February 11, 2005
Championships Something You Never Get Tired Of
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net
”One is fun, twice is nice, but I need number three!” -- Tom Brady, Boston City Hall, February 3, 2004
So declared the Patriot quarterback at last year’s victory rally, and so he delivered. One should wonder if Bridget Moynahan is just as accommodating as the NFL is when Brady says he wants something. In this case, what Brady wanted was “history”, something a little harder to get than “Honey, fetch me the TV remote! And as long as you’re up, can you also get me a beer?”
Of course, calling the NFL “accommodating” is arrogance of the highest order. While the Patriots strive to win, and most of the players expect to win, they respect their opponents like few other franchises do. Bill Belichick is the only NFL coach who can make the Arizona Cardinals and the Cleveland Browns seem like the Green Bay Packers of the 1960s or the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s. It is this expectation of victory, combined with a profound respect for all their opponents, that are the key ingredients in what is now a bona fide NFL dynasty, and a 34-4 record over the last two seasons.
No team knows how to win better than the Patriots do. All you need to look at is the injury record of the Patriots during the last two seasons and you cannot help but be amazed at how the Patriots do it. The Patriots finished each of the last two Super Bowls with heavy losses in the secondary and still managed to vanquish their NFC foe by three points. These two games are only examples of the big picture, which is the Patriots winning lots thanks to great coaching and great team philosophy.
The oddest facet of the 2004 season was that the real character of the team was not revealed until the long win streak was broken. Beating the Colts at home is merely routine, though opening night was a tough game decided by an historic missed field goal by a kicker who is more of a Dolt than a Colt. Beating the Cardinals is still no big deal. The Bills will be an easy mark as long as Drew Bledsoe has to match wits with Belichick. Miami was down this year, and Belichick now seems to have answers for Chad Pennington. The streak was a record 21 games, but no Patriot player was impressed or cared about such things.
Then came October 31st. Halloween night at the Ketchup Bottle. The Steelers laid a 34-20 pasting on the Patriots. The Patriots rushed only six times in the game. Ty Law was lost for the year. Corey Dillon missed the game due to injury. So did Deion Branch. The streak ended at 21 games. The Patriots were reeling. They now head for St. Louis and that high-octane offense. Now what?
This is where the Patriots forged their legacy on the 2004 season. Without Law and Tyrone Poole in the secondary, backup cornerbacks Randall Gay, Asante Samuel and Earthwind Moreland set about doing the will of Belichick, Romeo Crennel and secondary coach Eric Mangini. Mike Vrabel catching a touchdown pass and Adam Vinatieri throwing one helped, but the real story of the game was the great job the Patriots did in shutting down Marc Bulger, Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt. The Patriots won, 40-22 and set off on another win streak.
This one lasted six games, which included four blowouts and two close games. The Patriots survived in Kansas City for their first win in that city in 40 years despite Eddie Kennison having his way with Moreland. They also survived a tough battle at home with Cincinnati thanks to a few timely Bengal turnovers. The Patriots were flying high at 12-1, the only blemish being that loss at Pittsburgh, who also was 12-1 behind rookie Ben Roethlisberger. To try and regain the home field advantage they had in 2003, the Patriots were waiting for the Steelers to slip up.
Forget the Steelers. The Patriots suffered a huge Monday night hiccup in Miami, blowing a late 28-17 lead on two Brady picks and losing by one. With home field gone, the Patriots finished off the season with wins over the Jets and San Francisco to head into the clubhouse at 14-2, the same as 2003.
Given the two seed and a first round bye, the Patriots watched the Colts massacre Denver at home, 49-21, then pack their bags and head for Foxborough. Peyton Manning tossed a record 49 touchdown passes, and the Colts had the top offense in the league. Most every expert expected Indianapolis to scuttle the depleted Patriot secondary.
If you remove the underlying meaning of the Super Bowl, you could make a case that the 20-3 dismantling of the Colts in the Divisional round was the most impressive of the nine playoff wins since 2001. Watching Gay, Samuel and Troy Brown (doing double duty this year) hold Manning to three points was perhaps the most remarkable example of defensive game planning in recent memory. Neutral NFL observers were aghast, but many of them still might have been skeptical as the Patriots headed off to Pittsburgh to play for the AFC Championship.
Las Vegas knew better. The Patriots were 3-point favorites on the road against a 15-1 team which handed the Patriots one of their two losses. Whereas Indianapolis presented the league’s top offense, the Steelers had the league’s top defense. On Halloween, the Steelers did not have to deal with Dillon or Branch. Both were back for this one.
Sure enough, Branch scores two touchdowns, Dillon gallops for one, and the Patriots induce three picks out of Roethlisberger. The Patriots completely shut up the Heinz Field crowd with a 41-27 win and a berth against Philadelphia in Super Bowl XXXIX. The Patriots are installed as seven-point favorites against the Eagles, and most every national pundit picks the Patriots to win.
The Patriots headed to Jacksonville, listened to smack from Terrell Owens and Freddie Mitchell, and set about their work. Owens kept everyone in suspense about his high ankle sprain and played well, but the Patriots simply played better. Three Eagle turnovers and lousy fourth quarter time management helped offset some occasional sloppy play by the Patriots, and the champs defended their title, 24-21. The Patriots played out what is now a familiar scene, holding up a Vince and Bob Kraft pontificating to the adoring fans.
To do what the Patriots did in 2004 was nothing short of remarkable. Defending a title in the NFL is a tall enough task with everyone gunning for you each week. To do it with players like Law, Poole, Branch, Tom Ashworth, Ben Watson and Richard Seymour each missing a good chunk of playing time, Belichick and his staff cannot be complimented enough for how they are able to prepare their team, as well as how they are able to make do without key players.
And the final result is another championship. Two straight. Three in the last four years. The dynasty lives in Foxborough.
Paul Tagliabue was right when he said to Kraft on the victory stand: “Keep it up!” Nobody in New England will argue with that.
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