What the New England Patriots have over everyone else is the understanding that they're a perpetual work in progress.
We see 28-6, they see 286 things they could have done better. We see a pinpoint touchdown pass to Doug Gabriel, their quarterback sees a throw he never should have made.
The Pats aren't into far-fetched gimmickry and grade-school deceptions. They're not inclined to put a wideout in the shotgun formation and station their quarterback on the flank. Straight as uprights is what the Pats are. They tackle and they block. They execute simple, low-risk plays with assembly-line efficiency. They're content to put the square peg in the square hole time and again, whimsy rarely leading them to see if the circle fits instead.
But there's more to the Pats' long run of success than their insatiable appetite for detail. What makes the Patriots special, a perennial threat to go the distance, is that they strive for perfection while believing there's no such thing. They play two games every week, one against another team, one against their own expectations. And infrequently if ever during the Tom Brady era have they triumphed over the latter.
The Pats slap themselves upside the head over errors in judgment no matter what the score. They'd long had the Buffalo Bills at their mercy Sunday when Brady threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to Gabriel for a 28-6 lead midway through the fourth quarter. While his teammates celebrated, Brady bent over, smacked his helmet and chuckled, incredulous that good fortune could result from a pass he regretted the instant it left his hand.
"Yeah, lucky," Brady said. "I got away with one. Running right, throwing left, you don't get away with many of those. As soon as I threw that I go, 'Oh, God, why did I do that?' Especially because it's 21-3."
New England came into The Ralph on Sunday determined to commence in earnest its quest for another division title. The Pats have been a team in offensive transition with the departure of wideouts Deion Branch and David Givens. Their precision passing game has been something less than precise. A bye the previous Sunday provided opportunity to tighten the seams and iron the creases. They yearned to show themselves they'd made progress by hanging a quick touchdown on the Bills.
"We wanted to get off to a fast start," said tight end Ben Watson. "And we did that."
The Patriots met their goal all right, in their own meticulous, methodical, unspectacular way. They ran 14 plays, none covering more than 14 yards. Thrice they converted on third down. Six minutes and 37 seconds had elapsed by the time they reached the end zone and left a beleaguered Buffalo defense to contemplate its next move.
"I wish we'd do that more often," Brady said. "But that's what we're working for."
The Pats aren't content unless they're holding the Lombardi Trophy, and even then you have to wonder how long the euphoria lasts. They're not given to savoring lesser victories, especially, one presumes, those over teams outside their class.
How about it, Bill Belichick. The timing between quarterback and receivers was sharper, no?
"Some was good, some wasn't, but we'll keep working on it," Belichick said.
Stout defensive effort, huh?
"We gave up a couple long passes on defense that we'd rather not give up, so there are always things we need to do better, and that's what we need to focus on," he said.
Meanwhile, down the hallway, Bills quarterback J.P. Losman noted, doubtless with some relief, that the Bills have reached their bye.
"Give us a weekend off to watch other teams and to see what we want to do and how we're going to do it," Losman said.
Sunday's game tape seems like a fine place to start.