The Most Improbable Championship: The 2001 New England Patriots

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The Most Improbable Championship: The 2001 New England Patriots
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This is part two of a decade retrospective. Part one is here.

Looking back, it's hard to appreciate just how absurd the 2001 Super Bowl championship Patriots season was.

This was a team that had gone nowhere in 2000 and looked to be going nowhere once again. The Pats had made moves, to be sure, but they were all veterans on the downside of their careers (Bryan Cox, Otis Smith, Roman Phifer), players who hadn't done anything yet (Mike Vrabel, David Patten), and castoffs (Antowain Smith, Jermaine Wiggins).

In fact, they opened the season by losing to the woeful (as in "just coming off a solid decade of losing seasons" woeful) Cincinnati Bengals.

Then came the events of Sept. 11, and everything was thrown into chaos. The nation, looking for something to distract itself from an ever-darkening world outlook, turned to sports.

The NFL cancelled its games that weekend, moving the Patriots' contest with the (then 1-0, but eventually 1-15) Carolina Panthers to the end of the season. Instead, the Pats would face off against their hated rival, the New York Jets.

In that sloppy game, Bledsoe took a hard hit from linebacker Mo Lewis, and the franchise's fortunes changed forever. In stepped a young, unknown sixth-rounder from Michigan: Tom Brady. The Pats, though, still lost the game.

(To continue my Bledsoe love from the last installment: Bledsoe was ridiculuously injuredhe had a sheared blood vessel and was bleeding internally. He came back in on the next series. He took an insane amount of punishment to give his team the best chance to win. Again, underrated.)

Brady was an odd choice to start the next game, against a ferocious Indianapolis team. After all, the Patriots had Damon Huard, a veteran who had backed up Dan Marino (and had filled in admirably during Marino's occasional absences). Yet Belichick had confidence in the young player and had the chutzpah to bet his career on that feeling.

The Pats crushed the Colts, 44-13, in a day where the defense reigned supreme. Cox set the tone early, nailing Colts receiver Jerome Pathon over the middle. Otis Smith and Ty Law each got a pick-six, and the Pats had put up 20 points before the Colts even got on the board.

Someone once said (I think it was Charlie Weis) that the 2001 Patriots had suffered in the first few games because Bledsoe had become the franchise guythat is, when things got rough, everyone would stand around and wait for him to make a play.

Thing is, you can't play football that way. Plays develop when everyone on the field is trying to make things happen. So Bledsoe wouldn't be able to change things, and the team would lose.

That theory is true, and I think this game shows it. Brady actually did very little to win this gamehe was 13-of-23 for 168 yards and no TDsbut everyone else stepped up their game, and they crushed a superior team.)

The Pats also dropped their next game to the Dolphins, with Brady going a lackluster 12-of-24 for 86 yards (though opposing QB Jay Fiedler only threw for 87 yards in a game that set offensive football back 75 years).

The next game, though, is where the legend of Brady truly began. New England was facing off against a resurgent Chargers team (3-1 after a 1-15 season) and Doug Flutie. The Pats were down by 10 in the fourth, but Brady let the team on field-goal and touchdown drives (the latter coming with 36 seconds left in the game), tying the game up. In a recurring theme, Adam Vinatieri kicked the game winner in overtime.

(This game sent the Chargers into a tailspin. They finished 5-11 and dumped Flutie for then-rookie Drew Brees. Essentially, this game ended Flutie's career. Sorry, Doug.)

 

The Pats were 5-4 heading into a game with the reigning Super Bowl-champion St. Louis Rams.

They made it a tight game, even leading at one point, but Smith fumbled on the goal line, and they ended up losing by seven. Still, the game showed that the Patriots could face off against the top teams in the league.

The Pats would not lose again that season.

Their first-round matchup was against the hated Raiders, and became one of the few games in NFL history to receive a nickname: The Tuck Rule game. It was played in a driving snowstorm, and much of the game was unremarkable.

The Pats were down by 10 when Brady dropped back, pumped his arm and was hit by corner Charles Woodson. The ball came loose, and it was ruled a fumble on the field, with the Raiders recovering.

Upon further review, referee Walt Coleman determined that Brady's arm was still moving forward and, though he obviously had no intention of passing, the loose ball was still a forward pass.

The rest of the game seemed inevitable. The Patriots tied it up, and Vinatieri hit the hardest kick of all time to win the game in overtime.

Raiders fans, of course, claim the call was unfair. Even if this call was completely wrong (it wasn't), you could claim it was karma from 1976, in which an infamous "phantom roughing the passer" call was made against the Patriots in a playoff game against these same Raiders. The call gave the Raiders the game, and they ended up as eventual Super Bowl champions.

It all balances out.

The AFC Championship game against the Steelers was when it became apparent that this team was living in some alternate-universe sports movie.

Brady was knocked out of the game in the second quarter, leaving - who else - Drew Bledsoe to lead this team to victory. Bledsoe completed his first pass in months, then took a hard hit as he was running out of bounds (in a play eerily similar to the one that ended his tenure as Patriots starting quarterback). He responded by nailing a pass to David Patten in the corner of the end zone.

(What few people remember, though, was that Bledsoe's performance for the rest of the game was somewhat... lackluster. He went 10 for 21 and 102 yards, and the team's only other offensive points that day came from a Vinatieri field goal in the fourth quarter.)

(By the way, check out Troy Brown's punt return touchdowns that year. The dude would just run straight ahead, parting defenses like the Red Sea. I haven't seen anyone do that since.)

The only team standing between the Pats and glory was the Rams.

This team looked laughably overmatched, like the team that lost to the Bears 46-10 in Super Bowl XX. Hell, the game was even being played in the same buildingthe Louisiana Superdome.

From the start, though, things seemed to break the Patriots' way. Even the introductions seemed charmed, with the Pats choosing to be introduced as a team, instead of player-by-player.

Watching the team video from 2001, you can see Ricky Proehl, just before introductions, saying, "Tonight, the dynasty is born." That must've really pissed the Pats off, because not only did they beat him in this Super Bowl, but they came back and defeated his Panthers team in 2003.

The lesson? Never say anything camera-worthy before a big game.)

The Patriots jumped to a 14-3 lead, behind an overpowering defense (which led to a 47-yard Law interception return for a TD).

The first game against the Rams had helped, after all. In David Halberstam's book "The Education of a Coach," he recounts how Belichick solved the Rams' "Greatest Show on Turf" offense.

According to Halberstam, Belichick realized the Rams attack was centered around running back Marshall Faulk. In the first game, Belchick had though Kurt Warner was the key figure, and attacked him without effect. Through film study, Belichick saw that Faulk set the team's rhythm, and told his players to constantly hit Faulk, no matter where he was on the field.

Many said Rams coach Mike Martz was foolish for not using Faulk enough. Belichick's defense, though, kept Martz from using Faulk in the way he wished to use the back. Martz was unwilling to change to a more successful, but less comfortable, way of doing things.

The Rams rallied quickly, scoring a quick 14 points in the fourth quarter to tie the game.

The Patriots got the ball with 1:21 left in the game. John Madden said Belichick should play for overtime. Belichick disagreed.

(Tom Brady said offensive coordinator Charlie Weis gave him the tactical plan for the drive - try a few safe throws, and see where things go. He then went to Bledsoe, who told him to "just sling it." Who says that? If you needed further proof that this season was life imitating some insane sports movie, there it is.)

Brady threw a couple of passes to running back J.R. Redmond, then found Troy Brown with a 23-yard strike.

Spiked ball. Vinatieri kick. Patriots win, 20-17.

(Catch part three on Monday)

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