As of the 21st century, passer Tom Brady and pass-offense enthusiast Bill Belichick are on board to succeed the Joe Montanas and Joe Namaths and the Vince Lombardis and Bill Walshes who in the 20th century topped the NFL.

Since the 2000 season, when veteran coach Belichick and rookie quarterback Brady joined the New England Patriots, they have won two of the four Super Bowls, doing so with increasingly persistent passing in an offense that has become pro football's most aggressive.

Still, most folks continue to think of Belichick wrongly as simply a defensive genius.

Actually, he's the only one of the NFL's wise old defense-minded conservatives to shift gears and turn with enthusiasm to pass offense.

He's the only all-out pass-offense coach in the league.

And it is the Patriots' pass-play competence in an approach prescribed by Belichick and interpreted by Brady that has made them a champion and a favorite in the NFL's 85th season, which begins Thursday, Sept. 9 at Foxborough, Mass. — matching Brady vs. Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts. That game will be followed on Sept. 12 by the season's first round of Sunday games setting up the first Monday nighter, Green Bay at Carolina.

Belichick's season could well depend on the way he uses new running back Corey Dillon, late of Cincinnati, among the league's finest and the first really good one he's had. Like most ballcarriers, Dillon enjoys ground-bound football, which Belichick once loved but gave up to throw the ball, finding pass offense a surer way to win. At the same time, Dillon has shown the talent for two key Patriot roles:

• As a second- or third-down counterpuncher in first-half pass-first football.

• As a second-half hammer after Brady opens first-half leads.

If that is their plan, the Patriots, now that they have Dillon, are farther ahead of the NFL field as the season starts than any early favorite in many years. If instead they're tempted to feature Dillon and not Brady on most first-half first-down plays, the Patriots will shortly come back to the field.

The NFL's Other Title Contenders

2Philadelphia Eagles

Among the teams that belong in the NFL's top 10 this year, the principal difference between No. 1 New England and No. 2 Philadelphia is that the Patriots are a team without a flaw — the only one in a league that has changed enormously, for better or worse, in the era of free agents and wage caps. The most compelling reason for elevating the Eagles to No. 2 — other than the fact that head coach Andy Reid has led them into the playoffs the last four seasons — is that they've made the NFL's most vital one-player acquisition of 2004: Terrell Owens, the sprinter-wide receiver. At San Francisco, Owens was handicapped by his bad-boy temperament, but he's the best athlete playing wide receiver today, and his speed was precisely what the Eagles needed. Otherwise, Reid's offensive talent, with Donovan McNabb running and throwing the ball, is considerable. If the Eagles raise a question, it's this: Will they give away on defense what they've gained on offense? Their defensive players, even with Jason Kearse at defensive end, aren't as impressive as their offensive personnel.

3Carolina Panthers

Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme's surprise longball air show in the most recent Super Bowl game — after Coach John Fox finally let him throw — remains the most vivid and enduring memory of the NFL's 2003 season. Although Fox only turned on the pass-offense green light with three minutes left in the first half, Delhomme piled up 323 passing yards that day and threw three for touchdowns before the Patriots won it on a field goal in the last four seconds, 32-29. If Delhomme could do that in one game, why not 16? That's up to Fox, who last year proved to be one of the NFL's really sound coaches. Until recently, he was also known as one of the league's many devoted conservatives. But the way he authorized some Delhomme throws in the 2004 exhibition season — notably during the young passer's exposures on national TV — suggests that Fox is changing his mind somewhat. If Fox attacks more often with Delhomme this fall than with runners Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster, another Super Bowl appearance is within reach.

4Kansas City Chiefs

Coach Dick Vermeil attacks with a beautifully integrated offense featuring Trent Green and Priest Holmes. When quarterback Green seems poised for another big pass, halfback Holmes suddenly disappears with the ball on a fast-tempo running play. When the defense seems to be overshifting against Holmes, the ball suddenly flies away from Green toward tight end Tony Gonzales or a wide receiver. In three-receiver sets, Dante Hall, the peerless kick returner, takes the slot. One of the league's great offensive lines makes all of this work, insuring that the Chiefs can play offense with any team in the league. But on defense, Kansas City is testing a theory: Is a new coach of more value than new players? Even though the Chiefs finished 30th against the run last year (in a 32-team league) and 20th against passes, Vermeil has kept all the players who did that — defying his old friend Bill Walsh, who said a winning team needs 11 stars on defense (though no more than three on offense). Impetuously, instead of changing players, Vermeil has changed assistant coaches, signing a new defensive coordinator, Gunther Cunningham — once their head coach.

5Green Bay Packers

Quarterback Brett Favre keeps testing another theory: Can a tough old quarterback with a big arm play forever? At Carolina in the season's first Monday night game on Sept. 13, Favre, who is about to turn 35, will make his 209th consecutive NFL start, a record that may never be broken unless he breaks it. His strength as a football player is also his weakness: He never gives up on a play. If this leads him into trouble sometimes, it also leads to 3,000 Green Bay passing yards every season — as well as 30 touchdown passes — a pace Favre has maintained, as he keeps getting older, for seven consecutive years. Part of the reason for his success (and part of the reason for running back Ahman Green's success) is that Favre and Green are a two-threat, two-edged sword — a sharp one. And both benefit from their sharp offensive line. After starting his coaching career with four winning seasons at Green Bay, Mike Sherman has taken on a new defensive coach, Mike Slowik.