Charles Krupa, Associated Press
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, left, talks with safety James Sanders during practice last week at Foxborough, Mass. Despite the loss of star quarterback Tom Brady, the Patriots are off to a 2-0 start this season. New England plays against the Miami Dolphins at home today.

There's no denying that the New England Patriots have been on their own level this decade.

They are the only team to win more than one Super Bowl in this century, making them unquestionably the team of the decade. They have built a dynasty when a salary-cap system is in place to prevent teams from building dynasties.

Those are known facts, but what I find particularly interesting about the Patriots during their dynasty era is how polarizing they've become.

There are certain sports franchises where there's no gray area on how you feel about them. You either love the Dallas Cowboys or you hate them. The same goes for the Yankees, Red Sox and Lakers.

Shouldn't we all love the Patriots?

The Patriots, prior to last season's Spygate scandal, rarely gave fans of any team a reason to hate them, unless of course they beat your team in the playoffs or the Super Bowl, or were involved with the embarrassing Tuck Rule.

New England has epitomized the team concept during this decade. They refused to be introduced as individuals prior to their first Super Bowl victory over the Rams. They had seemingly humble superstars. They are resilient. No team in sports overcomes adversity like the Patriots.

They were at it again last week, winning a game after losing their reigning NFL MVP quarterback to a season-ending injury. You pretty much knew they would beat the Jets last week when Vegas made them less than a field-goal underdog without Tom Brady.

Sure enough, with a quarterback in Matt Cassel who hadn't started a game since he was a senior in high school, New England pulled out another win it wasn't supposed to get.

Still, unless you're a die-hard Patriots fan, it's highly doubtful you got any warm and fuzzy feelings seeing New England improve to 2-0.

The Patriots, despite all the reasons to like them, joined the likes of the Cowboys and Lakers during their 16-0 regular season in 2007. The Spygate controversy, in which the team was caught videotaping the Jets' defensive signals in Week 1, set the tone for their season.

Coach Bill Belichick was fined $500,000 for Spygate, and New England was forced to give up a first-round draft pick. The Patriots seemed to want to answer their critics and rub their firepower in their opponents' faces with late touchdowns in games such as their 52-7 win over the Redskins and their 56-10 win over the Bills.

For once, the Patriots displayed some arrogance. Brady went on a sports-talk radio show during the season and said, "We're trying to kill teams." He answered some trash talk from Pittsburgh defensive back Anthony Smith in their game, seeking Smith out after a touchdown pass to engage in some unfriendly banter.

I'm sure Patriots fans loved it. Fans of other teams loathed it. Can you imagine Joe Montana or Roger Staubach doing something like that? Me neither.

But all that stuff is in the past now, and you could say that karma caught up to the Patriots and Brady in the forms of a fierce Giants pass rush and a clutch performance by Eli Manning in Super Bowl XLII.

With Brady done for the season because of a blown-out knee, the Patriots now have the opportunity to redeem themselves, not so much for losing the Super Bowl, but more so for their antics last season. They can rebuild some good will with NFL fans this season.

Belichick, undoubtedly one of the best coaches in NFL history, can add to his legacy by getting his Brady-less team to the playoffs.

Cassel has the chance to audition for a full-time job during the remainder of the season. Randy Moss can show that he can be a leader when everything isn't coming easy.

No one disliked the Patriots in 2007 more than I did. But I think I'm over it. While watching them defeat the Jets and their Hall of Fame quarterback, without their own Hall of Fame quarterback last week, I was reminded of what they stood for pre-Spygate.

I just shook my head when it was over, and I had a renewed respect for the current team of the decade.


E-mail: aaragon@desnews.com