Greatness in anonymity

2-2-04, 6:15 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

HOUSTON _ Scott Pioli, half an hour removed from another of Adam Vinatieri's Patriotic shots heard around the world Sunday night, smiled from underneath his Super Bowl championship cap when he recalled his chance airport meeting with Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis last week.

"Marvin understands you need quality people as well as quality players. He'll do fine there," said Pioli, who worked with Lewis for a year in Baltimore before building what now passes for a dynasty these days in Foxboro.

"He understands it takes smart guys, tough guys who are passionate about football. Let the other guys go home. Get them out of the game, you know?"

All the other guys who Pioli and head coach Bill Belichick sent home missed the greatest fourth quarter in the history of the Super Bowl here at Reliant Stadium when Vinatieri's 41-yard field goal on the next-to-last play capped a 37-point blizzard in the last 15 minutes of New England's 32-29 victory that gave them a historic 15 straight wins.

For all of the turn-of-the century Entertainment Tonight glitz and hype highlighted by Janet Jackson's revealing half-time show and a streaker holding up the second-half kickoff, this was a throw-back celebration worthy of ESPN Classic.

The Patriots joined the great teams of the '60s (Packers), the '70s (Dolphins and Steelers), the '80s (the 49ers), and the '90s (Cowboys and Broncos) in winning two Super Bowls in at least a three-year period with undoubtedly the fewest big names in history.

Indeed, since we are now in the decade-long era of free agency, the Patriots aren't America's team. They are the Salary Cap's team with the sum of the parts making up the whole.

Belichick, a football historian who has a signed copy of "PB: The Paul Brown Story," on his ample bookshelf, knows only the undefeated Dolphins of '72 had a longer winning streak.

"You win 15 in a row and a Super Bowl championship, that's pretty good," offered the ever-cautious Belichick. "I think it can be talked about up there with those other teams' accomplishments. Right now, I'm still on Cloud Nine. I don't know if I've really had a chance to reflect on that. I'm just enjoying the moment."

But asked if it was a season worthy enough to end up on his bookshelf, he admitted, "This has been an unreal season for me."

Why not? More than 80 games by starters were lost to injury. They won in every kind of weather, adversity and scenario imaginable. And their anonymous good works and team concept were symbolized in the Super Bowl by the play of their embattled offensive line.

"Yeah, baby, said right guard Joe Andruzzi. "We're not the greatest guys. We don't have a bunch of big names. We're just a bunch of tough SOBs that go out there and give 100 percent. No one looked at us as if we were anything. Three guys stepped in who didn't even start the year. But we didn't win 15 games by coming off the street."

The Panthers' defensive line came into the Super Bowl with the MTV hype with a first-rounder and two second-rounders. The only thing they lacked was a nickname, the Carolina press trumpeted, but their steel curtain is a bit dog-eared this morning after the

Pats rushed for 127 yards, didn't allow quarterback Tom Brady to get sacked on the way to Canton and a 354-yard passing day, and gave the Panther front four just 10 total tackles. Somebody named Ashworth and center Dan Coppen and left guard Russ Hochstein saw to it that New England rolled up 481 yards, the first time the Panthers allowed a team to hit 400 all season. Only six times this season had the Carolina defense allowed as many yards on the ground.

"We played tougher and harder than [Carolina's defensive ends]," rigtht tackle Matt Light said.

Hochstein, a three-year journeyman from Nebraska, had been signed off the practice squad back in September when Mike Compton went down for the season. When Damien Woody went down in the first game of the playoffs, Hochstein was the man, and made his third career start Sunday against Panther Pro Bowl tackle Kris Jenkins.

And it was Hochstein who had been verbally assaulted by Tampa Bay defensive tackle Warren Sapp twice leading up to the game. Sapp called him a terrible player on a TV show and then during Media Day last week Sapp asked him how he liked making him famous.

A hero to grinders everywhere, Hochstein said nothing to Sapp. But he talked Sunday, although in classic understated fashion. Fish and Stream beat MTV.

"There's nothing I need to say about it," Hochstein said. "I won this game. I have a ring and people can say whatever they want to say, but I have the ring. I got one. This team is incredible. They believed in me and I believe in myself. It was a team effort. Not one person should be singled out."

But single out the offensive line. And single out tight end Daniel Graham. Along with Ashworth, the Pats ran right behind them at left end Julius Peppers. Peppers, the second pick in the 2002 draft who is Carolina's best pass rusher, couldn't get near Brady's quick release against the work of Ashworth, a 2001 college free agent.

The Pats changed up their cadence at times to slow down Jenkins and they caught him three times for penalties. Coppen, the rookie fifth-round pick out of Boston College, said there was some double-teaming of Jenkins and that they were always conscious of where he was.

"We had some slide protections, but that was about it," Ashworth said of playing Peppers. "They've got guys who if they know when it's coming, they're there before you know it. We have to do things like (changing the cadence) that to make it to our advantage.

"We couldn't understand how we could go from winning 14 games to an offense that was going to get trounced," Ashworth said. "We're not selfish. All we care about is winning. That's all we want to do."

The trio of Coppen, Ashworth, and Hochstein came in with fewer than 40 NFL starts. It didn't matter. It's like Lewis and Pioli had talked about in the airport.

"I think Marvin's going to do well because he's involved in the personnel process and he's a heck of a coach," Pioli said. "Yes, I think we've got similar views about it and we're talking about the same kind of guys. Tough who play with a passion."

But Pioli didn't want to go as far as to say the offensive line symbolized this team.

"Then you're going to leave somebody out. You could say it about anybody. Chris Akins, Shawn Meyer, anybody," he said of two special teamers.

True to his personnel roots, Pioli wanted nothing to do with the past when asked about their place in history.

"That's for the experts to figure out," Pioli said. "I'm not smart enough to figure that one out."

But it's not hard to figure out that this dynasty could last awhile. While everyone complains about parity, here are Pioli and Belichick sitting with two first-round picks, two second-round picks, and seven picks in the first four rounds this April.

"I don't want to think about that," Pioli said, "until Wednesday. That's the first draft meeting."

The search for the unselfish continues. On Sunday night, Andruzzi did the most unselfish thing of the week. With the locker room nearly empty, he simply grabbed a string of Super Bowl flags above his locker that were about to be thrown out anyway, and put it in his travel bag.

A few stalls down, Ashworth was planning the anti-celebrity offseason. You won't see him on cable anytime soon. He'll be watching it.

"I've got a three-week old baby," he said, "and all I've got planned is to go sleep with him on the couch."

Which is the best way to put to rest a Super Bowl that overcame the name glitz and was won by anonymous grit.

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