FOXBORO, Mass. – Pay attention. Unconscious mechanisms are at work here. They're as consistent as a heartbeat, automatic as a blinking eyelid and constant as a simmering pot of clam chowder.
It's Sunday in New England. Cue the NFL metronome.
The New England Patriots once again arrived on schedule, this time against the New York Jets, notching their 21st straight win and the longest continuous string of success in any NFL record book. And it was done with a familiar rhythm – another close game, another unexpected performance, another composed stand in the fourth quarter. But once again, pay attention: There is an eerie consistency around this team that's somehow able to tiptoe around danger.
"When it's a critical moment, we don't panic," Patriots safety Rodney Harrison explained. "Someone always steps up and makes a play."
The word "always" is a tricky absolute in sports. Historically, "always" never lasts. For now, Sunday's 13-7 win over the Jets represents history, giving the Patriots the longest winning streak on all recognizable fronts, whether it's the 18 straight regular-season victories or the 21-game overall mark. And at 6-0, they stand with the Philadelphia Eagles as the NFL's lone unbeatens.
But the success doesn't come without a burden of reality. After all, every streak ends. But with these Patriots, it's the how that nobody can seem to fathom.
There is an adage that "fate is not an eagle, it creeps like a rat." If you believe these Patriots are destined to lose eventually, maybe you also will accept that something is creeping at this very moment. Perhaps it could be heard Sunday in Harrison's faith in someone "always" rising to the occasion. Or when New England tight end Daniel Graham proclaimed, "As long as you win, I don't think it's important to remember what a loss feels like."
It's been a long time since the Patriots went to their locker room humbled by an opponent. To give perspective, consider that the last coach to beat New England was Steve Spurrier – a man who, since the Patriots' last loss, has had enough time to leave the NFL, take a hearty vacation and resurface on the league's head coaching rumor mill.
During that span, New England transformed itself into a Sunday automatic – a team that wins by all margins, against all opponents and in every type of weather imaginable.
Take Sunday's game, which was played in a perpetual 40-degree sneeze. New England did what it seems to do every week, taking away the Jets' biggest strength in running back Curtis Martin (20 carries for 70 yards) and countering with an unexpected performance of its own (wide receiver David Givens' five catches for 107 yards).
Like last week against Seattle, the Patriots cemented it with a key play late in the game. Receiver Bethel Johnson's diving catch sealed a 30-20 win against the Seahawks. This week, it was Harrison knocking down a Chad Pennington pass on fourth and 8 late in the fourth quarter. A completion would have put the Jets inside New England's 10-yard line and in position to take the lead with barely two minutes left.
Said Patriots cornerback Ty Law said: "We've been in that situation before."
It's a striking acceptance that has been embraced by most Patriots. They don't mind playing tight games. They almost relish it as a comfort zone. Which begs the question: After 21 straight wins, has the clockwork nature of New England's success become a threat? Can the Patriots possibly remember what it feels like to lose? Is the typical Monday criticism from coach Bill Belichick enough?
"It's enough for us," wide receiver David Patten said. "Coach lets us know there is nothing supernatural about us. He lets us know that we've been sticking to the philosophy and implementing the game plan, so that's why we've been winning. The day we fail to do that, we're going to fall."
Make no mistake, Patten is saying the correct thing. But you wonder how deeply that message runs. The longer this streak continues, the less personal the subject of losses seems. One only needs to speak to Corey Dillon to see the difference. While the Patriots were beginning this streak last season, Dillon was just wrapping up a monumental run of team failure with the Cincinnati Bengals.
"For me, I know how it feels to lose, and I don't like that feeling," Dillon said. "I had that taste in my mouth for a long time. Every win we get, I'm going to enjoy it because I know how it feels to lose six in a row. I've been there and done that. I don't want to go there again.
"It's different being on the other side."
It's been a long time since his New England teammates could speak about losing with such conviction. That alone may be the biggest sign of fate creeping up again.