HE KNEW preciouslittle about the New England Patriots. There were those three Super Bowl rings.There was the coach in the gray sweatshirt who seemed so imperious and distant."He never smiled," says Adalius Thomas, a Pro Bowl linebacker who spentseven seasons with the Baltimore Ravens before reaching the open market lastwinter as an unrestricted free agent. There were the players, enemies whom hescarcely knew. ¬∂ Something made them different. On March 3 Thomas signed afive-year, $35 million contract with the Patriots. With it came a silverhelmet, a blue-and-white jersey and, most important, a key to the innersanctum. ¬∂ There he found his answer. "You've got to remember, I'm comingin from Baltimore," says Thomas. "People there wanted the limelight,people sought out the limelight, starting with the head coach. It was astar-studded system. Here it's about as different as you can get. Everybodyhere shies away from being the star guy. Nobody on this team beats his chest.They just all go about their business. And win."
They won again onSunday in Texas, pulling away from the Dallas Cowboys in the final 20 minutesand turning an inter-conference matchup of unbeatens into a convincing 48--27victory that left the NFC's best team rightly questioning its worthiness."We wanted to be one of the elite teams, but obviously we're not," saidCowboys coach Wade Phillips. The rest of the NFC should be thinking along thosesame lines.
Again the centralcharacter for New England was quarterback Tom Brady, who passed for 388 yardsand a career-best five touchdowns to four different receivers, while gettingscant support from a running game that had just 14 yards in the first half. Itwas a brilliant performance that left Brady with a ridiculous 128.9 quarterbackrating for the season, more than 20 points higher than that of runner-up PeytonManning. Yet Brady's veteran teammates were scarcely moved beyond shrugs."What can I say?" asked linebacker Tedy Bruschi. "I've seen him dothe same thing in much bigger games."
The Patriots are6--0 for the first time since 2004, their last Super Bowl year, but they willtell you until your ears bleed that it's still early. "The season reallystarts after Thanksgiving," Brady coolly explained on Sunday in the bellyof Texas Stadium. And they're right. Leaves are still clinging to the trees inmuch of New England, and there is ample time for the Patriots' fast start to beundone by injury or a few bad bounces. But if it is much too early to award theLombardi Trophy, it is not too soon to conclude that the winner of the Nov. 4Patriots-Colts game in Indianapolis will become the solid Super Bowl favoriteand (if still unbeaten) a serious contender to be the first team since the 1972Miami Dolphins to finish a season without a loss.
New England'sstart represents a rebirth, by the franchise's high standards. Two years agothe Patriots went 10--6 and lost at Denver in the divisional playoff round.Last year they were an uncharacteristic 6--3 as a cranky Brady bemoaned theloss of favorite receiver Deion Branch. They won six of their last seven gamesand fell one drive short of beating Indianapolis in the AFC Championship Game,but they missed the Super Bowl for the second consecutive year.
Coach BillBelichick and personnel boss Scott Pioli aggressively added players—mostnotably Thomas and the wide receiving trio of Randy Moss (from Oakland), Donte'Stallworth (Philadelphia) and Wes Welker (Miami). More impressive, the team hasthus far seamlessly absorbed those new bodies. To wit: On Sunday, Welker caught11 passes for 124 yards and two touchdowns, all career highs. Stallworth andMoss each caught a touchdown pass, as did another newcomer, tight end KyleBrady. Of Tom Brady's league-leading 1,771 passing yards, all but 396 have beento players who were not with New England a year ago.
The Patriots haverestored themselves to a position atop the NFL while embracing the hoaryconcept of selflessness and deftly navigating the roster turnover thatundermines other clubs. "That's this league, and that's this team,"says center Dan Koppen. "Personnel changes. You've got to win with the guysyou've got, and everybody does a great job around here of letting people knowwhat's expected of them." Another case in point: Laurence Maroney, the No.1 running back, missed his third straight game with a groin injury. SammyMorris, who had rushed for 219 yards in wins over Cincinnati and Cleveland inMaroney's absence, went out with a chest injury on the second play of the thirdquarter. In stepped veteran Kevin Faulk to rush for 50 yards on 13 carries inthe second half.
In a largersense, if the Pats are a slick, corporate football machine (and they are), theyhave also been boosted this season by an unexpected emotional push. After NewEngland was caught videotaping the New York Jets' defensive signals on openingweekend, Belichick was called everything from a petty sideline sneak to aflat-out cheat. A shadow was cast over the Patriots' Super Bowls. But thecontroversy only served to tighten the bond between players and coach. After aWeek 2 victory over San Diego in their home opener, the Patriots spilled intothe locker room and commenced their postgame ritual—a series of expressionsshouted over the din and answered by a collective "Aw, yeah!" Bruschibellowed, "How do we feel about playing for Bill Belichick?" And theresponse shook the walls.
The passionhasn't ebbed, in part because media and opponents continue to press the issue.In the week before the Dallas game, SI's Peter King reported that Phillips hadsaid that the videotaping controversy represented a "black mark" on NewEngland's Super Bowls. (Phillips denied using that language.) "I don'tthink we've forgotten about [the criticism]," Bruschi said before theCowboys game. "Bill is our coach. We stand behind him, and we want him toknow that. We consider ourselves to be a family. And when you single outsomebody in our family and criticize him, we rally around him. We say, 'Comehere, you're one of us.'"
Such battles areeasier to fight with Brady aboard. Sunday's showdown matched him againstDallas's Tony Romo, who was making only his 16th start since taking over forDrew Bledsoe in the middle of 2006 (Brady also inherited his job from Bledsoe,early in the 2001 season) but has quickly come to be regarded as one of thebest young quarterbacks in the league.
Romo came intothe game off the worst performance of his brief career, a six-turnover disasterin a miraculous Monday-night win over Buffalo that kept the battle of unbeatenteams alive. Romo is nothing if not resilient. On Tuesday he passed hisroommate, Tom Brewer, in their Dallas condo and told him, in reference to theBills game, "After a while, I just started laughing to myself because Ifigured it couldn't get any worse." By Wednesday evening he was wrestlingwith friends to burn calories before the next day's team weigh-in.
Romo certainlyimproved on his Buffalo performance. After missing on four of his first fivepass attempts, he went 17 for 24 and finished with 199 yards and two touchdownsand only one interception, to Junior Seau late in the game. It's just thatBrady was much better, not just statistically but also palpably.
Romo hasunabashedly borrowed from the best quarterbacks in the game, copying Manning'sball fakes and practicing Brett Favre's off-balance deliveries. On Sunday,Brady gave him a long lesson in sheer dominance under incessant heat—the Dallasdefense sacked Brady three times, equaling his total from the first five gamesof the season, and knocked him down several other times. Brady was not so muchefficient as tenacious. Setting the tone for the day, the Patriots convertednine of their first 11 third downs (two came on penalties), including Brady'sfirst two touchdown passes. "Tommy is a competitor," said Faulkafterward. "That's the thing people forget about him."
For the secondconsecutive week an opponent mostly took away Moss (who nevertheless stillleads the league in receiving yards, with 610). Brady's response was tocomplete a combined 18 passes to Welker and Stallworth. After the Cowboysassumed their only lead of the game, 24--21, on Romo's eight-yard touchdownpass to Patrick Crayton with 10:20 left in the third quarter, New Englandscored on three consecutive possessions; a 69-yard touchdown pass to Stallworthwith 12:21 to play stretched the Pats' lead to 38--24 and essentially iced thegame.
While Brady'steammates no longer marvel at his greatness, they clearly respect the work thatmakes it possible. "First one into the facility every day, last oneout," says Koppen. Adds Stallworth, "He works like a quarterback whohasn't even made the team yet." Once a sixth-round draft choice, always asixth-round draft choice. Brady is on pace to throw 56 touchdown passes thisseason, which would obliterate Manning's record of 49. Already a lock for theHall of Fame, he continues to play as though he has to validate hispaycheck.
In the dyingminutes of Sunday's game, Patriots owner Robert Kraft and his son Jonathan, theteam's president, stood near the southwest corner of the field. A cluster offans in New England jerseys made all the noise there was in the emptyingstadium, and the Krafts waved to them. At the finish Belichick was among thelast to run from the field, jogging into the tunnel while clapping his handsabove his head and pointing to the stands, acknowledging the road-warrior fansin the corner.
It is indeedearly in the season, but for every team in the NFL other than the Patriots andthe Colts, it is also quickly getting very late.
Says Stallworth of Brady's tenacious preparation,"He works like a quarterback who hasn't even MADE THE TEAM yet."
Dominic Bonvissuto rates each weekend's slate of NFL games.
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Photograph by Bob Rosato
QUICK STUDY Like New England's other newcomers, Welker has seamlessly blended into the Patriots' setup; against Dallas he was Brady's favorite target, with a career-high 11 catches and two touchdowns.
DOUBLE TROUBLE Stallworth (top) and Moss (81) each caught touchdown passes, contributing to Brady's career-high five.
[See caption above]
BACK IN BLUE Scandals haven't fazed the Pats; in his second game back from a steroid suspension Rodney Harrison (37) showed no ill effects from the layoff.