Fins, Pats chase history

First time since ’84 teams go 11-0, 0-11 in same year

Even Bill Belichick is having a hard time ignoring the attention on his New England Patriots as they get ever closer to the NFL’s first unbeaten season in 35 years.

“I don’t care what everybody else thinks,” he snarled this week after first suggesting that no one cared except the reporters asking the questions.

“I can tell you what this team thinks. Right now we’re thinking about getting ready for Baltimore. That’s how we approach the game. I can’t tell you what anybody else thinks. I don’t care what everybody else thinks. It doesn’t make any difference.”

Not to Belichick and the Patriots maybe, but it sure does to the Miami Dolphins, for a couple of reasons.

New England is 11-0 on the way to 16-0 — or 19-0, the record if it wins out through the Super Bowl. That would make the Patriots the NFL’s first unbeaten team since the 1972 Dolphins went 14-0 in the regular season and 17-0 overall, beating Washington in the Super Bowl.

Now, the Dolphins are at the opposite end in this season of extremes in the NFL, 0-11 after slogging through the Pittsburgh mud for 59 minutes and 43 seconds Monday night before the Steelers managed a field goal to win 3-0. It was the Dolphins’ sixth loss by three points in a thus-far fruitless season.

This is only the third time in the NFL’s 88 seasons that there have been 11-0 and 0-11 teams at the same time.

The last time was in 1984, when Miami, on the way to a 14-2 record and Super Bowl trip, was 11-0 with Dan Marino setting passing records that wouldn’t be broken for two decades. The 0-11 team was Buffalo, which finished the season 2-14, setting the stage for a housecleaning that brought in an administration led by Bill Polian and Marv Levy. All they would do is get the Bills to four straight Super Bowls from 1990-93.

The only other time it happened was 1942, when Chicago started 11-0 and Detroit 0-11.

Most of the focus this time is on the Patriots.

So dominant are they that oddsmakers are having trouble setting lines to entice wagers against them. They are winning by scores like 52-7 and 56-10 and their victory margin is 23 points a game as Belichick demonstrates he doesn’t need to cheat. He was fined $500,000 and the team $250,000 for illegally taping the New York Jets’ defensive signals during the season’s first game.

The Patriots already are a mini-dynasty, having won Super Bowls after the 2001, 2003 and 2004 seasons. Last season, they reached the AFC championship game and took a 21-3 lead in Indianapolis but lost 38-34.

Then they filled their biggest hole with three standout wide receivers, including Randy Moss, who was obtained for a fourth-round pick from Oakland, where he was hurt and unhappy. His 16 touchdown catches are just six short of Jerry Rice’s single-season record of 22.

Then there is Wes Welker, obtained from Miami. He is second in the league with 81 catches, including 13 last Sunday night in a 31-28 win over Philadelphia that was only the second game this season the Patriots won by less than 17 points.

Their presence has turned quarterback Tom Brady into a record-breaker as well as a winner. The MVP in two of the three Super Bowl victories, Brady already has 39 TD passes this season, just 10 short of Peyton Manning’s record, and the win over Philadelphia was the first game this season in which he had fewer than three.

Letting Welker go is one of many questionable decisions by the Dolphins, who also have been hurt badly by injury.

When it was clear they were going nowhere this season, the Dolphins dealt their top receiver, Chris Chambers, to San Diego at the trading deadline. Trent Green, the 37-year-old quarterback brought in by new coach Cam Cameron, is out for the season with a concussion. Top running back Ronnie Brown went out with a knee injury, and linebacker Zach Thomas is sidelined with a head injury.

“We’re not winning any games right now, but I know what we’re putting forward,” says Jason Taylor, the 2006 defensive player of the year and one of the few solid veterans left. “I know what we’re putting into it, and we’ll get the results one day. You’re never as bad as you think you are, and you’re never as good, either.”

Except maybe for the Patriots. They might be as good as they think they are, although they rarely acknowledge it publicly.

They are a model franchise for professional sports because their owner, Robert Kraft, is a model owner, running his team as he ran the paper companies that made him rich. He hires the right people and tries not to interfere too much.

Still, a lot of NFL folks thought Belichick wasn’t the right coach when he was hired in 2000. Belichick was an NFL assistant at 23 and the defensive coordinator of a Super Bowl winner at 34, but his record was just 37-45 in his first head coaching stint in Cleveland, where his incommunicative — some would say surly – personality got in his way.

Kraft, however, liked what he saw when Belichick was a Patriots assistant in 1996.

“He’s one of the brightest people I’ve ever met,” Kraft says. “That was enough.”

Obviously, it’s worked out.

Belichick is 98-39 in New England with three titles, a record that in an era of legislated parity should be almost impossible to achieve. It’s very close, in fact, to the standard set by Vince Lombardi, who was 98-30-4 with five titles in Green Bay from 1959-67, when there was no free agency or salary cap that forced teams to let good players go.

That Miami is on the other side of the great divide is ironic because Don Shula, who coached the Dolphins from 1970-1995, is linked with Lombardi in the football pantheon — his 347 wins with Baltimore and Miami are the most by any NFL coach.

But since his retirement, the Dolphins have steadily declined from a playoff team under Jimmy Johnson to mediocrity under Dave Wannstedt and Nick Saban to this season’s futility.

Both Johnson and Saban were superstar coaches but could do no better than keep the team competitive. Saban, who was supposed to be the savior, left after two seasons for the University of Alabama. Wannstedt traded two first-round draft picks for running back Ricky Williams, who subsequently retired and then was suspended for almost two years after testing positive for marijuana and a banned supplement.

Williams returned Monday night in Pittsburgh, tore a chest muscle and is out for the season, a symbol of many horrible personnel decisions that have plagued the Dolphins for more than a decade. Since Marino retired after the 1999 season, they have had 12 different starting quarterbacks.

But things change quickly in the NFL.

Maybe the Patriots won’t go unbeaten or win the Super Bowl – injuries can change things drastically.

And maybe the Dolphins will win a game. The only winless team of the modern era was Tampa Bay in 1976, when it was 0-14 as a first-year expansion team. Miami is favored Sunday against the New York Jets, a 2-9 team that beat it by three points at the Meadowlands on Sept. 23.

“All you can do is to continue to show your players the good things they are doing,” says Cameron, still looking for his first win as an NFL coach. “We are doing a lot of good things. We just have to find a way to close out a game.”

Go north 1,200 miles on I-95, and the Patriots can show them how.

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