Going in to the 2001 season the Patriots fans had rather low expectations of the team. They had gone 5-11 the year before and fans were starting to wonder if trading for Belichick was good move. The year 2001 was galvanizing not only for the Patriots as a team but America as a nation.
We all remember September 11th, 2001. I remember it vividly. I was sitting in my fifth grade history class when the principal explained what was going on. Personally I felt scared because at that time the only tall building I knew of were only 20 minutes away and I thought it was happening much closer. September 11th was a Tuesday. After that nightmare of a day the NFL decided football needed to take a step back. We all needed a week to get ourselves back on track. So the league decided to push that following weekends games back. They did this by eliminating the bye week before the Super Bowl meaning whichever teams were in the big game would not have their traditional 2 weeks to prepare.
The 2001 season for the Patriots was certainly a strange one. In march the team gave a 10 year contract to then QB Drew Bledsoe. Growing up, Bledsoe was the man. He was my super hero. Sadly on August 6th of that year Dick Rehbein, the QB coach at the time passed away of cardiomyopathy at the age of 45. You can find clips of Brady talking about how much he loved Rehbein on YouTube. It's worth looking up simply to see the connection between Brady and his first QB coach in the NFL. The Patriots dropped their first two games of the season. Fans of the team weren't shocked by this but we had no idea just how much our lives as fans were going to change.
The first game back from the break because of 9/11 was against the New York Jets. The Patriots hated AFC East rival. Only this time, it had a different feeling. We weren't fans of certain teams that day. Yes the Jets would go on to win the game but I remember 2 moments from that game especially. One were going to get into in just a minute but the other that stood out revolved around Joe Andruzzi. If you don't know who Joe Andruzzi is he was an offensive lineman for the Patriots for several years but more importantly his brothers were New York City firefighters. All of them responded to the World Trade Center and luckily all of them made it out alive. I'll never forget Joe Andruzzi running on to the field holding an American flag in both hands. His brothers were honored before the game started then the game got underway....and things got interesting.
Now I'm sure a good number of you are around my age (29) and sort of only remember having Brady at the wheel. Ever wonder how that happened? Heres how. The Pats were trailing 10-3 late in the 4th quarter. The Pats had the ball and Bledsoe dropped back to pass. Nothing was available so he began to run towards the right sideline and no one could've predicted what would happen. Drew Bledsoe was absolutely demolished by Jets played Mo Lewis. Little did Lewis know he sealed the NFL's fate that day. Bledsoe suffered severe injuries including a sheared blood vessel causing internal bleeding in his chest. These injuries could have been potentially fatal.
With Bledsoe sidelined the Patriots turned to second year back up from Michigan, Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr. Brady was chosen 199th overall in the 2000 NFL draft. It's crazy to see how far we've come huh? Were only just getting started. So Brady takes the field down 7 against the Jets. He isn't able to pull off the win and Pats fall to 0-2. Something happened though, the Pats started winning.....a lot. The last 14 games of the season the Patriots go 11-3 and end the year at 11-5. For a team that went 5-11 the year prior that's a pretty substantial difference. The Patriots clinch the 2nd seed in the playoff and get a first round bye. This would be the last season in Foxboro Stadium and boy would it host one of the greatest games in NFL history as it's swan song.
THE SNOW BOWL
Some people out there get mad when I call it that. The Snow Bowl. They want us to call it the tuck rule game and you know what? No. This game was far too good to just be labeled by one play. Especially that one. I digress. This game is one that I will remember for my entire life. My father was in the stadium that night. My family and I were in Florida at the time but we were getting updates from friends and family at the hotel because keep in mind I'm 10 during this season.
The Patriots first playoff opponent that year were the Jon Gruden led Oakland Raiders. A solid team with a fast defense that would certainly hinder Brady's ability. Mother Nature however seemed to have another idea. I've lived in New England all my life. Born and raised here. So I feel pretty confident about my ability to tell you when a good snow storm and a bad snow storm are coming. This snow storm was unlike anything I'd seen. My father described the snowflakes as "dollar bills ripped in half." The field had a thick pillow of snow on it throughtout the whole game. The Patriots offense struggled to get anything going most of the game. The Raiders offense was able to manufacture a drive and Rich Gannon threw a 13 yard TD to James Jett. The Patriots are able to move the ball and AdamVinatieri kicks a 23 yard FG. The game continues with sloppy play on both sides due to the weather but Oakland is able to put up 2 more field goals and make it 13-3 in their favor. However thats the last on the point Oakland would score that night.
In the fourth quarter Tom Brady scores his first ever rushing touchdown. He makes a smart move by stepping up in the pocket and runs (like a tree falling) into the endzone. He then proceeds to spike the ball and fall flat on his face. He's a Calinfornia kid. He will get used to the snow. The Patriots are now only down 13-10 in the fourth quarter. This is where the literal magic happened. The Patriots defense was able to force Oakland to punt on their ensuing drive. The Patriots were making their way down the field and it happened. Tom Brady's former team mate at Michigan, Charles Woodson, sacked Brady on his blindside and the ball came out. Oakland fell on it. Game over right? Not quite.
The refs began looking at the play. Everyone was certain that Oakland had popped the ball out and recovered, Right? It was obvious. But it wasn't. This call would go on to become something every Patriots hater refers to when they run out of other stupid things to say. I can hear the call now. "The quarterback's arm was going forward, it is an incomplete pass." I can ever hear the late, great, Gil Santos saying "Alright!" after the call. So what exactly happened?The offical rule is Rule 3: section 22, article 2, note 2: When a player is holding the ball to pass it forward, any intentional forward movement of his hand starts a forward pass, even if the player loses possession of the ball as he is attempting to tuck it back towards his body. An obscure rule that had been called only one more time that season.
The Patriots maintained possession and kept the drive moving. Now it's time for something even crazier to happen. If you know me or honestly any Patriots or even football fan for that matter, they should all say the same thing. Adam Vinatieri is absolutely a hall of fame kicker. And on this drive, he earned it to me. The Patriots couldn't get into the endzone so they had to settle for 3. Keep in mind they're still down 13-10. Adam Vinatieri was tasked with kicking a 45 yard field goal through a genuine New England blizzard. If he misses the season is effectively over. But he didn't miss. That ball could barely be seen by anyone there and cleared the crossbar by maybe 3 feet. Absolute madman. The Patriots had tied it and the game headed to overtime.
The Patriots won the OT coin toss and drove right down the field setting up Vinatieri for a game winninh field goal that would send the Patriots to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers the following week.
Now if you talk to most people in New England this is one of those staple games. One of those games you can watch start to finish every couple years to remind yourself that you didn't dream it up. The Snow Bowl was one of the craziest games I'd ever seen. After that game Foxboro Stadium shut it's gates for the last time and construction of the Patriots new home got underway.
After the improbable win at home in a blizzard the Patriots then headed to Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. Another game where they were underdogs. The Patriots always find a way to light a fire under their own asses though. Lawyer Milloy saw that the Steelers players had already packed their bags and all but assumed (at least in his eyes) that they were guaranteeing a victory. They had everything ready to leave. Lawyer Milloy did not take kindly to this at all.
The Patriots would face some serious adversity during this game and it would take the help of my hero to get them to the Super Bowl once again. The game started slowly with not much happening and then the Steelers made the mistake of punting the ball to Troy Brown who, with 3:42 left in the 2nd quarter returned a punt and gave the Patriots a 7-0 lead going into the second quarter.
In the 2nd quarter however is where things got a little dicey for the team. Tom Brady took a hit behind the knees and rolled awkwardly and had to leave the game. As a fan I was scared as hell but what happened? Drew Bledsoe returned and saw his first game action since nearly dying early in the season. Then the points started coming from everywhere.
The Steelers drove down and made it a 7-3 game on a Kris Brown field goal but the Patriots answered with a strong drive and Bledsoe threw his first touchdown of the game to David Patten and made it 14-3. The Steelers put together another long drive and took the ball to the Patriots 16 yard line. Then one of my favorite special teams plays of all time took place. The Patriots special teams blocked the field goal attempt. The ball was blocked by Antwan Harris and scooped up by Troy Brown. Troy then made a fantastic heads up play to lateral the ball back to Harris and let him take it the distance and score a touchdown making the lead 21-3 Patriots. Steelers fans were stunned. Patriots fans were elated but also cautious because we've seen this team. They weren't the well oiled war machine they are now.
The Steelers started stringing together some plays on offense later in the game finally culminating in a 79 yard drive ending in a 1 yard Jerome Bettis touchdown. The Patsriots were forced to punt on their next drive and the Steelers scored another touchdown on a pass thrown to Amos Zereoue making it 21-17.
The Patriots kicked a 44 yard field goal early in the second to make the lead 24-17. The Steelers weren't able to string together anything on two consecutive drives which helped the Patriots gain some confidence in themselves late in that game. The Patriots tried to put the game out of reach on an Adam Vinatieri field goal but he missed from 50 yards out. With only 2:02 left in the game and the Patriots holding a 24-17 lead, Lawyer Milloy got his "revenge" and intercepted Kordell Stewart. The Patriots, lead by Drew Bledsoe, were headed to the Super Bowl against the Rams. If you want a funny little clip to watch try and find the footage of Willie McGinest yelling "cancel those reservations" at the NFL films cameras in reference to the slight the Patriots felt seeing all the bags packed. Come to think of it though, I'm almost certain the Patriots had their stuff all packed up as well since there was no Super Bowl bye week this season. But I can't speak the validity of that because I was 11 when this season took place.
SUPER BOWL 36
Here it was. The big game. The game you work your entire life to get to and play in. Drew Bledsoe had helped the Pats overcome a good team in Pittsburgh so would he play that night? Belichick is much smarter than all of us and you can say what you want but he went with the hot hand that night and that hands name was Tom Brady. That was a walk to get there. Sorry about that. Anyway, the Patriots were in New Orleans at the Super Dome to take on the greatest show on turf, the Kurt Warner led St. Louis Rams. They hadn't moved back to L.A. at this point.
Their nickname wasn't just a clever name. They earned it. The Rams were an offensive jugernaut for years and this season was no different. The Patriots had a stought defense and some play makers on offense but could they really match up with the likes of Marshall Faulk? In short, yes. You can find another clip of Willie McGinest talking about this game and he said his job that day was to "knock the shit out of Faulk whether he had the ball or not" and you can see clips where Faulk goes out for a screen pass and Willie uproots the guy.
The Patriots were 14 point underdogs and Cris Collinsworth was quoted as saying before the game "I've never been so sure a team will beat another team since Super Bowl 3" and this is just a personal thing now but I'm so glad the Patriots won because I honestly can't stand Collinsworth. My dad also got to attend his first Super Bowl with my uncle Bobby. They had flown to Louisiana and it also happened to be Mardi Gras while they were there. My dad remembers the game but not much else from what he's told me and honestly I'd be in the same boat if I was there to see the Pats play in the big game for the first time. I'd be only drinking alcohol just to kill the nerves.
The pregame introductions were about to start the Rams ran out of the tunnel one-by-one and each played received a shout out as they ran on to the field. The Patriots however had decided to do something that had never been done, they were introduced as a team because that's how they'd played all year. As a team. Even to this day the Patriots aren't big on individual accomplishment. They're a team through and through.
Halfway through the first quarter the Rams put the first points of the Super Bowl on the board with a 50 yard field goal by Jeff Wilkins. The Patriots get an interception off of Kurt Warner early in the second quarter but aren't able to make anything out of the possesion. With 8:49 remaining in the 2nd quarter however, NFL Hall of Fame cornerback Ty Law intercepted Warner and returned the ball 47 yards for a touchdown. The Patriots just picked off the greatest show on turf, do we have a shot here? Is it happening?
The Rams started driving before the half but Antwan Harris stripped receiver Ricky Proehl (remember that guys name. It's going to come up a couple more times during this series) of the ball and the Patriots were able to drive down the field and Brady was able to hit David Patten in the back corner of the endzone to go up 14-3 on the Rams. This was the first time all season the Rams had been losing by 8 or more points.
Both teams had drives stall in the 3rd quarter. But things were about to change. In the third, Otis Smith picked off Kurt Warner and returned the ball 30 yards. Vinatieri came out and kicked a 37 yard field goal to give the Pats a 17-3 lead. This game wouldn't end without a little heart break however. The Rams were able to drive the ball all the way down to the Pats 3 but Warner would fumble the football and Roman Phifer would return the fumble 97 yards for a touchdown. Well, sort of. I remember being so excited by this play then instantly heart broken as Willie McGinest was flagged for holding nullifying the entire play. Warner then runs in a 2 yard touchdown and Rams cut the lead down to 7 points.
Both teams would go three-and-out on their next possesions. The Rams go the distance in 3 plays and Ricky Proehl scores the game tying touchdown making it 17-17 late in the 4th quarter. The Patriots and Tom Brady take over with 1:30 left in the game. John Madden said before the drive started "I think with this field position you just play for overtime" and the Patriots didn't listen. This was Brady's arrival party. This is where New England realized holy shit, I think we have something special here. Brady was surgical, carving up the Rams defense with throws over the middle including a massive play to Troy Brown. After Troy made the reception he gained big yardage and managed to get out of bounds to stop the clock. The Patriots ran one more play and Brady spiked the ball. Now it was time for Adam Vinatieri to come out. All he had to do was kick a 48 yard field goal and the Patriots would be world champs for the first time ever. Adam delivered. The ball sailed perfectly and with no time remaining on the clock the Patriots shocked the entire world and won.
It's crazy to think that this was so long ago. It's even crazier to see how far this team has come. The Patriots are now touted as the elite in football. A scrappy team who started without a stadium has now dropped 6 banners in it's house. I've spoken to my dad several times about his emotions that night in New Orleans and he just calls it the best night of his life. Honestly I wish I could've been there with him that night but I'm so glad that a guy like him who devoted so much time, money, emotion, into a team was able to not only celebrate winning Fan of The Year but also see his team win it all? I don't think it get any better than that.