WHAT THE PATRIOTS will try to do tomorrow night and beyond might be considered the greatest achievement in team sports history. At 15-0, they visit a shaky Giants team that has nothing to gain by winning and has no bye week in the offing, as do the Patriots. So, replicating the perfect regular season of the 1972 Dolphins seems imminent, and the Pats surely will be favored in their playoff games.
But what defines perfection in the other three major sports? The concept of an NBA team's winning 82 regular-season games or a major league club's managing 162 straight is utterly, well, inconceivable. Some key participants on some of the greatest teams ever couldn't quite define it, either.
All, however, were awed by what the Patriots have done. And all observe the Patriots' methods and see themselves mirrored.
"There was a certain air about us. Every night, we were mentally and physically ready," said Billy Cunningham, who averaged 18.5 points and 7.3 rebounds for the 1966-67 76ers team that featured Wilt Chamberlain, which sprinted to a 46-4 start and finished 68-13, then the NBA's best record, despite the presence of the Celtics' dynasty.
The team's record, Cunningham said, "was never a focal point. There was only one thing anyone focused on: beating the Celtics and winning the championship.
"I'm sure that's the same thing with New England. As much as they want to have a perfect season, to not win the Super Bowl would be devastating."
Well, maybe not devastating; after all, the Patriots have won three of the last six Super Bowls, largely with the same core – a run that perhaps cements them as the best team of the free agency era. These are not Marv Levy's Bills.
Certainly, though, the Patriots would be disappointed.
The Mariners' 116 wins in 2001, surpassing by two the American League record set by the 1998 Yankees, and the Mariners' .716 winning percentage was .002 better than the 1927 Yankees - two clubs often cited as the best in the history of the game.
Both of those teams won the World Series. The Mariners' bats went silent in the American League Championship Series against the Yankees.
"You'll sometimes run into some hot pitching," said Pat Gillick, then the Mariners' general manager and now the Phillies' GM. "What we did in 2001 was very special."
The daily process was similar to what the Patriots are experiencing.
"From what I've seen, the Patriots don't want to talk about it. That's exactly what it was like there," said Jamie Moyer, who led the M's with 20 wins in 2001. "I felt like it was a construction site. You grabbed your hard hat. Pulled your time card out. Punched in. Put it in the other slot. Went to work. Played. Ate. Worked out. Punched out and went home."
That comes from the top, where head coach and Bill Belichick retains tunnel vision, even as his players embrace destiny.
"Right now, we don't really think too much about the record, we just think about this week," said Belichick, pretending that this week and the record are somehow exclusive. "We just want to go 1-0 this week."
The Mariners just wanted to go 1-0 every night. That said, as they approached 100 wins, "After a while, you look around and say, 'Is this really happening?' " Moyer said.
Which is where, finally, the Patriots find themselves now.
"You have to acknowledge and realize where you are," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said.
These days, the Patriots concentrate on going undefeated to help them ignore personal marks. Quarterback Tom Brady and receiver Randy Moss are a touchdown pass and TD reception, respectively, from tying those single-season records.
"We've got a lot of records at stake, the most important one being the 16-0," Brady said. "I hope we achieve that. We'd go down as the only team to be 16-0, so that's the goal I have in mind."
Of course, 16-0 means little if there's a 16-1, 17-1 or 18-1 final record.
"You can't take an undefeated season away," Moyer said, "but if they don't win it all, that undefeated season doesn't mean a whole lot."
In fact, it could mark them as a huge disappointment.
"You're talking infamy, if they go 16-0 and don't win it all," said defensive back Leslie Frazier. His six interceptions led the 1985 Bears, a 15-1 team that famously shuffled its way into legend with a 12-0 start and a win over the Patriots in Super Bowl XX.
"In our business, validation is in the postseason," said Frazier, now the defensive coordinator in Minnesota. "Pittsburgh went 15-1 [in 2004] and lost in the AFC Championship Game. Nobody remembers their 15-1. We started 13-0 when I was with Indianapolis in 2005, and we lost in the first round, so nobody remembers 13-0."
"So, if they go 16-0 and don't win it, they'll be remembered as the team that went 16-0 and didn't win."
Frazier's Bears had a chance to be that 16-0 team but lost in Week 11 on a Monday night in Miami, with many of the 1972 Dolphins looking on.
"I don't know what happened. Was it the hype? Was it the '72 Dolphins being there?" said Ron Rivera, Frazier's teammate on the '85 Bears. "We'd have liked to have gone 16-0. And 19-0."
Both the '72 Dolphins and the '85 Bears, like the dominant 49ers clubs of the 1980s and the first Cowboys winner of the 1990s, had the benefit of building without free agency.
"I think it's more impressive, because they've done it in the free-agency era," said Rivera, now the linebackers coach for the Chargers. "If they get to 16-0, it will solidify their spot in history."
So, what sort of baseball or basketball season would equal 16-0?
"I don't know, 100 percent is 100 percent," Moyer said. "Undefeated is undefeated. Maybe, what, 130 wins?"
Cunningham recalls that 68 wins in the 10-team league wasn't exactly hyped back in 1967.
"It wasn't a big issue. It was never something talked about," Cunningham said. "I don't remember it being an important thing."
Similarly, the Flyers didn't talk much about their 35-game unbeaten streak during the 1979-80 season, when they went 25-0-10, which stands as the NHL's longest such run. They don't talk about it much now, either, after losing in the Stanley Cup finals to the Islanders.
"I know it's a great accomplishment for any team," Hall of Famer Bob Clarke told the Daily News in 2004. "But from that season, what I remember was losing in the finals more than I do the 35 games."
"We didn't talk about how many we won or keeping the streak alive, although the media certainly did," Pat Quinn, who coached that club, said in 2004.
The Sixers' record got talked about 5 years later, when the Lakers and Chamberlain went 69-13 in 1971-72 (in a 17-team league), then again when Michael Jordan led the Bulls to a 72-10 mark (among 29 teams) in 1995-96. Now, there is wistfulness when Cunningham considers what might have been.
"We'd have won a few more if Wilt had hit his free throws," Cunningham said. Chamberlain shot 44.1 percent from the line that season.
A few more wins – four, five, six – would that equal 16-0?
"I don't know; 70 is a wonderful number to pick," Cunningham said. "Maybe 70, or a little more."
Perhaps. But not even 82-0 would resonate if the winning didn't continue. *