New England Patriots: 10 Greatest Games of the Belichick Era
The New England Patriots traded the 29th pick of the NFL draft on Thursday night to the Minnesota Vikings, leaving the team's fans with that usual feeling of emptiness they have become accustomed to on draft night.
It was not all bad for Pats fans on the first night of the draft, though, as former offensive lineman Joe Andruzzi delivered a heartfelt speech on behalf of the city of Boston. Andruzzi was present for the tragic events that took place at this year's Boston Marathon and was famously photographed carrying a woman who had been injured out of harm's way. The picture became a symbol of hope for the city, and it was a great gesture by the Kraft family and the Patriots organization to have him reveal a jersey that said Boston Strong with the city's area code as the number.
So even though fans may have waited for a few hours and got nothing in return in terms of a pick, they were reminded of the class that has defined this franchise for more than a decade.
Seeing Joe Andruzzi brought me back to the success the Patriots have recently enjoyed, especially in the early part of the last decade. And it got me thinking about some of the great games this team has been a part of during the Bill Belichick era.
I've comprised this list based on what I believe to be the best and most memorable games for Pats fans. There will certainly be some debate for sure, especially since I am leaving losses off the list. This is not to say that games such as the 2006 AFC Championship or Super Bowl XLII were not outstanding contests that will go down in the history of NFL lore. I just decided to keep this a positive experience for New Englanders in an attempt to provide some happy thoughts going into the rest of this weekend.
Hopefully this list will conjure up some good feelings for those of you Pats fans who stuck it out on Thursday as well as the rest of the draft.
October 19, 2003: Bomb to Brown Seals the Deal
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This game against the Miami Dolphins will always be remembered for the game-winning pass caught in overtime by Mr. Patriot himself, Troy Brown. But it was the events that led up to that play that make this one of the greatest games of the Belichick era.
The field was a converted baseball diamond due to the World Series being played between the Florida Marlins and the New York Yankees, which would play right into the hands of the Pats.
Tom Brady threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to David Givens in the fourth quarter to tie the game at 13. Miami, however, would end up in the perfect position to steal the game, setting up Olindo Mare from the dirt for a possible 35-yard game-winner. It was not meant to be, though, as big Richard Seymour blocked the kick, which ultimately sent the game into overtime.
Controversy ensued during the coin toss going into OT as the Patriots called tails and claimed that referee Gerry Austin accidentally turned it over as he picked it up off of the ground. Austin retorted by saying the players were confused as to which side was which.
Regardless of who was right, the Dolphins ended up with possession and proceeded to drive down the field. Before the drive began, Belichick told his captains to make Miami drive to end of the field with the dirt. Miami proceeded to do just that, once again setting up Olindo Mare for a 35-yard game winner from the infield. And once again Mare would blow an opportunity to seal the deal with a missed field goal that went wide right.
On the ensuing drive, Tom Brady was sacked by long-time nemesis Jason Taylor, who forced the Golden Boy to fumble. Fortunately for the Pats, the QB was able to recover the ball, leading to a punt.
The Patriots would not have to wait very long to get the ball back as Jay Fiedler would throw his second interception of the day. And on the very next play, Brady would find a slanting deep Troy Brown for an 82-yard game-winning touchdown pass. The win ended an 0-13 streak in Miami during the months of September and October.
This game represented the classic mix of luck, strategy and execution. Throw in a little controversy with the coin toss in overtime and you've got yourself a classic.
November 3, 2003: The Monday Night Safety
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Under the bright lights of Monday Night Football, the Patriots stunned the Denver Broncos with one of the most well-executed two-minute drills ever.
In what may be one of the greatest coaching calls of all time, Bill Belichick took a deliberate safety with his team down 24-23 with just 2:49 left in the game.
With the score 26-23, punter Ken Walter pinned the Broncos on their own 15-yard line, and the defense took over from there, forcing Denver to go three and out.
Enter Tom Brady. With 2:15 left on the clock and only one timeout remaining, Brady led the Patriots on a 58-yard drive capped off by an 18-yard winning touchdown pass to David Givens.
This game represents both Belichick and Brady at their finest with a little timely defense thrown in the mix. The balance that was exhibited on a weekly basis in terms of both the offense and defense stepping up to make crucial plays under the tutelage of great coaching cannot be understated. It was this mix that would ultimately lead the team to win three Super Bowls, and no other game exhibits that balance quite like this one.
November 30, 2003: Willie's Last Stand
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You can't have this list without at least one Colts game. There have certainly been many outstanding games between these two AFC rivals over the past decade, but this regular-season matchup stands out above all the rest.
This game had everything: star power, playoff implications and two of the greatest quarterbacks of all time squaring off against each other in their primes.
The Patriots pulled out to a 31-10 lead in the third quarter off the solid play of Tom Brady and a timely 92-yard kickoff return from Bethel Johnson before the end of the first half.
But Peyton Manning would lead his team all the way back off of two interceptions from Brady, and the Colts tied the game in the fourth quarter at 31-31.
Bethel Johnson, however, would strike again with another timely return in the fourth quarter, going 67 yards all the way down to the Colts' 31. The Patriots would take advantage of the great field position as Tom Brady found Deion Branch just four plays later for a touchdown.
Manning would lead another drive, but the Colts offense would be stopped, leading the team to make the risky decision of kicking a 29-yard field goal with 3:27 left to go in the game. The figuring behind the decision was that Indy would ultimately get one more shot at the win. And Tony Dungy figured right.
Tom Brady inexplicably threw the ball on the next four plays, only taking 30 seconds off the clock. Things would only get worse from there as Ken Walter shanked a punt that traveled 18 yards, putting the Colts in direct striking distance.
Manning would get his team all the way down to the one, and with someone needing to make a play on defense, two Patriots stepped up. Ted Washington blew up a huge gap in the middle of the offense, allowing Willie McGinest to stop Edgerrin James dead in his tracks on a running play to the right, capping off another classic game between these two teams.
January 14, 2007: Lights out in San Diego
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The Patriots have had many great postseason victories, but this divisional round win against the San Diego Chargers was particularly sweet.
The Chargers were stacked. Philip Rivers led an offense that included record-breaking running back LaDainian Tomlinson, backup running back Michael Turner, an emerging Vincent Jackson and future Hall of Fame tight end Antonio Gates. The defense was headed up by sacks leader Shawne Merriman, and included such names as Luis Castillo, Shaun Phillips, Antonio Cromartie and Quentin Jammer.
It was not easy for the Pats to overcome this talented roster, to say the least. Tom Brady threw a postseason career-high three interceptions, but one of those interceptions led to the play of the game from who else than Troy Brown. Trailing 21-13 with 8:35 left in the game, Brady threw a pick to safety Marlon McCree. Instead of going down, McCree tried to take it to the house, giving Brown the opportunity to force a fumble that was recovered by Reche Caldwell.
Tom Brady took advantage of the great play and ultimately found Caldwell for a touchdown, capped off by a two-point conversation by Kevin Faulk to tie the game at 21.
The offense got the ball back towards the end of the fourth quarter and drove 72 yards, leading to a game-winning field goal by Stephen Gostkowski with 1:10 left. San Diego got one last shot with three seconds left on the clock, but Chargers kicker Nate Kaeding came up short on a 54-yard field-goal attempt, sealing the victory for the Patriots.
After the game LT did not take kindly to some of the Patriots doing his teammate Merriman's "Lights Out" dance in the middle of the field, which led to a little bit of a temper tantrum on his part. And what could be sweeter than an underdog postseason victory followed by the opposition whining? Not much if you ask me.
December 29, 2007: Regular-Season Perfection
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We all know how this story ended, but for at least one night the Patriots were perfect.
New England headed into the Meadowlands seeking regular-season perfection and found an opponent in the New York Giants who refused to lay down.
With history on the line, the Patriots ultimately prevailed in a hard-fought 38-35 victory. The highlight play of the game was a 65-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter from Tom Brady to Randy Moss. The score not only broke the all-time single-season touchdown records for both quarterbacks (50) and wide receivers (23), but it also put the Patriots up in the game for good and solidified a 16-0 regular season.
What the Patriots did not know at the time was that this game would ultimately send the Giants on an improbable postseason run that would be capped off by a rematch at Super Bowl XLII.
The 2007 season is a touchy subject in general for Pats fans, but this game still ranks as one of the best of the Belichick era. The end result of that season may be tough to swallow, but wins like this made it at least fun to go along for the ride.
February 6, 2005: Super Bowl XXXIX
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Super Bowl XXXIX was certainly not the most memorable championship the Patriots won in the early part of the last decade, but it solidified a dynasty in New England, making it one of the greatest games of the Belichick era.
The Patriots squared off against Donovan McNabb and the Philadelphia Eagles en route to their third Lombardi Trophy in four years. What the game may be ultimately remembered for is a heroic performance from an unlikely source in Terrell Owens. Owens was coming off of major ankle surgery (and fractured fibula) but still managed to catch nine balls for 122 yards.
But what Patriots fans will ultimately remember is a record-breaking performance turned in by wide receiver Deion Branch. Branch caught 11 passes for 133 yards on his way to a Super Bowl MVP in a 24-21 victory.
This game is also significant as it would be the last time that the coaching trio of Bill Belichick, Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel would be together. The image of these three embracing each other at the end of the game is certainly one that will live forever for Patriots fans. Add to that the image of Coach Belichick and his late father Steve receiving a Gatorade bath and you have not only one of the greatest games of this current era for New England, but the entire team's existence.
And they were also able to shut up Freddie Mitchell, which is a consolation prize all in itself.
February 1, 2004: Super Bowl XXXVIII
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Wardrobe malfunction aside, Super Bowl XXXVIII between the Patriots and the Carolina Panthers proved to be one of the craziest Super Bowls ever.
The Patriots prevailed in a back-and-forth contest that saw both teams rack up a combined total of 868 yards and 61 points. And this was despite the fact that neither team scored in the first and third quarters.
Tom Brady won his second Super Bowl MVP and led the Patriots in another final drive, setting up an Adam Vinatieri field goal to win the game.
The fourth quarter alone was worth the price of admission as both teams continually landed blows on each other before John Kasay committed the grave error of kicking the ball out of bounds on a kickoff. This mistake allowed Tom Brady to take over in ideal field position, and he took full advantage before handing it over to the greatest kicker of all time.
Between nip-slips, streakers and crazy play on the field, this game is truly one of the greatest Super Bowls of all time. The Patriots were able to wrap up their second title in three years and would continue to build off that momentum going into the next season.
January 27, 2002: Drew Bledsoe's Finest Hour
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You could not have written the script better for the playoff run the Patriots went on during the 2001 season.
Drew Bledsoe had been benched during the regular season by Coach Belichick for a young and unknown commodity in Tom Brady. Bledsoe lost his job after suffering a vicious hit from Jets linebacker Mo Lewis, which caused internal bleeding.
Despite not being happy about the benching, Bledsoe was a true professional and was not a distraction in the locker room.
The Patriots advanced to the AFC Championship that year and were underdogs on the road against the Pittsburgh Steelers. And it would prove to be Drew Bledsoe's finest moment in a Patriots uniform.
Tom Brady went down in the second quarter with a left leg injury, and Bledsoe stepped in and answered the call valiantly. Four plays after coming in for Brady, he threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to David Patten to put the Patriots up 14-3. They would never look back from that point and marched on to a 24-17 victory and a trip to Super Bowl XXXVI.
Bledsoe will always be remembered for his heroics of stepping in when called upon, but it was once again Troy Brown who had the play of the game with a 55-yard punt return for a touchdown. He was also the middle man on a 60-yard return on a blocked field goal that put the Patriots up 21-3 in the third quarter.
This game was a fitting end to a great career in New England for Drew Bledsoe. He showed unbelievable class the entire year and stepped up big time when his team needed him the most. And for that it makes the list as one of the greatest games during the Belichick era.
February 3, 2002: Super Bowl XXXVI
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It was almost as if it was meant to be. After the attacks of September 11, it was only fitting to see a team named the Patriots competing for a Super Bowl. And compete they did.
Coming into Super Bowl XXXVI, the Patriots were 14-point underdogs against the greatest show on turf in the St. Louis Rams. But what people underestimated was how much this team played for one another.
New England famously decided to be introduced as a team instead of having individual introductions, a standard that has now become a tradition for every team that competes in a Super Bowl.
The game plan was spectacular. They roughed up Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt, completely disrupting the flow of the offense.
The moments are etched in every Patriots fans head. The Ty Law interception return for a touchdown, the jumping catch in the corner of the end zone by David Patten and last but certainly not least, the drive by Tom Brady at the end of the game. John Madden famously stated that he thought New England should sit on the ball and play for overtime. What he and the rest of the world did not realize was that we were witnessing the emergence of one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time on his way to becoming, at the time, the youngest Super Bowl MVP ever.
And in fitting fashion, Mr. Clutch, Adam Vinatieri, booted the game-winning field goal, leading to the franchise's first Super Bowl win ever.
This game will always have a special place in the heart of every Patriots fan because the team defied the odds and truly played for one another. We didn't know it was just the beginning. We just knew that it felt really good for one magical night.
January 19, 2002: The Snow Bowl
In Oakland they call this the tuck rule game. In New England we refer to this game as the Snow Bowl.
It was the last game that was ever played at Foxboro Stadium and the perfect ending to the existence of that absolute hellhole.
As the snow was barreling down, no one knew this was the start of something special. The hope was that a proper burial could be given to this underwhelming stadium that Patriots fans had loyally filled for years. What turned out was one of the greatest games ever against the Oakland Raiders, highlighted by one of the most controversial calls in the history of sports.
But beyond the tuck rule and the heroics of Adam Vinatieri, who hit two of the greatest kicks of all time despite the horrendous conditions, this game represented New England.
It was ugly, cold and a little dirty. Add all of these ingredients up and you have an outstanding playoff game for the ages that will be talked about amongst Patriots fans for a long time to come.
This was the end of one chapter in the franchise's history and the beginning of a new one. The beauty looking back now is no one knew that this was the beginning of a dynasty. But without a little luck and some questionable decision-making, who knows where this franchise would be now? Maybe they'd be the Oakland Raiders. And just for that alone, this ranks as the greatest game of the Belichick era in New England.