Trying to select the top five New England Patriots seasons in the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era is not an easy assignment. Sure, you could say that the top four are the seasons in which they won the Super Bowl, but that would not be accurate.
It is more difficult to run the table in the regular season, as the Patriots did in 2007, than it is to win a Super Bowl. You can be a good team that has a great day and win it all. (See Giants, New York). Only really great teams and really great quarterbacks can win week after week for 16 weeks.
The Patriots' legacy, of course, is also complicated by the accusations that they have cheated their way to the top, and there's certainly credence to that. Even if you think commissioner Roger Goodell was too harsh with his Deflategate penalties that finally came to an end this season when Brady served a four-game suspension, it does not erase other moments in New England's checkered past.
Spygate was real, and if you go back and read the May 2008 testimony former Patriots video assistant Matt Walsh gave to league officials, you can only come to this conclusion: Belichick and the Patriots are willing to go to great and unsavory lengths to win football games.
And still it's impossible not to admire what they have done.
This season, in fact, has a chance to go down as their greatest of all because of everything they've had to overcome. The Patriots, despite playing their first four games without Brady and two of those games with rookie quarterback Jacoby Brissett, head into Sunday's game at Denver with an 11-2 record, tied with Dallas for the top mark in the NFL.
You have to think they've done it all on the up-and-up, given how much scrutiny they must be under from the league, although it does defy logic that Brady is still getting better at the age of 39. The quarterback, in fact, should be the leading candidate for the league MVP award.
Brady has thrown 22 touchdowns and just two interceptions. His 113.6 passer rating is the best in the NFL, and his 319.6 passing yards per game is second in the league and the second best average of his career.
Five of the Patriots' 11 wins have come without superstar Rob Gronkowski on the field, and it appears as if he will only play again this season if New England reaches the Super Bowl.
Belichick, 64, also shows no signs of slowing down. Just consider what the Patriots do with players that other teams did not want. There are two examples from the Eagles.
Patrick Chung looked like one of the worst safeties in football during his one season with the Eagles in 2013. In three seasons since with the Patriots, he has started all but two games and earned high praise as one of the most reliable safeties in the league.
The Eagles had no reservations about trading Eric Rowe for a fourth-round pick before the season, and now he has become a starter in New England.
Malcolm Butler, an undrafted cornerback out of West Alabama, is New England's last Super Bowl hero, thanks to his goal-line interception in the Patriots' win over Seattle two seasons ago. He is also a Pro Bowl player.
LeGarrette Blount, who is having his best season at the age of 30, has found a home in New England after a tainted past in college at Oregon and with three NFL teams. He leads the NFL with 14 rushing touchdowns.
The Patriots have a history of taking on troubled players and making them into humbled quality contributors. They might just do it again with receiver Michael Floyd, whom they claimed off waivers last week. Floyd had been released by Arizona following a DUI arrest in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Thirty other teams, including the receiving-deficient Eagles, passed on a chance to claim Floyd. You have to imagine that they all felt a little apprehensive about their decision once the Patriots claimed him because New England never seems to get those kinds of decisions wrong.
Give NFL dean of discipline Jon Runyan credit for his decision on two illegal special-teams hits by Washington's Deshazor Everett that knocked the Eagles' Brent Celek and Darren Sproles out of last Sunday's game at Lincoln Financial Field. Instead of suspending the second-year defensive back for his cheap shots, Runyan fined Everett more than $48,000. That's a significant amount for a guy only making $525,000 this season. Everett said he would appeal, but the video of the two plays will not help his defense.
A couple of weeks ago, Dak Prescott was in the conversation for NFL rookie of the year and MVP awards. Now, if you listen to owner Jerry Jones, the Dallas Cowboys quarterback is not even safe from being benched in favor of Tony Romo. "I don't have a definition for it, but you'll know it when you see it," Jones told a Dallas radio station when asked what it would take for Dallas to make a change at quarterback. Not a good answer in support of the rookie QB. On the other hand, Prescott has gone three straight games without throwing for 200 yards, which is not likely to get the job done in the postseason.
Early afternoon game: Green Bay at Chicago
The 9-4 Lions at the 9-4 Giants is actually the best early game, but this is going to be the most fascinating watch because of the weather. The white-hot Aaron Rodgers - 22 TD passes and three interceptions in his last eight games - is going to have to play in the bone-chilling cold of Soldier Field with a calf injury. Game-time forecast is 6 degrees with a wind chill factor of minus-20. Bears QB Matt Barkley - remember him? - plans to wear sleeves. "I'm not a polar bear," he said. Nope, just a Chicago one.
Late afternoon game: New England at Denver
The Patriots can clinch their eighth straight AFC East title with a win in Denver. This is the sixth straight year these teams have met in the regular season. They have also met three times in the postseason during that span, including in last year's AFC championship game. The Pats are 5-3 overall in the last eight meetings, but only 1-3 in Denver. A loss here and the Broncos will be in jeopardy of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
Sunday night: Tampa Bay at Dallas
Tampa Bay's five-game winning streak is its longest since 2002, the year the Bucs won the Super Bowl. The Buccaneers have 25 takeaways, tied with Kansas City, Baltimore, and San Diego for the most in the NFL, and have allowed just 12.8 points per game during their winning streak. The Cowboys have allowed 17 points or fewer in eight of their 13 games.
Monday night: Carolina at Washington
The 5-8 Panthers have never had back-to-back winning seasons since joining the NFL in 1995, and even after reaching last season's Super Bowl that streak will remain intact. QB Cam Newton is expected to play despite a sore shoulder, but he has completed just 43 percent of his passes in his last four games. Washington (7-5-1) has won four in a row at home and needs a win to stay in the playoff race.