Several Bears' starters missed a large portion of the season: Mike Brown 14 games, Rex Grossman 13, Charles Tillman and Rex Tucker 8, Brian Urlacher 7 and Ruben Brown 7. Jerry Azumah, Adewale Ogunleye, Bryan Johnson, John Tait and Thomas Jones all missed anywhere from two to four games.
The Patriots have played and won through a rash of injuries the last two seasons that both ended in a trip to the Super bowl. They kicked off their long winning streak last October with several key players sidelined by injuries and went 8-1 this year without their starting cornerbacks. But the big difference between 2001, 2003 and this year is that most of the injured players returned in time for a postseason run during the two championship seasons while this year, key contributors like Richard Seymour, Ty Law and Tyrone Poole remain out of action.
"That's the nature of this team," veteran linebacker Roman Phifer said. "We always have guys step in when guys go down and we expect them to play well. That's what has happened."
The Patriots' ability to play through big injuries has been uncanny and has served as motivation. DL Jarvis Green nearly broke down into tears after the victory over the Colts because he felt so disrespected by the assumption that New England could not win without Seymour. The secondary has also played with a chip on its shoulder after being referred to as "patchwork" and "makeshift."
The unit is relying on the likes of an undrafted rookie free agent, a couple of street free agents and a 12-year veteran wide receiver to make it their third Super Bowl in four years.
"Last year, we had a lot of injury problems, too, and we overcame that," safety Eugene Wilson said. "I don't see why this year would be any different. We have a lot of the same guys out here, and the coaches, they do a real good job getting the game plan for us. We go out and execute it."
The constant has been head coach Bill Belichick, who has a .777 winning percentage (56-16) since 2001, which includes a 9-1 postseason mark.
Belichick's personality doesn't lend itself to that fiery win-one-for-the-Gipper motivational speech, but to perceive that as a lack of personality or motivational skills would be off base.
It also is a case of follow the leader. Belichick puts so much into it, and the players see that and understand that the coach isn't asking them to do anything he doesn't do himself. They understand that he breaks down film as well as anyone in the business. They trust his words and follow his actions.
"It all starts with our leader," wideout Troy Brown said. "Coach Belichick, the offensive coordinator and the defensive coordinator come up with great plans to help us out and they teach us as much as they can. There are a lot of guys in this locker room who know a lot about football. We know the X's and O's, but it's up to us to go out and make plays."
Belichick coaches his players to understand exactly what he wants from each of them. It's a do-this-and-you-will-win approach. The players have seen it work too many times not to accept it. So when Belichick lays out the plan, his players enter the game with the confidence that the plan itself gives them an edge. Their part is simply to listen to it, study it, prepare like a professional and then execute it. That approach by both Belichick and his players has led to a 33-4 record over the last 37 games. But part of what makes this year's Belichick's best is that he now trusts his players as much as they do him.
The one fortunate Blichick has had has been the same quarterback. Tom Brady, a two-time Super Bowl MVP, tied a career high with 28 touchdown passes in 2004.
While Corey Dillon ran for more than 1,600 yards, Brady had arguably his most productive season to date, including his two Super Bowl championship seasons.
"He just gets the job done time and time again. We respect Tom, and the people that really truly matter respect him. It is not about getting all the attention like it is for some other people," said S Rodney Harrison.