Now New England was at a crossroads with three important cogs in their championship machine.
Wide receivers David Givens and Deion Branch unknowingly at the time played their last game in a Patriots uniform.
Givens bolted to the much greener pastures of the Tennessee Titans. The Titans made an offer to the wideout that the Patriots declined to match.
Givens was good in the regular season but was great in the post season. Beginning with the 2003 AFC Championship Game, he scored a touchdown in seven straight playoff games including Super Bowls XXXVIII and XXXIX.
It turns out the Patriots not only had to replace Givens but also had a disgruntled Deion Branch on their hands.
Branch, who was the MVP of Super Bowl XXXIX, wanted to be treated and paid as a top tier wide receiver in the NFL. He rejected New England’s contract extension and began a lengthy hold out.
After three months and $600,000 in fines, the Patriots allowed Deion Branch to seek a trade. He was traded to the Seattle Seahawks on September 11, 2006 for a first round pick in the 2007 draft (which became Brandon Meriweather).
Money was also the issue with two time Super Bowl hero and place kicker, Adam Vinatieri. New England chose not to put the franchise on him.
He chose the upside down horseshoe of the Colts and now one of the most beloved athletes in New England sports history was now the enemy.
New England was going to enter the 2006 without their top two receivers and hall of fame kicker from the previous season.
Would rookie kicker Stephen Gostkowski ever fill Adam Vinatieri’s shoes?
Not unless he wins three Super Bowls, so that question was a bit unfair.
Could Troy Brown and the newly acquired, Reche Caldwell fill the huge void in the passing game?
Well if you have Tom Brady under center, anything is possible.
New England came out of the gate on fire. They went 6-1 in their first seven games, with their only loss to the Broncos in Denver. The Patriots historically have never played well in the Mile High City and their 17-7 loss was no different.
The Patriots faced the Colts in week 9. The Colts were 7-0 and New England stood at 6-1. This bout would have strong implications on the AFC playoff picture. The winner would have the inside track to home field.
Peyton Manning outdueled Tom Brady this time. He threw for 326 yards, 2 td’s and 1 INT.
Brady on the other hand, struggled mightily. He had one of his worst games of the season throwing for just 201 yards and being picked off four times.
Was the balance of power in the AFC shifting to the Colts?
After back to back losses to the Colts and Jets, the Patriots finished the season hot. New England won six of their final seven games to win yet another AFC East Crown at 12-4.
However, the Colts and Chargers earned the first round byes. New England would face the Jets in the rubber match during the AFC Wild Card round.
The Patriots dismantled New York, 37-16. After a close first half, New England pulled away highlighted by an Asante Samuel 36 yard INT for a score.
New England now was off to the hostile environment in San Diego. No one gave the underdog Patriots a chance against the 14-2 Chargers.
And why should anyone? San Diego was that good, but that is why they play the games.
New England was grossly overmatched most of the game. They were hanging on for dear life. LaDainian Tomlinson was running right through the Patriots defense by running for 123 yards and two scores.
After Tomlinson found pay dirt for the second time, the lights were dimming on the Patriots hopes. They trailed 21-13.
On a fourth and five, late in the fourth quarter, Brady was intercepted and New England seemed doomed.
But someone forgot to tell Troy Brown that.
The heady Troy Brown stripped the ball and Reche Caldwell pounced on it. Air had been returned to the lungs of the Patriots.
Don’t give Brady a second chance because he will burn you. And burn San Diego he did.
Brady found Reche Caldwell with 4:36 left on the clock and the Patriots trailed 21-19. The smoke and mirrors continued as Kevin Faulk took a direct snap for the two point conversion knotting the game up at 21.
The Pats defense stepped up and forced San Diego to go three and out. Tom Brady didn’t squander the opportunity. He found former Charger, Caldwell, down the sideline for a huge gain.
Rookie Stephen Gostkowski was no in position to write his own legacy by winning a big playoff game. He did just that by connecting on a 31 yard field goal with 1:10 remaining.
The Chargers made a frantic attempt to drive down the field.
However, Nate Kaeding’s long field goal fell short as the clock expired and the Patriots had an improbable 24-21 win.
Now it was off to Indianapolis, with a trip to yet another Super Bowl on the line.
But as the football gods giveth, sometimes they taketh away.
New England bloodied the Colts mouth in the first half.
After a 39 yard interception return by Asante Samuel, the Patriots were on cruise control. They were up 21-6 at the half and most of Patriots nation were making their travel plans for the big dance in Miami.
Not so fast.
The Colts have Peyton Manning who now had confidence. He proved he could beat the Patriots earlier in the season and even in their own house.
He led two scoring drives to tie the game up at 21-21. However, Tom Brady is no slouch. He answered Manning’s volley with one of his own.
Brady found Jabar Gaffney at the back of the end zone for 28-21 lead in the third quarter.
However, this see-saw battle had just got started.
Everytime New England took the lead, the Colts would come back to tie. Indianapolis wasn’t going away quietly.
Just as the Patriots hung around the previous week against San Diego, the Colts were turning the tables on them.
New England held onto a 34-31 late in the fourth quarter, but it wouldn’t be enough. The Patriots were gassed. The grind of the regular season and extra playoff game were wearing on them.
They were fighting to survive.
The 2006 AFC Title Game was survival of the fittest. And the Colts looked in tip top shape.
Joseph Addai took the handoff three yards to give the Colts the lead for good 38-34 with a minute left.
No heroics for Tom Brady this time as he threw a game ending interception. The Colts finally threw that red, white, blue, and silver monkey off their back.
Indy was headed to the Super Bowl and the Patriots were going home, asking what happened.
All mistakes that the past Super Bowl teams did not commit.
New England needed more weapons on offense if they were going to compete with the explosive Colts.
Reche Caldwell, Jabar Gaffney, and fan favorite, Troy Brown were not going to cut the mustard in the passing game.
And the defense needed a few younger studs as well.
The Patriots needed difference makers on both sides of the ball.
Check out the rest of the Fifty Years of Patriots Football Series:
Joe Gill is a featured blogger for Boston Sports Then and Now.