January 16, 2006
Unusual Dynasty Meets Unusual End, or Does It?
By JOHN BRANCH
Theirs was always an unusual dynasty. It began without warning, with a former sixth-round draft pick at quarterback and the loosest defense to win a Super Bowl.
The New England Patriots won one title, upsetting the St. Louis Rams, then missed the playoffs the next season. Then they won again, and again, three championships in four years, a record 10-game playoff winning streak, the sneakiest dynasty football had seen.
The pieces that held the machine together came unglued in a 27-13 loss to the Broncos on Saturday night. And the question left scattered in the broken parts was whether the Patriots could be put back together again, or if Saturday's defeat at Invesco Field in Denver represented the sort of end that sneaks up on every football dynasty.
The trick is to decipher whether speaking of the Patriots' dynasty should be done in past tense or present.
"This team will be around again," quarterback Tom Brady, the former sixth-round pick, said after the game. "Most of our players aren't going anywhere, and our coach isn't going anywhere."
But the Patriots seemed unbeatable only because they kept winning. It was not because they seemed to have more talent than anybody else; part of what made their run so remarkable was that these Patriots would not fill wings of the Pro Football Hall of Fame the way the old Green Bay Packers or Pittsburgh Steelers did. It was not because they dazzled with the highest-scoring offense or bludgeoned with the stiffest defense.
The Patriots were more clutch than dominant. Their armor was constructed in layers, built in confidence and execution.
The Broncos peeled the layers away, and the Patriots helped in their own undressing. Brady, usually so unflappable, threw an interception on the game's swing play late in the third quarter. Denver cornerback Champ Bailey intercepted the pass in the end zone, then returned it 100 yards to the 1. A potential Patriots lead quickly became a 17-6 deficit.
Brady was not the only championship stalwart to struggle. Adam Vinatieri, whose winning kicks had become routine in New England's championship run, missed a 43-yard field-goal attempt in the fourth quarter. Troy Brown, the second-leading receiver in franchise history, muffed a fourth-quarter punt, setting up another Broncos touchdown. The veteran running back Kevin Faulk's first-half fumble was converted to a Denver touchdown two plays later, giving the Broncos a lead they did not relinquish.
In winning 10 consecutive postseason games, including three Super Bowls, the Patriots turned over the ball a total of six times. Against the Broncos, they had five turnovers.
"It's just unfortunate that it was our best players making some of the big mistakes," Brady said.
Some of those playmakers will become unrestricted free agents, and the Patriots will again try to fight off salary-cap and aging issues that doomed every other championship team the past 12 years.
The free-agent list includes Vinatieri, Brown, receiver David Givens (59 catches this season), guard Stephen Neal and tackle Tom Ashworth. Added to the potential flux is the courtship between the first-year defensive coordinator Eric Mangini and the Jets, who are searching for a head coach.
The Patriots face no serious salary cap issues this spring. The biggest changes last off-season were the losses of the offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, who left to coach Notre Dame, and the defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, who left to coach the Cleveland Browns.
What the Patriots do from here will depend on Coach Bill Belichick and his interpretation of what happened during the team's 10-6 regular season and, most important, Saturday's loss.
The plays that ended New England's chance to become the first team to win three consecutive Super Bowls were uncharacteristic. So much of their success was built on being calculated and cool. Many of their victories had an air of a tennis volley, the Patriots relentlessly hammering back until the opponent made a mistake.
Against the Broncos, in a back-and-forth game, the Patriots made the mistakes. If those errors can be viewed as flukes, and the Patriots can fairly blame their sputtering 4-4 start to the season on injuries, especially on defense, then the Patriots might emerge next season as a favorite to win it all again.
Otherwise, the loss to the Broncos will be viewed as the end, and everything from here will be viewed as rebuilding. That's one thing about dynasties: No one knows if they are really over until they really are.