The year was 2001, and it had all begun just as envisioned: an improbable 11-win season after being pegged a last-place team; a first-round bye and home field in the divisional playoff; a classic New England blizzard, foreseen by no meteorologist; an opponent three time-zones removed from its comfort zone.
The contest, however, did not fit its billing. It was the Oakland Raiders that appeared to be relishing the white stuff. Controlling the game from the outset, quarterback Rich Gannon shortened his drops, receivers cut off their routes, and the Raiders consistently moved the ball. On the defensive side, the Raider unit, known for its quickness and finesse (attributes quite commonly rendered useless in half a foot of snow) had somehow acclimated to the grind-it-out conditions. Down after down, series after series, they played with uncharacteristic grit and toughness.
Trailing 13-3 heading into the fourth quarter, ankle-deep in fresh powder, against an invigorated opponent, with a sophomore quarterback playing in his first postseason game, the Patriots looked like a team about to accept its fate. Then there was a drive. A touchdown. A ballgame. After one last stand by the defense, the kid who had sure-footedly nipped his way into the end zone to give his team a chance was about to tuck his way into history. The infamous “tuck-rule” will always be debated, but lest we forget the second-life given to Tom Brady and his corps was merely a prelude to a kick possibly more miraculous than the call itself. For the sake of argument, let us simply call it destiny.
Spoils of Greatness
If the tuck-rule was a prelude to destiny, then the Oakland game as a whole was surely a prelude to dynasty. What transpired after that night was a systematic dismantling of the league’s elite throughout the subsequent weeks and years: a 24-17 triumph in Pittsburgh, defined by an old hero; the “Silence of the Rams”; a conquest of valiant Titans in the most frigid playoff game on record; a snowy AFC Championship against the vastly inferior Colts; a Super-shootout made classic by a gun slingin’ Panther from the Bayou; an even more thorough domination in the rematch with Peyton Manning; an even more terrible domination in the rematch with “the towels”; a third Super Bowl in four years.
Which brings us to 2005. The year that everything was supposed to come full circle, the year that all those extra bone crunching, mentally debilitating, grit over glory playoff games would come back to haunt the champs. The unraveling actually began two weeks after Super Bowl XXXIX. Tedy Bruschi, the general of the Patriots defense, suffered a stroke and decided to sit out the 2005 season, if not possibly the rest of his career. Then, once the season commenced, the other shoe(s) started to drop. Rodney Harrison. Richard Seymour. Corey Dillon. Kevin Faulk. David Givens. Yes, after a 4-4 start, capped by a helpless effort from the JV squad against the undefeated Colts, things indeed had appeared to come full circle.
It has been well documented how the Patriots have redefined certain football words. Words like “team”, “dominance”, and “resilience”. Over the past two Super Bowl runs the Patriots have set and broken their own record for most players started during the regular season.
That coupled with an unprecedented amount of injuries sustained during the 2005 campaign made it apparent that New England would not have the chance to legitimately defend its crown. Then Bruschi willed his way back. Seymour followed suit. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork suddenly became the force in the middle that he had been at the University of Miami. In short, the defensive line and linebacker core started eating opposing offenses for breakfast. And the defense secondary, ravaged by the loss of its leader, Harrison, rapidly solidified around the rock-solid seven in front of them.
The saying goes: defense wins championships. While the Brady’s and Vinatieri’s of the world technically won the championships, it was undoubtedly the Pats D that represented the cornerstone of the dynasty. And with that unit back intact and arguably stronger than ever, the Patriots were on their way to rewriting history. They rolled over Jacksonville in the wild card round, utilizing the same modus operandi that had snagged them three rings: establish a physical tempo, win the battle of field position, gain a lead, protect that lead.
If the Patriots have had a “house of horrors” over the past decade, that venue is Denver. The John Elway-Broncos of the mid to late nineties thwarted any aspirations of greatness the Patriots may have possessed. Denver was always on top of the AFC and the path to the Super Bowl frequently passed through the Mile High City. The Broncos had also knocked off the champs earlier in the 2005 season. But even against a then-depleted New England, and staked to a 28-3 lead, Denver still had to stave off a furious rally by Brady’s Pats and literally escaped with a 28-20 victory.
Anyone close to the Patriots knew that the storyline would be different come January, come playoff time. Defensively, Bill Belichick would use his dynamic front seven to stuff the potent running attack of Denver and take decisive control of the line of scrimmage. This would ensure that quarterback Jake Plummer would have to uncharacteristically make plays down the field in order to move the ball. In other words, the game plan would prevent Denver from moving the ball. Period.
Offensively Brady’s bunch would not have to do much differently. The sensational two-time Super Bowl MVP had already single-handedly salvaged the season while his compatriots were down, leading the league in passing yardage in doing so. The Patriots had the league’s second-rated passing offense, and with a healthier Dillon and rejuvenated Faulk the only offensive question rested on the defensive side of the Denver sideline: how the s**t are we going to stop these guys?
The answer, quite simply, is that they wouldn’t stop the Patriots offense. They couldn’t stop Brady in October when his running backs were the likes of Heath Evans and Patrick Pass so there was no reason to believe that it was an issue of poor schemes or mismatched personnel. Mike Shanahan is a smart man, an offensive genius. He also knows what it takes to win championships. He knew that the Patriots would move the ball on his soft and porous defense, a defense that relies almost solely on its playmaking capabilities. And more importantly, he knew that he was going to have to stay committed to his bread and butter, the run, even though the New England defense would be right there to stuff it time after time.
This was Shanahan’s game plan because it had to be. If he quickly abandoned the run game and allowed the Patriots linebackers to shift deviously in and out of coverage and blitz packages his quarterback would be doomed. Or broken in half. So understanding that his offensive intentions would be thwarted and given his defense’s glaring inability to get off the field, he turned his attention to special teams. His objective: lengthen the field for the Patriots offense, and force turnovers whenever possible.
The first half played out as Shanahan probably imagined it would have: the Patriots came out of the gates moving the chains while the Denver offense stalled. The special teams unit did its job, however, pinning the Patriots inside their own 10-yard line on five of their opening six possessions. Drive after drive, Brady and company found themselves so close to their own goal line that they could feel the breath of the enemy fans behind them. But they still managed to move the ball.
Denver, meanwhile, saw its offense consistently beginning near midfield or inside Patriots-territory. Yet it was the champs who struck first blood, on a second quarter field goal by Vinatieri. For New England it was the perfect scenario: on the road in a hostile environment, with an average starting field position of its own six-yard line, the Pats appeared to be headed into the locker room with a three point lead. Then Kevin Faulk got stripped on a punt return at the New England 39-yard line.
On the ensuing play the Broncos predictably went for the end zone. The Patriots secondary was ready, and defended the attempted-hail-mary very well. The play was whistled dead, and then a late flag flew, exceptionally late. Coupled with the replay it was evident that no foul had been committed, and if there was any contact it was most likely of an offensive nature. Regardless it was a flag that was almost destined to be picked up. It wasn’t. On the next play, from the one-yard line, Mike Anderson strolled into the end zone to give the Broncos a 7-3. Another fumble on the ensuing kickoff led to another extremely brief drive and a field goal for Denver. 10-3. Halftime.
If the Patriots have been superior to the rest of the league in one specific aspect of football, that aspect is undoubtedly their uncanny nature to be un-phased by the odds, no matter what the circumstance. That changed. The champs went into halftime visibly stunned. But they had 15 minutes to regain their composure, which was more than enough time.
They came out of the locker room with a renewed sense of determination, and when the Patriots are determined, it shows. They immediately stopped Denver on its first possession, three and out, and then proceeded to start another lengthy drive, resulting in a field goal that cut the Denver lead to 10-6. The momentum had swung back to the Patriots side, and everyone at Invesco Field knew it.
The Denver defense, having already given up over 300 yards of offense, was starting to tire. It was nearing the end of the third quarter and the Patriots were beginning to move the ball with both ease and authority. Knocking on the door of the Denver goal line, Brady made the gravest mistake of his playoff career: looking for Troy Brown in the back-right corner of the end zone he under-threw the ball straight to Champ Bailey. Bailey had nothing but open field in front of him, all the way until the half-yard line. Then, something happened. A play, an associate later told me, which could only be achieved by a Patriot.
Benjamin Watson, who had lined up on the left side of the field and had run a flag pattern to the far corner of the end zone, somehow made up the 110+ yards and chased down Bailey. He came up behind him just before Bailey reached the end zone and popped the ball out and through the end zone at a (circa) 45-degree trajectory. The crucial call on the field concluded that the ball had gone out of bounds at the half-yard line. Except physics (not to mention common knowledge) would indicate that the only possible scenario in which the ball could not have traveled that extra eighteen inches through the end zone is if Watson came up beside Bailey and knocked the ball directly out of bounds, at a 180-degree trajectory. But that would have been nearly impossible as Bailey was clearly protecting the ball between his left forearm and bicep, thus the only part of the ball that was susceptible was its nose, which was perpendicular to the goal line.
Dissection aside, even though the Patriots challenged the play it was truly impossible to overturn because there were no indisputable evidences either way. Only the correct call on the field could have saved the Patriots. But it didn’t, and that combined with the timing of the mishap created a challenge that even the three-time champions couldn’t overcome.
You can ask Bill Belichick or any of the Patriots what they thought of the two doomed calls, and they will all respond in unison: turn the ball over five times in a playoff game, you lose. But I assure you they are still seething over the fact that they got robbed. Twice. That, however, does not change the five turnovers. If they had played in that fashion against any of their first nine playoff-opponents, they would have lost, and handily so.
Good teams capitalize on mistakes, another well-traveled football phrase. Denver, as proven to a schooled football eye against New England, and confirmed to the entire football world against Pittsburgh at home in the AFC Championship, was not a good team. The Patriots handed them gifts, yet the Broncos offense needed those gifts wrapped and delivered by the referee core. They were outplayed by two touchdowns, yet won by two touchdowns.
Now our collective visions are pointed to the future. What does it hold? Good things, I assure you. Remember, this was supposed to be that year when the Pats took a step back, healed their wounds, before reverting back to the old championship-formula. Well they did all that. They only won 10 games. They mended. And they still nearly accomplished the unthinkable.
So now Belichick et al go back to the drawing board with a whole new sense of urgency and desire to be the best, and an altogether new sense: that of revenge. They’ll all be watching the Super Bowl from their homes, memories of the Mile High meltdown suffocating them like no thin air ever could. So until training camp 2006, when all the fans will start to convene and believe once again, the ex-champs will stand pat, laud the Steelers, do their homework, and wait for their chance to get back to that winning formula: three games to glory.