Bill Belichick, who has turned understatement into the house religion around Gillette Stadium, wanted to put a stop to this “defending champion” business as soon as it began. The Patriots may have won their second Super Bowl five months earlier, but when the players turned up for training camp last July, their coach had hung a warning on the wall (“Don’t Believe The Hype”) along with a lesson in modern history.
No champions since the Broncos in 1998 had repeated. The Ravens had won their rings in 2000, then were plucked by the Steelers in the next year’s playoffs. The Patriots hadn’t made it to the postseason after their championship in 2001, nor had the Buccaneers in 2003. “He’s letting us know what’s real,” said quarterback Tom Brady.
What was real was that defensive linemen Ted Washington and Bobby Hamilton, offensive lineman Damien Woody and running back Antowain Smith had moved on and that star cornerback Ty Law had declared, “I no longer want to be a Patriot” during an offseason contract dispute.
What was also real was that New England had six games scheduled against teams that would make this season’s playoffs, all eager to stake a claim. “We just have to know we’re going to get everyone’s best shot every time we step on the football field,” acknowledged defensive lineman Richard Seymour.
Yet when the season ended amid confetti and euphoria in Jacksonville, Fla., a week ago tonight, the Patriots had won 17 of their 19 games, broken the league record for consecutive victories (21), claimed their third championship in four years, and found themselves widely proclaimed a “dynasty.” “We’ve never used that word,” said offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, who has moved on to become head man at Notre Dame. “But three out of four ain’t bad.”
Nobody since the Cowboys a decade ago had achieved that, but New England managed it with a patchwork secondary and a lineup that included just six Pro Bowlers, two of them special-teamers and two more named as injury replacements. “We’re gritty, nothing pretty,” conceded linebacker Ted Johnson. “We aren’t the sexiest team in the world, but we’re strong-willed.”
With two notable exceptions - a 34-20 Halloween horror show at Pittsburgh and a blown Monday night effort in Miami - the Patriots found a way to extract a W from every week.
”We just have an attitude that we won’t be denied,” Seymour said after he and his teammates had squelched the Bills in Buffalo Oct. 3 to set the stage for their record-breaker against the Dolphins. “We won’t lose. When it comes time to win, we feel like we’re going to win the football game. That’s the bottom line.”
Formula for success
The Patriots earned this title the same way they’d earned their previous two - with hard work, selflessness, discipline, and a laser-like focus on each Sunday’s task.
”It’s only `one-week-at-a-time,’ “ said safety Rodney Harrison after New England had smothered Baltimore in the mud on Thanksgiving weekend. “We play hard. We win a game. We come in here and have a few hugs. Then we start thinking about the next game. Nobody in here is arrogant. We just work hard and we don’t get comfortable with ourselves.”
Their coach, who kept reminding his charges that all 32 teams began the season 0-0, wouldn’t let them. If the Patriots had any illusions, they were dashed during a 31-3 exhibition flogging from the Bengals, who ended up losing half their games.
Every season was different, every game was different, Belichick preached. “We can talk about what happened in 1997,” he said before the regular-season opener against the Colts. “What difference does it make?”
New England might have stifled Indianapolis to advance to the previous Super Bowl, but that meant nothing when the Patriots anxiously watched Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt, who’d made 42 in a row, line up for the field goal that would have sent the game into overtime.
”We gave the fans their money’s worth,” said linebacker Tedy Bruschi after Vanderjagt pushed his 48-yard attempt wide right and New England escaped with a 27-24 triumph. But the Patriots were hardly bragging about it.
”We played a bad game,” declared Harrison, whose defensive comrades allowed 446 yards but survived by forcing three red-zone turnovers. “There’s so much to improve on.”
The second outing - a 23-12 decision over the Cardinals on a scorching Arizona afternoon - was better, but not by much, not against a team that would win only six games. “I think the way we’re playing is not going to be good enough much longer,” observed Brady, whose mates led by only 5 points going into the fourth quarter.
Most memorable about the day was a breakout performance by new face Corey Dillon, who rushed 32 times for 158 yards, most by a Patriot running back in six years. “I didn’t come here to rot away and take L’s,” proclaimed Dillon, who’d done just that for seven unsatisfying years in Cincinnati.
The W’s, meanwhile, kept piling up for New England, which had now won 17 straight. But they weren’t coming easily. The following game at Buffalo, the Patriots were tied at 17-17 after three quarters with a rival that had lost nine of its last 11 games.
”We never had it under control,” said Bruschi, after he’d flattened quarterback Drew Bledsoe on a fourth-down rollout and watched Seymour chug 68 yards for the clinching touchdown in a 31-17 victory. “It was good to get out of here with a win.”
It was a victory that tied the league mark of 18 set by the unbeaten Dolphins, but Belichick wasn’t counting. “We don’t care anything about a record,” he said. “We’re just trying to win another game.”
As symbolic symmetry had it, the record came the following week in Foxborough with a 24-10 verdict over winless Miami, as the New England defense stopped the Dolphins three times inside the 20 in the fourth quarter. “We just didn’t want to give up those points,” said Harrison. “It was a matter of pride.”
Though the team’s postgame notes observed that the Patriots had “recorded a one-game winning streak for the 19th consecutive time,” even their coach had to acknowledge that his players had achieved something remarkable.
”That felt good,” Belichick said after he’d been given a Gatorade shampoo at game’s end. “I told the team they should be proud to accomplish something no other team has accomplished. But the goal isn’t to win four games.”
The immediate goal was to win the AFC East title, and New England made a major down payment by shutting down the Jets, 13-7, a week after they’d finished off the Seahawks.
”You don’t feel they’re better than you, but somehow they get it done,” said running back Curtis Martin after his old teammates had held him to 70 yards on 20 carries. “You have to respect that.”
End of the run
Nothing short of divine intervention would have gotten it done for the Patriots on the following Sunday, though, after they fell behind, 21-3, at Pittsburgh en route to their worst loss since the 2003 opener at Buffalo. “I turned the TV off midway through the fourth quarter,” said receiver Deion Branch, who’d been sidelined with a knee injury since Game 2.
Branch wasn’t the only man missing. So were Dillon, offensive tackle Tom Ashworth, and cornerback Tyrone Poole. When Law, the other starting corner, broke his left foot in the first quarter, the Steelers went for an early knockout.
”When there’s blood in the water, you have to go after them,” figured receiver Plaxico Burress, who burned backup Randall Gay, then safety Eugene Wilson for two touchdown passes in less than four minutes.
Not that the defensive backs were the sole goats. With Dillon out, New England ran the ball just six times. Brady, who was sacked four times, threw two interceptions, one for a touchdown. And the defense conceded 417 yards and let Pittsburgh control the ball for nearly 43 minutes. “We got beat,” Belichick said flatly. “We got killed.”
The question was, how would the Patriots respond at St. Louis the following week. “It’s not the end of the world,” said linebacker Willie McGinest. “We have time to come back from this.”
Which they did, with a resounding 40-22 victory over the Rams that was a signature display of New England’s resilience, versatility, and imagination. Adam Vinatieri, who kicked four field goals, tossed a touchdown pass to Troy Brown, who did double duty at cornerback. And linebacker Mike Vrabel caught one from Brady.
”Mass hysteria,” said tight end Christian Fauria. “You’ve got linebackers catching touchdown passes, receivers playing corner. Cats and dogs living together. It’s crazy. I’ve never seen anything like this.”
It was, Belichick mused, “probably as much of a team victory as anything I’ve ever been around.” And it proved to be the pivotal point in a season that was beginning to have a championship feel to it.
Rolling into playoffs
The triumphs followed, one after another - 29-6 over Buffalo (conceding just 125 yards), 27-19 at Kansas City, 24-3 over Baltimore (with just 124 yards allowed), a 42-15 breeze at Cleveland (with Bethel Johnson returning the opening kickoff for a 93-yard touchdown), and a 35-28 stiff-arming of Cincinnati (with David Patten and Asante Samuel scoring 12 seconds apart) to clinch the divisional title.
So New England’s late-game implosion at Miami, where a 28-17 lead turned into a shocking 29-28 loss to a Dolphin squad which had won two games, was stunningly out of character.
”We had an 11-point lead with four minutes to go and we lost the game,” said Belichick, after the third of Brady’s four interceptions set up Miami’s winning touchdown. “I’m disappointed in that. I don’t know how else I can put it to you.”
Once again, though, the Patriots responded with a rousing road victory, this one a 23-7 smothering of the Jets that earned them a precious playoff bye. “All week long the coaches told us, `This is what you’ve played all season for,’ “ said McGinest, whose teammates wrapped up another perfect home season the following week with a 21-7 victory over San Francisco. “And they were right.”
Yet all that 16 weeks of work guaranteed the Patriots was a week off and a home date with the Colts, who’d averaged nearly five touchdowns a game and hammered Denver, 49-24, in an AFC wild-card matchup.
The Colts, with record-breaking quarterback Peyton Manning operating a dizzying offense, figured to be a formidable foe. New England, declared Vanderjagt, was “ripe for the picking”.
That’s a kicker talking, Brady shrugged. Vanderjagt added 3 points to his two cents’ worth, but the Patriots blanked Manning and the rest of Indy’s flying circus with a 20-3 shutdown that nobody figured was possible.
”I guess the panel of experts were wrong, huh?” said offensive lineman Matt Light, after New England had hogged the ball for nearly 38 minutes and held the Colts without a touchdown for the first time in two years.
”Our defense, to hold those guys to 3 points, I mean, what an unbelievable effort,” marveled Brady, who broke the game open in the second half by throwing a touchdown pass to David Givens (capping a 15-play drive) and sneaking in for the final score.
Now, the quarterback said, he and his teammates had to grab their lunch pails yet again and return to Pittsburgh for a smashmouth rematch with a Steeler bunch that had won 15 straight games.
This time, though, the Patriots had two men who were missing the first time around - Branch and Dillon. When Brady found Branch for a 60-yard over-the-shoulder touchdown that put New England up 10-0, the Patriots were off and running to a startling 41-27 decision that was all but over by halftime.
”It’s not often you get a second chance like this,” said Bruschi, after the New England defense locked down running back Jerome Bettis and harassed rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger into three interceptions, one of which Harrison returned 87 yards for a touchdown. “They manhandled us, and to come back from that like this is pretty special.”
So it was back to the championship game for a third time in four years and this time nobody outside of the City of Brotherly Love was betting against them. “I know people see the Patriots in the Super Bowl now and think it’s commonplace,” said Bruschi. “But we really cherish this.”
The Eagles, who hadn’t played in a title game in 24 years, may have been 7-point underdogs, but they grabbed most of the pregame headlines with receiver Terrell Owens claiming that God had healed his broken leg and backup Freddie Mitchell claiming that he didn’t know the names of New England’s secondary.
”Each year, nobody gives us any respect,” said guard Joe Andruzzi. “We’re a bunch of fat guys with a couple of lunch pails that come to work.”
The Patriots may have been favorites in Jacksonville, but they played with the hunger and passion of underdogs, regrouping after a spotty first half to impose their will on the Eagles.
The offense, with Brady throwing 11 passes for 133 yards to Branch (the game MVP) and tossing Vrabel his second career Super Bowl touchdown, was adaptive and productive. The defense, which sacked quarterback Donovan McNabb four times and intercepted him three, was ready and rough. “I bet [Mitchell] knows who they are now, huh?,’ “ mused Harrison.
By now, most of America should have the Patriots’ numbers and names committed to memory. They may or may not be a dynasty (the requirements are hazy), but no football team ever has begun a millennium with three crowns in four years. “Each one is special,” said Belichick, after he’d become only the fourth coach to win that many. “They’re all up there pretty high. If it’s 1 to 10, I’d say they’re all 10.”