Boston Sports Forum Commentary
Del N. Jones
There is no better place in sports than the plateau of being a Super Bowl champion.
There is no lonelier place than being a defending one.
While the majority of the sports world stops to watch the next team rise to celebratory DVD status, those same viewers witness the gauntlet laid out by the rest of the NFL to repeat the following season.
The New England Patriots get to experience that matrix-type existence once again in 2004 after taking the flag last February in Super Bowl XXXVIII. Two years ago that title-defense business didnít go too well, ending with a 9-7 non-playoff disappointment in 2002.
It would be too easy to call the Patriots "The Hunted" this season. The question is whether they will be captured ... again.
"I have definitely seen teams that had success who had difficulty (repeating the following season), and that's not good," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick told reporters during training camp. "A lot of it takes care of itself. For instance, when you pass the brink of having an edge to being overconfident, another team will usually come along and put everything in perspective in a hurry.
"But whenever players or coaches start to take the attitude of, 'Weíll be there when it counts, don't worry about things, there's no urgency.' It usually doesn't get straightened out, and when you try to, it doesn't happen."
Belichick and his Foxboro tribe certainly have experience with those missteps and hope not to revisit them this season. A 1-3 preseason, featuring a porous performance against Cincinnati, could make some feel a bit unsure about whether this team has reached that turn-it-on-when-we-need-to pitfall.
Belichick and his staff have tried to guard against such post-championship human nature throughout training camp, but in the end, their Sunday posture will be determined by the players and the players alone. Some lockers have two Super Bowl rings, some have one, while a small, hungry lot are still looking for the first.
The true challenge is external. There are far more ring-poor players outside the Foxboro borders, who basically want what the Patriots already have. Linebackers that want nothing more than to crack silver-helmeted running backs; safeties with plans to do the same to speedy wide receivers, and more than a few golden boys planning to outperform the new quarterback standard - Mr. Tom Brady.
All are priceless incentives that will meet the local team on any given Sunday. Starting with those Indianapolos Colts in Thursdayís opener, there will be nothing but hostility towards the title-holders.
"We expect every one of our opponents to play their best. Thatís what we expect every week. Thatís what we prepare for," Belichick said of his teamís marked status. "Otherwise, youíre setting low expectations for your opponents, and I donít think thatís a good idea."
Though it was just the preseason, both the Bengals and the Panthers, whom the Pats beat in the Super Bowl, gave a sampling of what will be waiting for New England at every venue this season, and history shows that it does matter.
The last team to successfully defend its championship was the Denver Broncos of 1997-98. Only seven teams have repeated and no team has ever won three straight Super Bowls. Green Bay won two straight in 1966 and 1967. Miami followed a perfect 1972 season with another title in 1973. San Francisco ('87,'88) won a pair in the 80's and Dallas ('92,'93) did the same in the 90s, while Pittsburgh ('74,'75, '78,'79) did it twice in that decade.
Great teams for sure, but far from the NFL norm. Payton's Bears still suffered through losing days, Staubachís Cowboys failed in a few big games and Favre's Packers hit the ground several times during his future hall-of-fame career.
So what should we truly expect from these Patriots. Itís a team that added strength with the acquisition of Corey Dillon in the offseason, but lost a significant amount with the free agent departures of defensive tackle Ted Washington and guard Damien Woody.
Brady is back. So is Brown, Bruschi, Law and Harrison.
Will another Super Bowl win be back as well in 2004?
History bets against it, but these guys never seem to pay attention.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
*Last Year's record: 17-2 SUPER BOWL CHAMPIONS
*2002 record: 9-7 Missed Playoffs
*Key Players: TOM BRADY, COREY DILLON, TROY BROWN, TY LAW, RICHARD SEYMOUR, TEDY BRUSCHI, RODNEY HARRISON, KEITH TRAYLOR
*Toughest games: Indianapolis (Sept. 9), at Buffalo (Oct. 3), at Pittsburgh (Oct. 31) at St. Louis (Nov. 7), at Kansas City (Nov. 22), Baltimore (Nov. 28), at New York Jets (Dec. 26).
This is the finale of the four-part preview of the AFC East for the 2004 season. The previous three previews on the Jets, Bills and Dolphins are also on bostonsportsforum.org.
Commentaries by Del N. Jones are posted on Boston Sports Forum every Monday. His weekend columns can also be read in the Saturday/Sunday edition of The Patriot Ledger or at patriotledger.com.