Is the Patriots dynasty over? That’s been one of the big questions around New England in the wake of another disappointing end to another disappointing season — a fifth straight year without a Super Bowl victory.
I don’t know if it is. But even if the dynasty is over, it’s been one of the great rides in history of sports. In fact, football fans should celebrate the fact that they were alive to witness it.
Here’s a look back at the top 10 signature moments in the New England dynasty. It’s actually an amazing collection of memories that few fans in few sports in few cities have had the pleasure to enjoy.
There are countless moments that would make the cut in most towns, but not here: Adam Vinatieri’s game-winning field goal in the final seconds of Super Bowl XXXVIII; Rodney’s Harrison’s pick-six against the mighty 15-1 Steelers in the 2004 AFC title game; linebacker Mike Vrabel’s not one but two (2!) Super Bowl touchdown receptions; New England’s record 21 consecutive wins and 10 consecutive playoff wins.
Not one of them is on the list.
But here are 10 moments that make the cut from a decade that one day you’ll tell your grandchildren about.
10. Mo Lewis knocks out Drew Bledsoe
Yeah, it’s cruel. It’s a little disrespectful to a proud Patriots quarterback who played a large role in the growth of the franchise from joke to contender in the 1990s.
Cruel, but no less true: When Mo Lewis crushed Drew Bledsoe in the team’s first game after 9/11, gruesomely severing an artery in the franchise quarterback’s chest cavity, it did in fact launch the New England ascendancy. Of course, nobody saw it at the time: Bledsoe’s injury, in the eyes of the local pigskin public at the time, marked nothing but gloom and doom for a team that had won just five of its previous 18 games.
It was literally a low point in the history of the franchise. You could feel historically cynical Patriots fans deflate even further — low even by the second-rate standards of this second-rate organization. The Patriots were cursed once again.
But rebounding miraculously from what felt like certain disaster would become a hallmark of the 21st-century Patriots.
Bledsoe’s injury, in retrospect, was one of the great moments in franchise history. It might even deserve a spot at the top of the list. But Patriots fans simply did not recognize it was a great moment at the time.
Those recognizable moments soon washed over New England football fans like a tidal wave of pigskin-inspired ecstasy.
9. Pats fans rock 'n' roll in the snow after Bruschi’s pick-six
As late as December 2003 the Patriots — with only one title notched on their belts — were considered something of a “lucky” team that got all the breaks.
That image changed during a smash-mouth shutout victory over the Dolphins as a massive blizzard trickled to an end on a frosty Pearl Harbor anniversary in Foxboro.
The Patriots held on to a 3-0 lead in the fourth quarter when Miami quarterback Jay Fiedler attempted to pass from the shadows of his own goal post. Tedy Bruschi snatched the ball out of the air at the Miami 5 and stepped into the end zone, triumphantly falling to his knees and then throwing snow in the air as he raised his fists to the crowd like a victorious gridiron gladiator in the Roman Coliseum.
It spawned a memorably icy celebration.
Patriots fans sitting on the top of snowdrifts — the organization did not have time to clear the stadium before game time — began tossing powdery snow confetti into the air, to the beat of “Rock and Roll Part 2” by Gary Glitter.
A safety in the final seconds punctuated a 12-0 win that officially established the Patriots as the dominant power in the AFC East.
"I've been reading that they're lucky," Miami linebacker Zach Thomas said after the game (according to The Boston Globe). "They're not lucky. They're a great football team."
8. McGinest stuffs James on fourth-and-goal
Remember when the Colts stopped the Patriots on fourth-and-2 in November 2009? It was a signature play that lifted Indy to victory and launched the team on its run to Super Bowl XLIV next week in Miami.
It was also the perfect reflexive image of another fourth-down moment six years earlier, in November 2003, also in Indianapolis, which launched New England on its run to Super Bowl XXXVIII.
Brady, the Patriots and their collection of unknown receivers not named Randy Moss or Wes Welker, had somehow managed to put 38 points on the board against the Colts in the biggest regular-season game of 2003. (The immortal Dedric Ward produced the game’s longest play, with a 31-yard touchdown reception from Brady).
A highly entertaining (and highly rated) battle between these AFC powers came down to a goal-line stand for the ages as the Patriots held on with bloody fingernails to a 38-34 lead in the final seconds:
• On first-and-goal from the 2, Edgerrin James gained 1 yard before he was stopped by Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel.
• On second-and-goal from the 1, James was stuffed by Bruschi and Rodney Harrison.
• On third-and-goal from the 1, Peyton Manning threw incomplete into the end zone.
• And on fourth-and-goal from the 1, James ran up the middle where he was crushed by outside linebacker Willie McGinest, who came blitzing in from the left side of the defense like a heat-seeking missile.
The fact that McGinest had hobbled off the field with a questionable “injury” moments earlier led to numerous conspiracy theories. But it also led to a critical regular-season victory that proved the difference between playing in Foxboro instead of in Indianapolis in the 2003 playoffs.
7. Bledsoe comes off the bench against the Steelers
Sure, his injury in September 2001 was the moment that launched the dynasty. But Drew Bledsoe had one last moment in the sun, in a victorious AFC title game against the hated Steelers on Jan. 27, 2002.
The Patriots held on to a 7-3 lead over the heavily favored Steelers in the final minutes of the first half when Brady hobbled off with in injury. In walked Bledsoe, who just a few months earlier was one of the league’s marquee players but now felt like an aged old-timer called in to pull one last bit of magic out of his arm.
He responded in brilliant fashion, connecting on three straight passes to David Patten for 15 yards, 4 yards and an 11-yard touchdown.
The score touched off, according to unofficial Cold, Hard Football Facts records, 1.4 million phone calls around New England from one Patriots fan to another:
“Can you $#&$! believe this?!”
Bledsoe more or less sucked the rest of the way: he completed just 7-of-18 second-half passes for 71 yards and nearly threw the game away. But it ended triumphantly, with Bledsoe taking a knee on the final three snaps as the Patriots held on for an improbable 24-17 win at Pittsburgh and an even more improbable trip to the Super Bowl.
It was one final victory lap for one of the critical personalities in the history of Patriots football.
6. Law’s pick-six against the Rams/three picks against Peyton
OK, I’m cheating: I couldn’t pick just one — which is kind of how it felt watching Ty Law play cornerback in the early days of the New England juggernaut. He couldn’t pick just one, either.
His pick-six against Rams quarterback Kurt Warner in the first half of Super Bowl XXXVI was the play that made Patriots fans and much of the nation stand up and take notice: Damn, the Patriots have a shot!
The picture and video of Law racing down the left sideline, right hand raised over his head as a victorious wave to the nation, was the iconic image of the game and graced newspaper covers around the nation the next morning.
Two years later, on a wintry day against the Colts in the AFC title game, Law tied an NFL postseason record by hauling in three INTs off the arm of Peyton Manning. Two of them were spectacularly athletic thefts in which he seemingly came out of nowhere to surprise the rather confused Indy quarterback. The Patriots held on for a 24-14 win and their second trip to the Super Bowl in three years.
Two memorable games. Two signature victories in which Law played a key role.
5. Wounded Patriots humiliate high-powered Colts
Personally, this is the game I enjoyed most over the past decade. On a bone-chilling January night in Foxboro, the Patriots delivered a bone-rattling primer in smash mouth football. They dismantled Peyton Manning and one of the highest-scoring offenses in NFL history with a 20-3 victory in the divisional playoffs.
The Patriots carved out the win without their two best defensive players (Law and Richard Seymour both missed the game). They also did it in the face of an incredulous pigskin public — according to reports at the time, 75 percent of the betting nation, including just about every “pundit” at ESPN, laid money on the Colts.
Adding to the thrill of victory for New England football fans was the fact that the Patriots earned the win against an NFL that seemed conspired against them. It was in the previous offseason (and in the aftermath of Law’s three-pick game) that the Colts lobbied the league for rule changes that were intended to take advantages away from the New England defense and hand them to the Indy offense.
The rule changes proved irrelevant against a Patriots team at the very height of its dynastic powers.
Tedy Bruschi produced the game’s singular play when he ripped the ball out of the hands of Indy ball-carrier Dominic Rhodes as the two fell to the ground. The linebacker appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated a few days later, defiantly standing Butkus-like in his field-chalk-stained uniform, as the snow fell around him in the New England night, under the headline, “Defense Rules the Playoffs.”
It was Bruschi’s finest hour.
4. Brady connects with Moss against the Giants
The Patriots dynasty never seemed so indestructible, so geared for greatness, so favored by the Gridiron Gods, than it did in the final quarter of its 38-35 win over the Giants in the last game of the 2007 regular season.
It was a game of firsts. Nationwide interest in New England’s quest to become the first 16-0 team was so great that the final game of the season was shown on three different networks for the first time in history, not to mention local outlets here in Boston. It was a football game that drew coverage akin to a presidential speech.
And it all came to a head on a single play in the fourth quarter: Brady connected on a grandiose, preening, look-at-me-I’m-awesome arching rainbow of a 65-yard pass to the streaking Randy Moss for a fourth-quarter touchdown that lifted the Patriots to a 31-28 lead. It was pure artistic beauty in the football world.
It was also part of a furious 22 consecutive points the Patriot scored to overcome a late 28-16 deficit, and it punctuated what appeared to be the historic inevitably of the 2007 Patriots juggernaut.
On a single majestic play, Brady had thrown his record-setting 50th TD pass, Moss had hauled in his record-setting 23rd TD reception, the Patriots had secured their place as the highest scoring offense in NFL history, and the team was on its way to its record 16th regular-season win.
Cris Collinsworth and the NFL Network broadcast team tripped over each other in their orgasmic effort to capture the historic nature of the moment — as if describing Washington’s victory over Cornwallis at a pigskin Yorktown.
Other than that, it was your average, ordinary 65-yard touchdown pass that spawned a delirious celebration from Providence to Presque Isle.
It seemed like the Patriots dynasty was destined to last forever. But as we should have learned when a noodle-armed young quarterback stepped on the field for the Patriots in September 2001, franchise fortunes can change when you least expect it. For New England, those fortunes changed one month later against these very same Giants.
3. Walt Coleman and the “tuck rule”
All of America knows the story: Amid perhaps the most memorable snowstorm in NFL history, the Patriots trailed the Raiders 13-10 in the waning moments of the 2001 divisional playoffs. Just for kicks and giggles, it was the last game ever played at the old concrete death trap called Foxboro Stadium.
A young Brady, in his first postseason game, dropped back to pass at the Oakland 42 with 1:50 left when he was whacked by blitzing cornerback (and 2009 Defensive Player of the Year) Charles Woodson and appeared to fumble. Oakland linebacker Greg Biekert jumped on the ball and the Raiders raced off the field in apparent triumph.
The game was over. Thousands of TV sets around New England flipped over to reruns of “Golden Girls.”
They missed a transformative piece of franchise history.
It was a rare, odd moment that not only changed the fortunes of the Patriots franchise, it added a new phrase to the American cultural lexicon: the “tuck rule.” Brady’s fumble, under a little-known NFL rule enacted in 1999, might not have been a fumble after all. Brady’s arm might actually have been in forward motion. Referee Walt Coleman turned to the replay machine to review the turn of events as Americans from coast to coast said, “WTF?! That was a fumble!”
Coleman returned with a decision that shocked the Saturday night national TV audience riveted by the wintry drama in Foxboro: He ruled it an incomplete forward pass, not a fumble.
There have been few turns of events in local sporting history in which despair turned to hope in the space of a single, odd, inexplicable moment. The effect around New England was palpable: The Same Old Patriots, the team that for four decades always blew it in big moments, suddenly became the Team With One More Chance.
2. Adam Vinatieri nails a 45-yarder in a blizzard
The “tuck rule” might have given New England new life, but contrary to the nation’s collective memory, it didn’t win the game for the Patriots.
Brady & Co. still needed to produce not one but two scores in a blizzard and against an Oakland defense that had frustrated them for much of the evening.
So here’s what happened in the immediate aftermath of the tuck rule: Brady connected with unheralded early dynasty hero David Patten for 13 yards to move the ball to the Oakland 29.
(Patten, by the way, caught eight passes for a game-high 107 yards that snowy evening in January. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s more catches and more yards than Randy Moss has produced in any playoff contest since the 2000 season.)
Three plays later the Patriots faced fourth-and-9 from the Oakland 28 when nationally insignificant six-year veteran Adam Vinatieri trotted out for your average ordinary, 45-yard field goal attempt to save a team’s season and launch a new dynasty in the midst of a wintry tempest.
The snow was so heavy and the light at Foxboro Stadium so bad that you could barely make out the brown pigskin as it made its slow, low-level trajectory over the arms of Oakland’s defenders and through the snow, the wind and the night air. The ball defied gravity just long enough to make it through the uprights.
In the space of two minutes, despair had turned to hope. Hope had turned to a last-second tie. A last-second tie had turned to an inevitable march of victory. The Patriots won the overtime toss and quickly moved from their own 35 to the Oakland 5. Then Vinatieri booted the easy game winner.
It’s a tribute to New England’s run in the 2000s that a kick widely considered the greatest in pro football history ends up only at No. 2 on the list of the franchise’s greatest moments of the decade.
1. Vinatieri wins Super Bowl XXXVI
There’s been only one walk-off score in Super Bowl history. It belonged to Adam Vinatieri. It was a 48-yard field goal at the end of Super Bowl XXXVI. It punctuated in delirious fashion the end of an improbable playoff run and one of the biggest upsets in NFL history.
Oh, and it touched off a celebration of improbable New England football success that spread from the most southern depths of Bourbon Street to the most northern reaches of New England, and it lasted the better part of a decade.
It will never get any better than it did that night, Patriots fans. In fact, that’s not something to mourn. That’s something to celebrate: You were alive to see the greatest moment in franchise history.