Lessons learned on road to perfection

The quarterback of the only 16-0 team in NFL history says

there’s only one way to approach perfection: Don’t even think about

it.

Don’t focus on what one more victory will achieve. Instead, zero

in on the smaller steps that will get you there. That’s what the

New England Patriots did two years ago when they also were just a

win away.

It’s something neither the Saints not the Colts need be

concerned with anymore.

“Every time we came in, we focused on what our job was that

day, the things that we could handle that day,” Tom Brady said.

“For practice days, it was about how we could have a great

practice and meetings and walkthroughs and so forth. And then when

the game came, the game came. I think we, as a team, were mature

enough to handle that, but every team is different.”

The Saints, new to the national spotlight, ended their run at an

unbeaten regular season in their 14th game in front of their loud

home fans with a loss to the Dallas Cowboys.

The Colts pretty much handed away their chance by sitting their

regulars in the third quarter Sunday with a 15-10 lead. The Jets

came back for a 29-15 victory.

So the drumbeat that would have gotten louder during a countdown

to kickoff in Buffalo for a 16-0 record – from bloggers, talk

radio, sports television stations, beat writers, columnists and

fans – won’t happen.

Going undefeated was hardly a hot topic of conversation among

the 2007 Patriots even as the wins piled up, not with coach Bill

Belichick discouraging such talk.

“It was more of trying to eliminate the distractions than

create more for ourselves,” said Denver Broncos coach Josh

McDaniels, the coordinator of the Patriots record-setting 2007

offense. “We were focused for the next game. We knew how hard that

would be to accomplish, so to think ahead about doing it was a

waste of time.”

Safety Rodney Harrison was the go-to guy for quote-seeking

reporters. From his locker at the end of a row with plenty of space

for them to congregate, he would comment directly on almost any

subject.

But 16-0? Oh, no.

“I can be 100 percent honest with you,” said Harrison, now an

analyst for Football Night in America on NBC. “I never had one

discussion with anyone about it because we were in such a zone and

we had been bred and taught since I got there in ’03 to play one

game at a time.”

It’s the mantra of all coaches. Look ahead at your own peril.

But it takes on added weight coming from the no-nonsense Belichick.

The Patriots’ wins in the Super Bowls in the 2001, 2003 and 2004

seasons just reinforced that.

Then came 2007.

The Patriots won their first eight games by at least 17 points.

They had a close call the following week when Brady threw two of

his NFL-record 50 touchdown passes in the last eight minutes to

beat the Colts 24-20.

They reached 11-0 with a 31-28 win over Philadelphia, but needed

Laurence Maroney’s touchdown run midway through the fourth quarter

to overtake the Eagles. It was even tighter the following week in a

27-24 win at Baltimore with Brady’s scoring pass to Jabar Gaffney

with 44 seconds left.

“The biggest thing was to try to play good football for 60

minutes, not feel satisfied, and not think of 16-0,” said Patriots

defensive end Jarvis Green, a member of that team. “At the same

time, we’re human. I guess guys here and there thought about

it.”

After they reached 15-0 with the top seed in the AFC East

clinched, the question arose: Rely on the starters the next week or

rest them and avoid potential injuries?

“Play your people. Play to win,” insisted Mike Ditka, the

coach of the 1985 Chicago Bears who started at 12-0. “If you’re

afraid of injuries, you shouldn’t play football in the first

place.”

Belichick played them. Colts coach Jim Caldwell did not late in

the game with the Jets, and the perfecto was gone.

“If a coach doesn’t learn one thing from their history, every

time they’ve sat their players, they’ve lost,” Ditka said. “What

do you got to do? Get hit in the head with a bat to understand

that?

“They’re going to have one week off anyway; they got a bye.

They’re going to take two weeks off? You watch them play defense.

You think that defense can afford to take two weeks off? I don’t

know. … If you have a chance to make history, you certainly take

a shot at it.”

His 1985 Bears finally lost, 38-24 to Miami in their 13th game.

But they never lost again, capping an 18-1 season with a 46-10 win

over the Patriots in the Super Bowl.

In 2007, the Patriots made it to 16-0, barely, when they

overcame a 12-point, third-quarter deficit to beat the New York

Giants 38-35.

Finally, Belichick could speak about the unspeakable.

“It’s a great feeling,” he conceded after that game. “Now is

the time to take a day or two and appreciate what this team has

done, but at the same time we have our biggest game of the year

coming up.”

With a bye week, the Patriots had extra time to rest. And going

16-0 may not have added to the strain of the season.

“I don’t think it took any more out of us than any other long,

draining season that is always mentally and physically taxing on

you,” McDaniels said.

In the postseason, the Patriots beat Jacksonville and San Diego

to advance to their fourth Super Bowl in seven years.

They led that game 14-10 and had the Giants 83 yards from the

end zone with 2:39 left. But a 32-yard, third-down reception that

David Tyree trapped on his helmet with Harrison barely getting

outjumped for the ball kept the drive moving.

“We didn’t feel pressure” to go undefeated, Harrison said. “I

think on that particular day the Giants played the best game of

their lives.”

New York finished that drive with the decisive 13-yard touchdown

pass from Eli Manning to Plaxico Burress with 35 seconds.

Suddenly, 18-0 meant less than 0-1.

“Winning 16 and losing the last one or winning 18 and losing

the last one means nothing,” Ditka said. “But if you win the last

one and in the process (lose along the way), which we did, yeah,

you can say it can be a motivating factor. With us, I don’t think

it was motivating. It just helped us refocus and understand we

weren’t invincible.

“The only thing that loss did to us is hurt our feelings. It

didn’t hurt anything else.”

In 1991, the Washington Redskins were 11-0 before losing. They

finished 14-2 and won the Super Bowl.

“We were talking about, `We were 11-0, we’ve got to get to

12-0.’ Not 16-0,” said Joe Jacoby, an offensive lineman on that

team. “Our main goal was getting back to the Super Bowl and not

worrying about that. If that happened, that was great, but it

didn’t, so we moved on.”

Harrison likes what he sees from the Colts, whether they were

14-0 or 14-1.

“This team is dynamic,” Harrison said. “This team is

fantastic, with a defense that’s not really talked about, a team

that’s very resilient, a very mature team.

“Kind of reminds me of the ’07 Patriots.”

AP Sports Writers Pat Graham in Denver, Andy Seligman in Chicago

and Joseph White in Washington contributed to this report.