Fifty Years Of Patriots Football: 2002-2003
In 2002, the Patriots were coming off their first championship in team history.
They were about to open a state of the art stadium in Foxboro.
New England traded franchise quarterback, Drew Bledsoe to the division rival Buffalo.
The team was now Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady’s.
Everything was looking up for a franchise that was a laughing stock in the early 90’s.
In their history the Patriots have had difficulties in stringing together winning seasons.
Would 2002 break this trend?
New England came out like gangbusters with three straight wins over the Steelers, Jets, and Chiefs by a combined score of 115-51. Unlike Patriots teams in the past, New England started fast, really fast out of the gate.
However, the Patriots stumbled and lost their next four games. They stopped the bleeding by destroying Buffalo 38-7 and came back to beat Chicago, 33-30. The Patriots fell behind 27-6 before Tom Brady led the Patriots to the improbable victory. He hit David Patten in the closing minutes of the game to take the lead 31-30. Brady finished with 328 yards with 3 touchdowns and one interception.
New England was able to ride the momentum of Brady’s comeback to win 3 of their next four games. The Patriots were sitting at 8-5 and near the top of the AFC East. It appeared the Patriots were going to make their second straight appearance in the playoffs.
However, the Patriots were in a dogfight with the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets for the division crown. There would be no wildcard coming out of the AFC East this year. Its win the division our go home.
New England stumbled and lost their next two games versus the Titans and Jets. This set the stage for a division showdown with Miami in the season finale. The Patriots would have to win and have the Jets lose to make the playoffs.
The Patriots did not come out with the desperation and intensity for a playoff type game. If they lost they would definitely be going home and it looked like they were going to. New England trailed Miami 21-10 at the half at home.
Tom Brady and the Patriots would be staring a 24-13 deficient right in the face with one quarter left in their season. Brady then led New England to the improbable comeback. The Patriots would go on to score the next 14 points of the contest.
Adam Vinateiri connected on a 43 yard field goal to tie the game and then won it on a 35 yard field goal in OT. The Gillette stadium crowd was in a frenzy. Now every Patriots fan had to wait and see if Brett Favre and the Packers could down the Jets.
The Jets were not to be denied on this day and pummeled Green Bay 42-17. New York would clinch the AFC East over Miami and the Patriots on tie breakers. The Patriots were eliminated and their title defense was over.
New England was still having difficulty string successful seasons together. What would be in store for them in 2003?
Would it be another peak or a continued valley?
The start of the 2003 season was a turbulent one to say the least. Bill
Belichick released long time Patriot and fan favorite, Lawyer Milloy shortly before the season opener. There was a media storm surrounding the movie of releasing a veteran that has been with the club since 1996.
Tom Jackson from ESPN even said, “The team hates its coach.”
Bill Belichick knew what he was doing with the release of Milloy. He had this luxury because of the signing of long time Chargers safety, Rodney Harrison.
Milloy would sign with Buffalo days before the Patriots faced Buffalo in the 2003 season opener. The Pats would also face former teammate, Drew Bledsoe for the first time since the offseason trade that sent a first round pick to New England.
Lawyer Milloy and Buffalo came out on a mission. They bruised and battered Tom Brady and the Patriots. Lawyer Milloy sacked his former teammate and Drew Bledsoe threw for 230 yards and a score, as the Bills ran over their division foe, 31-0.
The Lawyer Milloy talked swirled and Belichick was criticized after the loss. However, the Patriots rebounded nicely with victories over Philadelphia and the New York Jets. New England headed to Washington with a 2-1 record and hoped to add to its two game winning streak.
The Patriots started off very slow in Washington and trailed 20-3 n the third quarter. New England rallied and fought to get back into the game and trailed 20-17 on touchdowns from Tom Brady to David Givens and Larry Centers. However, the comeback would fall short and the Patriots fell to 2-2.
New England had proved to be an inconsistent franchise throughout its existence. One good season. One bad season. Winning streak. Losing streak. Win one. Lose one.
The Patriots were poised to go on a streak but would it be uphill or downhill?
The Patriots faced the Titans at home in a back and forth affair. New England would clinch the win on a 65 yard INT return by Ty Law and the Patriots prevailed 38-30. New England stood at 3-2 and had four more games before their bye week.
New England would rattle off wins versus the Giants, Dolphins, and Browns before heading to the house of horrors that was Mile High Stadium. Historically, the Pats never faired well in Denver.
The Broncos gave the New England everything they could handle yet again. The Patriots trailed 24-23 lead in the 4th quarter with their back to the end zone. Coach Bill Belichick called for an intentional safety and put the game in the hands of his defense.
The defense held and Tom Brady led the team down the field. He hit wide receiver, David Givens by the pylon for the go ahead score in the final minutes of the game. The Patriots won the contest, 30-26.
Belichick’s genius and reputation continued to grow.
The Patriots were 7-2 at the bye and leading the AFC East. The team would win back to back games over teams from Texas, including an overtime win versus Houston. They stood at 9-2 going into the colossal tilt with the 9-2 Indianapolis Colts.
This was more than a game between two rivals. It was to secure the inside track to home field advantage in the AFC playoffs. All the marbles were on the line and this battle didn’t disappoint.
Tom Brady and Peyton Manning slung the ball all over the field. Special teams had an impact highlighted by the Patriots Bethel Johnson returning a kick off 92 yards for a score. And the defense also played a pivotal role.
With the Patriots clinging to a 38-34, Peyton Manning and the Colts had first and goal inside the five yard line. If they punched it, in likelihood the Super Bowl would go through Indianapolis.
Run by James.
Run by James.
Fourth and goal, James took the ball and was blown up by Willie McGinest to secure the victory. The Patriots held and continued their winning ways.
Winning in every possible fashion.
That’s what championship caliber teams do.
New England would win their final four games to finish 14-2. This included the season finale against the Buffalo who embarrassed them on opening day. Ironically the Patriots bloodied Buffalo’s mouth in the same fashion that they endured 16 weeks earlier. The score was even the same, 31-0.
The Patriots finished with their best record in franchise history at 14-2. They won the AFC East and secured home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
The Patriots were scalding hot, winners of 12 straight games and were poised for a long playoff run.
New England faced NFL Co-MVP Steve McNair and the Titans in the AFC divisional playoffs. The game was played in sub zero temperatures in Foxboro, MA.
The Patriots and Titans had a slugfest in the bitter cold. New England would hold on and win, 17-14.
Next up, was the very familiar Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship game. The Colts offense was on fire coming into the game. They put up 79 points in two playoffs wins over Denver and Kansas City.
But that was inside and not against the New England Patriots.
It was a snowy day in Foxboro, perfect weather for the Pats. They just loved the white fluffy stuff.
The Colts and Peyton Manning, not so much.
Peyton Manning was confused and baffled by the Patriots defense. He threw four picks with most of them going in the hands of corner, Ty Law. The Colts didn’t perform well in the elements of Gillette Stadium.
The Patriots defense forced five turnovers and Antowain Smith added 100 yards on the ground. Brady wasn’t spectacular (237 yards with 1 TD and 1 INT), but he managed the game to perfection much like he did in the 2001 Super Bowl run. New England was too much for Indianapolis on this day and prevailed, 24-14 for their second Super Bowl berth in two years.
New England’s foe in Super Bowl XXXVIII, was the Carolina Panthers, who went 11-5 and won the NFC South. They had to go through Dallas, St.Louis and Philadelphia to make it to the biggest game of their lives.
Both teams were in the top 15 in scoring so points shouldn’t be hard to come by or were they. The game started out as a full blown slobber knocker. Neither team could scratch the surface on the scoring sheet as the first quarter ended in scoreless tie.
The second quarter was a complete polar opposite of the first. Tom Brady broke the shut out with a 5 yard touchdown pass to Deion Branch. Jake Delhomme and Carolina countered with a strike to Steve Smith to tie the game at 7. The half would end at 14-10 with all the points being scored in the second quarter.
The see saw scoring continued in the third frame. Nothing happened at all and the score remained the same until fireworks exploded in the fourth quarter.
The Patriots would open their lead to 21-10 before the Panthers came back with a fury. Before you could order your next beer and finish your nachos, Carolina was up 22-21 on a DeShaun Foster touchdown run and a Mushin Muhammad bomb for six.
Brady and the Patriots responded. Tom Brady found linebacker, Mike Vrabel on a short pass to put New England back up 29-22. In this game, no lead was safe for long however.
Delhomme drove his team down the field yet again and found Patriots nemesis, Ricky Proehl for the tying score. This game was eerily shaping up like Super Bowl XXXVI versus the Rams. Proehl caught a pass from Kurt Warner to tie up that game as well.
However, just like the Rams, Carolina left too much time on the clock for Tom Terrific. After a kickoff out of bounds off the foot of John Casey, New England did not have to go far to set up Mr. Clutch, Adam Vinatieri for the winning boot,
Vinatieri was living the dream yet again like he did two years previously in New Orleans. He had a chance to win the Super Bowl AGAIN. With less than 10 seconds, he kicked another picture perfect 41 yard field goal and the Patriots won their second championship in 3 years.
Tom Brady won the Super Bowl MVP yet again by posting eye popping numbers. Brady threw for 354 yards, 3 touchdowns, and one interception. Brady was quickly establishing him as an elite quarterback and clutch performer.
The question, just as it was after Super Bowl XXXVI, was how the Patriots can top this.
The answer, win back to back Super Bowls and entertain the dynasty debate as the best team of the young millennium.
Check out the rest of the Fifty Years of Patriots Football Series: