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New England Patriots then and now: Whose legacies are better?

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The New England Patriots are the greatest dynasty in North American professional sports history. Nobody disputes that -- or, at least, nobody should.

The amazing thing? Throughout the entire run, from 2001 to today, there have been just two constants: Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. But of course, these two have had plenty of help along the way.

So, with some time to kill before Super Bowl LIII, we've decided to take a closer look at some of the most prominent complementary pieces, to sort through whose legacies during this two-decade run have been greater: old guys vs. new guys. Let's begin this football study with an examination of two prized feet ...

Adam Vinatieri vs. Stephen Gostkowski

The Patriots made huge waves when they let Vinatieri walk following the 2005 season. I mean, we've seen the Pats jettison great players in their prime, but that one was curious. Vinatieri was so upset he decided to sign with their main rival. New England drafted Gostkowski in the fourth round of the 2006 NFL Draft. And he's been great, sitting atop the franchise's all-time rankings in points, field goals and just about every meaningful record for a kicker.

But come on: Vinatieri booted two late field goals (in a snowstorm!) during the famed "Tuck Rule Game" (Jon Gruden always seems to forget this) and drove home the 48-yard winner in the Patriots' first Super Bowl victory. Gostkowski is great ... but give me Vinatieri, the most clutch kicker in NFL history.

Troy Brown vs. Julian Edelman

Brown was the original security blanket for Brady, before Deion Branch, Wes Welker and all the rest. Brown led the Patriots with 101 receptions for 1,199 yards during the team's first championship season. And guess who scored the first offensive touchdown for New England in Super Bowl XXXVI? That's right: David Patten. But Brown did have a big reception on the drive. He was also a special teams ace. He returned a punt for a touchdown in the 2001 AFC title bout. And his 121 receiving yards on that Championship Sunday were pretty huge, considering Brady was actually knocked out of the game.

Edelman is the guy who everyone hates because he always makes that one catch that keeps drives alive. The back-breaking grab. And you know the exact one I'm talking about in Super Bowl LI. We don't even have to link to it, but we will. He's annoying because he's so good. He's had at least 100 targets in four of the last five seasons that he's played.

Is it wrong that I want to go with Brown because he also played defensive back when injuries put the Patriots in a bind? You know, the kind of thing that exemplifies "The Patriot Way" and all of that? And while I've been reminded that Edelman duplicated this in 2011 (further kismet), I'll go with the original fan favorite. Unless Edelman covers Robert Woods in the Super Bowl.

Kevin Faulk vs. James White

Faulk was kind of a do-everything back for the Patriots, the first pass-catching problem out of the backfield in the Belichick era. And if you think New England's backfield is annoying now -- like, for fantasy purposes -- it's nothing new. Faulk had a stable of running mates that included guys like Antowain Smith, J.R. Redmond, Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney, to name a few. Faulk didn't have absurd catch totals by today's pass-happy standards, but he averaged close to 9 yards per reception over his career.

White is coming at it on another level right now. His career average in yards per reception is a tick higher than Faulk's (8.7 to 8.6), but White's clearly getting more work. He just set a career high with 87 receptions during this past regular season. And then he racked up about that many vs. the Chargers in the Divisional Round. And remember when he caught 14 balls for 110 yards -- and hit the end zone three times -- during the Patriots' epic comeback win in Super Bowl LI?

Faulk is one of those past players who would be better suited for today's NFL, but I'm still going with White.

Rodney Harrison vs. Devin McCourty

Harrison was a stud, a strong safety who was good enough for two franchises to be selected to both of their 50th anniversary teams. He was great for the Chargers, and then he goes to New England, is selected first-team All-Pro in 2003 (and second-team All-Pro the following year) and wins a pair of rings. Ironic that Harrison was a member of the 2006 Patriots team that knocked off the Chargers in the playoffs. Although Harrison didn't play in the playoffs that year due to injury. And in fact, the biggest defensive play in that postseason bout was made by -- wait for it ... -- Troy Freaking Brown! So, yeah, if you disagree with my choice of Brown from earlier, make sure you Google "Troy Brown Marlon McCree" right now. In fact, if you hit "Troy Brown Mar" the rest will auto-fill for you.

McCourty does play the free safety position, so maybe this isn't exactly an apples-to-apples comparison. But when it comes to leadership in the secondary, these two are worth comparing. McCourty helped keep Tyreek Hill in check during the AFC Championship Game, giving over-the-top help in New England's Cover 1. The Patriots pace the NFL in man defense, according to Pro Football Focus, employing it at a clip around 55 percent -- and McCourty, who started his NFL career as a cornerback, is a big reason for this. His well-rounded skill set allows the Patriots to be more daring on defense.

I love Rodney. When I had Chargers season tickets, I purchased an old-school Harrison from the thrift store. But dude, you let David Tyree come down with that ball. I'm kind of feeling McCourty right now in this Patriots defense. Especially with a chance to get a third ring -- something that eluded Harrison.

Tedy Bruschi vs. Dont'a Hightower

Bruschi was the center of the Patriots defense during that early part of the dynasty. Like, literally. Not only did he play middle linebacker, but the indelible image of him holding up three fingers after the Patriots' win over the Eagles lives on, like the famed Four Horsemen of wrestling lore. Of course, his fourth-quarter interception of Donovan McNabb in Super Bowl XXXIX helped New England pull off that feat, winning three Lombardi Trophies in four years.

Hightower has been a solid contributor since the Patriots drafted him out of Alabama in 2012. Think about Hightower's life for a moment. He won a pair of BCS championships in college. And then has the good fortune to be selected by the Patriots, of all teams, winning a pair of Super Bowls (and maybe a third in the coming days). But remember: The Seahawks' ill-fated decision to throw from the 1-yard line in Super Bowl XLIX never happens if Hightower doesn't make a game-saving tackle on Marshawn Lynch the previous play. He also caused Matt Ryan's fumble in the fourth-quarter during the Patriots' Super Bowl LI rally. So, I'm going Hightower.

And if you're asking about Willie McGinest, remember, there is nobody quite like Willie on the Patriots' current roster.

Charlie Weis vs. Josh McDaniels

Everyone raves about Sean McVay, but McDaniels -- at age 31 -- oversaw perhaps the greatest offense in NFL history, the 2007 New England Patriots. Now, obviously, he was helped by having Brady at his peak powers, but McDaniels was the guy in charge. He took a bit of a hit in Denver and then returned to New England -- and the Patriots offense has rolled along since. So, honestly, this one is pretty easy to me.

Weis failed (miserably) at Notre Dame and then tried to keep recapture the magic at Kansas -- KANSAS -- where he went 6-22. I enjoy listening to him on SiriusXM, but that's about it. McDaniels gets roasted for leaving the Colts high-and-dry (hey, it is a rivalry), but he's doing the right thing remaining at the right hand of Belichick as long as this ride continues to move forward.

Tom Brady (then) vs. Tom Brady (now)

The early Brady was an awe-shucks kind of guy (OK, still kinda is) who ... Well, I don't want to say he was a system quarterback, but the dude did benefit from some great defensive teams. He was still amazing. He led the NFL with 28 touchdown passes in 2002 (yes, 28 -- really) and 4,110 passing yards in 2005. But he's really become something else ever since that 2007 campaign when the set the NFL on fire in one of the most dominant MVP seasons of all time. And even though he might be getting older (proof is scarce), some could say he's starting to get better. If you noticed the way he and Edelman celebrated after the AFC Championship Game, you might say they have a bit of a chip on their shoulder.

Give me Old Man Brady.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @AdamRank.

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