Patriot Way or the highway

"I felt salty about the move because I felt I should have been compensated at a certain level," said Woody, now an analyst for ESPN. "But it never happened."

Woody, like Bledsoe, Milloy and Law, eventually was paid handsomely – by another team. He signed lucrative contracts with the Detroit Lions in 2004 and the Jets in 2008.

"I remember Coach [Belichick] telling me a story," Woody said. "He said [San Francisco's] Bill Walsh once said, 'It's better to get rid of a player a year early rather than a year too late.' That's why they've been able to sustain for so long. They've recognized in their own mind that, 'Now's the time to cut bait and move on with the younger guy.'"

Five-time champions?

Law, for one, believes that the Patriots' lack of loyalty – and their unwillingness to factor leadership into the financial equation – has worked against them.

"I think it has cost them championships," Law said, emphatically. "Everything comes to light when you're in the big game and in those certain moments. I think certain players tend to rise up in those moments, and I think you can recall certain moments that may have been the difference.

"I think they let go of too many guys that can rally the troops and pull together and win those big games when it counted. We would have been the five-time Super Bowl champions, instead of three. That's just my opinion."

Law, Milloy and Woody were all still playing in the NFL when the Patriots lost to the New York Giants 17-14 in Super Bowl XLII. Of course, you can argue that by paying their castoff stars something close to market value, the Patriots couldn't have afforded some of the other talented players that helped the team reach Arizona with an 18-0 record.

"It would be hard to make a case that their business model is costing them much," Bledsoe said. "While that is awfully painful when you're living it, the Patriots have had success by bringing in younger players and developing them so they're able to reload, as opposed to going through a down cycle like most teams."

Said Milloy, without a hint of bitterness, "I think it is pretty magical what they have done."

One thing that's not debatable is the team's bottom-line success in 14 seasons under Belichick. His record in New England, including playoff games, is a scintillating 180-68. That works out to a winning percentage of .726. Only Vince Lombardi (.750) and John Madden (.739) have career marks better than that – and Belichick has already won far more games than they did. In fact, his total of 217 victories (including five seasons in Cleveland) is No. 6 on the all-time list. If he keeps coaching and maintains a similar pace, Belichick could conceivably pass No. 3 Tom Landry in another five or so years.

Brady, whose contract is team-friendly relative to the few other quarterbacks with his skill set, has the best winning percentage of any quarterback in history. His 148 regular-season victories are tied with John Elway for No. 3 all time.

During a Week 11 interview in advance of a "Monday Night Football" game, Brady talked about the loss of Welker.

"You have to be mentally tough enough to put those things aside and still perform at a high level," Brady said, "because if you don't, then there's going to be someone else here ready to take your job."

You won't get an argument from Bledsoe.

"If you play for the Patriots – and, honestly, it doesn't matter if you're Tom Brady – you're there as long as you're useful," Bledsoe said. "Tom will have his time, too. And he knows that."

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