Top 8 Moments in New England Patriots' Postseason History

Bryan ShafferFeatured ColumnistMarch 7, 2013

Top 8 Moments in New England Patriots' Postseason History

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    New England Patriots fans will always treasure their team's best postseason moments.

    The team was far from a juggernaut over its first 40 years of existence, winning just seven playoff games, never claiming a Super Bowl and lurking in the AFC East 's cellar a little too often.

    However, since the turn of the millennium, New Englanders have been treated to some of the best football in the NFL. The team has captured many unforgettable playoff moments, a merit owed largely to the excellence of the Robert Kraft-Bill Belichick-Tom Brady trio.

8. 1985 AFC Championship Game

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    Opponent: Miami Dolphins

    Location: Orange Bowl

    Score: 31-14

    The 1985 AFC title game was one which put the Patriots on the map. Prior to the 1985 season, the Patriots had only one playoff victory in the record books, and it came in 1963.

    On January 12, the Patriots had their hands full with the task of beating Dan Marino and the heavily-favored Dolphins. The Patriots, who had gone back and forth between quarterbacks Steve Grogan and Tony Eason during the season, were not expected to accomplish much, let alone get to this kind of game. But they took advantage of the opportunity.

    After Marino threw a first-quarter touchdown to Dan Johnson, the Patriots trailed 7-3. Eason responded promptly, guiding a 66-yard touchdown drive to give the Patriots a lead they would not relinquish.

    The Patriots scored 21 unanswered points to claim a 24-7 lead in the game. The Dolphins managed to score one touchdown in the fourth quarter, but the Patriots closed things out with a Mosi Tatupu touchdown to ice the 31-14 upset.

    The Super Bowl berth in 1985 might not have elevated them to the top of the NFL ladder, but it certainly raised a few rungs from its base.

7. 1996 AFC Championship Game

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    Opponent: Jacksonville Jaguars

    Location: Foxboro Stadium

    Score: 20-6

    The first AFC title game the Patriots ever hosted was kind to them. They hosted the Wild Card Jacksonville Jaguars, who had knocked off the 13-3 Broncos the week before.

    The Patriots took advantage of a first quarter botched punt by the Jaguars to set themselves up at their opponent's 4-yard line, and Curtis Martin ran in for a touchdown soon after.

    Other than that play, the scoring on both sides was stagnant. The Jaguars scored a single field goal in the first half, and the Patriots added two of their own, leaving a 13-3 Patriots lead at halftime.

    The Jaguars managed to cut that lead to 13-6 after a third-quarter field goal, and with the way the Patriots' offense was playing, it seemed like the Jaguars could steal the lead by chipping away.

    They nearly did just that, in fact. Quarterback Mark Brunell marched his team to the Patriots' 5-yard line with just under four minutes remaining. He'd find the wrong receiver, though, as Patriots defensive back Willie Clay hauled in Brunell's pass and ended that threat.

    The Jaguars got one last shot. They managed to get the ball to midfield and gave the Patriots a scare. But Jacksonville running back James Stewart ended any hopes of a comeback with a fumble, which Otis Smith picked up and delivered a 47-yard return for a touchdown.

6. 2004 AFC Championship Game

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    Opponent: Indianapolis Colts

    Location: Gillette Stadium

    Final Score: 24-14

    Undoubtedly, the most recognized player-to-player rivalry in Patriots' history is the one between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. So when the pair squared off in the 2004 AFC Championship game, the stakes were high. Many wanted to see if Manning, the regular-season MVP, could beat Brady, who already had a ring.

    The Patriots struck on their first possession, which lasted nearly seven minutes and ended with a Brady-to-David Givens touchdown.

    Manning did his best to tie the game on the Colts' first possession. He drove down the field in just under five minutes, and got to the Patriots' 5-yard line. He made a bad throw, however, and Rodney Harrison intercepted a third-down pass in the end zone.

    The Patriots scored two field goals on their next two possessions. The second possession came immediately after the first, as Ty Law gave Manning his second interception of the evening. After the pair of field goals, the Patriots got a safety to go up 15-0 going into halftime.

    Manning would not roll over that easily, though. On the first possession of the second half, the Colts were spotted at their own 48-yard line, due to a 33-yard kickoff return by Dominic Rhodes. Manning took advantage of that and drove the Colts down the field to set up an Edgerrin James touchdown run that cut the Patriots' lead to 15-7.

    Later in the third quarter, the Patriots added to their lead with a pair of Adam Vinatieri field goals. With a 21-7 lead going into the fourth, things seemed under control.

    The Patriots' defense was able to stop the Colts for most of the final quarter, but Manning eventually struck with a 7-yard pass to Marcus Pollard to cut the Patriots' lead to a single touchdown with 2:30 left.

    After Brady threw two incomplete passes on the Patriots' ensuing drive, they were forced to punt and give the dangerous Manning a chance to tie the game with 2:01 left on the clock. Manning would turn the ball over on downs after throwing four incomplete passes on that final series.

    The game ended as most big games during the Patriots' dynasty ended: with a Vinatieri field goal. The clutch kicker made a 34-yard kick to give the Patriots a 24-14 lead with under a minute to play. That would officially send the Patriots to the Super Bowl, where they would build upon the greatness of their dynasty.

5. 2011 AFC Championship Game

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    Opponent: Baltimore Ravens

    Location: Gillette Stadium

    Score: 23-20

    Hungry to get back to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2007, the Patriots hosted the Baltimore Ravens in an epic match.

    The Ravens did a good job neutralizing New England's great offense, but Baltimore trailed 13-10 at halftime.

    The Ravens mounted a comeback in the third quarter, when Joe Flacco threw a touchdown pass to Torrey Smith to put the Ravens ahead 17-16. Kicker Billy Cundiff then booted a field goal to give extend their lead to 20-16.

    But the Patriots could not be silenced on that day. Tom Brady, who was not playing up to his lofty standards, led a 63-yard drive which ended with the quarterback taking a fourth-down nosedive into the end zone to give the Patriots a 23-20 lead.

    The Ravens nearly nullified the Patriots' efforts when Flacco marched his Ravens 65 yards down the field to the New England 14. On a 3rd-and-1 play, Flacco threw to Lee Evans in the end zone, only to see the ball pried loose by cornerback Sterling Moore.

    Next up came an easy 32-yard field goal to force overtime. While Patriots fans shuddered and braced themselves for another quarter of nail-biting football, Cundiff lined up and kicked it wide left. The miss sent New England into a frenzy, and sent the Patriots to their seventh Super Bowl in team history.

4. Super Bowl XXXIX

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    Opponent: Philadelphia Eagles

    Location: Alltel Stadium

    Score: 24-21

    The most recent Patriots' Super Bowl championship comes in at No. 5 on the list. The Patriots were challenged by the Philadelphia Eagles, who finally got over the hump and made the Super Bowl after three consecutive losses in NFC Championship games.

    One player who helped get the Eagles to the Super Bowl was wide receiver Terrell Owens, who gave the Eagles the impact receiver they needed.

    The Eagles and Patriots finished the season tied for fewest points allowed, but both teams had good offenses, too. The Patriots ranked fourth in points per game, while the Eagles ranked eighth.

    As often happens in big games, both defenses were the stars of the first half. During the first quarter of the game, neither team scored, and there were a combined five punts. The Eagles also turned the ball over twice in the quarter, with a Donovan McNabb interception and an L.J Smith fumble.

    Despite their turnovers, the Eagles drew first blood. McNabb threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to Smith to give the Eagles the early lead.

    The Patriots drove from their own 13-yard line to the Eagles' 4, before Tom Brady lost a fumble to Darwin Walker.

    The Patriots played great defense from there and caused the Eagles to punt after a three-and-out. After a bad punt by the Eagles, New England had great field position at the Eagles' 37-yard line. Three minutes later, Brady threw a touchdown pass to David Givens to tie the game before the half.

    In classic Patriots' fashion, the team received the ball to start the second half and drove down the field for a touchdown. The drive included four Deion Branch receptions for 71 yards. Mike Vrabel, who usually plays linebacker, was lined up on offense, and took in his second Super Bowl touchdown in as many years.

    The Eagles would score a couple possessions later, but the Patriots neutralized that score with a Corey Dillon touchdown on their next possession. On the next Patriots' possession, they drove to the Eagles' 4-yard line but settled for a 22-yard Adam Vinatieri field goal, as they were unable to get the ball in the end zone.

    Though the Eagles would score one more touchdown with under two minutes to go to make the score 24-21, the Vinatieri field goal was the deciding factor. That made him the person to score the winning points in each of the Patriots' three Super Bowl wins. With a third Super Bowl title in four years, the franchise was an official dynasty.

3. Super Bowl XXXVIII

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    Opponent: Carolina Panthers

    Location: Reliant Stadium

    Score: 32-29

    Super Bowl XXXVIII was when talks of a Patriots dynasty began surfacing.

    They faced a surprising Carolina Panthers team, who had made a swift turnaround from 1-15 in 2001 to NFC Champs in 2003.

    The Panthers were in a position similar to the one the Patriots had been in a couple years earlier. Jake Delhomme, like Tom Brady before him, took advantage of his first full season as a starting quarterback and took his team to the Super Bowl.

    The primary strength of both teams was their defense, and that showed in the Super Bowl. The two teams failed to execute much of anything on offense for most of the first half. The Patriots got into field-goal range a couple times, but Adam Vinatieri uncharacteristically missed two kicks (though one was blocked).

    The Panthers were even worse to open the game. After being held to just one completion in the first 20 minutes, Delhomme fumbled the ball on the Panthers' 25-yard line. A couple plays later, Brady threw a touchdown to Deion Branch for the first score of the game.

    The final 1:30 of the first half was unlike the rest of it, as both teams scored a touchdown, and the Panthers added a field goal as time expired.

    The next score would not come until the beginning of the fourth quarter, when Antowain Smith rushed for a two-yard touchdown. New England was in the driver's seat for the title, leading 21-10 with just a quarter to play.

    The Panthers would not go down easily, however. On their next two drives, the Panthers scored a pair of touchdowns, including an 85-yard bomb to Muhsin Muhammad. A missed two-point conversion gave the Panthers a narrow 22-21 lead, their first of the game.

    The Patriots struck back with a touchdown to usual-linebacker Mike Vrabel. New England would not miss its two-point chance, and the Patriots took a 29-22 lead with under three minutes left.

    The Panthers marched downfield and scored a final touchdown. With a tie game and only 1:13 left, the Patriots were in familiar territory. They drove from their own 40 to the Carolina 23 in just a minute. With nine seconds left in the game, Vinatieri hit another game-winning field goal, and the Patriots had their second Super Bowl title in three years.

2. Super Bowl XXXVI

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    Opponent: St. Louis Rams

    Location: New Orleans

    Final Score: 20-17

    Nothing can be more momentous than a franchise's first Super Bowl championship, and for that reason, Super Bowl XXXVI stands as runner-up on this list.

    After decades of heartbreak, Patriots fans were anticipating another disappointing finish to a surprise season. The Patriots had taken a nice ride, but the heavily-favored St. Louis Rams seemed poised to take the prize.

    The Patriots looked like the better team for the first half of the game. The Rams, who had scored a league-best 503 points during the regular season, were held to a single field goal in the first half. The Patriots' offense and defense contributed a touchdown apiece to give New England a 14-3 lead going into halftime.

    The resilient Rams would not go out that easily. The Rams erased the Patriots' 14-point lead with two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.

    The Patriots were left with just 1:30 in the game and had no timeouts remaining when they got the ball. Even announcer John Madden thought that New England should take a knee and play for overtime.

    But the underdog Patriots would not do that. Tom Brady led one of the most clutch drives ever, completing five of his seven passes for 53 yards, before spiking it and giving the ball to Adam Vinatieri. The legendary kicker booted a 48-yard field goal as time expired to seal the game.

    This was the first win of what would become an era of Patriots' dominance. It was not only one of the most exciting games of all-time, but also one of the most important.

1. 2001 AFC Divisional Round

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    Opponent: Oakland Raiders

    Location: Foxboro Stadium

    Final Score: 16-13

    The aptly-named "Snow Bowl" was the best and last game played at the old Foxboro Stadium.

    The Patriots were riding the hot arm of Tom Brady, who, as a first-year starter, went 11-3 to give the Patriots a bye week in the playoffs.

    They hosted the Oakland Raiders, who had handily dispatched the New York Jets the previous week.

    The game is now known as the "Snow Bowl" because the two teams battled out an epic match in heavy snow.

    That the Patriots were favored by three points over the Raiders made no difference in the first half of the game. With both offenses stultified in the first half by the snow, the Raiders were able to muster one offensive touchdown early in the second quarter to give themselves a 7-0 lead going into the half.

    The Patriots struck back in the third quarter with a field goal to narrow the Raiders' lead, but Oakland promptly responded, scoring two field goals of its own in a span of 3:30, to give the Raiders a 13-3 lead going into the fourth quarter.

    That's when fortunes changed. Tom Brady led the Patriots from their own 33-yard line to the Raiders' 6-yard line in the middle of the fourth quarter. He then rushed up the middle to score a touchdown and cut the Raider lead to 13-10.

    What happened next has gone down in the history books. With just 1:50 left in the game and the Patriots on the Raiders' 42-yard line with a 1st-and-10, Brady dropped back to pass. He moved his arm forward and appeared to "tuck" the ball back into his body, but was stripped by Charles Woodson of the Raiders.

    Initially ruled a fumble, which was recovered by the Raiders, referee Walt Coleman overturned the call and called it an incomplete pass, citing the "Tuck Rule" as the reason.

    The call gave new life to the Patriots, who would almost certainly have lost without it. On the next play, Brady completed a 13-yard pass to David Patten to set up the Patriots in field goal range. After just another yard gained, Vinatieri lined up for a 45-yard kick and drilled it home to knot the score up at 13-13, and send the game into overtime.

    In the extra session, the Patriots started with the ball and never gave the Raiders a chance. Brady drove his team from the New England 34-yard line to the Oakland 5 to give Vinatieri another chance. This time, from 23 yards away, his successful kick clinched the game and sent the Patriots to Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship game.

    Not only was this an amazing game, played in treacherous conditions, but it was the most pivotal game in the history of the franchise. Had the "Tuck Rule" not been called, things might look very different in New England right now. At the very least, the Patriots would have one less Super Bowl title.