During their record 21-game winning streak, the New England Patriots won only once by more than 14 points. Since the streak was snapped in Pittsburgh two weeks ago, they have won by 18 and 23, despite a run of injuries that, among other things, has taken away their top three cornerbacks.
That says a lot about the loss, which may have lifted the subtle burden of the streak. Since it ended, they have been able to concentrate on the real business of winning their third NFL title in four seasons.
A week into the second half of the schedule, it's easy to identify the four top teams: New England, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and now Atlanta, three teams with one loss and the Falcons with two.
What typifies them are the little things they do. Such as:
_ Hines Ward, one of the game's best wide receivers, throwing his body into opponents to clear the way for his Pittsburgh teammates. And Plaxico Burress, once thought of as a classic ``Me First'' athlete, following Ward's lead and doing the same.
_ Troy Brown, in his 12th season as a Patriot, playing cornerback in a pinch and getting an interception. Plus defensive players Richard Seymour, Mike Vrabel and Dan Klecko playing a little offense.
_ Atlanta's resilience, rebounding from a 56-10 embarrassment in Kansas City to win in difficult Denver. And on Sunday, coming back after what appeared to be a bogus call robbed them of a touchdown to score four plays later and clinch a win over Tampa Bay.
``What this team has learned to do is play down to down. When something negative happens, we go back to the huddle and put it behind us,'' said Jim Mora, who in his rookie year as a head coach has found a way to instill the team ethos that has worked so well for Bill Belichick, Bill Cowher and Andy Reid.
Indeed, coaching seems to be a common denominator among these four teams.
Belichick has won two Super Bowls and has a shot at a third with a team of parts that mesh, whether they are first-round draft picks such as Seymour and Willie McGinest, third-rounders like Tedy Bruschi, sixth-rounders such as Tom Brady or rejected veterans Corey Dillon and Rodney Harrison. The only high pick on the offensive line is left tackle Matt Light, taken in the second round, and three starters were street free agents.
Andy Reid has done the same in Philadelphia.
Among the reasons Terrell Owens wanted out of San Francisco was the front office's perceived lack of commitment to winning. Winning is why he wanted to go to Philly _ his sideline rant at Donovan McNabb during the team's lone loss in Pittsburgh seemed less about anger and more about frustration. And if Owens ever does start yelling ``throw me the ball,'' be assured Reid will privately tell his star receiver to shut up.
Pittsburgh's players seem a lot like New England's. If the Patriots reflect Belichick's intellect every week features new gimmicks and new defenses the Steelers reflect Cowher's toughness.
The similarity extends to the quarterbacks.
Yes, Ben Roethlisberger was a high first-rounder and Brady a sixth-rounder. But in seven starts (seven wins) Roethlisberger hasn't looked at numbers, only victories. He's developed a rapport with the hitherto inconsistent Burress and his toughness reflects not only his coach but also veterans Ward and Jerome Bettis.
Bettis, at 32, is 5 yards away from becoming the NFL's No. 5 career rusher, but until the last two games, when he has filled in for the injured Duce Staley, he was used almost exclusively in short-yardage situations. He did the same last season, a dismal 6-10 campaign, when Cowher told him in training camp that he would be only a part-timer.
No problem, at least in public.
That's my job,'' he said Sunday after Pittsburgh beat Cleveland 24-10, avoiding a letdown after consecutive wins over the Patriots and Eagles.What I'm here for is to be a relief pitcher. This team is special because the guys behind the starters have to help.''
There is a fifth team worth consideration for elite status: the Colts.
If Indy was built in the image of its coach, Tony Dungy, it would have a defense.
But the offensive stars, especially Peyton Manning, command a salary that assures the defenders have to be draft finds or guys from the scrap heap, a hard way to build a strong unit. In their last four games, for example, the Colts have scored 139 points, an average of almost 35, but have lost two of them.
Still, it's hard to write off a team that seems able to score every time it gets the ball. Manning now has 31 touchdown passes, 17 short of Dan Marino's single-season record with seven games left.
One good sign for the Colts: In their last two games, home wins over Minnesota and Houston, the Indianapolis defense has allowed 594 yards, just four more than it allowed against Kansas City on Oct. 31. The Colts got a big game Sunday from Robert Mathis, an undersized second-year defensive end who had three sacks against Houston, and is capable of taking the double-team pressure off their one established star, Dwight Freeney.
But they remain an outsider because of the defense. Playoffs, sure. Super Bowl, unlikely.
Look to the teams with the strong intangibles rather than the stars to be in Jacksonville in February.