By: Bob George/
July 11, 2004

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Now that last season has finally ended, it's time once again to crown the Miami Dolphins as the perennial AFC East champions.

This is the perfect time. No actual games to disprove it. No missed field goals, upsets by expansion teams or fans flinging snow in the air. The Dolphins need to win a division title now because that's simply the way things have to be. It seems that the NFL works better when the Dolphins win the division and poise themselves for a Super Bowl run.

Never mind that the Patriots are champs for the second time in three years. Never mind that the Dolphins have not been to a Super Bowl since XIX and have not won one since VIII. Never mind that the Dolphins of the 2000s are more known for underachievement than achievement. The Fish must rule. It's what everyone wants. The Dolphins and their city are sexy as all get out, while the Patriots are staid, provincial, and totally and completely boring.

The Sporting News recently made with their season predictions. They had Miami first, beating New England on a tiebreaker. The reason? "On paper, they're better than last season's Super Bowl club. But it's almost impossible to repeat no matter how prepared a team is." It had the Patriots finishing at 10-6. Granted, this is only one voice among many who will eventually be heard from, and this may be the only outlet which picks Miami to win the division. But it serves as a wake-up call to the Patriots as to their most daunting task for the 2004 season: repeat as champions.

In 2002, the team failed miserably after being exposed against Kansas City in Week 3 as being unable to stop the run and lacking considerably in overall team speed. The team seems better equipped to repeat in 2004, as long as the Patriots weren't exposed as a team which can no longer stop the pass in Super Bowl XXXVIII.

That said, here is a game-by-game breakdown as to how the 2004 Patriot season should turn out.

Week 1 -- Indianapolis. The NFL season opener, on a Thursday night and national television, reprises the AFC Championship from last year. Until Peyton Manning proves otherwise, don't look for him to break through against a Bill Belichick defense just yet. The Patriots will be at home, and the Colts of recent years simply do not play well in Foxborough. Patriots win this one, perhaps not easily, but they win.

Week 2 -- at Arizona. Most of the crowd will root for the Patriots, the Bidwill family still owns this sorry franchise, the most famous Cardinal in the Arizona era is a fictitious guy named Rod Tidwell, and UMass's Marcel Shipp simply won't be enough for the Cardinals. Only a total catastrophe prevents the Patriots from winning this one.

Week 4 -- at Buffalo. After a week off, the Patriots return to the site of their worst defeat of 2003. Sure, they avenged this game in the season finale last year, but the Patriots want to send another message to the Bills: They picked the wrong team to embarrass last year. Assuming nobody on defense gets released suddenly, the Patriots will know once again how to deal with Drew Bledsoe and should win a comfortable game which may get close if some breaks go the way of the home team.

Week 5 -- Miami. This game is most interesting from a record book standpoint. A Patriot win would give them 16 straight regular season wins, tying the Dolphin string from 1971-73, with the 14-0 1972 season included in that run. This would put the Patriots one win away from tying the all-time record of 17 straight wins by the 1933-34 Bears. The Dolphins play a little better in Foxborough when the weather does not resemble Antarctica. But the Patriots should take them without a huge hassle.

Week 6 -- Seattle. These teams have not met since 1993, when a scheduling quirk gave them a home and home deal in Bledsoe's rookie year. The Seahawks are favoured by some to win the NFC and make it to the Super Bowl. Lack of familiarity makes this game close, but with a 17th straight win at hand, the Patriots squeeze by in a close battle.

Week 7 -- Jets. As long as Chad Pennington is healthy, the Jets will be tough. But will you get the Pennington who threw five picks last December, or the Pennington who should vie for the passer rating title? Patriots win another close one, and get that record 18th straight win.

Week 8 -- at Pittsburgh. The Steelers are in transition and don't match up well with the Patriots even when things were good. Jerome Bettis will be the non-factor he always is against the Patriots, and Belichick will not be outcoached. The only thing that gives the Steelers a win is if Ben Roethlisberger develops early and finds wideouts better than anyone since the great Bradshaw. Otherwise, Patriots win and the streak hits 19.

Week 9 -- at St. Louis. Many players will remain from the squad who lost to the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI. Many of these players will play their hearts out to exact revenge, and with the game being in their crib, look for the Rams to get their revenge. The Patriots will play the Rams tough and smart, but will simply be up against it. The Patriots close out the first half at 7-1, and their long win streak ends.

Week 10 -- Buffalo. Patriots win handily.

Week 11 -- at Kansas City. Another venue that may be too tough to win in. The Patriots have not won in Kansas City since 1964 and have never won at Arrowhead. They almost did in 1999 but for a missed Adam Vinatieri field goal at the final gun. This one will also be close, but the home crowd carries the Chiefs to victory.

Week 12 -- Baltimore. If the Patriots can handle the Lewises, they should win. The Ravens lack a top shelf quarterback, but the Patriots no longer have Ted Washington to stop Jamal Lewis. Corey Dillon can keep Ray Lewis occupied, but this game will probably come down to whether or not Tom Brady can outplay Kyle Boller. If this were the case, Patriots win a defensive tussle.

Week 13 -- at Cleveland. The Browns are handing the reins of their offense to Kelly Holcomb. The Patriots have beaten Cleveland in each of their previous two Super Bowl seasons, but the score of last year's game was only 9-3. If the Patriots can somehow figure out how to put the ball into the end zone against these guys, they should handle Holcomb well and come out victorious.

Week 14 -- Cincinnati. Tasty game if this were at Paul Brown Stadium. Dillon will gouge his former team and the Patriots win by about 10.

Week 15 -- at Miami. This is December, when it's not hot and humid. It won't take a pair of missed field goals for the Patriots to win this one.

Week 16 -- at Jets. In recent years, the visiting team tends to do better in this series. On this evening, Pennington makes it a sweep of home teams this season with a stellar game which Brady simply cannot match.

Week 17 -- San Francisco. The Patriots own only two wins against this franchise, the last one coming in 1998. The third one should come this year, especially if this game gets the Patriots home field for the playoffs. The Patriots simply have better overall personnel and should prevail at home to finish the season at 13-3.

So, the Patriots come out one game worse than 2003. The Patriots won 14 games in 2003 even though the team was riddled with injuries. With the league gunning for them in 2004, the Patriots will rise up and meet these challenges week after week like they did in 2003. They should once again run the table at home and ride that wave to another playoff date.

Most of these wins should be close wins. The Patriots will encounter lots of aggressive and motivated defenses. But if Dillon proves to be as good as or better than his best days in Cincinnati, the Patriots will be able to neutralize whatever high emotions the defenses will offer.

So, fine. Let Miami be as sexy as it wants. Just ask Bridget Moynahan what her definition of sexy is, and crack a big smile.