PATRIOT ACT III

2002: NEW ENGLAND 20, ST. LOUIS 17 – 2004: NEW ENGLAND 32, CAROLINA 29 – 2005: NEW ENGLAND 24, PHILADELPHIA 21

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Donovan McNabb tried. He threw everything he had. Terrell Owens tried. He caught all that he could. Andy Reid tried. He steered some fine drives and called some fine defenses.

But in the end, the clock ran out, the final gun fired, and the annual shower of confetti fell again on the New England Patriots. It has nearly become a rite of winter now, three times in the last four years, toothy smiles from the Patriots players, hugs and fist shakes in the billowing smoke. This was their moment to stop working, to end the season, to finally rest, but in the distance you heard the sound of bricks being stacked, hammers hitting nails, a dynasty being built, three points at a time.

This is your modern day version of Pittsburgh, Dallas, San Francisco or Green Bay. This is your modern day football dynasty, three Super Bowl wins by three points each. The Patriots don’t destroy you, they just beat you, they take your best punch, and they deliver one just a bit harder. Paul McCartney sang “Get Back” at halftime of this Super Bowl; it might as well be the Patriots’ theme song. You can challenge them. You can play with them. But you can’t surpass them. Not yet, anyhow. Get back, Philadelphia. Get back, Carolina. Get back, St. Louis.

“What a game,” said Tom Brady, the Patriots quarterback, just moments after this Super Bowl was over, but he said it calmly, without screaming, like a father saying “great job” to a kid who always gets straight A’s.

Excellence expected. Excellence delivered.

Patriots 24, Eagles 21. What a game? A typical game. There was no Adam Vinatieri field goal this time, no sailing kick in the closing seconds, just the usual Patriots big defensive play, a coffin-nailing interception by Rodney Harrison. It was the Patriots’ third pick of the game. It came with nine seconds left.

It snuffed out Philadelphia’s last desperate hope, and put the Patriots equal to the Cowboys of the ’90s, who also won three in four years. The Patriots have now won championships by playing from ahead (their last two) and by playing from behind (this one). They’ve won with a quarterback, Brady, being the MVP (the last two) and a receiver, Deion Branch, winning it this time. It says something that Branch, who had 11 catches for 133 yards Sunday night, was only the Patriots’ third-best receiver this year. But he fit the bill Sunday night. The Pats went to him. He delivered.

Patriots make their point

If the game felt less than bombastic, that’s because the defenses ruled the day, and it’s hard to pinpoint a defensive turning point.

But you could try. You could point to Tedy Bruschi’s interception of McNabb in the fourth quarter. You could point to the Patriots’ holding Philly to a meager 45 yards rushing, with zero yards for the normally elusive McNabb. You could point to the endless New England blitzing that forced McNabb to scramble and sacked him four times for 33 yards lost.

Or you could just point to the scoreboard; because in the end, that’s all the matters to New England. In their last three games, they held the best offense in football to three points (Indianapolis), they cranked up 41 points on the league’s best defense (Pittsburgh) and they weathered the best team the NFC could muster, taking the blows from a game and almost-ready Eagles squad.

Wouldn’t you pay to see these two play each other again? Here were two teams well-matched, and for once, pretty much everyone who was supposed to do something special did something special. Certainly Brady and McNabb had marquee moments, as did Branch and Todd Pinkston on the receiving end (before Pinkston left with cramps). Brian Westbrook and Corey Dillon both had big moments on the running side. And Owens was far more than a decoy, playing huge, grabbing nine catches and 122 yards. The defenses, well, they were the story, weren’t they?

Well-matched. Well played. Philly fans will no doubt this morning question the seemingly lackadaisical offense in the final minutes of the game. The Eagles, trailing by 10, played the last five minutes as if they had all the time in the world. Only when they closed it to three on a 30-yard touchdown pass from McNabb to Greg Lewis did they seem to realize that time was precious. They held New England to a three and out, but were too deeply buried when they got the ball back.

McNabb’s interception was the good-bye kiss.

Super Bowl victory or bust for Pats

“I’m gonna keep holding my head high,” McNabb said. He should. He threw 51 times for 357 yards. But his three interceptions were the difference. Brady, once again, had no picks, two touchdowns, and 236 yards. He is now 9-0 in his playoff career. McNabb was good. Brady was a bit better – or at least more efficient.

“It’s still a successful year,” McNabb said. And that may be the difference. For the Eagles, finally overcoming the monster of the NFC championship game may indeed make a successful year. But not New England. For the Patriots, at this point, it’s Super Bowl title or bust.

So what happens now? The Patriots will lose their offensive and defensive coordinators. But they are a strong machine, and Bill Belichick guides assistant coaches almost as well as he guides players. The normal free agency issues will be faced, but that is what makes the Patriots special. They keep players, or they replace them with guys just as good.

“I felt happy the last two times and I feel real happy tonight,” said Belichick. “If it’s one to 10, I’d say they’re all 10.”

Well, we at least know they’re three. Three in four years. In this era of free agency, salary cap and fan impatience, that’s remarkable. It is the gold standard. Even Troy Aikman, who led Dallas in the ’90s, said doing it now is more impressive.

These are your Cowboys, kids, these are your Pittsburgh Steelers, Brady is your Montana or Bradshaw, Belichick is your Landry or Noll or Walsh – maybe even your Lombardi.

It wasn’t a perfect game. But winning is what counts. Winning is what is remembered. Winning is the mortar that lies between the bricks of dynasty, and that mortar is already starting to dry this morning. The Patriots’ walls are getting higher.

STANDING PAT

A look at the New England Patriots’ dynasty:

They’re the second team to win three Super Bowls in four seasons (Dallas 1992, 1993, 1995).

New England set an NFL record with 34 wins (34-4) in a two-season span, surpassing Denver, which went 33-6 in 1997-98.

The Patriots tied Green Bay of the 1960s for the longest playoff winning streak in NFL history (nine games). The Packers won nine straight in 1961-67.

Coach Bill Belichick improved to a 10-1 (.909) postseason record, moving ahead of Vince Lombardi (9-1, .900).

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read recent columns by Albom, go to www.freep.com/index/albom.

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