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December 30, 2002
Paradise Not Quite Revisited
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net

You got some time on your hands with nothing to do?

Go into any newspaper archives and access articles in and around September 15th of this year. Make sure your query includes the words "New England Patriots".

Actually, other keywords might pull up similar articles. Keywords like "invincible", "unbeatable", and the all-too-sexy "16-0" might do the trick.

And don't let your sides split too much with laughter when you start reading them.

On the morning of September 16th, 2002, the Patriots stood at 2-0. They were coming off a Super Bowl championship season and began this season with convincing wins over supposedly tough opponents. They walloped Pittsburgh, 30-14, and then crushed the Evil Green Empire (how about that moniker for the Jets, Larry Lucchino?) on the road, 44-7. As if it was something to be expected, many of the Boston area scribes predicted that the Patriots would run the table, and that the Patriots were the greatest thing since that original bunch of redcoat killers.

This writer proclaimed the Patriots as the undisputed kings of the NFL. For the first time in team history, the Patriots were the unchallenged cream of the crop. What had raised great skepticism in the spring when the 2001 Patriots ended their season by hoisting a Vince in New Orleans had turned into a lot of shut mouths with the convincing 2-0 start the world champs authored.

And it wasn't just the fact that it was 2-0. It was 2-0 against two established teams bearing a grudge.

Raider Nation was appalled at losing their playoff game thanks to the tuck rule. But that may in fact pale in comparison to the utter disbelief felt by Steeler fans, who were aghast at their team actually losing at home to the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game last year. The Steelers came into Gillette Stadium at the dawn of this season ready to prove to the Patriots that their Super Bowl run was more flukey than the 1914 Boston Braves.

Instead, the Patriots helped launch Kordell Stewart's drive to the bench later on in the season, picking him off three times and putting the game away with a 20-point third quarter. And this game was on a Monday night, meaning that the whole nation got to see the great Pittsburgh comeuppance. Since this date, the Steelers have never really regained any of the old swagger they once had, and are AFC North champs only because they are the cream of a cupcake division.

Then the next week, the Patriots sliced and diced their archenemy on their turf. Vinny Testaverde became the second straight starting quarterback to be driven to the bench by the Patriots. The downside here is that, in a role reversal from last year, Chad Pennington has become this year's Tom Brady, and led the then-woebegone Jets to an eventual division title. Pennington's first game action came in this game against the Patriots.

But at this point, the Patriots were as invincible as they have ever been in their history. Things were going so well that half of the Nation started thinking "16-0" after a mere two weeks. But given how easy these wins were over such formidable opponents, and given how battle-tested the team was after their Super Bowl run in 2001, how could anyone not expect a monster year from the Patriots?

Then came the now-infamous Kansas City game, and the beginning of the unraveling of the world champs.

It is hard to pinpoint the exact moment of the turnaround. Our best guess is the second half kickoff with the Chiefs leading the Patriots 10-9. Dante Hall took the opening kickoff and torched the Patriots with a 57-yard return. The Chiefs drove 37 yards for a touchdown, with Priest Holmes covering all 37 yards on three runs and a pass. Holmes would bludgeon the Patriots for 145 of his 180 total rushing yards in the second half.

This sent a message across the entire league, and it spread like wildfire. The Patriots were weak in kickoff coverage, and suddenly could not stop the run anymore. The teams traded touchdowns in a wild fourth quarter, and the Patriots prevailed in overtime, 41-38 only because they happened to win the coin toss. The Patriots could do nothing with Holmes, and the worst was yet to come.

Still buoyant at 3-0, the Patriots headed out to San Diego and promptly suffered their first loss since November of 2001. This began a run of four straight losses to top-echelon teams, and in each case a top running back torched the Patriot run defense. LaDainlian Tomlinson of San Diego rushed for 218 yards. Ricky Williams of Miami rushed for 105 yards. Ahman Green of Green Bay rushed for 136 yards. Clinton Portis of Denver rushed for 111 yards. Four games, four huge rushing days, four losses by the now-reeling champs.

No longer buoyant at 3-4, the Patriots were reduced from world champs to a team that could no longer beat the iron of the NFL. Worse, the experts were dismissing the first two wins as anomalies because both Pittsburgh and the Jets were going through tough times and weren't their usual selves. Ridiculous as this sounds, it's the truth. Pittsburgh improved greatly when Tommy Maddox came in at quarterback (when an XFL star does better, that had to absolutely kill Stewart's ego), and the Jets went on to become division champs thanks to Pennington replacing Testaverde and Curtis Martin's foot healing up.

The Patriots lugged their 3-4 record into Buffalo, and their first time ever opposing former franchise quarterback Drew Bledsoe. Drew Bowl I went decidedly for the Patriots, 38-7, and things went just the way Bill Belichick predicted when he dealt Bledsoe to a division rival. This sent the Patriots off on a six-week spree, with the Patriots winning five of those six games, and conjuring memories of last year and their six-game win streak to end the season at 11-5.

Except for the two Buffalo games (New England won the December 8th rematch handily, 27-17), the wins in this six-week run had an alarming quality: close wins over cupcake teams the Patriots should have manhandled. There were lethargic wins over Minnesota and Detroit where the Pats ran up early leads but merely hung on to win. There was an insane win at Chicago where the Patriots had to go on a 17-3 fourth quarter run to pull it off. The only loss in this six-week run was to the eventual one-seed Raiders, hell-bent on revenge from the Snow Bowl last year. It turned out to be still another loss to a good team, with the Patriots eking out wins against patsy teams they should have handled with ease.

Still, on December 16th, the Patriots stood at 8-5 with three games to play. The division title was theirs if they won out. Some scenarios had them as the two seed and even the one seed in the playoffs. The Patriots headed into Tennessee and a Monday night date with the rejuvenated Titans, who after a rough start was also 8-5, without as much fanfare as the Patriots.

But all hopes of a repeat of 2001 ended on this horrid evening in Nashville. The Titans bullied the poor Patriots, to an extent where their quarterback was laying harder licks than any Patriot defender. The Patriots limped out of Music City with a 24-7 loss, then came home for the final two games of the season which would decide the AFC East. Home games against the Jets and the Dolphins, and the Patriots could then finally plan for the playoffs.

Fiction is fanciful, and reality often stinks rotten. Hardly anyone expected the Jets to come out and kick the tar out of the Patriots on their new home turf. But on a Sunday night, the Jets came out and whipped the Patriots, 30-17. Once again, the soft underbelly of the Patriots was exposed. The Patriots can no longer compete with good teams, and the team no longer has any speed or a tough edge.

The Patriots finally gave their fans something to really cheer about in the season finale against Miami. Trailing late in the game, 24-13, the Patriots used an attitude resurrection combined with a Miami meltdown on all levels to rally and win the game in overtime, 27-24. Williams torched the Patriots for 180 yards rushing, almost double the total in the first meeting. But the Dolphins refused to use him down the stretch, and paid dearly for it.

What Patriot fans overlooked almost completely was that, unlike the previous few weeks, the division title no longer was in their total control. They needed the Packers to beat the Jets later that day down in the Meadowlands. What with Green Bay needing a win to secure home field through the playoffs, and given how poorly the Jets play at home, this seemed like a lead pipe cinch for Green Bay.

Instead, the Packers laid the biggest egg this side of all the dairy farms in Wisconsin. The Jets claimed the division title with a 42-17 win. The Jet win triggered an odd tiebreaker combination between the Patriots, Miami, Cleveland and Denver. The Patriots eliminated Miami on a better division record. But Cleveland knocked out both the Patriots and Broncos on a better conference record. End result: Browns in, Patriots and Dolphins out.

And the one-year run of the Super Bowl Champion Patriots came to an inglorious and unexpectedly early end.

All the euphoric feelings we all felt in February, keep ‘em in your memory banks. We'll have to try and recapture those feelings next year. Last year was a season gone with the wind. Maybe the naysayers were right, that it was a total and complete fluke. It was a feeling of paradise, but a feeling that, as we all know now all too well, was fleeting and impermanent.

The Patriots end the year 9-7. They are exactly that, an average team, which played exactly like that all year long.

Except for the first two weeks, of course. Paradise extended exactly that far into this season.

But if you were part of the 16-0 crowd, shame on you.


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