Game Eleven - 12/20/03
– Patriots 21, JETS 16
Belichick’s Trump: Tom Brady struggled a bit (going 12 of 25 for 138 yards, although he did hit David Givens for two scores) and the Pats’ offense never really got on track, but it was the defense that made crucial play after crucial play to pull off the eleventh win of the streak. Jets’ QB Chad Pennington threw five interceptions in this game (including one to Ty Law in the end zone) after having thrown seven all season. New England had 13 first downs to 22 for the Jets, went three of 11 on third down and finished with fewer total yards (321-271).
Tedy Bruschi got the first pickoff on the second play of the game. It took eight seconds for the Patriots to convert the turnover into a score, when Brady threw a 35-yard touchdown pass to Givens. The Jets answered when Pennington ran for a 1-yard TD to tie it up. With the Patriots struggling offensively, the defense stepped up again. Willie McGinest returned an interception 15 yards for another score, the fifth time this season the Patriots returned a pickoff for a touchdown, tying a team record set in 2001. It was the Pats’ sixth defensive touchdown of the 2003 season, tops in the NFL.
"Coach always tells us that turnovers need to mean points," McGinest said. "So that was a big one. So was Tedy's because we got points out of that one right away and we were up 7-0." New England was not done making big plays. After Brady threw his second TD pass of the game to Givens to make it 21-10 in the third quarter, the Jets drove down the field. Pennington threw a pass for Santana Moss in the end zone from the Patriots' 21, but Law was there to intercept it. The Jets would not go quietly. Pennington scored on a 10-yard run early in the fourth to make it 21-16. The 2-point conversion try failed when he threw incomplete to Kevin Lockett. The Patriots punted away, and the Jets had the ball with a chance to go ahead. Rodney Harrison made sure that did not happen, intercepting a deep pass intended for Moss.
Key Opponent Mistake: Obviously, Pennington’s five picks. If you give a team of this caliber five extra possessions, you might just as well have stayed home.
Game Twelve - 12/27/03
– PATRIOTS 31, Bills 0
Belichick’s Trump: Grabbing the top seed in the AFC Playoffs, New England finished the 2003 regular season at 14-2 with a vengeful beatdown of the Buffalo Bills. In a game that seemed to turn the season full circle, the Pats got satisfaction after Buffalo had blown them out by the very same shutout score in the season opener. That game had compounded bad feelings surrounding Belichick’s release of safety Lawyer Milloy (who the Bills quickly snagged). This game was the cherry on the sundae, and a testament to the job Belichick had done in reviving the beliefs of his players after a tense early season. The Bills’ defense (ranked second in the NFL) didn’t have much of an answer for Tom Brady, who threw four touchdown passes. This was a team ready for one whale of a playoff ride.
Little did they know.
Key Opponent Mistake: Drew Bledsoe had a horrible game (12 of 29 for 83 yards, one interception and three sacks – he was eventually replaced by Travis Brown), but the Bills’ major mistake was in laying themselves open before this revenge-minded chainsaw of a defense in the first place.
Game Thirteen -
1/10/04 – PATRIOTS 17, Titans 14
Belichick’s Trump: In a Divisional Playoff matchup that saw temperatures dip to two degrees with a wind chill of 11 below zero, Adam Vinatieri kicked the winning 46-yard field goal with 4:08 left to propel the Pats to the AFC Championship game. It was the coldest game in Patriots history, and pre-game speculation had the Titans killed by the cold before the action began. However, Steve McNair reiterated the merit behind his 2003 Co-MVP status by going 18 of 26 for 210 yards and a TD in weather he’d never seen before. Brady, far more acclimated to frigid conditions, was 21 of 41 for 201 yards and a TD. Pretty even there, and it was really Vinatieri’s clutch kicking (again) and the New England defense (again, when Rodney Harrison intercepted a McNair pass in the first quarter) that decided a very close game and left the Titans feeling nothing but emptiness after a stellar, gutsy effort.
Key Opponent Mistake: The Titans’ final drive. McNair led the Titans to the New England 33 before an intentional grounding and a holding call put them out of range for the potential game-tying field goal. A desperation fourth-and-12 tossup bounced out of Drew Bennett's hands, and the Patriots ran out the clock.
Game Fourteen -
1/18/04 – PATRIOTS 24, Colts 14
Belichick’s Trump: Red Sox-Yankees. Lakers-Celtics. Are the Patriots and Colts setting themselves up to be the next great rivalry in sports? The 2003 AFC Championship proved that before such hyperbole could ring true, Peyton Manning and company would have to find a way to get the Patriots off of their collective necks.
This was not the day to do it. Manning suffered through what was probably his worst game as a pro as the New England defense feasted like kings on the Indianapolis QB, causing four interceptions (three by Ty Law) and four sacks (three by DE Jarvis Green). In a game where the Colts were practically behind before they walked into Gillette Stadium and were forced to pass relentlessly, all-world WR Marvin Harrison was held to 3 catches for 18 yards. Things were so bad that when the Colts finally had to punt for the first time in the playoffs, the snap went over the punter's head and resulted in a safety. It was one of the finest team defensive performances in postseason history – a resounding tribute to the coach who brought a new standard of toughness and execution to the Patriots – that sent New England to its second Super Bowl in three years.
Key Opponent Mistake: Getting off the plane. It was all downhill from there…
Game Fifteen - 2/1/04
– Patriots 32, Panthers 29
Belichick’s Trump: Apparently, some analysts were touting the Pats-Kats Super Bowl as a potential “snore-fest” between two defense-minded teams. Oops! For the second time, Adam Vinatieri won a Super Bowl with a field goal in the final seconds, marking him as the Clutch Kicker of the new century. But it was everything that led up to Vinatieri’s kick that made XXXVIII one of the more exciting Super Bowls ever.
Brady was voted the Super Bowl MVP for the second time, going 32 of 48 for 354 yards and three touchdowns. The 32 completions were a Super Bowl record. "To win this the way we did is incredible, unbelievable. A great all-around game," he said. "I don't know how I do it."
The lead changed hands several times, and the teams combined for 37 points in the fourth quarter. The Panthers, a 1-15 team in 2001, surprised everyone by establishing successful drives against the Patriot defense. But in the end, New England was just a bit too much for a very tough upstart opponent that almost pulled off the upset of upsets.
Key Opponent Mistake: The game came down to two late-game moments by the game’s two kickers. After the Panthers tied the game 29-29 with Jake Delhomme’s 12-yard pass to Ricky Proehl with 1:12 left in the game, Carolina kicker John Kasay booted the kickoff out of bounds, setting the Patriots up at their own 40 and jump-starting the drive that ended in Vinatieri’s historic field goal with 4 seconds left. Of such small things are champions made…
Game Sixteen - 9/9/04
– PATRIOTS 27, Colts 24
Belichick’s Trump: In the 2004 NFL season opener, and for the third time in a year, the Colts came up short against New England…although this game almost got Indy off the schnied. The Patriots gave up 448 total yards – more than any game in 2003 – as Manning and Brady duked it out all night. The Colts’ Edgerrin James ran for 142 yards on 30 carries, seemingly signifying a change in philosophy for coach Tony Dungy. It was the Colts’ intention to run the ball right down New England’s throat.
And it would have worked – if not for James’ two red zone fumbles. The Colts were driving late in the game to score the game-winning touchdown, but Willie McGinest sacked Manning on 3rd and 8 at the New England 17-yard line with 48 seconds left to go. With swirling winds at Foxboro, and a 48-yard field goal try predicated by the 12-yard loss, Mike Vanderjagt missed a field goal for the first time in 42 tries.
Key Opponent Mistake: James’ two fumbles were key, and McGinest’s sack of Manning (who seemed to be casually going through his reads, completely oblivious to the pressure) decided the contest.
Game Seventeen -
9/19/04 – Patriots 23, CARDINALS 12
Belichick’s Trump: Another win that wasn’t too pretty. It looked like a blowout at first as Brady threw two early TDs, but the Pats had three more drives that ended in field goals at the Cardinal 2, 10, and 2-yard line. The real news in this game was the emergence of Corey Dillon, acquired from the Bengals in the offseason for a second-round draft pick. Dillon rushed for 158 yards on 32 carries, giving the Pats a dimension they hadn’t had before during their dynastic run – a world-class running back.
This just in – they may be even better now.
Key Opponent Mistake: Safety Eugene Wilson intercepted Arizona QB Josh McCown twice, leading to the 10 New England points that were the difference in the game.
Game Eighteen -
10/3/04 – Patriots 31, BILLS 17
Belichick’s Trump: In winning their 18th straight game, he Patriots tied a record held by four other NFL teams -- Chicago did it twice -- and also by the 1947-48 AAFC Cleveland Browns, becoming the first to win 18 straight since Denver in 1997-98. No surprise that Tom Brady’s arm was a key to this win, but it was Richard Seymour’s legs that provided the neck-breaker. With the Bills threatening to tie the game, the 310-pound lineman snapped up a fumble by Drew Bledsoe forced by Tedy Bruschi and ran it back 68 yards to seal the victory with 2:44 remaining. Seymour wasn’t used to sprints of that distance, but he appeared game. "A lot of sucking air," Seymour said, laughing. "I just kept running."
Key Opponent Mistake: Any chance of a Buffalo victory ended with back-to-back plays on the Bills' last significant drive. On third-and-2 from the Patriots’ 16, running back Travis Henry was untouched when he fell face-first at the line of scrimmage for a 1-yard loss. On fourth down, the Bills called for Bledsoe to run a naked bootleg. But the play was blown up before it had a chance to even develop when Bruschi got to Bledsoe and forced the fumble.
Bledsoe seemed at a loss. "I was sitting at my locker for 10 minutes trying to figure it out and in the shower trying to figure it out ... 'What can I do to make a change?'" Bledsoe said. "We're making mistakes at the wrong time and especially against the defending world champs, you can't make mistakes like that."
Game Nineteen - 10/10/04 – PATRIOTS 24, Dolphins 10
Belichick’s Trump: The Patriots set the record for consecutive regular and postseason victories against a decimated Dolphins team. Miami outgained New England 295 yards to 204 and Brady threw for only 76 yards (still managing two TDs), but those numbers hardly mattered. Both teams were facing the loss of key players – the Pats were without WRs Deion Branch and Troy Brown. Despite those injuries, Belichick sat Bethel Johnson because of ineffectiveness in practice. For Miami, placekicker Olindo Mare left the field on a cart with an injured right calf during warmups. Later in the game, quarterback Jay Fiedler hurt his ribs and back on a 12-yard sack. Two plays later, backup A.J. Feeley suffered a concussion as he threw a fourth-down incompletion and was hit by Rosevelt Colvin.
New England won a war of attrition.
Key Opponent Mistake: Oh hell, they’re the Dolphins. Why rub it in?
Game Twenty - 10/17/04
– PATRIOTS 30, Seahawks 20
Belichick’s Trump: The Seahawks came into Foxboro with a 3-1 record, championship expectations, and a desire to rebound from a bizarre overtime loss to the Rams. They left three hours later with a very painful object lesson in what a real champion looks like. The Patriots tied the NFL record of 17 straight regular-season wins set in 1933-34 by Chicago, but there were moments when the Seahawks had the game close and just insisted on giving the game away.
Matt Hasselbeck put the Seahawks in the hole early with two first-quarter interceptions – the first by Willie McGinest on a pass tipped by Richard Seymour. The second INT was courtesy of Ty Law (who jumped in front of Darrell Jackson and made a great play), and the Pats were up 10-0 before the Seahawks knew what had hit them. Tom Brady had two turnovers in his future as well – at the beginning of the fourth quarter, Seahawk safety Michael Boulware nailed Brady with an outstanding tackle, knocked his helmet off, and caused a fumble, which was recovered by DT Rocky Bernard. In New England’s next possession, Boulware picked off a Brady pass intended for David Givens. The Seahawks scored 10 points off these two turnovers in what appeared to be an assertion by Seattle that their defense could match the opportunism of the Patriots' D. However, New England sealed the game late in the fourth quarter with a 30-yard Vinatieri field goal and a 9-yard TD run by Corey Dillon.
The Patriots, one of the greatest teams in NFL history, racked up their 20th win in a row…a truly astounding accomplishment that may only be recognized with the perspective of time.
Key Opponent Mistake: Hasselbeck’s two interceptions were trumped by Boulware’s two amazing, turnover-causing plays. The key “mistake” may have been safety Terreal Bierria’s coverage on Bethel Johnson, who punched his ticket out of Belichick’s doghouse with a controversial 48-yard reception which put the ball at the Seattle 12-yard line with 2:45 left in the game and set up Dillon’s touchdown run. Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren challenged the catch, but the officials overruled the challenge. It did indeed appear that Johnson had possession, and New England had the game.
Will the streak continue against the 5-0 division rival New York Jets?
Tune in tomorrow…
Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET. Feel free to e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.