Patriots in Pursuit of Perfect Season

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With a victory over the New York Giants on Saturday, the New England Patriots will become the first NFL team to go undefeated during the regular season since 1972. Both teams have already qualified for the post-season and could rest their top players. But New England is playing for football history.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

The New England Patriots play their final game of the regular season tonight against the New York Giants. With a win, the Patriots will be 16 and 0 and will become the first team since 1972 to complete a perfect regular season. So where do the Pats stack up against all-time great NFL teams?

From New York, NPR's Mike Pesca reports.

MIKE PESCA: Psychologists call it the recency effect, meaning recent events are given more credence. It's why "The Lord of Rings" movie has found themselves ranked ahead of "Casablanca" in best movie ever polls. In sports terms, it's the natural tendency for fans to get carried away and believe that the team of the moment is one for the ages. But with this year's Patriots, the hype just might be well-founded.

Aaron Schatz is editor in chief of footballoutsiders.com, a Web site immersed in intense empirical analysis of the NFL. He has quoted and dissected every play of every game going back a dozen years.

Mr. AARON SCHATZ (Editor-in-Chief, FootballOutsiders.com): They are the best team that we've ever measured. And then when you go back in the history and you look at some other less accurate stats but still better than, you know, just looking plain wins and losses, they're really right up there with the teams that are considered the greatest of all time.

PESCA: Schatz is doing for football what Bill James and his legions of baseball stack geeks have done for that sport, bringing statistical rigor to the classic bar room arguments about teams from different eras facing off on gridirons of the imagination.

He finds the current Patriots offense to be almost unfathomably efficient and their defense at the risk of employing jargon, which might confound the layman, it ain't too shabby. The Patriots are, in Schatz opinion, a much more impressive squad than the only other undefeated team in modern NFL history.

Mr. SCHATZ: The '72 Dolphins played a remarkably easy schedule, and they did not win their games particularly in the post-season by large margins.

PESCA: The Pats, on the other hand, have been putting up scores which read like sections of the Tax Code: 52-7, 56-10. The team that's facing down the Patriots this week have less of an incentive to try to jostle the juggernaut than any of their prior opponents. The Giants have already clinched a playoff berth and have no chance to improve their standing. In this situation, some coaches elect to rest key players for fear of injury.

Earlier in the week, the Giants coach, Tom Coughlin, said he might adopt this tactic. But later, he seemed to preach a more aggressive approach.

Mr. TOM COUGHLIN (Coach, New York Giants): The 45 guys that dressed will play as hard as we can and try to win a game, and that's what we do every week. I don't see it as any different.

PESCA: Giants players, including running back Brandon Jacobs, clearly embrace the idea of playing the game as they would any other.

Mr. BRANDON JACOBS (Running Back, New York Giants): Momentum is more important than getting rest at this point because if you have momentum with, you know, rest don't do you any good.

PESCA: Upon hearing that the Giants were debating whether to rest their starters, including defensive stars Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora, Patriots QB Tom Brady offered up some advice.

Mr. TOM BRADY (Quarterback, New England Patriots): I think definitely straight hand and both of you should take the weekend off.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRADY: I'd rest them, I know that. I definitely would not play those two. They're great. Coach Coughlin, if you're listening…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRADY: …I'll definitely rest those guys.

PESCA: Perhaps the Cagy Brady realizes that 15 teams tried the strategy of playing hard against the Patriots and they all lost. Maybe letting a ragtag group of benchwarmers lose on the best team of football can work. It does in the movies.

Rudy, Rudy.

If you're interested in checking out how that theory holds up, it should be surprisingly easy. Originally, tonight's contest was to be carried only on the NFL Network, which can't be seen in most households. But after some congressional prodding, the game will be carried on CBS, NBC, the NFL Network and local channels in New York and New England. An NFL game hasn't been simultaneously carried on two networks since the first Super Bowl in 1967, an appropriate note given that another bit of football history is at stake tonight.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

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