It would be cruel and unfair to point to New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis’s hit on Drew Bledsoe in Week 2 as the launching point for the Patriots’ first Super Bowl-winning team in 2001.
Perhaps that blow resulted in the emergence of Tom Brady, but there were certainly many other reasons for New England’s improbable success, most memorably the “tuck rule’’ in the Snow Game vs. Oakland, which thrust the Patriots into the AFC Championship. If not for referee Walt Coleman’s interpretation of Brady’s fumble, Jon Gruden’s Oakland Raiders might have written an entirely different chapter.
The Patriots began coming together the day Brady took over as the starting quarterback and since have authored a decade of excellence.
The season unfolded in the backdrop of Sept. 11. The Patriots were greatly affected by the tragedy, as guard Joe Andruzzi’s brothers, New York City firemen, were on the scene at the Twin Towers.
For the longest time Andruzzi had no idea whether his brothers had survived - only to find out they emerged safely and were true heroes.
Other sidebars, perhaps insignificant compared with the nation’s tragedy: Terry Glenn’s suspensions; the jelling of the defense, with playmakers all over the field; the great debate over whether Bledsoe, recovered from a collapsed lung, should get his job back.
Brady kept the job, of course, but Bledsoe had one last hurrah, coming in to relieve an injured Brady late in the first half to lead the Patriots to victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship game.
The season culminated with Brady’s great 90-second drive in Super Bowl XXXVI vs. the St. Louis Rams on Feb. 3, 2002 and Adam Vinatieri’s winning kick. A wide-eyed Brady, the youngest Super Bowl MVP, turned to Bledsoe and pounded his shoulders, screaming, “We won!’’ as confetti flew around the Superdome in New Orleans.
“God had a hand in this,’’ said owner Robert Kraft.
It was a year in which Bill Belichick developed three key young players - Brady, left tackle Matt Light, and defensive tackle Richard Seymour. He saw Vinatieri flourish, and center Damien Woody emerge.
Veterans such as running backs Antowain Smith and Kevin Faulk, receivers David Patten and Troy Brown (who caught 101 passes), linebackers Bryan Cox, Roman Phifer, Tedy Bruschi, and Mike Vrabel, and defensive backs Ty Law, Lawyer Milloy, Otis Smith, Tebucky Jones, and Terrell Buckley jelled on the field.
Cox had said after Bledsoe went down, “You have to expect a dropoff from Bledsoe to Brady, but we have ways to make up for that.’’
Brady got better. And the rest of the team kept rising. The team concept, as well as the “no respect’’ mantra that fueled the Patriots, developed. And perhaps it developed because there was a young quarterback at the helm and everyone needed to protect him.
There were great moments, unforgettable snapshots. Two interpretations of rules played a big hand in the championship. In addition to the “tuck rule,’’ there was Patten’s unconscious catch on the sideline in a 12-9 overtime win over the Bills late in the season.
As Patten lay unconscious, his head was out of bounds but his legs and torso were inbounds following a wicked hit by Bills safety Keion Carpenter. Referee Mike Carey ruled that because the loose ball was touching his body, and because part of his body was out of bounds, it was a dead ball.
Instead of a fumble - the loose ball had been scooped up by cornerback Nate Clements - the Patriots retained possession. It led to Vinatieri’s winning field goal.
With Smith’s tough running, with Patten and Brown making tough catches, with the defense making big plays and with Vinatieri making tough kicks, this was no longer the team that had gone 5-13 at the start of Belichick’s reign in New England.
To quote from a Stephen Stills song, “There’s something happening here; what it is ain’t exactly clear.’’
Even with Brady playing well, there was a constant murmur about whether Bledsoe would get his job back when he was cleared to play again. The adage that said you can’t lose your job to injury was definitely going to be tested, and Belichick’s ultimate decision tore Bledsoe apart, even though Bledsoe conceded that Brady had been playing great.
“It worked out for the best for the Patriots,’’ Bledsoe said recently. “It was the right decision to make. Doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt, but history has shown it was right.’’
With a 2-3 record, the Patriots visited Indianapolis Oct. 21, and for the second time that season, they trounced the Colts. The team had lost 12 of its last 14 road games, and this 38-17 victory put offensive coordinator Charlie Weis into the spotlight for the first time.
Bledsoe, on the sideline, called it “one of the greatest offensive game plans I’ve ever seen.’’ And most of it revolved around Patten, who accounted for four touchdowns - running for one, catching two, and passing for one - football’s version of the cycle.
The “run’’ was a handoff from Smith in the backfield that he took down the right sideline for 29 yards. The “pass’’ came in the second quarter, when Brady lateraled to Patten, who then heaved the ball downfield to Brown, who took it 60 yards for the score.
Weis said the play was practiced with Brown throwing to Glenn, until Patten piped up, “How about me?’’
The game highlighted Weis’s ingenuity as a coordinator and his plan to help his quarterback feel comfortable. Brady had a 148.3 passer rating that day.
But the imaginative calls didn’t impress linebacker Bill Romanowski of the Broncos, the Patriots’ next opponent. He said, “The trick plays over the years have shown me a sign of weakness.’’
Maybe he was right. Brady threw four fourth-quarter interceptions in a 31-20 loss to the Broncos, which dropped New England to 3-4. Brady had started his NFL career by throwing 162 passes without an interception and had led the offense to a 20-10 lead in the third quarter before the collapse.
Everyone now wanted to see how the kid would respond.
Nov. 4 against Atlanta was the first game of the rest of Brady’s career.
He went 21 for 31 for 250 yards, with three touchdowns and no interceptions, in a 24-10 victory. He completed passes to eight receivers. Brady started the game 4 for 9, but finished on a roll.
Smith ran for 117 yards, the first 100-yard rushing day for a Patriots running back since Terry Allen on Dec. 26, 1999.
“I think Tom became an NFL quarterback that day,’’ Weis said. “He showed the ability to put the past game behind him and focus on the next one.’’
The Patriots were .500 halfway through the season. Considering they had lost their starting quarterback and perhaps their best receiver - Glenn was suspended by Belichick four games into the season - it could have been worse.
The Patriots started the second half by beating the Bills, 21-11. Again Smith was able to control the clock, rushing for 100 yards on 20 carries, and he sealed the win with a 42-yard touchdown run with 1:52 left. Brady was sacked seven times, threw an interception, and fumbled twice.
The next week - billed as Dr. Defense (Belichick) vs. Dr. Offense (Mike Martz) - was the first Patriots-Rams game and a prelude to Super Bowl XXXVI. It didn’t go so well for the Patriots, with the Greatest Show On Turf winning, 24-17, at Foxboro Stadium.
Smith was involved, but not in a good way. He gained only 36 yards on 15 carries and his fumble at the Rams 3-yard line and the subsequent 97-yard drive by St. Louis’s potent offense made it 14-10 at halftime and the Rams never looked back.
It was after this game that Massachusetts General Hospital doctors cleared Bledsoe (sheared blood vessel in his chest) to play. The team was 5-5, but Brady, despite some ups and downs, was the apple of Belichick’s eye.
So on Nov. 25, Brady got the keys to the car for good. He threw four touchdown passes against the Saints in a 34-17 win.
The Patriots, who still trailed the 7-3 Jets and Dolphins, didn’t lose again. The team started receiving national attention after this game. No longer were they laughingstocks, frauds, or pushovers. They were rising, and their confidence was at an all-time high.
In a Dec. 2 rematch vs. the Jets, the Patriots overcame a 13-0 halftime deficit and beat the Jets, 17-16.
“We’re 7-5 and a lot of people didn’t think we’d be in this position,’’ said Belichick after the game. “We came from a long way back and a long way uphill.’’
Belichick gave what players described as an inspiring halftime talk in which he said, “Our season is on the line. Either we get it done in the last 30 minutes or we’re looking down the barrel of the New York Jets.’’
In the second half, the Patriots, in the words of Phifer, “played like there was no tomorrow.’’
There was a big 46-yard slant play from Brady to Fred Coleman, a former Jets receiver, which set the stage for a 4-yard Smith TD run. After Jets kicker John Hall nailed a 50-yard field goal to make it 16-7, the Patriots responded when they kept the ball on the ground in a drive highlighted by a 40-yard Smith run and capped by Marc Edwards’s 4-yard TD run.
The 2-point Jets lead disappeared when Vinatieri nailed a 28-yard field goal with 6:29 left.
There was a lot of time for Vinny Testaverde and the Jets, but on a fourth and 5 from the Patriots 45, Terrell Buckley intercepted Testaverde. Brady then had to run out the clock. On third and 2 from the 41, Brady, who had injured his ribs earlier, wondered whether the play that called for him to sneak was the right one.
He came over to the sideline and he heard Bledsoe say to him, “Just run the ball, get the first down, and win the game.’’ Brady listened to his elder.
The ‘Snow Bowl’
The following week, following a meeting with Belichick, Glenn returned from his suspension and caught four passes in a 27-16 win over Cleveland. The win felt good because the Patriots had been hurt by comments made by some Browns players the year before when they beat the Patriots in Cleveland.
Bruschi commented after the game, “Last year’s loss to them was the worst feeling I ever had on a football field. I really wanted to right the wrong we had there last year.’’
The Patriots rolled on. They got by the Bills, 12-9, in overtime. That win set the stage for the Patriots-Dolphins showdown. The Patriots had lost, 30-10, in the Miami heat earlier in the season. But now it was December in Foxborough, with a wind chill of 16 degrees, and the Patriots were a different team.
Smith ran for a season-high 156 yards, the defense was incredible, and the Patriots qualified for the playoffs. After the game, Belichick and the players went around the stadium to thank the fans for their support. After a bye week, they polished off the Panthers, 38-6, to finish 11-5 and win the AFC East.
On Jan. 19, the snow began to fall about four hours before game time, and Foxboro Stadium was white. The Patriots and Raiders were going to play a divisional playoff game a few hours later that would change New England football forever.
The Patriots made the decision to pull the tarp and let the field get nice and snowy and frozen in the final game ever played at Foxboro Stadium. The Patriots had played only once in three weeks because of the strange bye before the final game of the season and then a bye in the first round of the playoffs. Rusty? Brady went 32 for 52 for 312 yards in a blizzard.
The Raiders led, 13-3, with 1:41 left in the third quarter when the Patriots’ offense came alive. Weis and Belichick made a strategic change - to the no-huddle offense. Brady was superb. He completed nine straight passes, four to East Boston native Jermaine Wiggins. Brady scrambled in from 6 yards to make it 13-10 with 7:52 remaining in the game.
With 27 seconds left in regulation, Vinatieri nailed a 45-yard line drive through the blizzard and through the uprights to tie the game.
The kick was set up by Coleman’s famous ruling. Charles Woodson had stripped the ball from Brady on a corner blitz and the Raiders had recovered with 1:43 left. The play was reviewed, and Coleman ruled that Brady’s arm was going forward, making it an incomplete pass.
In overtime, it came down to Brady and Vinatieri again. Brady completed six straight passes as he marched the team downfield. Facing a fourth and 4 at the Raiders 28, Belichick decided to gamble and go for it rather than attempt the long field goal. Brady completed a fourth-down pass to Patten at his knees at the 22.
Smith ate up yardage on the ground to get the ball inside the 10 and from there Vinatieri nailed the 23-yard field goal with 6:31 remaining.
The Globe’s Bob Duffy wrote of Vinatieri’s kick, “He had slush at his feet, snow in his eyes, blizzards in his background, and ice in his veins.’’
In the AFC Championship game, Brady got hurt late in the first half against Pittsburgh when cornerback Lee Flowers, blitzing from the right side, rolled over the back of Brady’s leg. The quarterback suffered an ankle injury, and guess who came in to save the day?
Bledsoe led the Patriots down the field after Brady’s injury, even after Steelers linebacker Chad Scott lined the quarterback up for a huge sideline hit. Bledsoe shook off the cut on his chin and promptly hit Patten with a 10-yarder and then an 11-yard touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone to give the Patriots a 14-3 halftime edge.
The Patriots went on to a 24-17 upset win and a berth in the Super Bowl against the Rams. The Patriots were 14-point underdogs.
If Weis’s ingenuity showed throughout the season, Romeo Crennel’s defensive strategy of beating up the Rams receivers and Marshall Faulk was equally brilliant. Crennel took Faulk out of the offense, holding him to 130 total yards and leaving Rams fans wondering why Martz didn’t find a way to use him more.
Linebacker Willie McGinest did an incredible job spying Faulk, never letting him breathe. But with a 17-3 lead and the Rams driving, McGinest was caught holding Faulk with 10 minutes left. On the play, Tebucky Jones recovered a fumble and scampered 96 yards for the score. But the play was brought back. It could have been a 24-3 Patriots lead. Instead, the Rams scored and it was 17-10.
That momentum fueled them. The Rams tied the game, 17-17, with 1:30 left.
But as Vinatieri would comment, “The Rams screwed up, they left too much time on the clock.’’
Weis told his offense, “Let’s win it right here.’’
The Patriots got the ball at their 19. Fox analyst John Madden said the Patriots should take a knee and go into overtime.
But Brady engineered a great drive, the big play being the “64 Max-All-End’’ a 23-yard pass to Brown. The “Max’’ as Brady would describe it, meant that he needed max time to make the throw and the offensive line delivered.
The ball rested at the Rams 30. Vinatieri had never missed in 23 indoor attempts. Make that 24, as he won it with a 48-yarder.
As Antowain Smith put it, “After he kicked one through the snow, I knew he could kick one through the confetti.’’Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.