The game had been over for just a few moments, and the players were still struggling out of their shoulder pads when the murmuring finally reached full pitch. For weeks the Green Bay Packers had existed in a blissful bubble, insulated by their good nature and their distant locale from the ceaseless questions, the ballooning expectations and the mounting fatigue of a chase for football's most elusive goal. They have been dominant this season but not domineering, oddly under the radar for a defending champion on the path to something even greater.
But after the Packers' victory over the Giants on Dec. 4, there was no avoiding the target that has bedevilled two other teams in the last five years and that now awaits the Packers in the final month of the regular season. As coach Mike McCarthy and quarterback Aaron Rodgers quickly moved to head off the looming story line – "I'm not going to talk about 16-0 or anything," Rodgers said unbidden after the Giants game – Rodney Harrison watched from a New York television studio, letting his mind wander back to 2007, often marvelling at the differences that may favour the Packers' chances of completing what the New England Patriots could not.
"Because of Spygate, everyone hated the Patriots," Harrison, now an analyst for NBC's Football Night in America, said in an interview. "We were like the villains. Everyone wanted us to lose. The Packers, on the other hand, are a fairy-tale story. They're a bunch of good guys, we want them to win, it doesn't bother us as much. We had even more intense pressure because everybody hated us. Any time you're the first team to do something, you carry all that pressure. The Packers, even if they do it, they're the second team to ever go 16-0. There's no pressure on them because we already attained that goal."
Maybe so. At 13-0, already the NFC North champions and with a quarterback who is having an extraordinary season, the Packers have the same lustre that burnished the Patriots in 2007 and the Indianapolis Colts in 2009 when they pursued undefeated seasons.
Those teams may have inadvertently done a favour for the Packers, who defeated the Oakland Raiders on Sunday. They were almost perfect, the Patriots losing their relentless pursuit of flawlessness with a defeat by the Giants in the Super Bowl and the Colts forsaking it by resting many of their best players with two games left in the regular season.
Because they employed wildly different strategies – and absorbed the second-guessing that accompanied each – without achieving their ultimate goal, no blueprint for success has been established that would box in the Packers. They will be free to carve their own path, perhaps informed by bits and pieces from each of the two most recent contenders, but they will do it freed of the spotlight that fell harshly on the Patriots.
Harrison said he thought the lockout created a distraction that limited the hype that usually attends a Super Bowl champion. When training camps finally began, the Eagles stole the headlines. Since then, Tim Tebow has been the biggest story, overshadowing a Packers team with few flamboyant personalities, a perfect formula for a low-key drive to something extraordinary.
The Packers' attempt to construct the first undefeated season that ends with a Super Bowl championship since the 1972 Miami Dolphins (the NFL played two fewer regular-season games then) has carried none of the controversy, and little of the darkened narrative, of the Patriots' run. That season opened with cheating accusations and continued with klieg-lighted stars like Tom Brady and Randy Moss and a hooded coach who was regularly accused of running up the score. Attracted by a whiff of scandal and the air of inevitability – the Patriots won by an average of 19.7 points, a touchdown more than the Packers' margin of 13.2 – the national news media began covering every Patriots game once they reached 8-0.
In Miami, members of the 1972 Dolphins, and their coach, Don Shula, indicated that Spygate, the Patriots' covert filming of Jets defensive signals in 2007, would diminish a perfect season by New England. In a recent Florida radio interview, former Dolphins running back Mercury Morris said that he did not like the Patriots' style in 2007, but that if the Packers completed a perfect season, he would view them as a credit to the sport.
Even last week, Shula acknowledged that he and others viewed the Packers' pursuit differently.
"Why do you think that is?" Shula said in a telephone interview. "Spygate was important."
About the Packers, Shula said: "I've felt that if it happens, I'll be the first guy to pick up the phone and congratulate the coach. I think our players will acknowledge and congratulate their players. Until it happens, we're happy we're the only ones."