Top 100 plays of Belichick Era: Numbers 85-71
THE YEAR: 2012
THE GAME: Patriots 45, Rams 7 in London
WHY IT’S HERE: So much rolled up into one play. First, football-wise, you had Gronk beating a red zone double-team and scoring the first of two touchdowns on a day in which he’d catch 8 for 146 at Wembley Stadium. Second, days after spiking a mic in downtown London, Gronk did it up right with a goofy, stiff-legged lead-in to his spike. Third, the high-comedy awkwardness of Phil Simms and Jim Nantz on full display:
Simms: “I think he was marching like a SOLDIER! He was guarding the Queen!”
Nantz: “Major style points here in London for The Gronk!”
Finally, this was Bill Belichick’s team crushing the skull of Jeff Fisher’s team yet again. Fisher is the antithesis of Belichick: An apple-polishing, media-courting, sanctimonious, league-office lackey who kisses up to 345 Park Avenue (and has relished Patriot-related finger-wagging opportunities). Meanwhile, the penchant of Fisher’s teams to play filthy -- and the fact that he was mobbed up with the loathsome Gregg Williams for nine of his coaching seasons, then got self-righteous when called out -- makes Fisher a coach whom Belichick seems to relish spanking. New England has outscored Fisher’s teams 104-7 in the last two meetings.
THE YEAR: 2011
THE GAME: Patriots 35, Chargers 21
WHY IT’S HERE: Because it encapsulates what Wilfork was like at the height of his powers. Week 2 and the Patriots were up 17-7. San Diego was marching when Wilfork dropped into the flat, tipped a Philip Rivers pass intended for Mike Tolbert into the air, came down with it and rumbled the other way (with Jim Nantz inexplicably referring to him as “Wilfert”). Incredibly athletic. The Patriots ran three plays in nine seconds and got a Stephen Gostkowski field goal off the exchange. Two weeks later, Wilfert picked off the Raiders' Jason Campbell on an equally athletic play. Then, in 2014 -- his last season with the team -- Wilfork preserved a win over the Raiders with a tipped pick. A five-time Pro Bowler and one-time All-Pro, Wilfork is beloved but I don’t think he truly was appreciated for how incredible he was from 2009 to 2012, when he was one of the best players in football at any position.
THE YEAR: 2011 (actually February 2012)
THE GAME: Giants 21, Patriots 17
WHY IT’S HERE: For sheer mass of nut-crushing plays, it’s hard to find a game that trumps Super Bowl 46, the second dance with the Giants. This one came early. With the Patriots already down 2-0 thanks to an end-zone grounding flagged on an amped-up Tom Brady, the Giants had third-and-3 at the New England 11. A mass substitution prior to the play had the Pats addled. Still, when Eli Manning hit Victor Cruz on a short slant and Brandon Spikes pried the ball loose, it looked like the Patriots were going to get out unscathed. But they were called for having 12 men on the field and -- two plays later -- Manning whistled a touchdown past Jerod Mayo’s ear on a play where Mayo never turned around. The Pats practically spotted the Giants nine points in a championship game. This won’t be the last you’ll see of this game on the list.
THE YEAR: 2010
THE GAME: Patriots 23, Ravens 20, o.t.
WHY IT’S HERE: Reboot. This game officially began the 2.0 version of the Patriots dynasty. Dealing Randy Moss during the bye week and reacquiring Branch from the Seahawks for a fourth-round pick, the Pats were figuratively going back to their roots. From 2007 through early 2010, the team atmosphere changed drastically. Too many veteran players who’d had measures of success elsewhere had been imported. They were more prone to eye-roll than embrace the Patriots’ selfless culture of dummying up and doing your job, no questions asked. Moss, who famously went off after the 2010 opener about his contract, was the last vestige of that group. Branch -- who ironically was dealt away during a 2006 holdout -- came back and fit in seamlessly with 9 catches for 98 yards as the Patriots erased a 20-10 deficit in the fourth.
THE YEAR: 2004
THE GAME: Patriots 29, Bills 6
THE PLAY: Troy Brown picks off Drew Bledsoe
WHY IT’S HERE: My recollection of Drew Bledsoe’s final few seasons in New England differs from the romanticized, politically correct and prevalent painting of noble, selfless Drew. Post-Parcells, Bledsoe grew disillusioned as the team became rudderless. His skill level plateaued and he seemed to become weary of it all. He held up the team for a $103 million contract in early 2001 -- richest in the league -- then came into training camp and couldn’t have been worse. When he was injured and replaced by Tom Brady, then didn't get “my job” back after recovering, he fumed. Bledsoe wasn’t a victim of circumstance, but part of the problem.
But after the team traded him to Buffalo and got the better of him for a couple of years, enough was enough. He was, in the end, a good and admirable person who just came up short in New England. Still, there was one more indignity Drew had to take from the team that once tied its fortunes to his right arm. Troy Brown, playing corner in a depleted Patriots secondary, picked off Bledsoe on a November Monday night in prime time. It almost wasn’t funny anymore. Almost.
THE YEAR: 2014 (actually February 2015)
THE GAME: Patriots 28, Seahawks 24
WHY IT’S HERE: If Super Bowl 49 had been a movie, this is where the guy freefalling from the rooftop lands in the back of a moving garbage truck. No truck? No guy; movie's over. Truck? Movie. continues.
By early in the fourth quarter, the Patriots had surrendered 17 straight points since just before halftime. Their three second-half possessions were a pick and two three-and-outs. Facing third-and-14 from their own 28 with 10:58 left, they had to have the conversion. Tom Brady took the shotgun snap, shuffled forward, forward, forward, then ripped a bullet to Edelman, who made the catch at the hashmark 21 yards downfield knowing full well that one of the biggest safeties in captivity -- Kam Chancellor -- was going to demolish him. Edelman held on and even ricocheted for a few more staggering yards before succumbing.
The post-catch amble was called back -- Edelman’s elbow and knee were down after the hit -- and the blow to the head was ignored, but the conversion ultimately led to a Danny Amendola touchdown and the comeback was on. For a longer look at Edelman’s 49 impact, read this by my friend Doug Kyed. You forget the little things, sometimes.
THE YEAR: 2007 (actually February 2008)
THE GAME: Giants 17, Patriots 14
THE PLAY: Super Bowl-sealing pick slips through Asante Samuel’s mitts in fourth
WHY IT’S HERE: Could Asante Samuel have come up with the Super Bowl-sealing pick on second-and-5 during the Giants’ final drive? Yes. Should he have? Not as clear cut. Eli Manning’s throw to where he anticipated David Tyree would be was very high. And Samuel was way off the ground when the ball went off his fingertips and fell incomplete. Having made 16 picks in the previous two years, people were accustomed to seeing him come down with the ball. But it’s hard to call this a drop. The fact that the helmet catch came on the next play made the missed opportunity sting even more. But a fourth-and-1 conversion on which Vince Wilfork and Tedy Bruschi got knocked from the hole Brandon Jacobs hit, and a third-and-12 conversion just before the Plaxico Burress touchdown, were also missed opportunities that led to that desert disaster.
THE YEAR: 2013
THE GAME: Patriots 27, Browns 26
THE PLAY: Patriots recover onsides kick vs. Browns
WHY IT’S HERE: The Browns (!) went up 26-14 on the Patriots with 2:46 left and a massive upset was in the making. But the Patriots scored with 61 seconds left on a throw from Tom Brady to Julian Edelman, then recovered the onsides kick. That was followed by a sketchy pass interference against Josh Boyce in the end zone. Brady then rolled out and hit Danny Amendola for a 1-yard score and the Patriots had their third straight win in which they erased a halftime deficit. It was one of the best comebacks of the Belichick Era.
THE YEAR: 2002
THE GAME: Patriots 33, Bears 30
WHY IT’S HERE: Down 27-6 with 6:42 left in the third, the defending Super Bowl champs were about to fall to 4-5 and all the cluck-clucking about Tom Brady being a one-year wonder was going to accelerate. They were still down 30-19 with five minutes left, but a Kevin Faulk touchdown with 2:54 left, a crazy final drive on which a Bears interception was overturned, and a 20-yard touchdown to David Patten with 28 seconds left brought New England all the way back. In the link above, check out the dude in the end zone in the striped sweater worried he’s going to get run over. Handsome devil.
THE YEAR: 2015
THE GAME: Eagles 35, Patriots 28
THE PLAY: Mortar kick.
WHY IT’S HERE: I include this play with much reluctance. Frankly, if you think a low-risk kickoff strategy that results in a team (in this case, Philly) getting the ball at its own 40 while trailing 14-0 in the second quarter is a season-changer, you need to listen to more music and less sports radio. I went over this at the end of the season. But too many people viewed the decision to allow Nate Ebner to bloop a kick into what the Patriots thought would be no-man’s land in the Eagles return team as an egregious sign of bravado and arrogance for me to wholly ignore it. So here it is. I could just as easily include Chris Harper’s muffed punt in Denver a week earlier, or a third-and-10 conversion for 20 yards to Jordan Matthews three plays after the mortar kick, but no. People fixated on the mortar kick. Here’s the mortar kick.
THE YEAR: 2013
THE GAME: Panthers 24, Patriots 20
THE PLAY: Gronkterference
WHY IT’S HERE: With three seconds left in a Monday Night Football game against the Panthers, the Patriots trailed 24-20 and had the ball at the Carolina 18. Last play of a fascinating game. Tom Brady took the snap, looked for Rob Gronkowski in the seam and let fly. Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly wrapped Gronk up, preventing him from working back toward the underthrown ball. It was picked by Robert Lester. But there was a flag for the obvious interference and the Patriots were poised to get a final play from the Panthers 1. Then they weren’t. Official Clete Blakeman had a quick discussion with the back judge, the flag was picked up and the game was declared over. The ball was uncatchable for Gronk was the ruling. That was brilliantly debunked by ESPN’s Sports Science guy days later. Brady’s meltdown after the loss, combined with Bill Belichick acknowledging a rules blunder less than a month earlier (No. 88 on this list), had the rest of the nation -- and no doubt the league office -- chortling about the poor, persecuted Patriots having a sad.
THE YEAR: 2010
THE GAME: Patriots 39, Steelers 26
WHY IT’S HERE: One week after an embarrassing 20-point loss to the Browns, and still in the early stages of the team’s post-Randy Moss reboot, Brady made it clear on Sunday Night Football how long he was going to accept a gradual move toward improvement. Not very long. With the Patriots leading 10-3 in Pittsburgh, a drive had just gone belly-up and the Patriots were punting. As he made his way to the sidelines, Brady bitched out his offensive teammates. Once on the sidelines, he went fully bananas, seeming to enumerate the ways in which the Patriots were bleeping up and stressing that he found it less than acceptable. Then he smoothed his hair. By early in the fourth, the Patriots were ahead 29-10 and at the start of an eight-game winning streak. There have been myriad Brady meltdowns through the years. He is the hot-bloodedest elite quarterback to ever play. But this was the most forceful and impactful.
THE YEAR: 2013
THE GAME: Patriots 30, Saints 27
THE PLAY: Tom Brady hits Kenbrell Thompkins FTW with 5 seconds left
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.
THE YEAR: 2014 (actually January 2015)
THE GAME: Patriots 35, Ravens 31
WHY IT’S HERE: If the Patriots were going to win the elusive fourth Lombardi of the Belichick Era, they would have to exorcise the demons of the previous nine seasons. One of those demons came in Raven form.
In the 2009 playoffs, Baltimore pulled the curtain back on the Pats, showing they were -- despite a 10-6 record -- at their nadir. Baltimore jumped up 24-0 back then. In 2011, the Pats needed Sterling Moore to break up a potential TD pass to Lee Evans in the end zone, and a flubbed 32-yard field-goal attempt by Billy Cundiff, to get past the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game. They weren't so lucky in 2012, as Baltimore came into Foxboro and put a 28-13 spanking on the Pats en route to a Super Bowl title.
The Ravens were back at Gillette in 2014 for the divisional round, and they twice built two-touchdown leads: 14-0 and 28-14. The Patriots were going to have to stare history in the face a little bit to get back in it. The Pats tied it at 28-28 on the Julian Edelman-to-Danny Amendola double pass but Baltimore went ahead again early in the fourth on a Justin Tucker field goal. That’s when Tom Brady -- who’d taken the near-decade of misses harder than anyone -- went to work. Precision passes were making paper-cut wounds in the Ravens defense until LaFell released outside of corner Rashaan Melvin and Brady feathered in a 23-yard objet d’art for the go-ahead touchdown.
THE YEAR: 2011 (actually February 2012)
THE GAME: Giants 21, Patriots 17
WHY IT’S HERE: Talk about a nut punch. I was the pool reporter for the AFC the day before this Super Bowl and -- after the traditional team pictures were taken on the field at Lucas Oil Stadium -- Tom Brady went to the locker room and changed. When he came back to spend some time with his immediate family, he saw me in the first row of the stands. I asked him how he felt about the team’s chances, something I’ve done dozens of times late in the week before games. His answer left no doubt about what he expected to happen. He was oozing intensity with kickoff still 18 hours away. When the game began, Brady had to wait six minutes before the New England defense forced Eli Manning from the field. Taking over at his own 6, Brady dropped back and had plenty of time to throw. But nothing uncovered and Justin Tuck suddenly materialized. Brady flung it down the middle of the field incomplete to avoid the sack. Nobody was home. The play was correctly called a safety. Just as damaging was bringing the New England defense back on the field so soon. The Giants embarked on a nine-play, 78-yard touchdown drive to make it 9-0, by which time they and had run 19 plays to New England’s one and consumed nearly all of the first quarter. Bad start.