FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The 15-0 New England Patriots are the hottest commodity in the NFL, drawing the biggest television audiences this season. They have a GQ quarterback who's one touchdown pass short and a wide receiver who's one TD catch short of tying the respective league records.
In short, they're hot. They're sexy. And sometimes they're really boring.
Before Patriots fans get their collective panties in a bunch, claiming that the "B" word is some almighty insult, that's not the case. What the Patriots do is a fascinating study in group psychology.
It's just that studies in group psychology don't exactly generate great interest. That may be why nearly half the full house at Gillette Stadium was gone with six minutes remaining in this latest chapter of history.
New England's 28-7 victory over Miami on Sunday won't be one for the highlight reels. The Dolphins were dispatched the way most people send out laundry at a hotel. Any hope that these hapless Dolphins (1-14) would protect the legacy of their undefeated predecessors from 1972 was quashed in the first 30 minutes.
New England was up 28-0 and cruising by halftime. The only remaining drama was a couple of deep passes Tom Brady threw toward Randy Moss as they tried to continue their assault on the NFL record books.
This game had all the mystique of a preseason game. By the end, the Patriots had a backup at quarterback and the Dolphins should have (although that's an issue for later in this season).
But in a grander sense, football is a game that tests character like no other, putting large powerful men through physical pain and constantly asking them to check their egos for collective glory. In pursuit of that going, the Patriots have put together 53 guys who buy in like no team in 35 years.
From that perspective, you can only sit there and applaud what they're doing.
Even if they don't have a lot to say about it.
"It's good to win and we're not really too hung up on that," coach Bill Belichick said when asked about the historical significance of the victory. "We're just … we'll get ready for next week. We'll take one week at a time and get ready for next week. I'm sure that's what you were looking for."
Belichick got a hearty chuckle from the media for that last line, one of his prototypically understated bits of sarcasm.
But the reality is that Belichick and his charges have done what every team dreams of doing, at least to this point. They have taken the season one game, one moment, one whatever-point-of-emphasis-you-care-to-define and distilled it into perfection.
If it's not always terribly entertaining, well, too bad. To a player, the Patriots mimic Belichick like well-trained parrots.
"Because that's all that matters," wide receiver Donte' Stallworth said when asked about the singular approach taught by Belichick. "If you play that way all the time, just focus on the next play, the next game, the next meeting … that's all you have to worry about."
Or as wide receiver Troy Brown, who made his way back into the lineup Sunday after battling injury all season, said: "You take it one game at a time and then you see what people say about it."
Now, only the New York Giants on Saturday night stand between the Patriots and an undefeated regular season. While Belichick didn't go so far as to name his starting lineup, he did give every indication that the Patriots will do business as usual as they face a Giants team that has also already qualified for the playoffs and is locked into the No. 5 seed in the NFC.
The Giants don't have anything riding on the last game either.
"We're concerned about our football team. I'm not worried about anybody else. There's no other team that concerns me. I'm worried about what our football team does. That's the only one I coach," Belichick said.
Of course, there's more on the line than simply 16-0. Brady, who threw three scoring passes for the game, ended 48 touchdown passes on the season, tying Dolphins Hall of Famer Dan Marino for second on the season list behind Peyton Manning's 49.
Moss had two more touchdown grabs to give him 21 for the season and pull him within one of Jerry Rice's NFL-record 22 in 1987.
If you don't think those records matter, then you probably missed the two deep passes Brady heaved toward Moss in the fourth quarter despite the game being well in hand. Bottom line, it's abundantly clear that the Patriots want to leave their imprint on NFL history.
Even if they really don't want to talk about it much.
A more subtle plotline to this game was the deep chasm that has developed between the Patriots and the Dolphins after years of inept drafting by the Dolphins under coaches like Dave Wannstedt.
In the first half of the two combined games this season between these teams, the Patriots outscored Miami 70-7. That fact only underscores the gap between these teams, which includes not only players, but coaches.
At this point, it's worth making a few specific observations about the aforementioned gap, one which the Dolphins recently hired Bill Parcells, Belichick's mentor, to fill.
The player gap is obvious. At this point in time, there's probably not a single player on the Dolphins roster who could start for the Patriots. The only one close is reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Jason Taylor, whose counterpart on the Patriots is Pro Bowl linebacker Adalius Thomas.
The more disturbing difference is in coaching. Basic, fundamental coaching. For instance, with 1:13 remaining in the first half and the Dolphins hustling to the line with one timeout and having first-and-goal from the New England 9-yard line, Dolphins coach Cam Cameron called for quarterback Cleo Lemon to spike the ball to stop the clock.
The Dolphins had more than enough time to run a quasi-huddle, call a play and get one more down on which to score. Fact is, the team let roughly 40 seconds run off the clock before calling timeout on fourth down. Instead, Cameron, who was brought in for his supposed offensive expertise, wasted a play for a team that needs every one it can get.
Already this season, Cameron has given up control of the play-calling. If he can't call the plays and he can't manage the clock, what exactly can he do? Of course, some people around the Dolphins are making the excuse that Cameron is a typical rookie coach and that plenty of great coaches, such as Bill Walsh, Tom Landry and Chuck Noll, have had terrible first seasons.
But those coaches also seemed to be building with a goal in mind. The fact that Lemon was playing makes you wonder what Cameron's plan is. Rookie John Beck, who got a three-game tryout earlier, should be playing because the Dolphins desperately need to evaluate him before they decide what to do with the No. 1 overall pick.
If Cameron looked like he had a building plan, the situation might be different. It might look something like Belichick, who has lapped the league with his tactical approach and his ability to build a three-time champion.
When you combine that with the kind of mind work he has done in building this team, you have something close to perfection.
The Patriots are getting closer by the week.
- Bill Belichick