Are the Patriots a dynasty?

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Punch the words "Patriots" and "dynasty" into the search engine Google and at last check 96,800 listings come back in .58 seconds. Do the same thing on LexisNexis for the past week and it spits out 252 stories from such far-flung periodicals as the San Jose Mercury, the Kansas City Star, the Hartford Courant -- and The Daily Telegraph in Sydney, Australia.

The D-word is getting serious play, and it's only going to get worse as we careen ever closer to the kickoff between the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX. Every Super Bowl has a theme, and this one -- with apologies to Terrell Owens -- is the Dynasty Bowl.

Are the Patriots, on the threshold of their third Super Bowl victory in four seasons, a true dynasty -- whatever that really means? Can they stand side by side with the great teams in NFL history? It's a relatively short list since the start of the Super Bowl era:

• The 1961-67 Green Bay Packers won five championships (two of them Super Bowls) in seven years.

• The 1971-73 Dolphins reached the Super Bowl three straight years, winning two.

• The 1974-79 Pittsburgh Steelers won four titles in six seasons.

• The 1981-94 San Francisco 49ers won five Super Bowls (every single one they played in) in a span of 14 years, including four in nine seasons.

• The 1990-93 Buffalo Bills are probably a stretch, but they did make four straight Super Bowls.

• The 1992-95 Dallas Cowboys won three Super Bowls in four seasons -- the
very feat the Patriots are trying to match.

It's a big if, but with the Patriots favored to win by about a touchdown it's a relevant discussion. Are they or aren't they? The pundits are falling all over themselves to answer the question. Naturally, the Patriots aren't buying what the media is selling.

Linebacker Tedy Bruschi was asked on a conference call last week what teams might merit dynasty consideration. He listed, in order: San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Dallas.

And, inquiring minds wanted to know, does he rank the Patriots with those teams?

"I am a member of the Patriots," Bruschi said. "I am talking about those teams ... because it is in the past. I won't talk about that when it comes to my team. I'll let maybe some team in the next decade talk about us.

"To worry how we would play against those other teams is just something that we don't really want to concern ourselves with."

Vic Carucci, the national editor of NFL.com, knows something about great teams. He covered the great Buffalo Bills teams that reached an unprecedented four consecutive Super Bowls. Not only does he believe the Patriots should be accorded dynasty status if they beat Philadelphia -- he thinks that possibly, just maybe they might already be there.

"I think the main reason for my sense that they're this close to achieving the dynasty, if they haven't already, is because of the difficulty in maintaining consistent success in this era," Carucci said last week from his home outside Buffalo. "I don't think people appreciate how hard it is to stay good in the league.

"The league is set up to not allow this to happen."

Brick and porcelain
The one dynasty that towers above all the rest in the public imagination is -- easy, there, Steelers and Packers fans -- the Ming Dynasty. From 1368-1644, a stunning span of 276 years featuring 16 emperors that ruled over some 100 million subjects.

After eliminating his Mongol rivals from the north, Zhu Yuanzhang established the Ming Dynasty in the Chinese city of Nanjing, and later Beijing. The lasting monument to the Ming dominance is the brick and granite that is the Great Wall of China. In the art world, the delicate blue and white porcelain produced during the period is seen as the height of the civilization.

You can see some of the best pieces on display today at the Freer Gallery of Art & Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution, where Ms. Jan Stuart is the associate curator of Chinese art.

So what about it? How does the four-season reign of the Patriots stack up with the 276 years of the Ming?

Stuart sighs.

"I have to say, this is a question I've never considered," she said last week from her Washington, D.C. office. "There are bound to be analogies when you talk about powerful people in closed groups. Every dynasty has to have some product for public consumption, so I guess football is what the Patriots will leave behind."

The concept of dynasty, Stuart explained, is not specifically related to duration. A dynasty is usually founded by an individual who invariably is riding on some kind of movement political and social unrest. An incumbent dynasty is overthrown and a new one is started. Whether that dynasty lasts or not really depends on political control, economic prosperity and one's ability to control enemies.

Sounds kind of like football, doesn't it?

"Now that you mention it," Stuart said. "In the end, the Ming lost out to the Manchu Qing Dynasty in 1644. Still, you could say they had a very nice run."

So, back to the Patriots -- are they a dynasty or not?

There are two major factors at odds here. For while the Patriots have not sustained their excellence over a great period of time -- the team is 61-27 under Belichick since 2000, a .stout 693 winning percentage -- they have, as Carucci points out, succeeded in a system that has been created to defeat anyone trying to stay on top. Today's free agency prevents teams from stockpiling players. When a team becomes prosperous, the salary cap makes it difficult to keep the talented core of players together. Just ask the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Playing by today's rules
Russell Baxter, ESPN's NFL research coordinator, is a traditionalist. He believes that a team's greatness is not measured merely in championships, but near-misses, too.

"You don't have to just win Super Bowls," the information guru said. "The Steelers made the playoffs eight straight years during their great run. The 49ers won four Super Bowls in a nine-year span under Joe Montana. If the Patriots win, I would have to consider them one of the great teams, but I'm not sure they're a dynasty.

"That's my story, and I'm sticking to it."

Carucci argues that two titles in three years and a possible three in four -- achieved despite today's circumstances -- renders longevity a moot point. Carucci said the secret of the Patriots' success is finding players who can play within the team concept.

"First, I think it takes extraordinary skill in the selection of players who will perform well while earning salaries that stay under the cap," he said. "Number two, it takes a tremendous skill as a coach and a coaching staff to sell players on staying there under those circumstances.

"It means buying fully into the team-first approach. I can't think in time in history of sports where it's been a harder sell. I respect what the Steelers did over time, with nine Hall of Famers. I respect the San Francisco 49ers, (Joe) Montana and (Jerry) Rice and the coaching legacy of Bill Walsh. But I truly think that neither team would have achieved what they achieved if today's rules applied then."

"Can you imagine Steelers keeping all those players together that made the Hall of Fame? There's no way. Does Steve Young stay for so long as Joe Montana's backup? No."

The Patriots are an efficient, well-coached team, but they are also extremely versatile. Wide receiver Troy Brown has been playing a lot of cornerback this season due to injuries in the secondary. Linebacker Mike Vrabel sees time at tight end. Defensive tackle Richard Seymour plays fullback when the Patriots get close to the goal line. It is worth noting that the Patriots suffocated one of history's great offenses when they beat the Colts (allowing three points), then torched the league's No. 1-ranked defense a week later, scoring 41 points in Pittsburgh.

Five years ago, ESPN considered the dynasty question. John Forsythe, the eminent Blake Carrington, opened the feature, wondering what happened to all the late, great NFL dynasties. The consensus of the assembled personnel braintrust? The dynasty was, indeed, dead.

"In today's age, to produce great achievement for a sustained period of time -- it's almost impossible," said Carmen Policy, the chief architect of those terrific 49ers teams. "A veteran team can look to, at the most, three years of sustained viability as the true contender, where you walk out onto the field carrying the big belt, the Lombardi trophies in your case.

"I can't imagine it being sustained much longer than that. I don't think dynasties are dead; we're just redefining what a dynasty actually is."

Bill Polian, president of the Indianapolis Colts, agreed.

"The stars make so much money, you can't put a full squad together," Polian said. "The idea that you could have the 49ers, the Bills, the Redskins, the Cowboys ... no longer."

"It's economics," said Charley Casserly, the Hoston Texans' general manager. "With the player movement, how do you keep them all together? You can't. Go back to the Steelers -- four Super Bowls in six years -- that could never happen today."

And yet, the Patriots could. With a win on Sunday, they would have two years to win one more title -- a possibility that no longer seems impossible.

"We are a team," Bruschi said. "Check your ego at the door, because we only care about one thing: winning."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.