Top 100 plays of Belichick Era: Numbers 100-86
100 PLAYS THAT SHAPED A DYNASTY
Bill Belichick is now in his 17th season as head coach of the Patriots. For a shot of perspective, consider that Vince Lombardi’s run in Green Bay was nine years. Bill Walsh coached the 49ers for 10.
Under Belichick, the Patriots have had an Impossible Dream season, two runs of unmatched dominance (21 straight wins and a 16-0 regular season), won four Super Bowls, played in six, and won 13 division titles. They’ve been lionized, despised, hunted, haunted, revered and reviled.
In 2019, the NFL turns 100. Lists and rankings will be compiled and debates will rage. But the longest, strongest dynasty the league’s ever known, its greatest run of excellence, will have unfolded in Foxboro, Massachusetts.
This is a list of the 100 Plays That Shaped a Dynasty. A lot of them you’ll remember easily. Some you might recall just vaguely because they were igniter moments -- occurrences that had to happen in order for the memorable to be possible. Most you’ll be happy to look back on. Some you’d prefer not to think about.
The list is a loose ranking from 100 to 21. The top 20 I ranked in order of how memorable they were and impactful they wound up being to the story of these Patriots.
THE YEAR: 2001
THE GAME: Patriots 38, Colts 17
THE PLAY: David Patten hits Troy Brown for 60-yard TD
WHY IT’S HERE: The Patriots were 2-3 when they headed to the RCA Dome to play the Colts on Oct. 21, 2001. Three weeks earlier, they had crushed Indy, 44-13, at Foxboro in Tom Brady's first start. (It was also their first win of the year.) After that, the Pats had been destroyed in Miami but pulled off a gripping overtime victory over the Chargers. Still, they figured to get ripped by the Colts and the blossoming Peyton Manning, who had led the NFL in passing touchdowns and yards the season before. But they were ahead 14-3 on two David Patten touchdowns -- a 29-yard run on a reverse and a 91-yard scoring pass from Brady -- when they took possession in the second quarter. They again went to Patten, who caught the screen -- which was actually a lateral -- and found Troy Brown for a 60-yard touchdown and a 21-3 lead. The Patriots went on to win 38-17 and, of course, capture the Super Bowl. The Colts would finish the year 6-10 and fire head coach Jim Mora, making way for Tony Dungy. And we would all see the double-pass again, 13 years later.
THE YEAR: 2007
THE GAME: Patriots 34, Steelers 13
THE PLAY: Brady-to-Moss-to-Brady-to-Gaffney over mouthy Anthony Smith
WHY IT’S HERE: The Patriots were 12-0 and coming off narrow three-point wins in prime time over the Eagles and Ravens. They seemed to have plateaued. Then somebody put a mic under the chin of Steelers second-year safety Anthony Smith and the Patriots got a kickstart. "People keep asking me if we're ready for the Patriots," Smith said. "They should be asking if they're ready for us. We're going to win. Yeah, I can guarantee a win." On Dec. 9, 2007 at Gillette, the Patriots got Smith early with a 63-yard touchdown from Tom Brady to Randy Moss after Smith bit on play-action. That touchdown was punctuated by Brady running downfield to verbally unload on Smith. “I don’t care to repeat it,” said Brady. “Especially if my mother reads it. She won’t be very happy with what I said.” The Patriots went back for more in the third quarter with Brady throwing wide to Moss, who muffed the lateral before throwing sidearm back to Brady. Brady then found Jabar Gaffney from 56 yards out. Again, over Smith. “It was said, it was documented, it was printed and it came to us and we went out there today and we see who wanted it more,” said Moss. Even Bill Belichick got a shot in, saying of Smith, "We've played against a lot better safeties than him, I'll tell you. The safety play at that position was pretty inviting."
THE YEAR: 2009
THE GAME: Broncos 20, Patriots 17, o.t.
THE PLAY: Prater's FG lifts Broncos over Patriots in overtime; McDaniels goes bananas; Pats go to pieces
WHY IT’S HERE: Oct. 11, 2009 was the start of something not very good. Tom Brady was back at quarterback after blowing out his ACL in '08 and the Pats were 3-1, but the team felt . . . off. Then, facing former coordinator Josh McDaniels -- who had taken over as the Broncos' head coach that season -- things started to go off the rails. Three plays into the game, big-ticket linebacker Adalius Thomas was -- literally -- walking around piles and giving minimal effort. (He was eventually subbed out in favor of no-name Rob Ninkovich.) Brady and Wes Welker failed to find a rhythm. There was awful secondary play by Leigh Bodden, Shawn Springs and Brandon Meriweather. The Pats blew a lead, the game went into overtime, and Matt Prater’s 48-yard game-winning field goal sent McDaniels into a fist-pumping frenzy. The problems that day in Denver augered trouble. Thomas would -- over the next two months -- usher in a period of unmatched locker-room discontent that lasted nearly a calendar year and saw the Patriots hit their low point under Belichick. They finished 10-6, their second-worst record between 2001 and 2015, and were blown out at home by Baltimore in a wild-card playoff game. That started a rebuild of the team, with a fleet of players eventually excised from the roster . . . Thomas included. And he’d never play in the league again.
THE YEAR: 2012
THE GAME: Patriots 42, Texans 14
THE PLAY: Brady-to-Stallworth ruins School Pride Night for Texans
WHY IT’S HERE: It probably seemed a good idea at the time: Letterman jackets for everyone as a sign of unity for all the Houston Texans. They were, after all, a team on the rise. The jackets had patches on the left arm to commemorate the Texans’ 2011 AFC South title. Captains got patches on the left sleeve. A story on the outerwear noted, “The Texans will add more patches for any future division titles and conference and Super Bowl championships.” What better time to roll them out than a December 2012 trip to New England for a Monday night? The Texans were coming onto Patriots turf wearing their colors and all that. By the middle of the third quarter it was 28-0 Patriots, thanks to a 63-yard Tom Brady-to-Donte Stallworth touchdown. It got up to 35-7 and ended 42-14. The Texans were 11-1 going into that game. They won just 4 of their next 21 after School Pride Night and head coach Gary Kubiak was fired during the 2013 season.
THE YEAR: 2013
THE GAME: Patriots 13, Jets 10
THE PLAY: Tom Brady throws incomplete to Aaron Dobson at goal line
WHY IT’S HERE: On a rainy Thursday night in Week 2, Tom Brady took the field without Wes Welker (reluctantly left for Denver as free agent), Danny Amendola (tore his groin to shreds in season-opening win over the Bills) and Rob Gronkowski (rehabbing from back surgery and multiple arm surgeries after 2012 season). That left him throwing to rookies Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins, tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, and Julian Edelman, who hadn’t yet turned into the Edelman we now know. The frustration of being in charge of a punchless offense bubbled over in the second quarter when Dobson appeared to run the wrong route and a Brady pass went skidding incomplete. Brady screamed at the sky and flipped out on the sidelines. It must have seemed to him like that elusive fourth Super Bowl ring was further away than ever that night and -- for a guy who’d made do in many seasons with less-than-elite wideouts -- this was a sign of visible frustration with what he was surrounded by.
THE YEAR: 2012
THE GAME: Seahawks 24, Patriots 23
THE PLAY: Russell Wilson throws 46-yard TD to Sidney Rice
WHY IT’S HERE: The Patriots had already lost two early-season games by a total of three points when they visited Seattle in Week 6. The Patriots went up and down the field against the Seahawks, but three times had to settle for field goals and had an egregious clock management mess-up at the end of the half in which they had first-and-goal at the Seattle 9 with 19 seconds left and wound up not even getting off a field-goal attempt. Brady, who threw for 395 yards in the game, also took the opportunity to talk stuff to Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas, telling them, “Come and see me after we win.” Sherman, who would pick Brady off in the second half, was able to do that when Sidney Rice put a double-move on rookie safety Tavon Wilson and scored with 1:18 remaining on a 46-yard bomb from Russell Wilson. Sherman did indeed go see Brady after the game. The two would meet again after another game in February 2015.
THE YEAR: 2012
THE GAME: Patriots 34, Titans 13
THE PLAY: Chandler Jones strip sack leads to Donta Hightower TD
WHY IT’S HERE: The Patriots spent a pair of first-round picks on two front-seven defenders in 2012 and in the first game of their rookie season, they delivered a glimpse of their potential. On a third-and-13 from his own 6, the estimable Jake Locker dropped back into his end zone where he was bum-rushed by Jones who got loose around left tackle Michael Roos. The strip sack was finished off by Dont'a Hightower, who scooped and scored from the 6. It was a play of significance because it signaled that the Patriots had a couple of players on their hands. While the arc of their careers had their dips and Jones was shipped to Arizona this offseason, both were -- and in Hightower’s case still is -- very important players for this team.
THE YEAR: 2011 (actually February 2012)
THE GAME: Giants 21, Patriots 17
THE PLAY: Aaron Hernandez pulls in 12-yard TD from Brady in Super Bowl 46
WHY IT’S HERE: It’s surreal to see clips of this Super Bowl and watch how Aaron Hernandez played, knowing how it all turned out. That night in Indianapolis, when he caught a 12-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady to put the Patriots up 17-9 early in the third quarter, Hernandez was a 22-year-old with a brilliant NFL career ahead of him. Within five months, he would allegedly commit a double-murder in Boston for which he’ll soon stand trial. He’s already been tried and convicted of killing Odin Lloyd in June of 2013. This list is designed to revisit all the things -- good, bad and, in this case, horrifically ugly -- that have happened and gauge their impact in some way. How did Hernandez’ rise and fall impact the franchise, the fanbase, the community and the media? In more ways than we could detail here. But that play – and the fact he was nearly on the receiving end of a game-winning Hail Mary later in that Super Bowl – is a chilling reminder that we don’t know what we don’t know. Watch this until the end.
THE YEAR: 2010
THE GAME: Browns 34, Patriots 14
THE PLAY: Gronk fumbles at Browns 3-yard line
WHY IT’S HERE: Okay, I understand if your first reaction to this one is, “He’s reaching here . . . ”, but let me explain. This Week 9 game at Cleveland was a turning point in a number of ways. First, it was just weeks after the team’s surprise trade of Randy Moss and -- even though they’d been winning -- a new identity was being forged. Second, Gronk was going to be a big part of that identity. In this game, he got his first taste of NFL ignominy. He was part of a first-quarter miscommunication that led to a muffed kickoff and Cleveland recovery, then he fumbled at the Browns’ 3 just before halftime. The Patriots got waxed by the Eric Mangini-coached Browns. How did Gronk and the team respond? Resoundingly. The Patriots won their final eight games and finished 14-2. Within a year, Gronk was making his case as the best tight end in the league.
THE YEAR: 2005
THE GAME: Chargers 41, Patriots 17
THE PLAY: Matt Cassel’s late pick lets Chargers pour it on
WHY IT’S HERE: The Patriots’ NFL-record 21-game home winning streak was snapped, and while Chargers head coach Marty Schottenheimer lauded the effort of the injury-wrecked Pats -- who started the season without Tedy Bruschi, who was recovering from a stroke, and had already lost Rodney Harrison and Matt Light for the year -- he wondered, “At what point in time do you keep responding when you have to keep putting in new players? They've done it wonderfully over the last four years, but there comes a time where it has to catch up with you, even with a team as great as this one." That quote struck a nerve with Tom Brady, who basically told Schottenheimer to mind his own damn business. That side of Brady has rarely been on display at the podium. Brady may have taken exception to the Chargers’ whooping it up so much after the win (included defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who said as he left the field, “That’s an ass-whipping right there.”) Either way, Clinton Hart’s 40-yard interception return -- he's number 42 in the picture on the left, being congratulated by teammate Drayton Florence after the pick-six -- in the final minute gave the Chargers the final margin of victory and put a little salt in New England’s wound.
THE YEAR: 2011
THE GAME: Giants 24, Patriots 20
THE PLAY: Eli Manning hit Jake Ballard with a TD toss at the buzzer
WHY IT’S HERE: Here’s a game that served as a postscript and a prologue, with Eli Manning and the Giants doing their thing against New England. After a scoreless first half, the Patriots erased a 10-0 Giants lead but the two teams combined for 31 fourth-quarter points and a light was shone on the shoddiness of the New England secondary. New England took the lead with 1:40 left but Manning kept coming, hitting Ballard for the score on third-and-goal from the 1 with 19 seconds left. The teams would meet again in the Super Bowl . . . with a similar outcome, as well.
THE YEAR: 2015 (actually January 2016)
THE GAME: Broncos 20, Patriots 18
THE PLAY: Stephen Gostkowski misses first-quarter PAT
WHY IT'S HERE: How differently might the most recent AFC Championship Game have gone if the best kicker in the league didn’t miss his first extra point in a decade? Had Gostkowski made that PAT (and all else remained the same after it), then an overtime session would have decided who went on to play the Panthers. The Patriots were outplayed by the Denver defense and it took a monumental effort by Tom Brady to bring them within two points late. But the Patriots defense -- save for two lapses by Jamie Collins -- made Denver struggle plenty, as well. If the PAT were made and the Patriots got out of Denver with a win, you’d have liked their chances against Carolina given the way the Panthers wound up playing in SB50. But Gostkowski’s miss from 33 yards (thanks to a Patriots rule-change proposal to lengthen PATs) after setting the NFL record for PATs made (523), helped deprive the Pats of that chance.
THE YEAR: 2013
THE GAME: Jets 30, Patriots 27, o.t.
WHY IT’S HERE: Because it’s just one of those plays that encapsulates so much of the drama the Patriots sometimes find themselves in. After blowing a 21-10 lead, the Patriots needed two fourth-quarter field goals to force overtime in Week 7 against the Jets. Late in OT, the Jets lined up for a 56-yard field goal – an aggressive distance. The kick was missed but Patriots defensive lineman Chris Jones was called for unsportsmanlike conduct for pushing a teammate into the Jets field goal protection team. The newly-instituted rule was drafted saying players couldn’t push from the “second level” and VP of Officiating Dean Blandino explained it that way on a video about the rules change. But the “second level” wording had been scrapped and the Patriots weren’t wise to that. So when they had Jones loop back at the snap and push a teammate, it was a penalty. The Jets tipped the officials off about the Patriots penchant for executing the play this way and they caught them. Moved 15 yards closer, Nick Folk drilled the field goal. Some drama ensued in the days following, including the fact the NFL had its faulty explanation still posted to their site after the game but rushed to edit it.
THE YEAR: 2014
THE GAME: Patriots 27, Jets 25
WHY IT’S HERE: Just 362 days after he was whistled for an infraction in 2013 that led to a Jets game-winning field goal, Patriots defensive lineman Chris Jones was back at it again – this time within the rules. Jones blocked a 58-yarder with five seconds remaining at Gillette Stadium to seal a Thursday night win and send the Patriots on a continued tear throughout the second half of the 2014 season that wound end with a Super Bowl win.
THE YEAR: 2015
THE GAME: Patriots 30, Cowboys 6
THE PLAY: Dion Lewis one-handed catch and TD run
WHY IT’S HERE: This one makes the list because, of all the plays we’ve seen in the past 16 seasons, has anyone seen a more absurdly brilliant individual effort than the one turned in by Lewis. A one-handed catch on a poorly thrown ball, a spin, an obscene juke, ducking under two defenders and then powering through a fourth for a touchdown in a rout of the Cowboys at Jerry World. The play – and Lewis’ mere presence – is also illustrative of the skill the Patriots have shown in unearthing players that have been scrap-heaped and giving them the chance to turn into something special. From Mike Vrabel and Antowain Smith to Wes Welker, Julian Edelman and Dion Lewis how many times have the Patriots found and benefited from players that everyone in the league had multiple chances to acquire but did not? A lot.