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Patriots’ Super Bowl win completes improbable journey

Team went from 1-3 to NFL champions on a roller coaster

The Patriots won their final nine games en route to the first Super Bowl title in franchise history.

By Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Patriots won their final nine games en route to the first Super Bowl title in franchise history.

NEW ORLEANS - The 48-yard field goal off the strong leg of Adam Vinatieri sailed through the uprights. In a suspended moment that lasted no more than a second or two, Vinatieri’s arms were raised and the Patriots sideline crashed onto the turf at the Superdome, displaying some of the most intense and heartfelt emotion ever seen in the sport.

The World Champion New England Patriots.

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You’ve heard of a New York minute?

Well, this was a New Orleans snapshot, a memory etched in the mind for a lifetime.

Veteran guard Mike Compton just plopped his body in the end zone. Tedy Bruschi did the same closer to midfield.

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Hearts began racing, and the historic significance of an improbable 20-17 win over the St. Louis Rams began to sink in.

’’God’s hand was at work here,’’ insisted owner Robert Kraft.

And who would argue?

It was a season that came right out of the pages of ‘’Mission: Impossible.’’ From 70-1 odds to win the Super Bowl at the start of the season, to 14-point underdogs Sunday night, the Patriots proved all their critics wrong.

’’Now do you think we’ll start getting some good publicity?’’ asked Patriots center Damien Woody.

When they spoke in terms of team and focus, it was shrugged off as sports cliche. When they said they feared no team, overconfidence came to mind. When they were 1-3 and the season appeared lost, they kept saying give them a chance.

’’It just felt right,’’ said Terrell Buckley. ‘’It felt right from the start. There was something, that ... well ... you just can’t put your hands on what was right. And even though we struggled, you know, we knew at some point we wouldn’t.’’

After losing to the Rams, 24-17, Nov. 18, they never lost again.

They won exciting games and ugly games. Young Tom Brady became a star before our eyes - a Pro Bowler and Super Bowl MVP. Troy Brown finally was recognized as one of the top playmakers in the game. Lawyer Milloy became a first-rate leader. Ty Law rejuvenated his career. Antowain Smith gave the Patriots a running game. The offensive line was the best since ‘96.

They won games early and late. They won in all types of weather. They won with toughness.

’’We just won,’’ said 36-year-old cornerback Otis Smith. ‘’We just beat everybody. We’re the team that’s left standing.’’

The beginning

After the 2000 season, the Patriots rid themselves of cap burdens such as Chris Slade and Henry Thomas, and the aging Bruce Armstrong. In April they drafted young defensive lineman Richard Seymour, amid cries to take a wide receiver.

After a slow start, Seymour began to show why at 6 feet 6 inches, 305 pounds, he’ll be a force to be reckoned with for many years to come and a more-than-apt replacement for Chad Eaton, who left the Patriots for his dream job in his hometown of Seattle.

Chief operating officer Andy Wasynczuk felt the Patriots could acquire good players who were salary cap casualties, but eyebrows were raised when coach Bill Belichick and player personnel director Scott Pioli went after what appeared to be old, has-been players. But they knew what nobody else did: These players would fit the system. They wanted to get deeper, stronger, faster. They wanted players who wanted to play football - players such as Antowain Smith, Roman Phifer, Bryan Cox, Anthony Pleasant, and Buckley. And they began to mesh.

Training camp was trying for Belichick in many ways. First, former No. 1 pick Andy Katzenmoyer left camp without telling anyone, fearing he may do permanent damage to his neck or wind up paralyzed. He went for second opinions, returned to camp for a while, and then decided to have aggressive surgery to fuse vertebrae. He was lost for the season.

Then the Terry Glenn saga reared its head.

The NFL informed Glenn and the Patriots he had lost his appeal of a four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Glenn had already had the remainder of his $8.5 million bonus stripped by the team after violating his contract for personal issues. Glenn, upset by the decision, left camp.

The Patriots decided to take action and sent him notification that if he didn’t return he would be placed on reserve/left camp list. On the eve of when Glenn was supposed to return, the team took action. However, that action was later overruled by an arbitrator and Glenn was deemed ready to return following the four-game suspension.

Glenn returned for the San Diego game and caught seven passes to pace a 29-26 overtime win over the Chargers. But an injured hamstring ensued. He missed several games, and was suspended two other times for breaking team rules.

During Super Bowl week, his attorneys filed a suit against the NFL, claiming his disability of chronic depression led to not being able to follow proper procedure.

In a recent interview, Glenn, asked if he felt depressed about his season and the fact his team was in the Super Bowl said, ‘’With all that’s happened, sure I am. It’s been a tough year. I feel like I never played football this year for the first time in my life. I felt like I was just going through one bad thing after another. I just want it to end.’’

Players Association head Gene Upshaw met with Kraft during Super Bowl week to begin settlement talks so Glenn can move on. The Patriots have been tough in their stance to fight Glenn for every cent. There’s an April hearing planned.

Also in camp, the Patriots went through a rash of injuries to their offensive line. Joe Panos, who was penciled in as a starting guard, retired suddenly. Compton was out with a calf injury. Joe Andruzzi missed time. Woody broke a thumb, and suddenly the cohesion Belichick was seeking in the offensive line was set back.

And oh yeah, as camp went on, Brady - who had been the fourth-string quarterback last season - began to show the fruits of his offseason labor. He was the hit of camp.

The controversy

Quarterback Drew Bledsoe was the victim of the team’s inconsistency on the offensive line. The team opened up with a loss to Cincinnati Sept. 9, then played poorly against the Jets after the NFL and the world began resuming normal activity following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

In the Sept. 23 game against New York, linebacker Mo Lewis altered the course of the Patriots’ season with a ferocious fourth-quarter sideline hit as Bledsoe was trying to go out of bounds. Bledsoe played one more series after that, but it was obvious he had his bell rung. Worse was the unknown. Bledsoe’s chest cavity was filling with blood, making it harder for him to breathe.

Brady came in, but wasn’t able to engineer the tying touchdown and the Patriots lost, 10-3, to fall to 0-2.

Bledsoe was rushed to Massachusetts General Hospital when his symptoms worsened. All reports were that Bledsoe had suffered a life-threatening injury - a sheared blood vessel in his chest.

He was hospitalized several days, but his first stop upon his release was to the Patriots’ practice field because, ‘’I wanted to be with my teammates.’’ Brady started the next game, and the Patriots pulverized the Colts, 44-13, as the defense confused Peyton Manning into three interceptions, stopping the hottest offense in the league.

After a setback in Miami, Brady began to roll with the big overtime win against San Diego. Brady led the Patriots back from a 26-16 deficit with 8:48 to play, scoring 13 points in 13 minutes.

Brady kept building confidence, and the Patriots were building a chemistry around him. It was clear he was their quarterback.

Brady started in a tough loss to the Rams the week doctors cleared Bledsoe to play. Belichick told Bledsoe that he would compete for the job, and Bledsoe told the media that he ‘’looked forward to competing for my job.’’ But as the team started to prepare for New Orleans, Belichick informed Bledsoe he was no longer competing for the job, that Brady was the quarterback.

Bledsoe showed a day of anger, often biting his lip as media asked him whether he was upset about Belichick’s reversal.

It was truly Belichick’s one black mark in a season of near perfection. Yet, his decision proved to be the best one.

Brady tossed four touchdown passes against the Saints, which began a nine-game winning streak that culminated in a Super Bowl win.

The highlights

In a 38-17 win over the Colts at Indianapolis Oct. 21, David Patten and Charlie Weis first came in vogue.

Patten ran, threw, and caught a pass for touchdowns. It was one of those plays from the Weis Inventory - the ones he ‘’draws up in the sand.’’ Patten took a pass from Brady, who threw a long pass to Troy Brown for a 60-yard touchdown. Patten also hauled in a 91-yard pass from Brady, his longest reception of the season, and he also scored on a 29-yard reverse.

In a Dec. 22 win over the Dolphins that clinched the AFC East title, Weis used a play from the repertoire of his son, 8-year-old Charlie. Running back Kevin Faulk took the snap, ran to his right and then threw across the field to quarterback Tom Brady for a 23-yard pass play.

On Nov. 4, in a 24-10 victory over the Falcons in the Georgia Dome, the Patriots got one of their many gifts from the Football God. On a Brady pass intended for Patten late in the third quarter, the ball hit Falcons defensive back Ashley Ambrose’s right knee and it bounced backward to Brown, who ran it 22 yards for the clinching score.

What was Brown thinking?

’’Franco Harris all the way,’’ said Brown of the immaculate reception.

The Patriots were at times unconscious. Literally.

Rule 3, Section 20, Article 2, Paragraph C of the NFL rulebook makes it possible.

In a 9-9 game in overtime in Orchard Park, N.Y., Dec. 16, the Patriots were having problems putting away the pesky Buffalo Bills. After making a catch at the 41-yard line, it appeared Patten had fumbled after being blasted by Keion Carpenter on the sideline. The ball fell to Patten’s legs, scooped up by Nate Clements.

But after the play was reviewed, the official ruling was that because Patten’s unconscious head was out of bounds and the ball was at his legs inbounds, the ball was in the possession of the receiver. Antowain Smith ran for 38 yards on the next play and Vinatieri won the game with a 23-yard field goal.

The playoffs

It was hard to see, hard to sit, and hard to play football on Jan. 19. The Patriots were again underdogs in their divisional playoff game against the Oakland Raiders, but certainly snowy conditions would help a team from the Northeast.

In the fourth quarter, Brady was stripped of the football on a corner blitz by Oakland’s Charles Woodson at the 48-yard line.

Looks like fumble. Feels like a fumble. It is ruled a fumble. Feels like the game is over, a 13-3 Raiders win. But wait. Referee Walt Coleman reviews the play. He rules that Brady’s arm was going forward in a passing formation and he had not ‘’tucked’’ the ball in, which would have constituted the throwing motion had ended and he was now running with the ball. The call is overturned, and Vinatieri makes an unbelievable 45-yard line-drive kick through a raging snowstorm to tie it in regulation.

In OT, Brady drives the Patriots 61 yards. Vinatieri finishes it off with a 23-yarder. Patriots go on to the AFC Championship game.

It’s on to Pittsburgh. The Patriots are 91/2-point underdogs.

This is where we see our last glimpse of Bledsoe.

Brady had his left ankle rolled over by blitzing Steeler safety Lee Flowers.

Brady hobbled out. In came Bledsoe. His first appearance on a football field in four-plus months. With 1:40 remaining in the first half, he hit Patten on a 15-yard pass to the Steelers 25 for a first down. He was then forced to run for 4 yards, and met up with a big sideline hit by Chad Scott, knocking him way out of bounds.

Bledsoe, who cut his chin on the play, charged back up, fired up. He went right back to work with a 10-yarder to Patten at the 11, and then threw a beauty of a TD pass to Patten in the right corner of the end zone with 56 seconds left in the half to give the Patriots a 14-3 lead. They went on to capture the AFC title, 24-17.

That win got them to New Orleans. They faced a team that had scored 503 points. A team that had beaten the Patriots on grass. In a dome, turf? Gimme a break. At least that’s the way the NFL world thought until amid a theme of patriotism and red, white, and blue, the team from New England was the last team standing.

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