Top 100 plays of the Belichick Era: Numbers 50 to 21
THE YEAR: 2006 (actually January 2007)
THE GAME: Patriots 24, Chargers 21
THE PLAY: Troy Brown strips Marlon McCree after would-be game-sealing interception
WHY IT’S HERE: You have several plays to choose from when trying to pin down the signature play of Troy Brown’s Patriots Hall of Fame career. None of them is better than this one.
Trailing 21-13 with 6:25 left in their AFC Divisional Playoff Game in San Diego, the Pats faced fourth-and-5 from the Chargers 41. The ’06 model of the New England offense was not very good, and that was evident against the powerful, top-seeded 14-2 Chargers. But the Patriots -- once again -- had the good fortune of playing a team that didn’t understand that, in the postseason, sometimes the way to win is simply in figuring out how to not lose.
For instance, when Chargers safety Marlon McCree picked off Tom Brady on that fourth-and-5, he tried to return the pick through a pack of players instead of going down and securing possession. Even though McCree was stripped from behind by Brown (the fumble recovered by Reche Caldwell), McCree would later defend his decision to run saying he’d do it again all in the name of “trying to make a play (3:10 mark on the video). The Patriots went on to tie the game five plays after McCree’s fumble. The Chargers went three-and-out. Brady hit Caldwell for 49 yards on the ensuing drive and the Patriots won on a 31-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski.
That wasn’t the end of it, though. After Chargers kicker Nate Kaeding missed from 54 at the buzzer, the Patriots grave-danced all over the field. That caused LaDainian Tomlinson and Philip Rivers to flip their lids, LT blaming Bill Belichick because the Patriots had the temerity to mock Shawne Merriman’s sack dance. I swear to God, life simply could not be better for you if you can get that angry at grown men dancing the way another grown man dances. At your place of work. Rivers merely told Ellis Hobbs that Hobbs was the “sorriest corner in the league.”
The Chargers’ panties remained bunched for years about the "classless" Patriots actions that day, disregarding the gloating they did a year earlier when they snapped the Patriots' home winning streak. "That's an ass-whipping," Chargers defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said as he left the field. "[Bleep] New England and their team," he said, before turning to assembled media and saying, “Get the look of shock off your faces. Don't be shocked. We beat your ass." But the fact that one of the most talented teams of the decade got knocked off at home by a Patriots team that was merely good was the biggest comeuppance of all.
THE YEAR: 2014 (actually January 2015)
THE GAME: Patriots 35, Ravens 31
THE PLAY: Tom Brady hits Michael Hoomanawanui for 16 yards on sneaky formation play
WHY IT’S HERE: Like so many other plays on this list, this play didn’t just impact the 15 seconds it took to fully unfold. It changed the rest of the drive, the Patriots' next drive, the game, and the mental state of the Ravens and their fragile head coach John Harbaugh when Tom Brady said Baltimore should study the rule book. It also probably caused the Ravens to send up flares to the Pats' next opponent -- the Colts -- to be wary of chicanery. And that turned into stuff.
The Ravens whining about this play that “nobody had ever seen before”, according to Harbaugh (but which had been employed at both the college and NFL level in the recent past), led to an NFL rule change, as well. The Pats lined Michael Hoomanawanui up at the left tackle spot and positioned him as an eligible receiver. They also positioned Shane Vereen so he was ineligible. The Ravens covered Vereen -- even though he reported as ineligible -- and ignored Hooman. The Ravens came unglued in general and got beaten on the same formation play later in the drive, at which point Harbaugh took a 15-yard unsportsmanlike for marching onto the field to complain. The Patriots closed to 28-21 on that drive then tied the game on the double-pass on their next drive.
THE YEAR: 2005 (actually January 2006)
THE GAME: Broncos 27, Patriots 13
THE PLAY: Ben Watson chases down Champ Bailey
WHY IT’S HERE: The Patriots were on a 10-game playoff winning streak entering their Divisional Round game at top-seeded Denver, having won three each in ’01, ’03 and ’04 and knocking off Jacksonville 28-3 in the Wild Card round a week earlier. Late in the third, trailing 10-6, the Patriots had third-and-5 at the Denver 5. Tom Brady looked into the flat to Troy Brown but his throw was undercut by Champ Bailey, who hightailed down the sideline with a fleet of teammates running interference. After stepping out of a Kevin Faulk tackle near midfield, it looked like clear sailing. But tight end Benjamin Watson, taking off from across the field and taking a perfect angle, ran about 130 yards to catch up to Bailey and blast him out of bounds at the 1, forcing a fumble.
To this day, Bill Belichick laments the fact there wasn’t an end-zone camera that would have determined if the ball was fumbled out of the end zone -- which would have given the Patriots the ball at their own 20 -- or at the New England 1 with Denver having possession, which is what officials ruled and replay upheld. The Broncos scored on the next play and handed Brady his first playoff loss. But Watson’s chasedown became a part of Patriots lore.
THE YEAR: 2004 (actually January 2005)
THE GAME: Patriots 41, Steelers 27
WHY IT’S HERE: After opening the season with six straight wins, the Patriots' NFL-record 21-game winning streak (dating back to 2003) was snapped by the Steelers on Halloween. Convincingly. Pittsburgh, behind rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, had won 15 straight and was hosting the AFC Championship against New England for the second time in four seasons.
Looking for revenge for ’01, the Steelers instead got humbled.
There were a number of big plays in this game -- Tom Brady’s bomb to Deion Branch on the Patriots’ second drive; Corey Dillon’s 25-yard rumble; Branch’s electrifying end-around for another score -- but the most memorable play came when Rodney Harrison picked off a Roethlisberger pass on the dead run and took it back. With only Roethlisberger between Harrison and the end zone, Mike Vrabel hustled downfield and tossed Big Ben out of the club at about the Steelers 30, allowing Harrison to swagger in and give the Patriots a 24-3 lead heading into halftime, sucking the life out of the Steelers and their crowd.
THE YEAR: 2006
THE GAME: Patriots 35, Packers 0
THE PLAY: Not a play but, well, an incident. Patriots employee Matt Estrella was ejected from sideline, and then the stadium, for videotaping the Packers sideline.
WHY IT’S HERE: In their pursuit of gathering intel on opponents, the Patriots routinely videotaped coaching signals being sent in from the sidelines. Those tapes would later be studied by Bill Belichick’s longtime friend, football savant and Patriots’ jack-of-all-trades Ernie Adams, for tendencies. Next time the Patriots played that opponent, if the signals hadn’t been changed (which indicates they were pretty naive), the Patriots could have some tells. If they had changed their signals to guard against lip readers, pen-and-paper scouts or the videotaping Belichick said was rampant, Adams would have spent his time pissing up a rope.
Bottom line, you weren’t supposed to videotape sidelines.
Belichick, being the son of an acclaimed scout who worked at the Naval Academy and brought his son up to revere the legendary Paul Brown, had a different view of things. Getting info about the enemy (opponent) was a fact of football life since long before the NFL suits in New York got their internships with the Jets then wheedled their ways up the ranks. So the Patriots did their videotaping.
It came to somewhat of a head in Green Bay on this day. Matt Estrella, an employee in the video department, was seen filming from the sidelines and was removed from the field. And he reportedly kept filming from a concourse. That got him booted out of Lambeau. The Patriots soon got a memo from the league office. And, on Sept. 6, 2007, NFL VP of Operations Ray Anderson fired off another memo saying, "Videotaping of any type, including but not limited to taping of an opponent's offensive or defensive signals, is prohibited on the sidelines, in the coaches' booth, in the locker room or at any other locations accessible to club staff members during the game." The Patriots let Estrella loose on the sidelines in New York a day after the memo was received. The Jets and the NFL were lying in wait. Spygate was born.
THE YEAR: 2005
THE GAME: Patriots 21, Bills 16
THE PLAY: Tedy Bruschi returns
WHY IT’S HERE: Just hours before the Patriots were to chase their third Super Bowl in four years, their emotional defensive leader -- linebacker Tedy Bruschi -- showed how tense he was about the Eagles by cavorting on the field in Jacksonville with his sons. Coming off his best season in the NFL and headed to the Pro Bowl for the first time after that Super Bowl, Bruschi had finally realized everything . . . both as a part of a team and as an individual player.
And then, three days after returning from the Pro Bowl, Bruschi suffered a stroke.
The first concern for everyone was if he’d be able to regain his faculties as a person, forget about football. And his unsteady movements when he was released from Mass General a few days after the stroke only amplified that football was not part of the conversation. But, slowly, incrementally, Bruschi improved. He began considering returning to the field in 2006. Then, as he continued to improve, he recalculated for 2005. On October 30 -- 10 months after his stroke -- Bruschi returned to the team. He made seven tackles against the Bills that night. Remarkable player. Remarkable guy.
THE YEAR: 2006 (actually January 2007)
THE GAME: Colts 38, Patriots 34
THE PLAY: Reche Caldwell breaks up pass to himself vs. Colts
WHY IT’S HERE: The fallout from Caldwell’s two drops in the AFC Championship were well-documented in May in an ESPN feature on the now-jailed wideout. Caldwell, who had a very solid 2006 season and made a key catch in the Patriots’ win over the top-seeded Chargers in the Divisional Playoff a week earlier, had his big blunder in the fourth.
With the Patriots facing first-and-15 from the Indy 18 with the score tied at 28-28, the Colts forgot to cover Caldwell. Tom Brady noticed just before the snap and Caldwell -- who went about five yards upfield -- took his giant eyes off the ball to check where he’d go once he pulled in the uncontested catch. The ball ricocheted off his hands like they were a pair of ping-pong paddles. The Patriots settled for a field goal. The Colts wound up winning by four.
THE YEAR: 2003 (actually January 2004)
THE GAME: Patriots 17, Titans 14
THE PLAY: Bethel Johnson catches 41-yard TD from Tom Brady (1:34 in video)
WHY IT’S HERE: This was one of the most fascinating games of the Belichick Era. Two outstanding defensive teams with two of the best quarterbacks in the game -- Tom Brady and Steve McNair -- on a night where the cold was inhumane. Points figured to be hard to come by (and they were), but on the Patriots’ first drive of the night, facing a third-and-6 from the Titans’ 41, Brady found then-rookie Bethel Johnson for a 41-yard touchdown.
I’ve never seen a faster human than Johnson. He ran like a machine. And on this play, he simply cruised through the Titans secondary for a score that nobody saw coming.
THE YEAR: 2004 (actually January 2005)
THE GAME: Patriots 41, Steelers 27
THE PLAY: Tom Brady to Deion Branch for 60-yard TD
WHY IT’S HERE: Sick as a dog with a 103-degree temperature the night before the 2004 AFC Championship Game, Tom Brady was a marked man by the Steelers. Less than three months earlier, Pittsburgh routed the Patriots at Heinz Field, 34-20. They believed the 2001 AFC Championship Game (a 24-17 New England victory in Pittsburgh) and the 2002 Gillette Stadium opener (a 30-14 Patriots romp) were aberrations. What happened on Halloween, they thought, was what should really happen when these teams played.
The Patriots weren’t going to spread them out and make them look silly on this day. Instead, New England bowed up on defense and hit Pittsburgh with haymakers. Trailing 3-0, Steelers coach Bill Cowher decided to go for it on fourth down from the Patriots 39. The Steelers gave the ball to Jerome Bettis -- a bad idea, given the Patriots penchant during this period of time for stuffing big backs in key situations. Bettis was bottled up. And on the next play, Brady undressed another likely Hall of Famer, Troy Polamalu, by looking the safety off and finding Deion Branch for a 60-yard score and a 10-0 lead. Heinz Field -- so loud a few months earlier -- was like a crypt.
THE YEAR: 2015
THE GAME: Patriots 34, Colts 27
THE PLAY: Colts attempt a fake punt. Doesn’t work.
WHY IT’S HERE: The backstory and buildup to this game was as charged as it could possibly be. The Colts were the team that collaborated with the NFL Operations personnel to try and catch the Patriots red-handed deflating footballs the previous January. Emails sent by the Colts equipment manager to GM Ryan Grigson, then forwarded to league lieutenant Mike Kensil, set the trap. The Colts sideline assistant who stuck a needle in a ball to check the PSI during the first half was the next step. And it all flowed from there.
This Week 6 game was supposed to be the first game Tom Brady was back from his four-game suspension. A Sunday Night Football game on NBC. Instead, Brady’s suspension was overturned and the Patriots had been caving in heads for four games. With revenge on their minds, more of the same was expected.
However, the bludgeoning that was anticipated never unfolded. The Colts hung in there pretty well. But Indy did pee down its leg. Trailing 27-21 with the ball at their own 37, the Colts thought they’d outsmart the Patriots. Sending all but two players split out to the right, Indy’s Griff Whelan lined up at center with Colt Anderson behind him. The Patriots quickly communicated what they wanted to do to defend the formation. They had numbers on Whelan and Anderson.
And then Whelan snapped it.
After a split-second of “did he really just snap it?” the “action” began and Anderson was swarmed under. One of the most embarrassing plays in NFL history. It had to serve as the salve for the Deflategate wound that so many in New England wanted to see avenged that night.
THE YEAR: 2004
THE GAME: Patriots 40, Rams 22
WHY IT’S HERE: The week before, the Patriots' 21-game winning streak (dating back to 2003 and including playoffs) had been snapped in Pittsburgh. The attrition in the secondary was significant, with Ty Law going down against the Steelers. It got worse when backup Asante Samuel got knocked out early in this game. But with Earthwind Moreland and Troy Brown playing corner, Mike Vrabel pulling in a touchdown pass, and the chicanery in the third quarter of Vinatieri taking a direct snap on a field goal and throwing to an uncovered Brown, the Patriots cruised.
“This is probably as much of a team victory as anything I’ve ever been around,” Bill Belichick said. “They fought to the end. That’s what a team’s about. Everyone doing their job.”
THE YEAR: 2004
THE GAME: Patriots 27, Colts 24
THE PLAY: Mike Vanderjagt gags on game-tying field goal attempt at buzzer
WHY IT’S HERE: The Patriots had been administering beatings to the Colts and Peyton Manning with regularity since 2001. But this one wasn’t a beating. It was a gripping season-opening game for the league at Gillette, with the Patriots' second championship banner being unfurled before the start.
This was the Colts at their most talented. Edgerrin James (who ran for 142 on this night), Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Brandon Stokley, Dallas Clark . . . Indy was a powerhouse. And still they couldn’t get over on the Patriots because of two huge defensive plays.
The first came with 3:51 left in the game and the Colts at the Patriots 1, trailing 27-24. Indy went with James and he was met by safety Eugene Wilson, who forced a fumble that was recovered by rookie Vince Wilfork.
After the Patriots were forced to punt, Indy got the ball back and within three plays was at the New England 17. That’s when Willie McGinest -- on third down -- came off the edge and dropped Manning for a 12-yard loss back to the 29.
On came Mike Vanderjagt, who’d made 42 kicks in a row. He looked at the Patriots’ sideline, rubbed the tips of his fingers together to indicate he was money (so money) . . . and promptly pushed his attempt wide right.
It was all an indication that, as had been proven in earlier games and would be again in the 2004 postseason, Indy wasn’t yet there mentally.
THE YEAR: 2004 (actually February 2005)
THE GAME: Patriots 24, Eagles 21
WHY IT’S HERE: Having won nine straight playoff games heading into SB39 against the Eagles, the general feeling was that the Patriots would have little trouble with Philly. And if they did have trouble, they’d still figure it out. But as the first half unfolded, things were a little uncomfortable. It was 7-0, Philadelphia. The Patriots had fumbled at the Eagles 4 and done nothing with the two turnovers they forced from Donovan McNabb.
With less than five minutes remaining in the half, the Patriots took over at the Eagles 37 and went on a methodical little drive that sapped the rest of the half. The payoff came on a play Bill Belichick would later gush about on an NFL Films DVD. From the Eagles 4, they planned a pass in the middle of the end zone to Christian Fauria, but the play appeared to blow up when Fauria slipped and fell. Tom Brady, though, kept his cool, looked to the left and found no one, then spotted David Givens near the boundary of the right side of the end zone. Touchdown.
It was a testament to how solid the Patriots’ protection was against the Eagles' cutthroat defense and, as Belichick would explain later, Brady’s ability to remain poised when things were not going New England’s way.
THE YEAR: 2003
THE GAME: Patriots 38, Titans 30
THE PLAY: Mike Cloud’s 15-yard touchdown puts the Patriots up for good vs. Titans
WHY IT’S HERE: One of my favorite games.
The 3-2 Patriots were trying to keep their heads above water at home against Tennessee. The Patriots turned to Mike Cloud, a Portsmouth, R.I., native who went to BC. Coming off a four-game PED suspension that Cloud insisted came from a bad batch of protein, he hadn’t even had a carry for the Patriots before this game. And his first touch came in the third quarter when Antowain Smith got hurt.
He scored a one-yard touchdown late in the third to put New England up 21-16. Then a wild fourth quarter ensued. Field goals were traded before a 17-play, 86-yard Tennessee drive was capped on fourth down by a throw from Steve McNair to rookie Tyrone Calico. Rookie Bethel Johnson answered with a 70-yard kickoff return and Cloud capped that drive with a 15-yard burst to put the Patriots up 31-27.McNair had the Titans on the move again but he went to Calico one time too many and got picked by Ty Law, who hobbled 65 yards the other way for a touchdown on his sprained ankle.
The significance of this game? It was the first of the Patriots' NFL-record 21 straight wins and showed the kind of resourcefulness and all-hands-on-deck mentality that’s been a staple of their program for 16 seasons.
THE YEAR: 2012
THE GAME: Patriots 49, Jets 19
THE PLAY: Buttfumble
WHY IT'S HERE: Why? It's got its own Wikipedia page!
The pure hilarity of seeing Mark Sanchez take a snap, realize the play was broken and hightail it directly into the posterior of lineman Brandon Moore in a Thanksgiving Night Game on NBC should have been enough. That Sanchez fumbled, Steve Gregory scooped it up and returned it for a touchdown, and the Patriots went ahead 21-0 on the play was gravy.
The play also signified the disintegration of the Jets in general, Rex Ryan and Sanchez in particular. Just two years before, the Jets lost to the Patriots in prime time, 45-3. But that Jets team had enough in reserve to avenge the loss at Foxboro in the playoffs a little over a month later and make the AFC Championship for the second consecutive year.
This play in 2012 was no aberration. It was symbolic of where the Jets were – directionless, inept, compelling enough to attract media attention but then satisfying the masses with slapstick. When Julian Edelman picked a fumble from mid-air on the ensuing kickoff and returned that for a touchdown, it was 28-0. The Patriots scored 21 points in 52 seconds and Fireman Ed quit after the game.
THE YEAR: 2014
THE GAME: Chiefs 41, Patriots 14
THE PLAY: Husain Abdullah pick-six of Tom Brady makes it 41-7
WHY IT'S HERE: The final indignity on an awful night at Arrowhead left many convinced the Patriots were toast. Those that didn’t think that, did think they were a long way away from being where we were accustomed to seeing them. And that a 2014 return to where they were seemed unlikely.
After a season-opening loss at Miami, an elementary win over the Adrian Peterson-less Vikings and a sloppy win over the Raiders, the Patriots got eviscerated on national television by the Chiefs. Tom Brady -- as had been the case the first three weeks -- had no time to throw, and in this one he compounded the lack of protection with some bad decisions. And the Patriots' run defense was uninspired
The Twitter gravediggers were out in force during the game and Brady being sat down after the pick made it a must that the media ask Bill Belichick whether Brady was seen as a part of the problem. We asked and got our answer from Belichick, which was a “You kidding me?” snort. (For the hell of it, this was my postgame breakdown of the issues facing the Patriots where I proclaimed Rob Gronkowski possibly in permanent decline . . . I’ll take my lumps).
As we know, the Patriots came out the next week and blasted Cincy, Brady threw 18 touchdowns and one pick over the next six games, and turned in possibly the best performance by any quarterback ever in a Super Bowl win four months later.
THE YEAR: 2013 (actually January 2014)
THE GAME: Broncos 26, Patriots 16
WHY IT’S HERE: With Aqib Talib, the 2013 Patriots were a formidable secondary. Without him, they were ragged. We’d seen that earlier in the 2013 season when Talib – playing at an All-Pro level – suffered a hip pointer, was limited and the Patriots flagged. We’d seen that in the 2012 playoffs when Talib left the AFCCG with a pulled hammy and Joe Flacco subsequently went off. So when Talib and Welker engaged in a game of chicken early in the second quarter of the AFC Championship Game in Denver and Talib was driven from the game, the inevitable occurred. The Pats got shredded. But the backstory – Welker the former Patriot whose exit from New England months earlier was painful and preventable. The Patriots ostensibly anteing up for Talib as a free agent but not Welker in the 2013 offseason. Another Manning-Brady matchup unfolding. Welker seemingly on a seek-and-pick mission on the play. Welker having kinda bungled the regular-season matchup between the Pats and Broncos. Bill Belichick reserving comment after the game then, on Monday, unloading on Welker for a “deliberate” hit on Talib. It engendered days of conversation and – as with so many things on this list – was about so much more than the few seconds it took for the play to unfold.
THE YEAR: 2008
THE GAME: Patriots 17, Chiefs 10
WHY IT’S HERE: Coming off an 18-1 2007 in which the Patriots were victimized by the Giants, the team had to start rolling the rock back up the hill again in 2008. Instead, for the second season in a row, something happened in the opener that changed everything. In 2007, it was the Jets and the NFL lying in wait to catch the Patriots videotaping from the sidelines. This time, it was blitzing Bernard Pollard lunging into the left knee of Brady with 7:27 remaining in the first quarter. Brady tore his ACL and MCL on the play and was lost for the season. And, as Brady ultimately acknowledged last fall, many thought he was going to be lost a lot longer than that. “I had doctors with the highest and best education in our country tell us — tell me — that I wouldn’t be able to play football again [after his 2007 ACL injury], that I would need multiple surgeries on my knee from my staph infection, that I would need a new ACL, a new MCL, that I wouldn’t be able to play with my kids when I’m older. Of course I go back the next year and we win Comeback Player of the Year. I follow the next season and we win the MVP.” The Patriots would go on to finish 11-5 that season with Matt Cassel at the controls, running a team for the first time since high school. Interestingly, that season would wind up being a cudgel for people aiming to diminish Brady as a player (“Hey, they still won 11 games without him…”). Which is frigging stupid since the 11-5 represented a precipitous drop from the first 16-0 season in NFL history.
THE YEAR: 2014 (actually January 2015)
THE GAME: Patriots 45, Colts 7
THE PLAY: D’Qwell Jackson intercepts Tom Brady in the second quarter of AFCCG.
WHY IT’S HERE: Without this pick, would the Colts have come into possession of a football so that their sideline could move into action by sticking a needle in the ball to do an ad hoc PSI check? Would the ensuing witch hunt quarterbacked by the NFL’s operations people ever even happen? Would Roger Goodell have had his reputation demolished thanks to the cabal of owners and league employees that wanted several pounds of Patriots’ flesh? Would there have been a self-righteous, hypocritical smearing of the best quarterback to ever play? Would the relationship between NFL and the NFLPA be as damaged as it now is? Would the $25 million in legal fees spent by both sides have gone into the pockets of attorneys or done real good somewhere else? If Tom Brady didn’t go for a knockout on first-and-10 from the Colts 26 and if D’Qwell Jackson hadn’t picked that pass off would we be where we are now – still held hostage by Deflategate? Probably not. Probably not.
THE YEAR: 2011 (actually February 2012)
THE GAME: Giants 21, Patriots 17
WHY IT’S HERE: The Patriots were up 17-15 and had the Giants backed up on their own 12. The Patriots closeout drive had just gone bellyup when Tom Brady and Wes Welker failed to hook up, but all they needed to do was hang on against Eli. But Eli did what Eli had done before. Played brilliantly when it mattered most. On the first play of the drive, Manningham went down the left sideline with Sterling Moore in pursuit. Manning dropped a rainbow just over the fingers of Moore and just before Patrick Chung arrived on the scene to whack Manningham who made a terrific catch and got his feet inbounds. Run the same play 10 times and how many times would it work out that precisely perfect for the Giants? Two? Who knows. All they needed was once. And they got it. Thirty more yards worth of completions to Manningham and Hakeem Nicks put the Giants in game-winning field goal range but New York got the touchdown when the Patriots realized they needed to let the Giants score or they’d run out the clock. It set the stage for an interesting ending that, ultimately, didn’t work out. And the Patriots had come up empty a second time against the Giants in a Super Bowl thanks to an improbable play.
THE YEAR: 2009
THE GAME: Colts 35, Patriots 34
THE PLAY: Fourth-and-2.
WHY IT’S HERE: Was it ballsy, arrogant, stupid or smart? What did it say about Bill Belichick that he tried to pick up a first down on fourth-and-2 from his own 28 against the 8-0 Colts with 2:08 remaining and the Patriots up 34-28? Thousands of hours of sports programming were consumed by the ensuing debate. And we could still kill an hour with it. The situation was this. The Patriots had been up 31-14 at the start of the fourth but their not-too-stout defense was starting to get shredded by Peyton Manning. While the decision fit neatly into the prevailing national opinion on Belichick – that he believed he was the smartest kid in the room – the reality was that the decision flowed from an abiding respect for Manning and Belichick’s desire to end the game ASAP with a first down. The Patriots believed they stood a better chance picking up 2 yards on a quick throw to Kevin Faulk than they did of keeping Manning out of the end zone with about 70 yards of field in front of him. The overhead view of the play indicated that maybe Faulk did get the yardage before being hammered by Melvin Bullitt. As for the ensuing drive, the Patriots defense played somewhat dispirited. Belichick was roundly hammered in the aftermath. But it didn’t take long before folks from different corners came around to defend the other side of an unconventional decision. To me, the arrogance wasn’t in the decision. The greater arrogance was from us in the media who were offended that Belichick wasn’t cowed by what the reaction would be.
PLAY NUMBER: 29
THE YEAR: 2003
THE GAME: Patriots 30, Broncos 26
WHY IT’S HERE: Just like the play at No. 30 and myriad other unconventional decisions, the intentional safety the Patriots took late in their Monday Night Football Game 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 – like fourth-and-2 – 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 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. So 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. They 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 and one of the most fascinating in a season loaded with intense games.
THE YEAR: 2003
THE GAME: Bills 31, Patriots 0
WHY IT'S HERE: This is the game where Patriot players came to understand that kicking rocks over decisions that were out of their hands was wasted energy. You could disagree with something vehemently, you could feel like a decision made the team worse, you could wonder about loyalty. But at the end of the week, if those things prevented you from doing your job you would be humiliated.
The Patriots cut their heart-and-soul defensive captain, Lawyer Milloy, on the Tuesday before the opener. A key player on the 1996 AFC champions and the emotional leader of the 2001 Super Bowl champs, Milloy had a kinship with Bill Belichick from his rookie season. He was -- appropriately -- the first player Belichick embraced after beating the Rams. Milloy lobbied for Belichick to succeed Pete Carroll. Milloy was also extremely close to Tom Brady and was one of the Patriots who outwardly supported the move to Brady after Drew Bledsoe was injured.
But Milloy was also a very proud player who steadfastly refused to take a pay cut when the Patriots asked him to help the team get in line with the cap. The Pats released him, the Bills signed him on Thursday, and on Sunday he was the final player introduced at Bills Stadium.
The Bills demonstrated that day how far emotion can take a team in the NFL. And the Patriots showed how a talented team that plays without emotion can get steamrolled. The Sam Adams pick, which made it 21-0 in the second quarter, was the signature play, along with Milloy’s end-zone pass breakup that resulted in a pick . . . one of four for Brady that day.
THE YEAR: 2003
THE GAME: Patriots 31, Bills 0
THE PLAY: 19-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady to David Givens
WHY IT'S HERE: It isn’t the play -- a second-quarter touchdown pass in the final regular-season game between a 13-2 team and a 6-9 team. It’s what the play signified.
The Patriots were a distracted team with rumblings of dissension when they opened the season against the Bills. They were a focused team that hit the finish line at a full sprint when they closed the regular season against the same opponent.
There are scores of games and seasons where you can say, “This is Bill Belichick’s best coaching job . . . ” I’m not saying this 2003 season outpaces ’01, ’07, ’10, ’11 or ’14, but in its own way it’s unique because it was a year in which players in the New England system learned that there’s business and there's football. They are intertwined in so many ways, yet the program will demand players – regardless of how important or decorated they are – to do their own jobs and let the front office and ownership make the business decisions.
THE YEAR: 2004 (actually January 2005)
THE GAME: Patriots 20, Colts 3
THE PLAY: Tedy Bruschi strips Dominic Rhodes
WHY IT'S HERE: On a bitterly cold day, the Colts showed they still didn’t have the belly to compete with the Patriots.
This game symbolized the Indianapolis futility against New England from 2001 to 2005, futility the Colts wouldn’t lift until the cathartic 2006 AFC Championship Game. Trailing 6-0 in the second quartet at snowy Gillette, the Colts started to mount a drive. As they should have. Peyton Manning set the NFL record for touchdown passes with 49 in 2004. Manning threw for 454 yards the previous week against Denver in a 49-24 Indy win. It was time for the Colts to show up against the Patriots.
But when the Colts reached the Patriots’ 39, Manning checked down to running back Dominic Rhodes on a dumpoff pass. Rhodes was hit almost immediately by Tedy Bruschi, who -- instead of wrestling Rhodes -- instead wrested the ball away from him. It was outright thievery and the Colts drive was squelched.
There were hard feelings heading into this game, as the Patriots felt the Colts weren’t giving them their due. Bruschi was very vocal throughout and one of the memorable clips from NFL Films’ America’s Game documentary of the 2004 season showed Bruschi on the sideline holding the football and saying something to the effect of, “They’re looking for this! They ain’t got it! They ain’t got it!” Bruschi later said the “it” he was referring to was also the will to compete as doggedly as the Patriots did.
The win was sealed when Bruschi recovered another fumble in the second half, that one forced by a Rodney Harrison hit on Reggie Wayne.
THE YEAR: 2001
THE GAME: Patriots 29, Chargers 26
THE PLAY: Tom Brady sends it to overtime vs. Chargers with 3-yard toss to Wiggy
WHY IT'S HERE: After a humiliating loss in Miami the week before, the Patriots found themselves down 10 points (26-16) at home in the fourth quarter against Doug Flutie and the Chargers. A mishandle by punter Lee Johnson resulted in the score that put San Diego up 10, and it was the kind of half ugly/half funny play bad teams are guilty of. The win two weeks earlier in Tom Brady’s first start seemed months in the past.
But Brady directed a 15-play field-goal drive, the defense stiffed LaDainian Tomlinson on second-and-2 and third-and-1 with 2:30 left, and New England got the ball back. A 16-yard third-down conversion to Troy Brown was the key play for the Pats until 50 seconds remained and Brady hit David Patten for 26 down to the San Diego 3. From there, it was just a short flip to East Boston’s own Jermaine Wiggins to send the game to o.t.
Once there, the defense got another three-and-out and Adam Vinatieri ultimately won it with a 44-yard field goal. This was also Terry Glenn’s first game back with the team after being suspended and he went off with six catches for 97 yards. He’d never have another game of note in New England.
THE YEAR: 2003
THE GAME: Patriots 12, Dolphins 0
THE PLAY: Tedy Bruschi picks off Jay Fiedler touching off snow-throw celebration
WHY IT’S HERE: Tough ride in to the stadium on this day. For everybody. I parked my car at that pottery place out on Route 1 and walked the last two miles thanks to the snow.
And then the game itself? A 29-yard field goal from Adam Vinatieri in the first quarter was all the scoring. The two teams went 9-for-36 combined on third down. There wasn’t much to get excited about. Except for the fact the Patriots were rolling and fans were realizing 2001 wasn’t a mirage. The Patriots were becoming an event.
And when Bruschi picked off Jay Fiedler and rubber-legged it into the end zone before sticking a double-knee slide through the snow, Gillette Stadium erupted. With the song Rock and Roll Part 2 playing, fans began throwing fistfuls of snow upward in rhythm, making a visual masterpiece during an otherwise ugly game.
THE YEAR: 2003
THE GAME: Patriots 38, Colts 34
THE PLAY: Willie McGinest
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.
THE YEAR: 2001 (actually January 2002)
THE GAME: Patriots 24, Steelers 17
THE PLAY: Drew Bledsoe -- out of nowhere -- with a TD pass to David Patten
WHY IT’S HERE: The 172nd and final touchdown pass of Drew Bledsoe’s Patriots career was the most important one.
It came when so little was expected of the former No. 1 overall pick, who’d been in mothballs since having an artery sheared in the second game of the season. Bledsoe didn’t deserve that kind of near-tragic injury. But he did deserve to be replaced.
He didn’t take his benching with the stiff-upper lip that his sycophants and revisionists like to portray. But he didn’t tear the team asunder, either. And when Tom Brady got his ankle rolled by Lee Flowers in the first half (a classic postseason move by the Steelers of this century), Bledsoe was summoned.
Brady had just gotten New England to the Steelers 40 with a 28-yard completion to Troy Brown on third-and-8. But Bledsoe was now coming on with 1:40 left in the half and the Pats up 7-3. Before he had a chance to think, he hit David Patten for 15 yards, scrambled for 4 (and got trucked on the sideline), hit Patten again for 10 then hit Patten with an 11-yard toss with 1:05 left in the half.
The rest of the game was a white-knuckle, ride with Bledsoe at one point throwing an incompletion over his head backwards while he was falling down and hitting Steelers linebacker Joey Porter in the chest with a shoulda-been pick deep in Pats territory. But the Patriots survived Bledsoe’s 7-for-18, 62-yard performance after the initial drive and he got to celebrate.
People got the warm fuzzies for Drew, some went overboard and the Patriots lived happily . . . ever after.
THE YEAR: 2001 (actually January 2002)
THE GAME: Patriots 16, Raiders 13, o.t.
THE PLAY: Defense rises up on third-and-1 to get the ball back and set up the dramatic Snow Bowl victory
WHY IT’S HERE: We can play the “If this didn’t happen, then that wouldn’t have happened . . . “ game forever when it comes to the 2001 Patriots. Preseason, regular season and postseason, there were scores of seemingly minor occurrences which -- in hindsight -- were massive developments.
And way up here on the outskirts of the top 20 we have one of our favorites.
Oakland was up 13-10 late in the fourth quarter and the Patriots were barely breathing. The Raiders had a third down at their own 44, needing just one yard for a first down. If they picked it up, the Pats would be able to stop the clock with a timeout and the two-minute warning, but then it would be clock-killing time for the Raiders.
Oakland went to fullback Zack Crockett up the middle. Tedy Bruschi and Ty Law combined to take down Oakland’s short-yardage specialist and the Pats burned their last timeout.
Troy Brown took the ensuing punt back 27 yards, fumbled, but saw it recovered by Larry Izzo. Charles Woodson drilled Tom Brady and forced an apparent fumble that was recovered by Greg Biekert. The replay wasn’t able to conclusively prove that Brady’s off-hand contacted the ball, hence, TUCK RULE! Adam Vinatieri made a 45-yarder through the snow, tying the score. And the Patriots won on a subsequent 23-yard field goal in overtime.
The Raiders can whine all they want about getting screwed, and the rest of the NFL can lament about the Tuck Rule aiding and abetting the Patriots’ rise. But get this: After the third-and-1 stop, the Patriots ran off 23 plays in a row, 21 of them after the Tuck Rule call. Oakland couldn’t get them off the field.