The morning after one of his most humbling nights as owner of the New England Patriots, Robert Kraft confided in the one group of people who wouldn’t harshly criticize his team’s performance, or kick its downtrodden quarterback, or openly question whether Kraft did enough to surround Tom Brady with championship-caliber teammates.
He confided, of course, in children.
Speaking at a school assembly at Igo Elementary in Foxborough on Sept. 30 to dedicate a new playground, Kraft acknowledged how tough the previous night’s 41-14 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on “Monday Night Football” was to take. His team, now 2-2, was embarrassed on national television. Brady was benched in the fourth quarter, commentators openly talked about dissent between Brady and the team, and coach Bill Belichick was asked if he needed to “re-evaluate” — read: bench — his 37-year-old quarterback.
“Last night was one of the worst games since I’ve owned the team, and it was very draining,” Kraft said that morning. “I didn’t see Tommy, but I did see the coach, Bill, and we chatted. He feels the same way I feel. We’re not robots. It was just a bad night all around.”
Belichick was feeling pretty blue, too. “We just didn’t do a good enough job, really, in any area,” he said the day after the loss.
But Belichick noticed something else in that Kansas City game.
He saw Brandon LaFell breaking two tackles and scampering 44 yards for a touchdown after the game was already out of reach. He saw Rob Gronkowski bulldozing through four defenders to get into the end zone late in the fourth quarter of the blowout loss.
Belichick didn’t see a team collapsing under the weight of their Super Bowl expectations. He saw resilience. Mental toughness. A refusal to quit.
“If there was ever a time to not compete as hard, that would’ve been it,” Belichick later said. “We weren’t having a good day, but we kept fighting. We weren’t close to winning, but the fight and the competitiveness was there. We didn’t play well, we weren’t coached well, but we competed hard. That was a good sign.”
It was a theme that would ultimately define the Patriots’ season. They ignored the noise, moved “on to Cincinnati,” and kept grinding.
The underwhelming 2-2 start turned into 9-2 record in seven short weeks. Then it turned into a 12-4 record and the top seed in the AFC playoffs.
They kept fighting in the playoffs, when the stakes were higher. And they proved to be a historically tough team.
The Patriots became the first team in NFL history to overcome two 14-point deficits in a playoff game when they beat the Ravens , 35-31, in the divisional round. And they became the first team to overcome a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter of a Super Bowl when they mounted a furious comeback against the Seahawks.
Nothing was given to the 2014 Patriots. Everything was earned.
“All year long, this team grinded it out,” Belichick said. “They’re tough physically. They’re tough mentally. I know from personal experience that this team came to work every day. They didn’t make any excuses. When things didn’t go right, they just rolled up their sleeves and got back to work and tried to fix them. It’s a group that never stopped competing, never stopped fighting.”
The end result — the Patriots winning their fourth Lombardi Trophy in 14 years — was not totally unexpected. But they didn’t enter the season as prohibitive favorites, either. And there were plenty of reasons to doubt the Patriots:
■ Could Brady shake off a subpar 2013 season, or were we seeing the beginning of his decline? After all, the Patriots selected Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round of the 2014 draft, just to be safe.
■ Could Gronkowski ever be the same after suffering yet another serious injury last December, this time a crushing multi-ligament injury to his knee?
■ Could newly signed cornerback Darrelle Revis recapture his “Revis Island” glory days with the Jets?
■ After all the talk about Brady not having enough “weapons,” all the Patriots did was re-sign Julian Edelman and this guy LaFell from Carolina.
■ Why did they trade left guard Logan Mankins, the emotional leader in the locker room and Brady’s longtime protector, for a backup tight end and a fourth-round pick just 11 days before the season opener?
The answers didn’t look pretty in the first four weeks. The Patriots lost the season opener to the Dolphins after getting outscored, 23-0, in the second half. They edged the Vikings and squeaked by the Raiders thanks to their defense and special teams. Then came the embarrassment in Kansas City.
“They beat us like we stole something,” defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said.
After that loss, the Patriots were ranked 29th in total offense and 24th in points scored. Brady ranked 29th among all quarterbacks in passer rating, and was asked two days after the Chiefs game, “Do you feel like you’re past your prime?” The website Number Fire gave the Patriots just a 34.2 percent chance of making the playoffs.
Just a 1 in 3 chance of simply making the playoffs.
“We saw a weak team,” ESPN’s Trent Dilfer said after the loss. “The New England Patriots, let’s face it, they’re not good anymore. They’re weak.”
To make things worse, the 3-0 Bengals, owners of the stingiest defense in the league at the time, were coming to town in just six days.
“It’s not the time to tense up and call it a season,” Brady said that week. “We’ve got a lot of high character guys in our locker room. We’ll see what we’re made of as we continue to fight these tough weeks, and hopefully it builds character and builds resiliency.”
Did it ever.
They took a cue from Belichick and moved “on to Cincinnati” while putting the past behind.
In front of another national TV audience, the Patriots took care of business against the Bengals. New England raced to a 14-0 lead and ran away in the second half for a 43-17 win.
Brady had his best performance of the season to that point — 292 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions — and the Patriots faithful chanted “Bra-dy! Bra-dy!” in the fourth quarter.
“That was awesome,” Brady said. “It’s hard to be oblivious to things. We all have TVs or the internet, or the questions I get and the e-mails that I get from people who are concerned. I’m always e-mailing them back like, ‘Nobody died. It’s just a loss.’ ”
“To ride the ups and downs of, ‘You’re great, you suck, you’re great, you suck’ — it’s exhausting. We don’t play this game to go out there and not play well. Guys take it to heart.”
But that Chiefs game would be the last time the Patriots played poorly. The Bengals game was the catalyst for a seven-game win streak, in which only one game was decided by fewer than 15 points (a 27-25 victory over the Jets).
The Patriots wiped the floor with the Bills, put up 51 points on the Bears, humiliated Peyton Manning and the Broncos at home, rumbled over the Colts, and threw the ball all over the Lions.
At the center of the resurgence was Brady, of course — he had four touchdowns and two interceptions in the first four games of the season, and 22 touchdowns and four interceptions over the next seven. But the other questions started answering themselves, too.
Revis was every bit as good as advertised (and so was Brandon Browner), helping shut down or severely limit A.J. Green, Calvin Johnson, Demaryius Thomas, Golden Tate, Brandon Marshall, Reggie Wayne, and Sammy Watkins. The offensive line figured itself out — rookie center Bryan Stork and left guard Dan Connolly got healthy and solidified Brady’s protection.
And Gronk became Gronk again.
Saddled to a snap count in the first four weeks as he returned from a torn MCL and ACL in his right knee — he played approximately 50 percent of the snaps in those games — Gronkowski was unleashed in the Bengals game and never looked back. He had three touchdowns against the Bears and an incredible one-handed catch in traffic against the Broncos. He scored quintessential Gronk touchdowns against the Bears and Colts — barrelling through defenders and simply wouldn’t be denied the end zone.
“I love that guy and everything he’s done for this team and the attitude that he brings,” Brady said. “He’s been through a lot. Talk about mental toughness — nobody’s got more mental toughness than him.”
And there was still more adversity to overcome. In Week 6, the Patriots lost two veteran leaders to season-ending injuries – running back Stevan Ridley to a torn ACL and MCL, and linebacker Jerod Mayo, the defensive captain and signal-caller, to a torn patellar tendon injury.
“We’re just going to have to get contributions from other guys — some at the linebacker position and some at other positions as well,” Belichick said. “We’ll see how it all comes together.”
The Patriots rolled right along without them.
Mayo was replaced by two players — third-year linebacker Dont’a Hightower and second-year linebacker Jamie Collins. They blossomed into impact players with their newfound responsibilities, and filled up the stat sheet, combining for 10 sacks, 5 forced fumbles, 2 interceptions, a blocked field goal and they were the two leading tacklers on the team.
Ridley was replaced by a committee of backs. Against stout run defenses such as Detroit and Baltimore, Shane Vereen was the main guy. When the Patriots wanted to power run, they went with Jonas Gray, a practice-squad call-up getting his first NFL action. Gray had the game of his life with 201 yards and four touchdowns against the Colts, but three days after landing on the Sports Illustrated cover, Gray was sent home for being late to practice, benched the subsequent Sunday, and carried the ball just 24 times the rest of the season. LeGarrette Blount fell into the Patriots’ lap after being unceremoniously cut by Pittsburgh, and he rumbled his way to 470 yards and six touchdowns in eight games.
The Patriots rolled through the rest of the regular season — they had one hiccup, a 5-point loss at Green Bay — but sealed their 12th AFC East title in 14 years and the No. 1 seed in the AFC with consecutive victories over the Chargers, Dolphins, and Jets.
But the Patriots needed to dig deep in the playoffs. Facing a feisty Ravens team in the divisional round, the Patriots found themselves trailing, 14-0, in the first quarter, and 28-14 early in the third quarter.
So the Patriots literally put the ball in Brady’s hands. They handed to a running back just seven times all game — and none in the second half — as Brady completed 33 of 50 passes for 367 yards, with three touchdowns and one interception. The Patriots also dug deep into their bag of tricks, tying the score at 28-28 on a perfect 51-yard option pass from wide receiver Julian Edelman to Danny Amendola.
They also used a little known quirk in the rules — the “ineligible receiver” — to bedevil the Ravens and get the ball moving again.
The Patriots won the game, 35-31, on a beautiful 23-yard touchdown from Brady to LaFell, becoming the first team in NFL history to erase two 14-point deficits in one playoff game. But after the game, John Harbaugh and his Ravens were miffed at the “ineligible receiver” formation, calling it “deception” and implying the Patriots somehow skirted the rules.
“Maybe those guys got to study the rulebook and figure it out,” Brady quipped.
How prescient those words turned out to be.
Brady and the Patriots rolled in the AFC Championship game, blowing out the Colts, 45-7. But a couple hours after the game, a report emerged about the Patriots and underinflated footballs that would mushroom into a national nightmare for the team.
The next day, it morphed into “DeflateGate,” as the NFL confirmed it was investigating the Patriots for using footballs that were inflated under the proper amount of 12.5 pounds per square inch. Suddenly, the Patriots were on public trial for cheating. The story dominated sports media for a week, and even led off network newscasts. To the Patriots’ legion of haters, Belichick was a cheater, Brady was a cheater, and the Patriots didn’t deserve their spot in the Super Bowl.
“I didn’t alter the ball in any way,” Brady said somewhat meekly. “I would never do anything to break the rules.”
Belichick spent his week conducting science experiments and documenting all of the variables at play — temperature, ball-scuffing technique, gauge malfunctions, and so on.
“I’m embarrassed to talk about the amount of time that I put into this relative to the other important challenge in front of us,” Belichick said.
Kraft challenged commissioner Roger Goodell when the Patriots arrived in Arizona for the Super Bowl — demanding an apology from the league if the investigation doesn’t prove the Patriots knowingly skirted the rules — and the players remained tough and focused.
“I would say we’ve got a lot of motivation as a team,” Brady said before the game. “I think sometimes in life the biggest challenges end up being the best things that happen. So, we can rally around one another and support one another.”
And that’s exactly what they did. The jumped to 7-0 and 14-7 leads in the first half against a stingy Seahawks defense. And when the Seahawks took a 24-14 lead in the third quarter that they carried into the fourth, the Patriots didn’t panic.
Brady was methodical and accurate in the fourth quarter, completing 13 of 15 passes for 124 yards and two touchdowns on the Patriots’ final two drives to take a 28-24 lead.
And when the Seahawks looked primed to reclaim the lead — lining up for a second-and-goal play from the 1-yard line with less than a minute to go — the Patriots only got tougher. Malcolm Butler, an undrafted rookie cornerback out of Division 2 West Alabama, made the play of the season when he stepped in front of receiver Ricardo Lockette and intercepted Russell Wilson’s pass with 20 seconds left.
The greatest comeback in Super Bowl history was now complete. The mission was now complete. And the Patriots’ toughness is now unquestioned.
“These guys have been counted out many times through the course of the year by a lot of people,” Belichick said after his fourth Gatorade bath as a head coach. “But they always believed in themselves and kept fighting. This is a great team — a great group of competitors who never gave in, never lost their will, and mentally and physically as tough of a group as I’ve been around.”
All because no one on the Patriots — from the owner down to the coach down to the players — lost faith after that Chiefs loss.
“I know all the sages in the media were calling for us to trade [Brady], or sit him, and Belichick had lost it,” Kraft said in November. “But maybe in a way it was a good thing, because it just shook us up. In moments of crisis, you either rise to great things or you crumble. And our guys came together.”