On the morning of September 30, 2001, the world was a dark day for Boston sports fans. The Red Sox were entering the final week of a once-promising season that had collapsed. The Celtics & Bruins were both coming off seasons where they missed the playoffs and there wasn’t a reason to expect better in the year about to start. And the Patriots? After a 5-11 year in 2000 to begin the Bill Belichick era, they’d lost the first two games of 2001 and lost starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe to an injury. Now on September 30, the Indianapolis Colts were coming to town and Tom Brady was going to make his first career start.
There was nothing in the Patriots’ first two games that indicated anything remotely special would happen today, much less in the future. The season opened at Cincinnati, where the Bengals were a model of NFL ineptitude. New England got to an early 7-0 lead on a Bledsoe touchdown pass, but the game quickly got away from them and ended 23-17. The Patriots couldn’t stop the run, they couldn’t run it themselves, allowed Bledsoe to be sacked four times and their pass defense allowed Cincinnati starter Jon Kitna to do a reasonable imitation of Boomer Esiason in his prime.
Week 2 was a home game with the Jets, who weren’t a bad team, coming off a 9-7 season. But nor were they a good one, having made a coaching change and Herm Edwards was in his first year with the team. And against the Pats, Herm played to win the game—at least his defense did. New England mustered only a field goal and their old friend Curtis Martin scored the game’s only touchdown for the Jets in a 10-3 win. Bledsoe threw two interceptions before his injury, and Brady’s 5-for-10 for 46 yards was the best to be expected under the circumstances, it hardly had anyone pumped up for his first start.
Indianapolis had become a good team under Jim Mora’s coaching and Peyton Manning was in his fourth year in the league. The Colts had made the playoffs the two years prior, winning 23 of 32 regular season games and they were seen as a team on an upward trajectory. If, on the morning of September 30, you’d told an average NFL observer that one of these two teams was about to get a Super Bowl victory behind an up-and-coming quarterback, there wouldn’t have been much doubt which team you were talking about.
But New England came out and played the kind of game plan they would eventually sharpen to perfection. The running game got going behind Antowain Smith, who scored the game’s first touchdown in the first quarter and produced 94 yards. The Pats as a team rushed for 168, and enabled Brady to play a high-percentage game, completing 13-of-23 for 168 yards. More importantly, Brady made no mistakes, while Manning threw three interceptions. New England won the turnover battle 4-0.
Two of Manning’s interceptions came back as Pick-6s, the first of which was a 78-yard return from Otis Smith in the second quarter. At the time the game was 10-0 with the Colts ready to make it close. Instead it went to 17-0 in the blink of an eye and the lead was 23-7 after three quarters. Ty Law helped seal the deal with another interception return, and the Patriots won in a 44-13 rout.
The city of Boston’s sports fortunes turned upward. The Bruins began a season that would lead them back to the playoffs. The Celtics did even better, making the conference finals. The Red Sox won 93 games the following year. And the whole Brady behind center thing for the Patriots? Yeah, that ended up working out okay too.