FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- This is the silly season in the NFL, a time when fans ooh and aah over catches made in noncontact drills, and when Bill Belichick jokingly hails the scouting skills of reporters while mocking his own. So let's agree to be silly. Let's talk about these New England Patriots finishing 19-0.
But first, let's remember a few things about the prohibitive NFL favorite. In addition to winning 18 consecutive games in the 2007 season, the Patriots of Belichick and Tom Brady won 21 consecutive games over the 2003 and 2004 seasons. They also won 32 of 34 ('03 and '04) and 23 of 25 ('14 and '15).
The 2017 Patriots? They're the NFL's answer to the Golden State Warriors. No, they didn't add Kevin Durant, but they did add significant playmakers in their mid-20s at receiver (Brandin Cooks), cornerback (Stephon Gilmore), running back (Mike Gillislee) and defensive end (Kony Ealy), as well as an old pro's pro at linebacker (David Harris). Don't forget, a healthy Rob Gronkowski is also an addition. And since the Patriots won 17 of 19 games last season, the losses of LeGarrette Blount and the retired Rob Ninkovich aren't about to silence thoughts of them winning 19 of 19 games this year.
The Patriots are a team of many blessings, but the burden of sustaining greatness is their one curse. As curses go, it isn't a bad one. Belichick and Brady have won more Super Bowls (five) than any coach and quarterback before them, and outside of breaking a tie for NFL titles with the Vince Lombardi-Bart Starr partnership in Green Bay, there isn't much left for them to do.
Except deliver a perfect season. So while it might be silly on one hand to talk about 19-0 more than five weeks before New England tries to go 1-0, this much is true: The 2007 Patriots were a single play away from pulling it off, and the 2017 roster looks to be in the same ZIP code as that one. In other words, the Patriots might be good enough to exorcise the one lingering demon from the Belichick-Brady years: the pursuit of perfection that met a devastating end in their Super Bowl XLII loss to the New York Giants.
Brady and kicker Stephen Gostkowski are the only holdover players from that epic (and ultimately doomed) '07 team, and the bylaws of the Patriot Way expressly prohibit them from comparing today's practice to yesterday's practice, never mind comparing teams from different decades. Belichick's cardinal rule among cardinal rules? Stay in the moment at all times.
"It's easy to come out here and say," Gostkowski said of the one-snap-at-a-time clichés the Patriots are forever feeding reporters, "because that's what [the coaches are] saying to us."
Under owner Robert Kraft, the Belichick-Brady Patriots have reached seven Super Bowls with a relentless robo-approach to their work, making Foxborough a place where humanizing writers go to die. It would take a pretty strong dose of truth serum to get the 65-year-old Belichick to reveal the things he'd most love to accomplish before retirement, so we're left to speculate about what those things might be. Here's a guess at two of them:
1. Finally beat the Giants in the Super Bowl.
2. Complete the Don Larsen game he lost with two outs in the ninth inning a decade ago.
After spending a dozen years as an assistant with the Giants, and after losing to them twice in the big game, Belichick surely would love to pick them off even with his former Giants staffmate, Tom Coughlin, no longer on the opposing sideline. But Belichick doesn't have much control over the NFC half of the postseason tournament. We all might live to see Mayweather-McGregor II (most unfortunately) before we ever see Patriots-Giants III.
Belichick does have control over the second part of the proposed wish list. The 1972 Miami Dolphins went 17-0, and although the Patriots coach would likely enjoy unseating Don Shula, who referred to him as "Beli-cheat," as the maker of the greatest NFL season of all, his primary source of motivation would be rooted in Super Bowl XLII. The Eli Manning escape. The David Tyree catch. The Asante Samuel drop. You know the drill.
In his locker room after the Giants' 17-14 victory, Belichick wore a ghastly mask of pain and despair.
"I saw a defeated look on his face, and I'd never seen anything like it," said Donte' Stallworth, a Patriots receiver then and a sports and political commentator now. Belichick blamed himself in a brief talk with his team and then left his roomful of shattered players. "It was almost like he just faded to black when he walked away," Stallworth said.
The tape of the game must have made the result even more haunting. On the Manning escape, the New England rush overwhelmed nearly the entire Giants offensive line. Jarvis Green exploded past Shaun O'Hara to the center's left and plowed through left guard Rich Seubert, and Richard Seymour looped behind Jarvis Green and beat O'Hara to his right. The offensive linemen tried to play the rush as if they were switching on a basketball pick-and-roll, and they failed miserably. As Seymour and Green converged on the immobile Manning, O'Hara said he saw "Eli curl up in the fetal position, which he normally does," and then thought, "OK, we're probably going to lose this game."
But as Manning kept moving his feet and staying alive, struggling to break free from the grasp of both New England rushers, a desperate O'Hara slid his gloved right hand onto Seymour's throat. "I said, 'Screw it,'" the Giants center would recall. "I was squeezing his trachea as hard as I could and not letting go." Choked by a 300-pound man, Seymour was temporarily disabled for the split-second that allowed Manning to get away. O'Hara gambled that the officials would miss his WWE move, and miss it they sure as hell did. If they threw a flag there, the Patriots would have ended up 19-0.
Instead, Belichick was left to assure his 18-1 players that it wasn't their fault.
"It's the most emotional I've ever seen Bill," said Heath Evans, a fullback on that team who is now an NFL Network analyst. "Other than my father, I've never had more respect for a man at a moment in my life as that moment right there. He owned the situation, and it wasn't just verbiage. He was broken over the fact he had cost not himself, but his team, his coaching staff, and maybe most importantly his owner an opportunity to go down in history."
Ten years later, that opportunity is still very much in play. The Patriots are frightening on paper. At their first practice Thursday morning, as Belichick wore a white visor while shuffling between the team's two side-by-side fields, more than 15,000 fans watched Brady throw to dangerous weapons old and new. Harris said it was a bigger camp crowd than any from his Jets days. Julian Edelman said it was a bigger crowd than he had at his Kent State games.
On muscle memory, the fans chanted the name of the quarterback wearing red jersey No. 12. The 6-foot-4 Brady still seemed to rise above everyone on the field, including the 6-foot-6 Gronk, and after he found Cooks on a touchdown pass in the left corner of the end zone, beating two defenders, he slowly lifted his arms toward the sky and held them high for an extra second or two. Brady's reaction seemed more fitting for January than July.
Maybe he was basking in the possibilities for Cooks and this team, or maybe he was just having a little opening-day fun. Either way, as he stands three days away from his 40th birthday, Brady remains entirely capable of adding to his legacy as the best NFL player ever. He believes he has time on his side, too. He told ESPN.com in the spring that he might play beyond age 45, and that his wife, Gisele Bundchen, has signed off on him at least playing into his mid-forties. "She wants me to do that, too," he said.
Brady won't duplicate what he did in 2007, when he threw 50 touchdown passes, 23 of them to Randy Moss. But off his four-game suspension, he proved last season that he can play close to that level. He was picked off twice in 432 passes for a career-low 0.5 interception percentage in the regular season before authoring the mother of all Super Bowl comebacks.
As an encore, can Brady seize a sixth ring by winning one more game than he did in his greatest statistical season? Can he go 19-for-19 in his 18th year?
"Bill is going to kill me for saying this, but yes," Evans said. "I can draw up 80 different equations in 2007 for how we beat the Giants and finish 19-0, but the better team won that day and I'll leave it at that. ... If everyone plays their best and every team stays completely healthy and every coaching staff coaches as well as it's capable of coaching, the Patriots will run the table. But we also know it doesn't happen that way."
Injuries happen. Bad bounces happen. Worse officiating calls happen. Road games in Denver happen.
"I think they definitely have the potential to put up similar numbers to ours in 2007," Stallworth said. "The Patriots are one of the few teams in the NFL that can move guys all over the field. If you double Gronk, Cooks and Julian will be wide open. ...It's not possible to cover Gronk one-on-one. He's not a human being. Cooks, that dude is a home run hitter. Throw that in there and it's, holy s---, what else do they need?
"But as far as the record goes, there were plenty of games we could've lost that year. We should've lost maybe three to four games. ... We didn't accomplish [the 19-0 record], and the Giants weren't even that good. They just put pressure on us, and we weren't doing in the passing game what we did earlier in the year."
The 2007 Patriots were all but gasping for water by the time they reached the Super Bowl in the Arizona desert. Chasing history and a championship at the same time is an extraordinarily draining experience. The 2015-16 Golden State Warriors found out the hard way after they broke the Chicago Bulls' regular-season record for victories with 73; they didn't have enough gas left to protect a 3-1 Finals lead over Cleveland.
Belichick's goal is to win titles, not break records, which is why New England has a chance to win three over a four-year period for the second time on his watch. He didn't talk to his 2007 players about a perfect season. "And he made sure we didn't talk about it ourselves," Stallworth said. "It's forbidden fruit. Don't go to the Garden of Eden and touch that fruit or you're going to be in trouble."
Chances are, the Patriots will lose a couple of games this year. They've got a November date at their least favorite place on the map, Denver, where their 10-0 season turned south in 2015, and they've got three consecutive road games with Buffalo, Miami and Pittsburgh in December. The Patriots have enough danger spots on the schedule for Belichick to keep his players in line and to inspire a smart and loyal veteran like Matthew Slater to call the glowing preseason assessments of the team "quite foolish" and "quite disrespectful" to the rest of the league.
Nothing ever changes in Foxborough, other than the trophy count. Asked last week about a published projection of an unbeaten season, Belichick said he was merely trying to get off to a good start in camp. "We're not really worried about all that's in the future," he said. "That will come when it comes."
But before it does come, it's perfectly fine to talk about a perfect season. Belichick and Brady are still breathing all these years after winning 18 straight and 32 out of 34. That's why dismissing the possibility of 19-0 is sillier than weighing it at the end of July.