 2001 team ended the season with an eight-game winning streak capped by that Super Bowl win. This year's team started with an eight-game winning streak that will be in jeopardy Sunday at Indianapolis where they play the Colts (7-0).
They've done it with a team that's far different than that first championship club.
Only eight current Patriots played in all three Super Bowl wins &
Brady, running back Kevin Faulk, offensive tackle Matt Light, defensive end Richard Seymour, linebackers Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi and Larry Izzo, and wide receiver Troy Brown, now on the physically unable to perform list.
Many other things are different.
Brady is the most important holdover but the biggest difference is in the depth of the wide receiver corps where Randy Moss and Wes Welker keep making big plays.
Deion Branch wasn't as highly touted in the Patriots' last Super Bowl win over Philadelphia after the 2004 season. But he caught 11 passes and was named the game's MVP.
"I think Deion kind of put the Patriots' receivers on the map a little more with tonight's game," receiver David Givens said then. "He got us maybe a little more respect that we probably needed that we didn't have."
Branch and Givens are no longer with the team.
Welker already has 56 receptions, the same number Givens had in leading the team in 2004. With Moss, Welker and Donte' Stallworth, defenses can't double team all of them. And when they do, Brady's uncanny accuracy overcomes that.
"I wouldn't want to play for any other quarterback," current fullback Heath Evans said.
In 2001, the Patriots were 1-3 before improving to 4-4 at the midpoint. They finished at 11-5 but had to win their last regular season game to clinch the AFC East.
In 2003, they started at 2-2 and won the rest of their games, finishing with a Super Bowl win over Carolina and Brady's second championship game MVP award.
In 2004, they won their first six games, were 7-1 after eight and lost only once more.
This year, the chatter gets louder about a possible perfect season as the Patriots win week after week.
"They may blow out every team they play," Washington center Casey Rabach said after New England's 52-7 rout last Sunday against the NFL's fifth-ranked defense.
The Patriots average margin of victory is 25.5 points, much higher than in their championship seasons. Two more 17-point wins and they'll match their total for all those three seasons combined.
They won four games by 17 or more in 2001, two against the Colts. In 2003, they lost their first game 31-0 and had only two wins by at least 17 points. In 2004, four wins were by 17 or more.
Faulk isn't fond of comparisons, whether it's among teams of different seasons or games in the same season.
The win over the Redskins was the most one-sided, but was it the Patriots' best game of the year?
"If you want to say that," Faulk said. "I know there were some mistakes that we made and we just have to correct them."
The usually nitpicking Belichick gave his team what for him amounts to a very positive review after the latest runaway win.
"I thought," he said, "the players really did a good job."
His quest for perfection hasn't changed since that first championship. One missed assignment, especially against a team like Indianapolis, can lose a game.
The Patriots made plenty of mistakes that kept them from reaching another Super Bowl last season. They blew a 21-3 lead in the AFC championship game and lost 38-34 at Indianapolis. The Colts went on to win the Super Bowl.
Will Sunday's game mirror that one?
Or will it be more like the Patriots' 20-3 win over the Colts in the 2004 playoffs that put them on the path to their last Super Bowl championship?
"They are always meaningful games when you play them," Brady said. "8-0 is great, but it really doesn't mean anything, doesn't guarantee us anything."
Patriots' start better than title teams'
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. &