FOXBORO, Mass. – By the time the odometer of success rolled one more digit to 20 consecutive wins, the postgame search parties were trickling toward the New England Patriots' locker room. With notepads, cameras and microphones, they were seeking the familiar.
"How – how are you doing it?"
Seeking verbal definition has become a fruitless pursuit. Whether it's a win over Buffalo, Miami or Seattle, the answer to this team – this growing record – can't be summed up in cramped stadium quarters. Rather, the characterization always seems to come in theatrics.
Against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, the stage arrived with New England facing third-and-7 and clinging to a 23-20 lead. With just less than three minutes left in the fourth quarter, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady turned to receiver Bethel Johnson and uttered what has become the team's anthem.
"Stay alive," Brady said to Johnson. "Stay alive on this play."
A few seconds later, Johnson stretched his body straight like a toothpick, making a diving stab to grab a 48-yard pass that essentially sealed a 30-20 victory over the Seahawks. While Patriots running back Corey Dillon would score the final touchdown two plays later, Johnson was the difference. The Patriots' 20th straight win (and a record-tying 17th in the regular season) hinged on a receiver so deep into coach Bill Belichick's doghouse that he wasn't even on the team's active roster last week.
"Without that catch," Dillon said, "we can't even begin to say what would have happened."
The "how" of these Patriots is no longer an answer. It has become a Bill Belichick religion, built on a defense as aggressive as the offense is flexible. For the players, it's proliferated in stacks of highlight tape, studied on pages of a Tolstoy-thick playbook and preached in a simple "stay alive" mantra between huddles. In an era of football when you are not supposed to believe in dynasties, New England and the Belichick faith keeps inspiring followers.
The Seahawks? Weren't they supposed to test that faith? Perhaps they did, if only for a half, but not before the Patriots took a 20-6 lead, a span which saw Seattle stumble into familiar pitfalls. Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren didn't buy the theory that cracking the Patriots' defense meant attacking the middle of the line. Instead of riding the multi-talented Shaun Alexander (16 carries), Holmgren mistakenly relied on the arm of quarterback Matt Hasselbeck (50 pass attempts).
The result was a lesson in what you're not supposed to do against the Patriots: Stay out of third-and-long, watch out for the blitz, don't lose control of the game's tempo. Seattle failed on all fronts in the first half. The Seahawks' first drive began with a sack and ended with an interception. Their second drive ended with another pick. Suddenly, the team that had turned over the ball only three times all season had done it twice in one half.
And on the other side of the ball, Seattle's defense was undergoing an autopsy at the hands of Brady and Dillon, who sandwiched touchdowns around an Adam Vinatieri field goal for a 17-0 lead with about 12 minutes left in the second quarter.
"More than the confusion factor, what affected us was the physical play of their linebackers and secondary," said Holmgren, who labeled his team's start "jittery."
More than anything, the Seahawks began the game looking every bit the team that collapsed against St. Louis last week. Their defense applied little pressure on the quarterback, and their offense couldn't close drives. Their personality changed in the second half. Holmgren relied slightly more on Alexander, and the Seattle receivers stopped dropping the football as Seattle closed within 20-17 early in the fourth quarter.
But New England responded like a team riding a 19-game winning streak, stemming the Seattle charge and finding another player in Johnson to provide yet another memorable moment. The vastly underrated Dillon finished with 105 rushing yards, and Brady passed for a serviceable 231 yards. Yet it was Johnson, an opinionated player with a history of irking Belichick, who sealed the win.
Therein lies the team faith – finding yet another unexpected variable. With receivers Troy Brown and Deion Branch injured, Belichick found a way to incorporate one of the most unreliable square pegs in his offense. A week ago, he scratched Johnson from the active roster for having poor practice habits. This week, Belichick counted on him to make a diving 48-yard catch to keep a monumental streak alive. There's genius within. He has done it with tight end Daniel Graham. He has done it with linebacker Willie McGinest. And now he has rejuvenated another player he likely will need down the stretch.
"I think I had a good week," a grinning Johnson said afterward. "I was out there on the field, wasn't I?"
Still, the faith has trying times ahead. Seattle simply was a precursor to lights that will burn brighter and hotter next week when the 5-0 New York Jets come to town. And the media pressure? It's sure to amp up once the Red Sox are out of the MLB playoffs, intersecting with the toughest portion of the Patriots' schedule.
"We're going to need everybody we can get," Brady said. "You see how every week it's a fight for us? It's going to come down to a diving catch sometimes. Either you make it or you don't. If you make it, you win. If you don't, you lose."
It's a slim margin that has enabled the Patriots to string together an impressive streak.
Or, as Brady might say, just enough to stay alive.