But that all came crashing down in Super Bowl XLII, when the New York Giants pulled off one of the biggest upsets in modern day sports history. Led by a tenacious pass rush that disrupted the aerial circus all evening and a strangely poised Eli Manning, the Giants ended the Patriots quest at perfection with a 17-14 victory that will go down in the annals of history as one of the best games ever.
Entering the 2008 regular season, many believed the Patriots would end the string of teams that seemingly couldn't shake the heartbreaking championship loss just months prior. Fans called this the so-called "Super Bowl Loser Curse" and unlike many superstitions, this one seemed to hold water.
Only the 2006 Seahawks had been able to make the playoffs following a loss in the Super Bowl this decade, but when you looked at the level of competition in the Patriots division and a roster that was loaded from top to bottom, the Patriots return to the playoffs seemed like a foregone conclusion.
Then, relatively unknown Kansas City Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard changed that a mere seven minutes and change into the first quarter of the opening day game when an unfinished block by the usually reliable Kevin Faulk led to an unfortunate low hit on Tom Brady's knee.
Brady's knee was ripped to shreds, the Patriots season suddenly took a new look. The Super Bowl loser curse appeared to have struck yet again.
But the Patriots would not go down without a fight, as should be expected from a team coached by Bill Belichick. Untested quarterback Matt Cassel would become the starter the rest of the season, which became a new role for him.
Cassel hadn't started a game since his senior year of high school, but as the weeks passed by and as Cassel became more and more comfortable with Josh McDaniels offense, the longtime backup to Tom Brady started to look the part of an NFL starting quarterback.
After doing just enough to get by the Brett Favre led Jets, the Patriots hosted the Dolphins and were ripped to shreds by a new offense that no one had seen before. The 'wildcat' outsmarted Belichick's defense all afternoon as Ronnie Brown ran for four touchdowns and threw another during Miami's 38-13 pounding of New England.
The loss sent shockwaves all throughout the NFL. The Patriots from last year appeared to be dead and gone. Writers and pundits from all over were ready to christen New England's season as an afterthought and began looking at other teams in football as the new favorites.
Maybe that's what fueled New England long enough for them to stay alive in 2008. Because following the loss to Miami the Patriots would win four of their next six contests and were tied at the top of the AFC East with the New York Jets at 6-3.
And as fate would have it, the Patriots would just so happen to have a game scheduled with those New York 'Bretts' in Week 11 of the season. At the time, it seemed like the game would determine who would be in the drivers seat the rest of the way.
Matt Cassel put together the game of his career, and outgunned the legendary Favre by throwing for 400 yards and 3 touchdowns including a touchdown pass to Randy Moss that would send the game into overtime with one second left in regulation. The Patriots erased a 24-6 deficit and tied the game at 31.
However, the Patriots defense would not be able to hold the Jets again, and a Jay Feely field goal in overtime would send the Jets to the victory and put the Patriots a game out of first place.
Cassel and the Patriots would get their revenge over the Dolphins a week later with a 48-28 beat down at Dolphins stadium. Cassel became the fifth quarterback since the merger to throw for over 400 yards in back to back games, and the Patriots were sitting at 7-4 in the division, still a game behind the Jets. The Dolphins were 6-5 and an afterthought in the division.
But that afterthought wouldn't lose another game for the rest of the regular season, and the Jets would begin to free fall. The Patriots were in the unfortunate situation where winning out wouldn't even guarantee them a playoff spot due to the strength of the AFC as a whole.
A date with the Pittsburgh Steelers loomed on the horizon, and the Steelers were looking for blood after being torn to pieces a season ago. Matt Cassel had not yet experienced a defense as tenacious and relentless as the Steel Curtain, and after posting back to back 400 yard, 3 touchdown performances he was grounded with only 169 yards and two interceptions.
The Steelers went on to win 33-10, leaving the Patriots with a huge loss down the stretch.
Cassel and the Pats would go on to post a perfect 4-0 mark in December, but it wouldn't be enough. The Colts would finish 12-4, with one of those wins being a late game victory over the Patriots back in Week 9, and the Ravens would also finish 11-5 but held tiebreakers over New England which assured them of the final playoff spot in 2008.
And so the Super Bowl losers curse took it's batting average to 8 of 9 this decade, and the Brady-less Patriots were left watching the postseason from the comfort of their own homes despite finishing 2008 with three more victories than the AFC West champion Chargers.
2009 Free Agency Additions:
CB Shawn Springs (Washington)
TE Chris Baker (New York Jets)
RB Fred Taylor (Jacksonville)
LB Paris Lenon (Detroit)
S Brandon McGowan (Chicago)
C Al Johnson (Miami)
DE/LB Tully Banta-Cain (San Francisco)
WR Joey Galloway (Tampa Bay)
LB Vinny Ciurciu (Minnesota)
WR Greg Lewis (Philadelphia)
LB Mike Vrabel (Traded to Kansas City)
CB Ellis Hobbs (Traded to Philadelphia)
S Rodney Harrison (Retired)
FB Heath Evans (New Orleans)
RB Lamont Jordan (Denver)
WR Jabar Gaffney (Denver)
ST Larry Izzo (New York Jets)
WR Kelley Washington (Baltimore)
DE Darrell Robertson (Kansas City)
LB Bo Ruud (Cleveland)
2-34. Patrick Chung, SS, Oregon
2-40. Ron Brace, NT, Boston College
2-41. Darius Butler, CB, Connecticut
2-58. Sebastian Vollmer, OT, Houston
3-83. Brandon Tate, WR, North Carolina
3-97. Tyrone McKenzie, LB, South Florida
4-123. Rich Ohrnberger, G, Penn State
5-170. George Bussey, G, Louisville
6-198. Jake Ingram, LS, Hawaii
6-207. Myron Pryor, NT, Kentucky
7-232. Julian Edelman, WR, Kent State
7-234. Darryl Richard, DE/DT, Georgia Tech
Brady will once again inherit an offense with a ridiculous amount of talent at wide receiver. Randy Moss may once again claim the title of best receiver in football with Brady's return and Wes Welker is without question the most dangerous slot receiver in football.
While the Patriots again appear to be the team that spreads it out via the pass, they would like to assimilate some sort of a running game and will deploy a running back by committee approach in 2009 led by Laurence Maroney and free agent acquisition Fred Taylor.
The Patriots offensive line returns in tact from the team that went 18-1 in 2007 with Matt Light and Nick Kaczur starting at tackle, Logan Mankins and Stephen Neal starting at guard, and Dan Koppen starting at center.
Defensively, the Patriots lost veterans Rodney Harrison (retirement) and Mike Vrabel (traded with Matt Cassel to Kansas City) in the offseason, but replenished their roster with young talent in the draft.
The linebacking corps will be headlined by 2008 Defensive Rookie of the Year Jerod Mayo and longtime vet Tedy Bruschi. The Patriots will also see the return of Adalius Thomas, who missed a large part of last season with a broken forearm.
The Patriots secondary will be without Ellis Hobbs after he was traded to Philadelphia, and the aforementioned Rodney Harrison, but they added Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs to a relatively young defensive backfield.
|Sun 9/20||at NY Jets|
|Sun 10/11||at Denver|
|Sun 10/25||at Tampa Bay|
|Sun 11/15||at Indianapolis|
|Sun 11/22||NY Jets|
|Mon 11/30||at New Orleans|
|Sun 12/6||at Miami|
|Sun 12/20||at Buffalo|
|Sun 1/3||at Houston|
As is usually almost always the case, Bill Belichick and company continued to add key cogs to an already explosive team and will once again be a force to be reckoned with this season.
Of course all of this is with the assumption that Brady's knee is indeed healthy and that he will be able to start all 16 games in 2009. If Brady were to miss any extensive period of time again this year, the Patriots will not be as lucky as they were with Matt Cassel stepping in to keep the Patriots in the thick of the AFC Playoff Picture.
I'll go out on a limb and say Brady will return to form, and that this Patriots team can very well be better than the one we saw two seasons ago - although they won't run the table, which in the long run will probably be better for them anyway.
The run to Miami will go through Gillette Stadium in the AFC. And whether you love them or hate them, the New England Patriots are back.
Predicted Finish: 13-3, 1st place AFC East