What is the greatest regular-season game of the Belichick Era?
When it comes to memorable games, the Patriots have played a ton of them during their 17-year run of excellence . . . but the ones we remember are mostly from the postseason.
The Snow Bowl/Tuck Rule game. Two Super Bowl victories on last-play field goals. Winning an AFC Championship on a missed last-second kick. Coming back from not one, but two 14-points deficits in the 2014 divisional round. Malcolm Butler's interception. 28-3. Even the losses -- Reche Caldwell's drop, the helmet catch, Manning-to-Manningham -- are still fresh in our minds.
But Sunday's win in Pittsburgh got us wondering: What about great regular-season games? Was the 27-24 victory the best regular-season victory of the run?
Tom E. Curran and Phil Perry -- with plenty of help from others -- came up with a list of nine memorable games. Here's how we ranked them; see if you agree. (If the words look vaguely familiar, you might remember them from Tom's 2016 series on the top 100 plays of the Belichick Era.)
Number 9 -- Saints alive!
THE YEAR: 2013
THE GAME: Patriots 30, Saints 27
WHY IT’S HERE: The Patriots looked to be in control. Up 23-17 late in the fourth, the Saints facing third-and-20 from the Patriots 34 . . . what could go wrong? Drew Brees hitting Kenny Stills for a 34-yard touchdown went wrong. Now down 24-23, the Patriots went four-and-out on the next drive and gave the ball to New Orleans at the New England 24; the Saints tacked on a field goal with 2:29 left. The Patriots got the ball back and Tom Brady threw a pick on the first play of the drive. But the Patriots manipulated the clock and played defense well enough to get it back one more time. Leaning on Austin Collie and Aaron Dobson (?), the Patriots got in position for a game-winner to Kenbrell Thompkins. As fate would have it, that game went down just hours before David Ortiz drilled a game-tying grand slam against the Tigers in the ALCS. It was a good day.
Number 8 -- Baltimore ravings
THE YEAR: 2007
THE GAME: Patriots 27, Ravens 24
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.
Number 7 -- Bombs away
THE YEAR: 2003
THE GAME: Patriots 19, Dolphins 13, o.t.
WHY IT’S HERE: The Patriots have annual trouble in Miami even now. But back in 2003, the team’s record of South Florida futility was almost laughable. The Patriots had lost five times in a row in Miami and were 2-12 down there since 1988. The combination of defensive end Jason Taylor, linebackers Zach Thomas and Junior Seau and the evil corners – Pat Surtain and Sam Madison – were the bane of young Tom Brady’s existence. This Sunday afternoon was following suit as the Patriots fumbled it away twice in the first half and punted six times. Time was wasting in overtime when the Patriots got the ball at their own 13 off a Miami pick. The Dolphins’ Olindo Mare had already missed a chip-shot field goal in overtime and Brady was coming back on the field after a Taylor strip-sack (New England recovered) ended their previous drive. So on the first play of the drive, Brady dropped back and heaved toward Troy Brown, who hauled in the rainbow and scored from 87 yards away vanquishing – for a spell – the South Florida curse.
Number 6 -- Safety first
THE YEAR: 2003
THE GAME: Patriots 30, Broncos 26
WHY IT’S HERE: Just like so many plays during his time, the Patriots taking an intentional safety -- while trailing -- late in a Monday Night Football Game at Denver (push ahead to 1:10 in the video) was an unflinching “Just doing what I think is best for the team . . . ” in-game moment for Bill Belichick. And it was the kind of decision that made a helluva lot of sense if one took their biases out of it. Down 24-21 with 2:51 left, the Patriots had a fourth-and-10 from their 1. The punt would have to be hurried from the back line of the end zone and promised to be one that set the Broncos up, at worst, on the verge of field-goal range. So Denver would be able to chew clock, add a field goal and be kicking off up 27-21. Belichick opted to have long-snapper Lonie Paxton snap the ball out of the end zone. For added value, Paxton snapped it off the upright. With the free kick, Patriots punter Ken Walter sent it 64 yards and Denver took over at its own 15. The Pats forced a three-and-out and got the ball back with 2:15 remaining at their own 42. Brady hit Kevin Faulk for 5, 19 and 16 yards (the last on a third-and-10) and then hit David Givens for an 18-yard touchdown with 36 seconds left to run the team’s record to 7-2. It was their fifth straight win, en route to 21 in a row, and one of the most fascinating in a season loaded with intense games.
Number 5 -- Frozen out
THE YEAR: 2013
THE GAME: Patriots 34, Broncos 31, o.t.
WHY IT’S HERE: This was one of the great regular-season nights 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.
Number 4 -- Picked off
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.
Number 3 -- Making a stand
THE YEAR: 2003
THE GAME: Patriots 38, Colts 34
WHY IT’S HERE: It was the 9-2 Patriots against the 9-2 Colts in the RCA Dome and it became the first Brady-Manning/Colts-Patriots epic. The Patriots led 17-0 and 31-10 in the third. Indy then reeled off 21 unanswered and tied the game at 31-31 early in the fourth. But Bethel Johnson --who earlier had a 92-yard kickoff return touchdown -- took one back 67 yards to put the Patriots in business and Tom Brady cashed in with a 13-yard TD to Deion Branch.
A Kevin Faulk fumble with 3:53 left and an 18-yard punt by Ken Walter with 3:07 left gave Indy two golden chances. And they nearly cashed in on No. 2. The Colts reached the Patriots 2 with 40 seconds left. Edgerrin James gained a yard. Then he got stuffed. Then Manning threw incomplete. With 14 seconds left it was fourth-and-1. Indy ran it again and Willie McGinest – who was down on the field with an injury just prior – flashed off the edge to bring down James, then sprint downfield with his hand in the air to celebrate. And the sour-grapes rock-kicking in Indy over McGinest supposedly faking his injury to buy time for the Patriots defense continues unabated to this day.
Number 2 -- Perfect ending
THE YEAR: 2007
THE GAME: Patriots 38, Giants 35
WHY IT’S HERE: From the first game of the 2007 season, it was apparent Tom Brady and the Patriots were offensively transformed by Randy Moss. That first game against the Jets and the touchdown pass to Moss where he sprinted past three defenders was bookended by a 65-yard touchdown in the final regular-season game in the same stadium. The catch gave Moss the single-season touchdown reception record (23) and Tom Brady the single-season touchdown pass record (50) while also putting the Patriots ahead for good in the final game of the first 16-0 season in NFL history.
Beyond this play and those accomplishments, what made the night so memorable was how the two teams competed. The Giants had little to play for. They were locked into a postseason spot and, win or lose on this night, were facing a Wild Card Round game the following weekend in Tampa. Many people were urging them to look past this game, rest their regulars and get ready for the playoffs. But with history on the line, Tom Coughlin did his old colleague and friend Bill Belichick the service of making the Patriots earn it.
And the Pats had to. Trailing 28-16 late in the third, they needed a flurry on both sides of the ball to get past the Giants. The price the Patriots would pay later? The Giants got needed confidence from playing New England so competitively. Soon, they’d put that confidence and the intel gathered to good use in a monumental upset in SB42. One other interesting parallel -- the 2001 Patriots used their regular-season matchup with the Rams as fodder for their Super Bowl win in SB36.
Number 1 -- A real Steel
THE YEAR: 2017
THE GAME: Patriots 27, Steelers 24
WHY IT'S HERE: Need you ask?
Well, if you do . . .