Top 100 plays of Belichick Era: Numbers 70-51
THE YEAR: 2009
THE GAME: Patriots 25, Bills 24
THE PLAY: Tom Brady for a 16-yard TD to Ben Watson in return from ACL/MCL injury
WHY IT’S HERE: This was Tom Brady's first game after missing almost the entire 2008 season with a blown ACL/MCL, and it wasn’t going well. With 5:30 left, the Patriots trailed, 24-13, in their Monday Night Football season opener. Then, with just over two minutes to play, Brady hit tight end Ben Watson for an 18-yard touchdown in the right seam to cut the lead to 24-19 (conversion failed). On the ensuing kickoff, Bills return man Leodis McKelvin fought a little too long for extra yards, got stripped and the Patriots recovered. Two plays later, Brady hit Watson again on an identical throw with 55 seconds remaining. He finished the night 39-for-53 for 378 yards and two scores. That season didn’t go real well, but that performance showed Brady was still going to be Brady.
THE YEAR: 2012 (actually January 2013)
THE GAME: Ravens 28, Patriots 13
WHY IT’S HERE: After a few seasons of watching the Patriots secondary hold the team hostage in big games, the in-season arrival of Aqib Talib in 2012 was a pass-defense elixir. Until 5:13 remained in the first quarter against the Ravens, when Talib broke up a third-and-13 pass intended for Anquan Boldin and immediately clutched his hamstring. He was done for the night, Kyle Arrington moved to the outside, Marquice Cole covered the slot and the Boldin-Joe Flacco combo took over. This was a game littered with misfires and miscues by the Pats -- deep drives that resulted in field goals, dropped passes by Wes Welker, a fumble by Stevan Ridley -- but Flacco’s post-Talib performance was unmistakeable (he was 6-for-13 with Talib in the game, 15-for-23 after he went out) and a key reason the Pats didn’t get back to the Super Bowl.
THE YEAR: 2011 (actually February 2012)
THE GAME: Giants 17, Patriots 14
THE PLAY: Patriots pass up field goal in second half from NYG 31
WHY IT’S HERE: This is a pet-peeve play. Maybe for some of you, plays like Asante Samuel’s missed pick in ’07 and Julian Edelman’s third-and-14 conversion in ’14 would be way ahead of this one, but this decision to me remains mystifying. Coming out of halftime, the Patriots were up 7-3. They embarked on a 14-play drive that reached the Giants 25. But after Tom Brady was sacked by Michael Strahan on third-and-7, Bill Belichick passed up a 48-yard field-goal attempt by Stephen Gostkowski and instead went for it on fourth-and-13. The pass to Jabar Gaffney wasn’t even close. Had the Patriots tried the field goal and missed, they’d have given New York the ball at the Giants 38. Hardly a massive risk. The likelihood of hitting on fourth-and-13 had to be lower than Gostkowski missing. Last year, I mentioned the decision to Gostkowski. “I don’t know (why the field goal wasn’t attempted),” he replied. “If you find out, let me know.”
THE YEAR: 2007
THE GAME: Patriots 49, Dolphins 28
WHY IT’S HERE: The 6-0 Patriots against the 0-6 Dolphins. A rout was expected, but by halftime, the Patriots were up 42-7. Tom Brady went 16-for-19 for 291 yards and five touchdowns IN THE FIRST HALF! Randy Moss and Wes Welker both went over 100 yards receiving IN THE FIRST HALF! Moss had two touchdown catches in the first half that were unfathomable. The Patriots faced seven third downs the entire game. The Dolphins were incapable of even getting them to third-down plays. It was as gross a mismatch as I’d ever seen, and a referendum on just how devastating the 2007 team was.
So the second half was going to be killing clock and getting out of the Miami heat. The Patriots had the ball once in the third and punted. Miami scored a touchdown early in the fourth. It was 42-14. So Bill Belichick put in Matt Cassel with 11:35 left in the game. And three plays later, Cassel threw a pick-six to Jason Taylor. Belichick, not being a subscriber to a “Let the younger kids play!!” mentality for professional football, reinserted Brady, who threw every down on a 59-yard drive to put the lead back to 49-21.
Some in the media fanned themselves with their hymnals at the brutality of it all. Others clutched their pearls. The rest fainted dead away. The Patriots would, later in the season, reach down the throats of the Bills and Redskins and yank out their still-beating hearts in similar fashion.
THE YEAR: 2001 (actually February 2002)
THE GAME: Patriots 20, Rams 17
THE PLAY: Tom Brady to Troy Brown for 21 yards on Pats first offensive play of Super Bowl 36
WHY IT’S HERE: Pinned at their own 3, the Patriots came to the line with a quarterback who’d been forced from the AFC Championship Game because of an ankle injury. A kid who wasn’t able to secure the starting quarterback’s job in his senior season at Michigan until halfway through the year. A kid who -- despite a media push during the week for Drew Bledsoe -- was making his 17th NFL start. And the kid -- Tom Brady -- hit Troy Brown in stride on a slant for 21 yards to put the ball out at the Patriots 24. The drive ended with a punt, but that throw at that juncture showed Brady wasn’t going to be cowed. Pair this play with the 23-yard dart to Brown with 29 seconds left in the game that put the Patriots near game-winning field goal range, and you have two hidden plays that have to be recalled to tell the story of this team.
THE YEAR: 2006 (actually January 2007)
THE GAME: Colts 38, Patriots 34
THE PLAY: Peyton Manning to Reggie Wayne for 18 yards on third-and-10 in the second quarter
WHY IT’S HERE: Yeah, I know it’s obscure. But the 2006 AFC Championship Game was LOUSY with itty-bitty little plays that sneakily turned what was shaping up as a merciless New England rout into Peyton’s Vindication Day. This one happened with 2:18 left in the half and the Patriots up 21-3. Indy was at its own 12. Fail to convert, and the Colts are punting and the Pats are near the 50 looking to pile on. Instead, they turned that conversion into a field-goal drive. You can also kick rocks over consecutive penalties against the Pats on the previous drive, which moved them back from the Indy 28 and cost them points; the phantom pass interference on Ellis Hobbs; the drop from Reche Caldwell; the serial abuse of linebacker Eric Alexander by Manning and Dallas Clark; Reggie Wayne’s fumble into the air in the midst of three Patriots that Wayne somehow regained; a 12-men-on-the-field call on the Patriots' second-to-last drive that put them in first-and-15, and a missed third-and-4 conversion to Troy Brown that caused the Pats to have to punt. But we went with this one instead.
THE YEAR: 2001
THE GAME: Patriots 12, Bills 9, o.t.
THE PLAY: David Patten’s sideline fumble in overtime overturned
WHY IT’S HERE: The 8-5 Patriots were struggling in Buffalo. In overtime against the two-win Bills, New England mounted a drive. Tom Brady found David Patten on the sideline for a 13-yard gain to the Buffalo 41 but Patten was blown up by Bills safety Keion Carpenter. He fumbled and, with the ball under his leg and his head out of bounds, Bills corner Nate Clements swooped in and recovered. But, after a replay review, it was ruled that Patten -- who was unconscious from the hit -- was contacting the ball with his leg while his head was out of bounds. The reception stood and Patten was down at that spot. On the next play, former Bill Antowain Smith rumbled for 38 yards and the Patriots kicked the game-winning field goal, touching off a controversy about whether or not the rule was BS. There would be a similar lament later in the season after another replay review that went the Pats way.
THE YEAR: 2015 (actually January 2016)
THE GAME: Broncos 20, Patriots 18
WHY IT'S HERE: Banged up as the Patriots were entering the AFC Championship, they were still going against a Denver team run by a quarterback whose arm posed a minimal threat. Play smart defensively, force Peyton Manning to make tight throws that required velocity, and New England would probably be fine . . . even against the stiff Denver defense. But on the Broncos' first drive of the game, one of New England’s best players -- linebacker Jamie Collins -- bit on a little inside move by Owen Daniels and then let him go unchallenged down the seam for six. Before halftime, Daniels did Collins up again for another double-move touchdown. Outstanding as Collins is, has been and will be, those two coverage breakdowns gave Denver the cushion it needed to get to the Super Bowl and send the Patriots home.
THE YEAR: 2010
THE GAME: Jets 28, Patriots 14
WHY IT’S HERE: The last great catch of Randy Moss’ New England career came over the great Darrelle Revis, a player who would later carve his own name in the bark of the Belichick Era Patriots. Two steps into his route, Moss threw up his hand, signaling to Tom Brady he had Revis beat. Brady laid it out in front of Moss and Moss allowed the 34-yard throw to nestle into one cupped hand as Revis pulled a hammy trying to get into the play. This play came a week after Moss’ post-opener contract tantrum.
The bigger story on this day, however, wound up being the way Moss tanked in the second half against Antonio Cromartie. Moss wound up catching just 2 of the 10 balls sent his way. Twice, Brady was picked while throwing to Moss. Revis later said Moss quit in the second half. "You can tell, you can see the effort," Revis said. "Playing football, you can see the body language and effort of people. If a guy's going hard or a guy is hesitant . . . that's the way football is, the truth comes out. You could see it in that game.” Moss was targeted just three times the following week in Buffalo (scoring twice) and once in Miami. Then he was traded to the Vikings.
THE YEAR: 2008
THE GAME: Jets 34, Patriots 31, o.t.
WHY IT’S HERE: In part, it’s here because I wanted a little something from every season and this was the most memorable play after Tom Brady’s knee got messed up in the opener. But also because the 16-yard touchdown on fourth-and-1 from the Jets 16 as the game clock ticked down was a helluva play in an important game. It was Patriots-Jets and Cassel vs. Brett Favre. And Cassel responded throwing for 400 yards and three touchdowns on a Thursday night with the country watching. The play not only showed how resourceful the Patriots were even without Brady, it also ratcheted up the asking price for Cassel once Brady came back and Cassel was franchised and put on the trading block.
THE YEAR: 2007 (actually February 2008)
THE GAME: Giants 17, Patriots 14
WHY IT’S HERE: This is here for two big reasons.
First, it shows the toughness and resilience of Brady. On the previous play, Brady took the most violent of the five Super Bowl sacks he was administered when he got folded by Jay Alford. Justin Tuck still talks about that hit and the fact that, on the next play, Brady threw the ball 75 yards downfield and hit a streaking Moss in the hands with a throw that would have put the Patriots in position to tie that Super Bowl.
Second, this play speaks to how friggin close the Patriots came to a miraculous play in the biggest game. Same as they nearly pulled off on the final play of Super Bowl 46 on that Hail Mary. The Super Bowls the Patriots lost -- and most of the Conference Championship games -- were lost by the slimmest of margins. So when someone scoffs at the notion the Patriots could have won eight Super Bowls under Belichick, this is one sampling of how close they came.
THE YEAR: 2015 (actually January 2016)
THE GAME: Broncos 20, Patriots 18
WHY IT’S HERE: Mr. Bill. Wile E. Coyote. Keith Richards. Crying Jordan. The 2015 Patriots. All are things that took unimaginable punishment yet just would not expire.
With Brady getting ragdolled on the regular, accepting unimaginable punishment for a player at his age, he kept holding himself up against the ropes and throwing jabs throughout the fourth quarter. With the Patriots down 20-12, Brady got them to the Denver 16 before giving it up on fourth down (great play by Chris Harris). They got it back and made it down to the Denver 13 and had to give it up on downs. Then they got it once more and -- with 1:34 left -- Brady hit Gronk down the seam with one of the prettiest passes he’s thrown in his career. The Patriots would also pull a rabbit from a hat on fourth-and-goal to draw within two before Brady went away from Gronk for the two-point conversion and was picked off on a pass intended for Julian Edelman.
THE YEAR: 2014 (actually February 2015)
THE GAME: Patriots 28, Seahawks 24
WHY IT’S HERE: What Malcolm Butler did wouldn’t have felt so good if what Jermaine Kearse did hadn't felt so bad. As a standalone play, a ball tipped simultaneously by receiver and defender then volleyed four more times -- including with a foot -- while the receiver is falling to the ground would be spectacular enough. But with 1:15 left in the Super Bowl? With your team down four? And the catch putting the defending Super Bowl champions at the 5? Against a dynasty desperate to erase nine seasons of postseason near-misses? In the same stadium where the greatest team to never win a Super Bowl had been undone by a similarly impossible catch? Also in the closing minutes? Heading toward the same end zone? Playing against a head coach who preceded the head coach who’d become a legend?
You can’t make any of that up.
Nor can you make up the fact that, two plays later, the sorry SOB who was victimized by the reception made the most seismic defensive play in the history of the sport. Arguably.
THE YEAR: 2013
THE GAME: Patriots 34, Broncos 31, o.t.
THE PLAY: Broncos bungle overtime punt, Patriots pull off stunning comeback
WHY IT’S HERE: This was one of the great regular-season games of the Belichick Era: Wes Welker making his return to Gillette as a Bronco, and another Manning-Brady matchup. It shaped up as a mismatch early with the Patriots playing like a high school team and falling behind 24-0 in front of a Sunday Night Football prime-time audience. But in the second half, the Pats scratched their way back into it and went up 31-24. A penalty-laden Denver drive ended with a Demaryius Thomas touchdown to send the game to overtime. The Patriots elected to kick off in o.t. on this blustery, frigid night, betting Manning couldn’t cut the wind with his noodle-armed deliveries. It took a while to resolve, but when a Ryan Allen punt hung in the wind and Welker neglected to tell the rest of the Broncos return team to get away from the ball, it struck Denver’s Tony Carter, the Patriots recovered and Stephen Gostkowski kicked the game-winner. The Broncos, however, would laugh last in the playoff rematch that year.
THE YEAR: 2010 (actually January 2011)
THE GAME: Jets 28, Patriots 21
WHY IT’S HERE: The Patriots were the No. 1 seed in the AFC in 2010, having rolled to a 14-2 record after reinventing their offense on the fly when Randy Moss was traded. Their Divisional Round opponent was the Jets, a team they had eviscerated, 45-3, on December 6. In the week leading up to the game, Wes Welker dropped 10 foot references during a press conference, an obvious jab at a video leaked earlier that year in which Rex Ryan’s adoration for his wife’s feet was made obvious. Ryan -- who tweaked Tom Brady’s preparation skills a week earlier -- didn’t respond but Bill Belichick did, benching Welker for the Patriots’ first possession.
Tom Brady was intercepted on that possession at the Jets 28. On the Patriots’ next possession, Alge Crumpler dropped a touchdown pass and the Patriots settled for a field goal. Flat start. Then the Jets scored a touchdown to lead 7-3.
With 1:15 left in the half, the Pats were poised to punt when Patrick Chung called for a direct snap fake punt. Chung bobbled the snap, missed his chance to pick up the first and got swarmed under at the Patriots 38. Three plays later, the Jets went up 14-3 on a Mark Sanchez-to-Braylon Edwards touchdown.
The flatness remained for the Pats and the Jets played outstanding defense, flooding the underneath area where Brady and Welker did their damage. The final was 28-21 but that last TD came with 30 seconds left. One of the most frustrating losses of the Belichick Era.
THE YEAR: 2009 (actually January 2010)
THE GAME: Texans 34, Patriots 27
WHY IT’S HERE: The 2009 season was a star-crossed one to begin with. So many of the key players who won Super Bowls were gone, Tom Brady was just back from his blown ACL, there was locker-room discord . . . the whole thing wasn’t real Patriotic. But the 10-5 Patriots were still a force to be reckoned with because of their weapons. Until Wes Welker, after a 123-catch, 1,348-yard regular season, tore his ACL on a third-and-4 play in the Patriots' last regular-season game. It was a non-contact injury where Welker’s left leg just gave out on the shoddy Reliant Stadium turf. The next week, the Patriots got roasted at home by the Ravens.
THE YEAR: 2007
THE GAME: Patriots 24, Colts 20
WHY IT’S HERE: The Colts and Patriots were both undefeated when they met in a hugely-anticipated regular-season game in Week 9 in Indy. This was the first meeting since the Colts beat the Pats with a monster comeback in the 2006 AFC Championship and then went on to win the Super Bowl.
Heading into the showdown, the Colts were beating teams. The Patriots were demolishing them. New England hadn’t scored fewer than 34 points all year and scored 48, 49 and 52 leading into the Indy game.
But the Pats fell behind, 13-7, by halftime. They were still trailing in the fourth, 20-10, before Tom Brady kicked in. A 55-yard strike to Randy Moss set up one touchdown. A 33-yarder to Donte Stallworth followed. Indy had a final chance, though, and was mounting a drive when -- on third-and-9 from their 49 -- Jarvis Green got to Manning and flung him down, causing an errant throw that was picked off by Rosey Colvin. That win was the closest call to that point for the Patriots in their 16-0 regular season.
THE YEAR: 2011 (actually January 2012)
THE GAME: Patriots 23, Ravens 20
THE PLAY: Sterling Moore punches out would-be game-winning TD in closing seconds of AFC Championship Game
WHY IT’S HERE: Let’s be clear about one thing. This was not a "Lee Evans drop." When Joe Flacco hit Evans with a beautifully thrown pass on second-and-1 from the Patriots’ 14 with 22 seconds left in the 2011 AFC Championship Game, Sterling Moore intervened. The scrappy, scrap-heap corner punched it out. There’s no debate about that. It can be debated whether or not Evans had the ball long enough for it to be considered a catch. He did have two feet down a split-second before Moore’s punch was delivered and the Ravens were right to wonder why it wasn’t reviewed. But this was not a "fail" by the Ravens. It was a great play by New England.
That Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff wasn’t ready to go when it came time to kick a 32-yard game-tying field goal and had to jog onto the field and hook his attempt because the play clock was almost expired? That’s a fail. And it was so Raven for Cundiff to blame the in-stadium scoreboard being off by a play for causing him to rush. And for Ravens kicking consultant Randy Brown to intimate Gillette Stadium chicanery. Whiniest team in the league should have called a damn timeout.
THE YEAR: 2009 (actually January 2010)
THE GAME: Ravens 33, Patriots 14
WHY IT’S HERE: Worst game of the Belichick Era. The nadir. After a fairly dysfunctional regular season that saw Belichick lamenting just about everything during the seminal look at his coaching style in Bill Belichick: A Football Life, the Patriots were hosting the Ravens in the playoffs. How flat was the year? There was a lot of purple in Foxboro that day. Fans weren’t even into the 2009 Patriots. Especially without Wes Welker, who’d been lost in the final regular-season game (see Play 55).
That playoff game unfolded, in hindsight, in the only way it could. Rice ripped off an 83-yard touchdown run to open the game. The Ravens ran for 234. Joe Flacco went 4-for-10 passing because he didn’t even have to worry about throwing on a disinterested Patriots defense. By the end of the first quarter, the Patriots had fumbled the ball away and Tom Brady was picked off twice. It was 24-0 by the end of one. But the reason we’re doing this list at this juncture is because –- when the Patriots hit bottom, they didn’t splatter. They bounced.
THE YEAR: 2007
THE GAME: Patriots 27, Ravens 24
THE PLAY: Tom Brady to Jabar Gaffney for a late TD on Monday Night Football in Baltimore
WHY IT’S HERE: I knew there were some incredible games to detail when I started this list. But the number of games that could have their own “30 for 30” episode is unreal.
Especially the Ravens games. And this was the first epic of the rivalry.
The 11-0 Patriots were 20-point favorites in Baltimore against the 4-7 Ravens in what would be Brian Billick’s final season. The game didn’t get fascinating until the fourth, when Baltimore broke on top 24-17 with 14:35 left on a Kyle Boller (not elite) touchdown pass. After that, there was a Boller pick and field goal by Stephen Gostkowski, setting the stage for perhaps the most insane final two minutes of the Belichick Era BM (Before Malcolm).
To set the stage a little more, the entire country was by now rooting against the Patriots finishing the season 16-0. On this Monday Night Football extravaganza, ESPN’s Mike Tirico led the broadcast saying that the Ravens will “try to do the 2007 impossible. Beat . . . New England.” During the broadcast, former Dolphins coach Don Shula was brought to the booth to tub thump for his Dolphins and openly pine for a New England loss.
He almost got it.
With 1:48 left, the Patriots had a fourth-and-1 from the Baltimore 39. They ran a Tom Brady sneak that got snuffed but the Ravens -- namely, defensive coordinator Rex Ryan -- called a timeout just prior to the snap. The play was wiped out. First bit of controversy: Assistants aren’t supposed to be able to call timeout. But officials aren’t supposed to turn away from the field of play to ID the person calling for timeout, either, so Rex’ blunder was legit even if the insufferable Bart Scott still doesn’t get it a decade later.
Fourth-and-1 again, Heath Evans is stuffed. But Patriots guard Russ Hochstein is called for a false start. No play, fourth-and-6. Nobody open, Brady scrambles for 12 (there was also a flag for an illegal hold on Samari Rolle).
First down turned quickly to fourth-and-5 from the Ravens 13 with 55 seconds left. Brady fired to the end zone for Ben Watson. The pass was incomplete but Ravens linebacker Jamie Winborne was flagged for defensive holding (ticky-tack call) and the drive was extended again. More controversy.
Now with first down from the Ravens’ 8, Brady hit Jabar Gaffney for a touchdown. The review was a tight one, as Gaffney just got control of the ball as he toe-tapped, but the call was confirmed. And Scott threw a tantrum, whipping the officials flag into the stands for a 15-yard penalty then getting hit with another 15-yarder for good measure. The Ravens got the ball back (after Gostkowski kicked off from the Baltimore 35) and -- in a perfect capper to the evening -- completed a bomb down to the New England 3 on the game’s final play as the clock hit :00.