By: Russ Goldman
Looking back on Super Bowl XXXVIII, it may have been one of the most exciting games that New England played out of their three championship title games. (PHOTO:Icon/SMI)
When we look back at Patriots history, which “team” will be known as the best ever? Many sports media experts, and fans point to the 2004 Super Bowl Championship team. Well, I actually think there is a group that was better. I will give you my reasons why the 2003 New England Patriots were the best Patriots team ever.
During the lockout I have had time to look back, and really give some thought to which Patriots team was the best. The 2004 Patriots I believe had the superior talent of any other club. However, I am discussing which is the best group of players from a “team” standpoint.
Which team had to overcome the most adversity, play together as one, and find all kinds of ways to win? One stands out more than any, and it is the 2003 Patriots.
Michael Holley wrote a book after that season called “Patriot Reign”. It is a behind the scenes look at that team. This book really enforces to me why this team was cut above the rest. It is the best sports book I have ever read.
With that said, I am going to take you on a journey back to the past with this wonderful season. Their were so many twists and turns with this team. At some point every player on that club was counted on to do their job. Whether is was Matt Chatham filling in at linebacker when that unit had injuries, or Eugene Wilson stepping up to fill the shoes of Lawyer Milloy, this team had depth from 1 to 53.
I am going to start with the first event that set the tone for the beginning of the season, and lead to the club coming together. The New England Patriots released Lawyer Milloy the week leading up the season opener. Milloy was a great leader of the team, and their is no question that this personnel move shook the team to its core.
Ironically, Milloy signed with Bills to face the Patriots in the opener. The Patriots lost this game 31-0, and were fully embarrassed.
After the game, on NFL Countdown, ESPN analyst Tom Jackson famously commented about the Patriots players. He said, “Let me say this clearly: they hate their coach.”
In all honesty I think Jackson did the Patriots a huge favor. He gave them “an us against the world” mentality that they could use as fuel for the rest of the season.
Well, even after that game it took the Patriots a little while to get it together. They were 2-2 when they really started on the path towards a Superbowl championship.
I had the pleasure of going to the game against the Tennessee Titans. This was a part of the season that the Patriots were at a crossroads. Which direction would they go? This was a back and forth game, and the Patriots were really fighting for their lives. They sealed the game when Ty Law picked off Steve McNair, and ran it back 65 yards for a touchdown. The Patriots won 38-30.
The next pivotal game was two games later when they faced Miami on the road. At this time, the Dolphins were the measuring stick in the AFC East. Beating Miami on the road would definitely show the Patriots were for real.
The Dolphins had a chance to win this game with 2 minutes left. Richard Seymour blocked the field goal attempt, and the game ended up going into overtime. The Patriots again found a way to win. Tom Brady threw an 82 yard touchdown pass to Troy Brown to give the Patriots the 19-13 victory.
In the next pivotal game of the season, the Patriots again found a different way to get a victory. I was at the game against the Denver Broncos at Invesco Field on Monday Night Football. Late in the game the Patriots were trailing, and they were on their own 1 yard line. They decided to take a safety, and then punt the ball from their 20. This strategy worked as the Patriots held the Broncos, and got the ball back. Brady would now have his opportunity to either tie the game, and take it to overtime, or go for the win. Well, Brady went for the victory as he threw an 18 yard touchdown pass to give the Patriots the lead. Asante Samuel would intercept the Broncos in the final drive of the game to give the Patriots the 30-26 victory.
The Patriots would continue to find different ways to win games. Against the Cowboys, the Patriots only won 12-0 in a defensive battle. The very next week they would need an overtime winning field goal to beat the Texans. Every game was a challenge, and it all led up to this next game.
The Patriots would meet the Colts in a game in which both teams were 9-2. This game had playoff implications involved, and was an amazing game that had a little bit of everything. Late in the half, Manning cut the Patriots lead to 7 points. On the next kickoff, Bethel Johnson ran it all the way back for a touchdown to give the Patriots a 24-10 half time lead.
The Patriots increased their lead to 31-10 in the 3rd quarter. However, Manning brought his team back into this game. On the last drive of the game, Manning had the ball in his hands trailing 38-34. He brought them all the way down to the Patriots one yard line. On fourth down, Willie McGinest might have made one of the best tackles in his career as he stopped Edgerrin James from scoring on the one yard line. This was dramatic, and again another way the Patriots would win a game that season.
The Patriots would end the season 14-2. They would head into the playoffs at home to play the Tennessee Titans in one of the coldest games ever to be played in New England. This was a nip and tuck game that the Patriots never got a handle on. The Patriots would take the lead late in the fourth quarter with an Adam Vinatieri field goal. However, the Titans would have one final drive. On fourth down in Patriots territory, Drew Bennett dropped a pass that would have given them a first down. The game ended, and honestly the Patriots survived.
In the AFC Championship Game, the Patriots would again meet Peyton Manning and the Colts. Many experts were picking the Colts in this game. Manning was on a roll after he lost to the Patriots. He was destroying every opponent in his way, and looked unstoppable going into this game.
Well, Manning might have played the worst game in his career. He was picked off four times. Ty Law had three of them, with Manning looking completely lost in this game against the Patriots. Even with Manning playing poorly, the Patriots still needed to really gut this game out. Vinatieri kicked 5 field goals, and kicked his final one very late to put the game away. The Patriots beat the Colts 24-14 to earn the right to go to the Super Bowl.
Now, going into the Super Bowl, there were many experts who again picked against the Patriots, and believed the Carolina Panthers would beat them. This was another difficult challenge for the 2003 Patriots.
This was the greatest Super Bowl game I ever watched, as both teams swapped many points in the second half. It came down to who had the ball last. Luckily it was the Patriots, and Brady took them down the field similarly to how he did two years prior.
Brady threw a 17 yard pass to Deion Branch, who got tackled at the 24 yard line. Vinatieri would come out to kick another Super Bowl winning field goal. The Patriots dramatically won their second ring 32-29.
This was an incredible year with so many challenges that the team had to overcome each and every week. It seemed each game they would find a different way to win.
That season the Patriots also had many injuries that they would have to overcome. Key players would be out for extended periods of time, including Ted Washington and Roosevelt Colvin. The best part of this group is that there would be someone to pick up the slack. It was a complete team.
They were not the most talented Patriots team of all time. I would say the 1976 and the 2004 Patriots had more talent.
However, the 2003 team had much more to overcome to become Champions. They were bonded together following Milloy being cut, up to the point where Brady led them on their final drive.
The 2001 Patriots are special because they gave the organization their first title. Everyone will always remember that one.
The 2004 Patriots are special because they were the most talented, and they made the Patriots a dynasty. That team gave the Patriots 3 Super Bowl victories in 4 seasons.
However, when we look back at history, and someone asks me which team was the best, my answer will be the 2003 New England Patriots.