The Patriots were hoping for a much better result than they got the year following Super Bowl XXXVI. In 2002, New England missed the playoffs with a 9-7 record.
The Patriots were not going to be inconsistent any longer. They had become the measuring stick for consistency and instilled a winning tradition.
New England was then the team to beat and the franchise to emulate in the NFL. The Patriots had won two of the last three Super Bowls and were poised for a strong title defense.
The Patriots would open the 2004 NFL season against the Colts on Thursday Night Football. The game was a hard fought affair between the “Iron of the AFC,” the Colts and Patriots. Indianapolis took a 17-13 lead into halftime. However, the Patriots were sure to bring everything and the kitchen sink in the second half.
Tom Brady had two third quarter strikes to David Patten and Daniel Graham to give New England a 27-17 lead. The Colts would add a late touchdown, but this is as close as they would get. A Willie McGinest sack of Peyton Manning and a missed field goal by Mike Vanderjagt did the Colts in.
New England won their next 5 games to go 6-0 on the young season. The Patriots were in the midst of a 21-game winning streak which was a NFL record at the time.
The streak would come to a screeching halt in Pittsburgh. The Steelers took it to the Patriots and hammered them, 34-20. The game wasn’t even as close as the score depicted. The victory by the Steelers would help them secure home field in the AFC playoffs.
The Patriots would band together and go 8-1 down the stretch. Everyone did their part and some did even more. Wide receiver and fan favorite, Troy Brown, played defensive back because the secondary was decimated with injuries.
Brown would finish the season with three interceptions.
Corey Dillon exceeded expectations in his first season with New England. Dillon rushed for 1635 yards and 12 touchdowns. He ran hard all season and was not a disturbance in the locker room as some feared. Dillon performed and carried himself like a “True Patriot.”
Tom Brady also had a stellar season at the helm. He threw for 3692 yards with 28 touchdowns and only 14 picks. His favorite targets were receivers David Patten (44 catches), David Givens (56 catches), and Deion Branch (35 catches).
The defense led by Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison, and Willie McGinest also had strong season. They were the second stingiest unit in the NFL, allowing only 260 points in the regular season.
Then it was off to the postseason.
The Colts would be the first foe for the Patriots in the of their title. Indianapolis, surprisingly, didn’t put up much of a fight. The defense (three points allowed) and Corey Dillon (144 yards rushing) dominated the Colts en route to a 20-3 victory in the Divisional Round of the playoffs.
The Patriots now had a re-match with the Steelers for the AFC Championship. The same Steelers (15-1) who broke New England’s league-record 21-game winning streak.
Pittsburgh did a lot of trash talking prior to the game.
New England let its play on the field do the talking, and talk they did.
Tom Brady, who was suffering from the flu, was simply incredible. He didn’t have eye-popping numbers, but he made the throws when he had to. Brady was 14-for-21 for 207 yards and two scores.
The story of this contest was the play of the Patriots’ D. They harassed the young Ben Roethlisberger all day. They picked him off three times and one of the miscues was taken to the house by Rodney Harrison.
New England beat up and battered the Steelers, 41-27. The Patriots were now in position to be the first team since the Denver Broncos to win back to back championships.
But first they had to face the Philadelphia Eagles, who finally overcame their NFC Championship demons and secured a berth in Super Bowl XXXIX versus New England.
The NFL title game was held in Jacksonville, Florida, and both defenses came out slugging in the first half. The offenses were unable to do much and the game was gridlocked 7-7 at halftime.
The game became a back-and-forth affair.
Corey Dillon ran with reckless abandon. He knew his window for a ring was closing and he made his mark on the biggest stage in professional football. Dillon (75 yards on 18 carries) scored the go-ahead touchdown and New England was back on top 21-14.
Clutch kicker and Super Bowl clincher Adam Vinatieri converted another important field goal to give the Patriots breathing room with a 24-14 lead. McNabb and the Eagles countered with a touchdown of their own, but time was running out.
With 17 ticks on the clock, Rodney Harrison hauled in a deflected McNabb pass and slid to the ground.
The New England Patriots were Super Bowl Champions yet again! Deion Branch (11 catches to tie a Super Bowl record) not Tom Brady (236 yards and two TDs) was the game MVP this time.
New England now could be finally mentioned in the same breath with the other great NFL dynasties.
The New England Patriots were now the model franchise in sports, only 10 years removed from their proposed move to St. Louis.
They had arguably the best quarterback, coach, and owner in the NFL.
What were they going to do for an encore?
The Patriots achievements in the era of free agency were simply awesome.
Could they win four championships in five years? If they did, the New England Patriots would be considered the best team in NFL history.
However, 2005 would not be smooth sailing for New England.
Check out the rest of the Fifty Years of Patriots Football Series:
Joe Gill is a featured blogger for Boston Sports Then and Now .
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