Going into the 2007 season, the Patriots knew they needed “difference makers.”
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 front office didn’t hesitate to get the players they wanted and needed by any means necessary.
New England made a splash in free agency by signing the speedy wide receiver, Donte Stallworth. They also reinforced the defensive side of the ball with former Baltimore linebacker, Adalius Thomas.
Thomas, was coming off a Pro Bowl season with the Ravens. He recorded 106 tackles and 11 sacks which were both career highs. The signing of Thomas helped build much needed depth in linebacking corps.
If New England couldn’t sign them, they would trade for them.
They acquired the speedy receiver/returner of the Miami Dolphins, Wes Welker. In return, the Dolphins received the Patriots’ second and seventh rounders in the 2007 draft.
Welker was the receiver the Patriots needed to go over the middle and slice up the field. However, they needed someone to stretch the field. This was one of the major downfalls of the 2006 team that wilted down the stretch in the RCA dome.
They needed a game changer.
And his name was Randy Moss.
It was no surprise that Moss wanted out of the black hole of Oakland. In the 2006 season, Moss played 13 games with 42 catches for 553 yards and 3 scores. This was far and away the worst season of his career. It was clear a change had to be made.
Oakland put Moss on the trading block. Both Green Bay and New England had high interest in the very talented but disgruntled wide receiver.
Bill Belichick and the Patriots orchestrated a draft day trade for Moss. They sent over a 2007 fourth round pick to Oakland in exchange for Randy Moss.
One question still remained, however. Would Moss play more like he did in Minnesota or dog it like he did in Oakland?
Only time would tell.
On paper the Patriots were stacked, but that doesn’t mean anything in pro football.
It’s all about preparation and execution.
Oh, and execute they did.
In their opening day tilt with the NY Jets, the Patriots set the tone that they were the team to beat in 2007.
Quarterback, Tom Brady was getting acclimated with his new weapons fairly quickly.
Brady dissected the Jets defense. He completed 22 of his 28 passes for 297 yards and three TD’s. Two of those touchdowns going to his favorite new toys, Wes Welker (11 yards) and Randy Moss (51 yards).
Welker had six catches for 61 yards. Moss went out and showed the NFL that he still had the legs and will to compete. He scorched the Jets secondary for 9 catches for 183 yards.
The Patriots defense would swarm Chad Pennington for five sacks.
New England won with ease at the Meadowlands, 38-14.
However, the lop-sided score was not the only news worthy event to report. The Patriots were accused of taping the Jets defensive signals.
Spygate was born.
Former Patriots coach and Jets head coach, Eric Mangini blew the whistle on his mentor, Bill Belichick for his illegal taping activities. New England was now labeled as “cheaters” by the rest of the league.
And the punishment from the NFL was swift and severe.
Commissioner Roger Goodell fined the Patriots $250,000 and took away their first round selection in the 2008 draft. Head coach Bill Belichick was also fined $500,000 for his participation in “Spygate”.
Only one game into the 2007 season, the Patriots were already faced with adversity. They were being questioned as a team and a franchise. People questioned if they won their three super bowls “fairly”. The Patriots were now hated throughout the league and labeled as “cheaters”.
Most teams may have succumbed or wilted under the scrutiny and pressure. Not the New England Patriots.
It seemed as if they were infuriated with the accusations and they were going to make their opponents pay.
The Patriots destroyed the Chargers in week two, 38-14 highlighted by Adalius Thomas’ 65 yard interception for a touchdown. The Patriots would score at least 34 points a game for the next six weeks.
At the season’s half way point, New England was 8-0. The talk of going undefeated was dominating the press. However, the Patriots knew it was a long road.
And their arch nemesis, the Indianapolis Colts were on the horizon. The Colts, too, were undefeated and stood at 7-0. This would be a clash of the AFC titans and the game did not disappoint.
Former Patriot and Super Bowl hero, Adam Vinatieri connected on a field goal a quick 3-0 lead before Brady and Moss countered with a 4 yard score. However, from that point on it looked like the Colts’ game to win.
They opened a 13-7 halftime lead highlighted by a Joseph Addai 73 yard catch for TD. It was more of a short catch and a series of bad tackles that sprung Addai for the score which gave Indianapolis the momentum.
Would the Colts derail the Patriot express as they did in the 2006 AFC Championship?
Not if Tom Brady had something to say about it. After falling behind 20-10 early the fourth, Brady led two scoring drives in the quarter to give the Patriots the victory.
New England had beat their biggest adversary which assured that the AFC Championship would go through Foxboro.
The Patriots stood at 9-0, but the last seven games were far from a layup.
After dismantling Buffalo 56-10, the Patriots had two close calls against the Eagles at home and the Ravens on the road. Tom Brady had to lead his team to a last minute victory over the Baltimore and their bruising defense.
At 12-0, the Patriots were aiming for the perfect season and unlike some other franchises they would play their starters for the remainder of the schedule.
After victories over the Steelers, Jets, and Dolphins, the Patriots had their date with destiny. All that stood in front of them between perfection was the NY Football Giants. The Giants turned their season around and proved to be a worthy opponent for the offensive juggernaut from New England.
Besides the perfect season, the Patriots had team and individual records within their grasp. Most points in a season, only team to go 16-0 in the regular season, most td passes by a quarterback, and most touchdown catches by a wide receiver were all on the Patriots radar. But the Giants were not going to let the Patriots walk all over them on their home field on national TV.
Brady and Moss would tie the records for TD passes(49) and catches(22) on a 4 yard toss which gave New England the early 10-7 lead. For the rest of the half, the Giants scored touchdowns and the Patriots could only counter with field goals. They would trail 21-16 going into the house.
New York started the second half like they finished the first, with momentum on their side. Plaxico Burress hauled in 19 yard pass from Eli Manning to increase their lead to 28-16.
No lead was safe against the potent Patriots offense all season and the finale would be no different.
After a Laurence Maroney scamper cut the deficit to 28-23, the Patriots wrestled the momentum away from the Giants.
And the back breaker came in historic fashion. Everyone in the stadium and in the country knew Brady was looking for Moss for the records. He missed on a long bomb down the sideline, but if was you don’t succeed….throw, throw away.
And Brady did just that.
He connected with Moss on an identical play for a 65 yard score which not only gave the Patriots a 31-28 lead, but gave Brady the NFL record(Manning) for TD passes in a season with 50 and Moss the NFL record(Rice) for TD catches with 23.
New England now had the individual records on the mantle, now they wanted the perfect regular season.
After trading scores with NY, they held on to a hard fought victory in the Meadowlands, 38-35. Now they were three victories away from being the only franchise in league history to go 19-0.
But the playoffs are a whole new season.
The Patriots knew EVERYONE would be gunning for them.
New England would dispatch the Jacksonville Jaguars in the divisional playoff with relative ease, 31-20. The game was tied at halftime 14-14, but Tom Brady took over going an incredible 26 for 28 passing for 262 yards and three scores. New England outscored the Jags, 17-6 in the second half to secure the victory.
Next on tap was the San Diego Chargers for the AFC Title. The game was a defensive struggle and both Phillip Rivers and Tom Brady had subpar days. Rivers went 19 for 37 for 211 and two picks. It was learned later that Rivers was playing through a knee injury which required surgery in the off-season.
The Chargers running game was also banged up. All Pro running back Ladainian Tomlinson left the game due to injury and only amassed 6 total yards.
Tom Brady had a polar opposite performance against the San Diego defense. He had an off day passing 22 for 33 for 209 yards with three interceptions and two scores. The most important throw being completed to Wes Welker in the fourth quarter to seal the game, 21-12.
New England stood at 18-0 and was 60 minutes away from having the first 19-0 season in pro football history and their fourth title of the decade.
The upstart NY Giants would be the Patriots opponent in Super Bowl XLII. The Giants became only the third team(2005 Steelers) team to win three straight playoff road games to reach the Super Bowl. Ironically, the firstr team was the 1985 Patriots who were buried by the Bears, 46-10 in Super Bowl XX.
The 2007 Giants were just as big underdogs as the 1985 Patriots were against the Monsters of the Midway.
That year the Bears had a historic defense that could not be stopped.
In 2007, the Patriots had the historic offense that could not be deterred.
Would it be another blow out by the team with the most talent?
Well sometimes pure will and determination outweighs athletic talent.
The Giants threw the kitchen sink at Patriots offense. They beat and battered Brady throughout the game, sacking him 5 times. It seemed that the NFL MVP was confused and befuddled by the Giants defensive line all game.
The Patriots had no answers for Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, and Michael Strahan. They were lucky to cling to a 7-3 lead going into halftime.
The game that was supposed to be over by the second half was a dog fight. The Vince Lombardi trophy would be held by the team that wanted it more in the last 30 minutes of this championship contest.
After a scoreless third quarter, Giants QB Eli Manning connected with seldom used wide receiver, David Tyree, for the go ahead score in the fourth.
However, great players rise to the occasion. Tom Brady and Randy Moss were fantastic all season and with less than 3 minutes remaining they showed what champions do.
And execute they did on a 6 yard pass that gave the Patriots a 14-10 lead.
Now the Patriots defense had to finish.
Eli Manning and the Giants offense which was somewhat average all game took the ball and had been given a chance to pull off the biggest upset perhaps in sports history.
However, they had to travel the field and needed a touchdown to win.
A field goal would do them no good. It was all or nothing.
With 1:15 remaining, Manning took the snap on third down. The Patriots pass rush came in like a tidal wave almost pulling Manning under. The Giants QB broke three tackle to avoid the sack and launch a desperation pass down the field.
That same seldom used wide receiver of the Giants, made one of the most incredible catches in Super Bowl history. David Tyree out leaped Rodney Harrison and pinned the football to his helmet so he could maintain possession as he hit the ground.
It felt like the Giants night and indeed it was.
Plaxico Burress broke away from Patriots corner, Ellis Hobbs and hauled in the winning pass with less than one minute left.
After a few desperation heaves from Tom Brady, the unthinkable was now reality.
The Patriots went an incredible 18-1 in 2007 but their only blemish…
Their Super Bowl XLII defeat at the hands of the underdog and upstart NY football Giants.
It was a matter of who wanted it more and on that February night, it wasn’t the team from New England.
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Joe Gill is a featured blogger for Boston Sports Then and Now.