HOUSTON - It was the morning after the Patriots defeated the Panthers 32-29 in Super Bowl XXXVIII when the dreaded "D" word was tossed at New England coach Bill Belichick.
"I wouldn't want to get into that," Belichick said Monday. "I heard that term being thrown around last year and it didn't work out that way.
"To think one team out of 32 could consistently beat the other 31 ... conceptually, that's hard to imagine. I just don't know.
"Every year is a new year."
Perhaps, but for the Patriots to win NFL titles two of the past three seasons may be nothing short of remarkable in an era of salary caps and unrestricted free agency.
Just ask the Bucs.
One year after Tampa Bay routed the Raiders 48-21 in Super Bowl XXXVII, they struggled to a 7-9 record. But if the Bucs need some encouragement, they should take a closer look at the Patriots.
After winning Super Bowl XXXVI, New England failed to reach the playoffs the next season. And even after losing 31-0 to Buffalo in the season opener, the Patriots rebounded with a title season that included 15 straight victories.
Of course, success has its down side. With the NFL scouting combine just a few weeks away, Belichick feels as if his team is playing catchup.
"We're over five weeks behind in some of our offseason preparation," Belichick said. "So I know it's going to be a treadmill. It's going to be a treadmill.
"It's the combine, the draft, free agency, minicamps and before you know it, it will be in the next season."
The Patriots seem much more equipped, however, to repeat as champions than the Bucs did. Only three of the 22 players who started Super Bowl XXXVIII for the Patriots - Ted Washington, Larry Centers and Bobby Hamilton - are unrestricted free agents.
At a time when assistants on Super Bowl teams are raided, the Patriots also return two of the best in the NFL in offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel.
Finally, there's the matter of two-time Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady, who at 26 is the youngest quarterback to win two NFL titles. But Brady is not satisfied.
"There's still a lot of things to improve on," Brady said. "There's still a lot of room for growth. The thing is, I enjoy playing football. I enjoy the game. I like being in the weight room. I like training camp. I like practicing. And I hope to be doing this for a long time."
After one hour of sleep, Brady was presented with his second Super Bowl MVP trophy and accepted a Cadillac Escalade that accompanied that honor.
Weary but relaxed, he revealed how he owes safety Rodney Harrison two first-class plane tickets to anywhere in the world when he lost a bet in practice and was intercepted on a goal-line drill.
Brady was asked to compare Super Bowl victories. Instead, he talked about a conversation he had with a trainer at the University of Michigan who had been with the Wolverines through a lot of Big Ten titles.
"I asked him once, which one was his favorite ring, you know?" Brady said. "And he kind of thought about it for a little while and finally said, "The next one.' That's how I feel right now. This is great, but you already want to start thinking about the next one."
Seething over Janet
One day after the Super Bowl's half-time concert enraged NFL executives, commissioner Paul Tagliabue diverted from his MVP presentation to emphasize his stern disapproval.
"We will change our policies, our people and our processes before the next Super Bowl to ensure that this entertainment is far more effectively dealt with and is far more appropriate quality for the Super Bowl game. I'm sure I'll have more opportunities to talk about (the incident)."
Tagliabue was referring to a performance by pop singers Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake that ended with Timberlake tearing off a part of her costume and exposing a breast. Tagliabue called the incident "offensive, embarrassing to us and our fans, and inappropriate."
- Times staff writer Roger Mills contributed to this report.