In sport's most complex and most basic team game, it is pro football's most telling and most elusive team record: three consecutive NFL championships.
It is the record that the New England Patriots, the two-time Super Bowl champions, were silently pursuing here on Saturday night in their second-round playoff game against the Broncos. And silently is the word.
The Patriots haven't talked about the record, but neither has anybody else. Bill Belichick, the Patriots' coach, wasn't even asked about it at any of his news conferences during the week.
For the Patriots, the emphasis all season has been on trying to be the first team to win a third consecutive Super Bowl, the equivalent of winning three straight NFL championships.
Three straight titles don't sound like much when compared to dynasties in the other major pro sports. In baseball, the Yankees won five World Series in a row (1949-1953). In hockey, the Montreal Canadiens won the Stanley Cup in five consecutive years (1956-1960). And in pro basketball, the Boston Celtics won eight straight titles (1959-1966).
But in pro football, only the Green Bay Packers have won three consecutive NFL titles, and they did it twice. Coach Vince Lombardi led the Packers to the title in 1965, 1966, and 1967 (including the first two Super Bowls), and in the NFL's prehistoric era, the Packers reigned from 1929 to 1931, when Curly Lambeau was their coach and the first-place team in the overall standings was crowned the champion. The Packers also own another NFL record that is seldom mentioned: the most championships, 12. The Chicago Bears have won nine, the Giants six.
During the Super Bowl era, seven franchises won two straight Super Bowls, including those 1966-1967 Packers, but none ever added a third straight.
In addition to the current Patriots, the Larry Csonka Miami Dolphins of 1972-1973, the Mean Joe Greene Pittsburgh Steelers of 1974-75 and 1978-1979, the Joe Montana San Francisco 49ers of 1988-1989, the Troy Aikman Dallas Cowboys of 1992-1993 and the John Elway Denver Broncos of 1997-1998 each won two straight Super Bowls.
Granted, it's harder to put together three NFL championships in the Super Bowl era, when a team has to survive at least two and maybe three playoff rounds to get to the title game.
The 49ers appeared on their way to a third Super Bowl appearance until they were upset by the Giants, 15-13, in the 1990 conference championship game on Matt Bahr's five field goals. The 1994 Cowboys got to the NFC championship game, but the Steve Young 49ers won, 38-28. The 1974 Dolphins lost a divisional playoff in Oakland, 28-26, and the 1976 Steelers, with running backs Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier injured, lost the conference title game in Oakland, 24-7.
The 1968 Packers, with Lombardi as general manager after choosing Phil Bengston to succeed him as coach, and the 1980 Steelers each slid to third in their division. The 1999 Broncos dropped to last in their division.
In the pre-Super Bowl era, when a team usually had to win only once in the postseason (the championship game), six franchises won two straight titles but never a third -- the Sid Luckman Chicago Bears of 1940-1941, the Steve Van Buren Philadelphia Eagles of 1948-1949, the Bobby Layne Detroit Lions of 1952-1953, the Otto Graham Cleveland Browns of 1954-1955, the Johnny Unitas Baltimore Colts of 1958-59 and Lombardi's Packers of 1961-1962.