by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

It’s become an annual ritual in the NFL, always worthy of some mention (however small) in the nation’s sportspages and websites whenever the last NFL unbeaten of the season falls. For a few moments, the “perfect” 17-0 Miami Dolphins of 1972 always manage to get back in the news, as Dick Anderson, Nick Buoniconti, Manny Fernandez, Bob Kuechenberg, Bob Griese, and many other surviving members of that Don Shula-coached team who still live in South Florida will make sure to get together, sometimes on a dinner cruise in Biscayne Bay or one of the canals in Fort Lauderdale, or at one of their homes, and toast to another year of safety for their enduring legacy as the only unbeaten in modern NFL history.

Like clockwork, we’re sure to hear about their next get-together sometime this week after the last of the 2012 unbeatens, the Atlanta Falcons, finally succumbed last Sunday at New Orleans. Few NFL insiders, however, were expecting the Falcs to make a serious run at the ‘72 Dolphins; Atlanta had too many acknowledged flaws (among them running the ball and stopping the run) to keep dodging defeat week after week. And, after several high-wire escapes in the first half of the season, it was perhaps inevitable that the Falcons would lose their first game in the same manner, as a last-minute goal-line stand by the aroused Saints finally put Atlanta’s perfect season and related talk to the sword.

Although we have always thought a bit too much has been made of the ‘72 Dolphins, whose run to perfection was also paved with a sensational run of good fortune. Specifically, thanks to a schedule that, at least the last time we checked, was rated among the 1% of “easiest” in NFL history (and easiest we surely recall).

To be fair, that Miami team was also potentially cursed by an injury to QB Bob Griese in the fifth game of the season vs. San Diego, although Shula had wisely maneuvered earlier to acquire vet backup QB Earl Morrall, who had also been summoned from the bullpen in 1968 while in Baltimore after Johnny Unitas went down with an early-season injury.

As he did with the Colts, the vet Morrall proved worth the investment, as Miami, like Baltimore four years earlier, didn’t skip a beat with the Michigan State grad at the controls. In truth, however, those ‘72 Dolphins never looked unbeatable, surviving a few close calls, and found themselves in trouble in the playoffs, too, down at home in the 4th Q of the first-round game to a good-but-hardly-great Browns team with Mike Phipps at QB, and then trailing in the 3rd Q of the AFC title game vs. Pittsburgh. Griese had returned for the Steeler game and also for the Super Bowl vs. George Allen’s Washington Redskins.

We have likewiese always maintained that the good fortune of the ‘72 Dolphins also included Franco Harris’ famous “Immaculate Reception” for the Steelers against Raiders in the final seconds of their playoff game. Had Oakland won instead, it would have hosted Miami in the AFC title game (in those years, playoff home sites were pre-determined, and not decided by regular-season record) and would probably have been a slight favorite. Unlike Pittsburgh, making its first-ever playoff appearance and still a couple of years away from “arriving” as a true Super Bowl threat, the ‘72 Raiders had plenty of postseason experience and would have rated a good chance to knock off that Miami team. Which, ironically, Oakland did early the following '73 season in a 12-7 win played at Berkeley because of scheduling conflicts with the MLB A’s.

But, we can’t really begrudge those Dolphins, because they in fact cleared every hurdle in their way. Though we still maintain the better of the back-to-back Miami Super Bowl teams was the following year in 1973, which stumbled twice but dealt with a far-tougher regular-season schedule than in '72. And in the playoffs, those ‘73 Dolphins were dominating, unlike the ‘72 Miami team that had to pinball its way out of trouble a couple of times in the postseason.

Whatever. We and others have come to view perfect-season talk as more of a liability than a benefit to those teams involved. Though a few sides have made spirited runs at perfection in recent years, including the 2007 Patriots, who in fact did make it through the regular season at 16-0 and were less than a minute from running the table until Eli Manning and the Giants spoiled it all at the Super Bowl. But even in that ‘07 campaign, after a General Sherman-like march through the first half of the campaign, Bill Belichick’s side was making heavy work of most of its games down the stretch, as the distractions of perfection mounted.

Similarly, we’ve seen other teams begin to wobble as they get closer to perfection, perhaps distracted by the surrounding hoopla. Just last season, Green Bay made it as far as 13-0 before losing to the going-nowhere Chiefs. Thereafter, the Pack seemed a spent force, shellacked in their first playoff game vs. the Giants. Two years earlier, Indianapolis was sitting at 14-0, but HC Jim Caldwell thought so little of perfection that he decided to rest several starters, including Peyton Manning, in the second half of a game vs. the Jets, one the Colts would eventually lose. It was almost as if the Colts didn’t want the distraction of perfection looming over them any longer. The same season, the Saints had also been sitting unbeaten until the previous week before losing at home vs. Dallas.

Interestingly, the Saints of 2009, Broncos of 1998, and Bears of 1985 are among a handful of teams which threatened perfection, failed, yet still proceeded to win Super Bowls. There are more examples of teams such as last year’s Packers, the 2007 Patriots, the 2005 & ‘09 Colts, and others in recent memory who generated the “perfect talk” until late in the season yet fell short of their Super Bowl goals.

We also find it interesting that only a handful of the acknowledged “greatest” teams in history ever threatened perfect regular-season marks along the way. None of Chuck Noll’s Steelers Super Bowl winners, or any of the Bill Walsh/Joe Montana/Steve Young 49er teams, ever stayed unbeaten past midseason. Of Vince Lombardi’s Packer championship sides, only the 1962 team came remotely close, winning its first ten before losing famously in a Thanksgiving Day beatdown administered by the Detroit Lions.

Now that we move into mid-November, and the the last unbeaten has fallen by the wayside, we can look forward to the fast-approaching playoffs without those peripheral “perfection” distractions. In recent campaigns, more important than any perfect-season talk has been identifying which teams are going to begin an ascent around Thanksgiving, as the Packers and Giants have done the past couple of years, to hit the postseason with a full head of steam.

Recent history suggests that sort of team is still out there, waiting to make a move. Here are a few entries we might be watching as the 2012 season approaches the far turn.

Dallas...Dallas? You heard us right. The Cowboys fit the parameter of some recent late-season chargers. The pieces seem to mostly be in place, and there’s a sense of urgency, especially for QB Tony Romo to finally win in the postseason. And check out the schedule the next few weeks; if Dallas can ever start to play as well at home as it does on the road, it can make up lots of ground with the upcoming three-game homestand vs. beatable foes.

Denver...The Broncos are definitely on the ascent with four straight wins and seemingly improving by the week, as many suspected could happen once Peyton Manning became comfy in his new surroundings and with his supporting weaponry. Denver has also mostly avoided key injuries and has enough defense to make a deep playoff run as well. Questions include if the team has started to peak too soon, and, of course, what happens should Manning go down?

Pittsburgh...Been there and done that, so we know what the Steelers can accomplish if the stars align properly . It’s not quite the same team as the Super Bowl qualifiers from 2008 & ‘10, especially on defense, where Troy Polamalu can’t get healthy. But the Steelers seem to have rediscovered their infantry, and Big Ben is not yet hurting like he was a year ago. As usual, keep an eye on them.

Tampa Bay...Surprise package in the NFC? Try the Bucs, who seem to have picked up under new HC Greg Schiano where they left off two years ago in 2010, before last year’s meltdown that cost HC Raheem Morris his job. QB Josh Freeman is much steadier than LY, and Boise State rookie RB Doug Martin is a revelation. This team is gaining confidence (lots of it) by the week.

Seattle...Maybe Pete Carroll’s rah-rah stuff can work in the NFL, too. He’s got the Seahawks believing, they play some nasty defense, have made a fortress of CenturyLink Field, and there is a little bit of magic surrounding rookie QB Russell Wilson. Watch these guys.

Stay tuned.

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