With their win last week against the Philadelphia Eagles, the New England Patriots guaranteed a 19th straight winning record and closed in on a Dallas Cowboys' mark that is among the most treasured in franchise history.
From 1966 to 1985, the Cowboys never had a losing record, a 20-year run that is an NFL record. Dallas won 13 division titles and played in two NFL Championship Games, 10 NFC Championship Games and five Super Bowls -- winning twice. They finished first or second in their division 18 times. During the two seasons they did not make the playoffs, the Cowboys finished 8-6 (1974) and 9-7 (1984).
On Sunday, behind Cowboys coach Jason Garrett and Patriots coach Bill Belichick, the organizations with the longest runs of success in NFL history will meet at Gillette Stadium at 4:25 p.m. ET (Fox). The interconference matchup between the Cowboys (6-4) and Patriots (9-1) could conceivably be a preview of Super Bowl LIV.
Pro Football Hall of Famer Gil Brandt was one of the architects of the Cowboys' success, and even he has to bow to the current streak put together by Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady. The Patriots' record of 264-90 since Belichick became coach in 2000 is the best in the NFL over that span, and the franchise has appeared in nine Super Bowls, winning six. They have played in the AFC Championship Game 13 times.
"It's a lot harder today to do what they've done than what we did because everybody is so much better," Brandt said. "The competitive balance is so much better than before."
Belichick's appreciation for the Cowboys' success goes back to his days as an assistant coach, competing against Tom Landry's teams into the 1980s and seeing Jimmy Johnson return the Cowboys to Super Bowl glory in the 1990s. Also, it didn't hurt that Belichick grew up watching Roger Staubach practice at Navy, where his father, Steve, coached.
"I have a tremendous amount of respect for the Cowboys organization, the history there, what they've created," Belichick said. "Obviously, they're probably the premier franchise in all of pro sports. That's no accident. That didn't happen overnight. With what Jerry [Jones] and Stephen [Jones] and the rest of the organization have put together there, and the history going back to Coach Landry and Coach Johnson, those are standards that I'd say all of us in the profession aspire to, look up to and aspire to meet the levels of success that they have achieved."
There are similarities between the runs -- from strong head coaches who defined their eras and quarterbacks who played their best on the biggest stages to defenses that wrote their own history and personnel folks who seemed to have all the answers. As the winning continued, the jealousy and contempt for both organizations grew louder than the appreciation of their successes.
Brandt said Belichick reminds him of someone in particular: "I always call him a young Tom Landry."
The former Cowboys executive said Belichick "understands the game in its entirety. He's like [Landry]. He knows how to have the long-snapper snap the ball and correct it if it's wrong. He knows how to play coverages. The amazing thing to me is week to week you never know what you're going to get against him. ... He's the most amazing guy in the world. I don't know how he finds time to do everything he does. I tell ya, this guy, if it were croquet, he'd find a way to win, or if it's horse shoes, he'd find a way. The guy is the most amazing person I'd been around. I always thought Tom Landry was, but he's on equal footing with Landry. The guy's just utterly amazing."
If the Patriots beat the Cowboys on Sunday, Belichick will extend his NFL record of 17 consecutive 10-win seasons. For context, former San Francisco 49ers coach George Seifert is second in NFL history with eight straight 10-win seasons. This has been a milestone season for Belichick, who earned his 300th career victory as a head coach (regular season and postseason combined) on Oct. 27 against the Cleveland Browns. He is the third coach to reach that mark, joining Don Shula (347) and George Halas (324). Brady said one of the things that best defines Belichick is his "competitive stamina."
Landry is among the NFL's most iconic figures. He served as the Cowboys' coach for 29 years, winning two Super Bowls. The Cowboys appeared in two NFL Championship Games ,as well, yet Landry was named the coach of the year only once. Known for his famed fedora, he was innovative on both sides the ball, introducing the flex defense and the motion offense. In today's football, Landry never would have had the opportunity to develop his program. The expansion Cowboys went 0-11-1 in his first season and did not have a winning record until his seventh campaign.
One of the great, clutch leaders in NFL history, the 18-time team captain is on the cusp of becoming the first 42-year-old quarterback to start every game in a regular season. This season, he became the oldest quarterback to start on kickoff weekend. Warren Moon had held the record after starting opening day for Seattle in 1998 at age 41. Brady's sustained success and pursuit of excellence is captured in his answer when asked about his favorite Super Bowl ring: "The next one." Brady has six, becoming the only player in league history to reach that number. Now in his 20th season with the franchise, he joins Darrell Green (20, Washington), Jackie Slater (20, L.A. Rams) and Jason Hanson (21, Detroit) as the only players with at least 20 NFL seasons played with one team.
Forty years after he retired, he remains Captain America. Staubach was a Heisman Trophy winner at Navy, served his country in Vietnam, became a HOF quarterback and won two Super Bowls. He was a four-time passing champion, and when he retired, he had the highest passer rating in league history. And he was at his best in the clutch, earning another nickname: Captain Comeback. He delivered 23 fourth-quarter comebacks in the regular season and playoffs, including 14 in the final two minutes or overtime. He even came up with one of football's iconic terms with his "Hail Mary" to Drew Pearson in the playoffs to fell Minnesota.
The Patriots never had a nickname that truly took off. In 2003, nose tackle Ted Washington produced "Homeland Defense" T-shirts and hats that players rallied around. Linebacker Tedy Bruschi has long talked about the pride of the "'Backerhood," as strong linebacker play often has defined the team's best defenses. And this season, Jamie Collins introduced "The Boogeymen," which has been a fun storyline to highlight a group that is big, scary and fast and plays with an edge. While the defense defined the early-era Patriots championship teams -- cornerback Ty Law was inducted into the HOF -- the unit has mostly been overshadowed by the Brady-led offense in the Patriots' dynastic run.
The names are legendary and span different eras of the Cowboys' 20-year run. Bob Lilly, Mel Renfro, Lee Roy Jordan, Chuck Howley, Jethro Pugh, George Andrie, Cornell Green and Charlie Cole helped spawn the first take of the "Doomsday Defense." On their way to the franchise's first Super Bowl win in 1971, the D allowed 18 points in three playoff games, including three to the Miami Dolphins in the title game (24-3). Some players spanned the original Doomsday unit to the second leg, such as Cliff Harris, Charlie Waters and Ed "Too Tall" Jones. In the mid-70s, players such as Randy White, Harvey Martin, Thomas Henderson and Bob Breunig joined in with a defense that allowed 194 points in 1976 and 208 points in 1978, which was the first season of the 16-game schedule.
The personnel people
Scott Pioli served as Patriots vice president of player personnel from 2000 to 2008, and his former understudy, Nick Caserio, has filled that void as the director of player personnel from 2009 to present. Both are exemplary. Belichick, who might best be defined as the de facto general manager, explained that the personnel system in New England -- which focuses on scheme-specific fits and building a strong middle class on the roster, among other things -- came from his time as coach of the Cleveland Browns (1991-95), with significant influence from Mike Lombardi. Belichick previously noted the roots of the system -- in terms of organizing the draft and personnel meetings, etc. -- stem from former Patriots coach Chuck Fairbanks, longtime Patriots scout Bucko Kilroy and close friend Ernie Adams.
He took his spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame over the summer, joining Landry and former Cowboys president and general manager Tex Schramm in Canton, Ohio. Brandt found players from small schools. He found players from other sports such as Rayfield Wright, a basketball-player-turned-HOF-tackle. He introduced computers to the scouting process and helped create the NFL scouting combine. Of the 19 players who are in the Cowboys' Ring of Honor, Brandt oversaw the acquisition of 15 -- and nine of them have busts in Canton.
'We are all Patriots'
The Patriots were lovable underdogs when they shocked the St. Louis Rams, who were referred to as "The Greatest Show on Turf," in Super Bowl XXXVI. They passed on individual pregame introductions to take the field as a team, and after the upset -- which came five months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks -- owner Robert Kraft struck a unifying tone when he said, "We are all Patriots." Now 18 years and nine Super Bowl appearances later, the way the public views the team is different. "I don't think we're America's favorite team at this point," Brady joked this week in his weekly radio interview. Former Patriots backup quarterback Scott Zolak, who serves as an analyst on the team's radio broadcast, compares the Pats to the old New York Yankees teams. "It was always, 'Man, they're back in it again?' [Derek] Jeter was Brady. You could thrive in that market and always have class and excellence," Zolak said. "What amazes me, and is similar to the Cowboys and 'America's Team,' is that we have fans everywhere. I've noticed it more in the last four years, on the road, it has become a stadium takeover."
As Cowboys Ring of Honor wide receiver Drew Pearson said: "Our hate was mainly instigated by being called America's Team. That's when it really started. Now, we got a lot of love for being America's Team too. But there was a lot of hate. We heard a lot of that negativity, especially even sometimes on the field when your opponent is beating you or you're having a bad day. Yeah, [Rams and Redskins coach] George Allen, I can hear him as we break the huddle, 'Yeah, the Cowboys. Tom Landry. America's Team,' all that. Teams used that as motivation against us. We didn't really embrace it. We didn't walk around saying, 'We're America's Team.' We just dealt with it. We understood that this was part of being with the Cowboys, and we didn't think anybody was better."