If it hadn’t been for that devastating hit, the 2001 New England Patriots never would have been my favorite Patriots team. It would be easy to argue that the 2003 and 2004 Patriots were far superior to the 2001 squad, and the same argument could be made for the 2007 Patriots who nearly danced to perfection.
But it was the 2001 team that turned the page on the Drew Bledsoe days and ushered in the era of Tom Brady.
The team comprised football players, not stars, and each played his respective role to defy all odds and expectations to become Super Bowl Champions. This team will be in the collective consciousnesses of Patriots fans forever.
When Mo Lewis hit Bledsoe as he ran out of bounds in the second game of the season, the team’s prospects looked bleak: They’re doomed without Bledsoe, I thought.
He was the franchise quarterback, a No. 1 overall pick who set the NFL record for passes attempted (70) and completions (45) in a single game. He was the Patriot’s ace.
But that changed with the injury.
Bledsoe was relegated to the sidelines, but still on our minds when Brady dressed to play. He was an unproven quarterback who had played well in the pre-season, yet his task seemed insurmountable.
Off to a 1-3 start and with no immediate timetable return for Bledsoe, the Patriots hosted the San Diego Chargers in a classic matchup between Boston legend Doug Flutie and soon-to-be legend Brady.
Part of Brady’s mystique grew in this game as a late touchdown to Jermaine Wiggins forced overtime and Adam “Mr. Automatic” Vinatieri’s foot finished off the game.
If ever a game offered hope, this was it, for the Patriots would soon suffer their greatest loss of the season against the “Greatest Show on Turf.”
With a 5-4 record, the Patriots wanted to prove the season had taken an upswing, and what better way to prove it than to beat the best team in the league, the Saint Louis Rams.
However, an Antowain Smith fumble on the goal line led to a 14-point swing, and ultimately, a 24-17 loss. But they weren’t having it. For the rest of the season, the Patriots never lost again.
After that, the Patriots hosted the Raiders in the infamous “Snow Bowl/Tuck Rule” game; Patriots fans say the call was legitimate, but dissenters added it to a long list of reasons to resent the team.
It wasn’t just Vinatieri’s boot to win the game that was impressive, but also the 45-yard field goal that sent it there.
The AFC Championship couldn’t have been more dramatic than when Brady went down with an ankle injury and Bledsoe, the $103 million dollar backup, came in to save the game.
Patriots fans knew this was now Brady’s team, but Bledsoe’s final offering gave fans solace and ended his Patriots career in glory.
And, of course, the Super Bowl against the Rams, the team that had last defeated them. To win, Brady needed to “manage” the game, and the defense needed to disrupt the high-flying Saint Louis air attack.
Going into the game, I knew if the Patriots could contain the Rams to less than 20 points, they would have a chance. And they did just that.
Brady wasn’t terrific but he was consistent by not turning over the ball. Throwing for one touchdown and 145 yards was just good enough for a victory and a Super Bowl MVP.
There will never be another Patriots team like this. The players were just good enough to do the job.
Antowain Smith was a castoff from Buffalo but he was a productive and straight-forward runner who refused to quit. Troy Brown, who could always be counted on for a first down, did the job with dedication.
Each player brought assets that became part of the “Patriot Way” of doing things and helped lay stones in a solid foundation on which championships were built.