Seven years ago, the New England Patriots hoisted the Lombardi Trophy after defeating the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX. Since that fateful day, every single season has ended in an absolute gut-wrenching fashion. Now, with New England playing in its seventh Super Bowl, Brady, Belichick, and the rest of the Patriots have the opportunity to finally put those lost seasons to rest by achieving the ultimate redemption. But before they do, I wanted to take a moment to revisit each and every one of those six seasons of pain. I've been covering the Patriots since 2002, and at the end of every season, I took the time to reflect on the final game and the season as a whole. For the next six days, I'll be re-running the end-of-the-season article from the past six years. It's time to rip open the scabs and pout salt in these old wounds. Because until you've spent time in the valley, you'll never appreciate the view from the top of the world.
"The Worst Game. Ever."
Written January 15th, 2006
It's been almost one week since the Patriots got ousted from the post-season in Denver, and I still can't begin to write this article. There just isn't words to describe what those three hours were like. It was absolutely surreal. Looking back on it, I still can't believe what happened. And when I start to believe it, it makes me feel sick.
This was, by far, the single worst loss I've ever experienced. Just thinking about it makes me want to slash my wrists and do push-ups in alcohol. I've gone through seven straight years of watching my Timberwolves get knocked out of the first round. None of those losses even touches this one. What's even stranger is how badly this loss has affected me, considering my team's won three of the last four Super Bowls. You would think those trophies would be a huge comfort. They aren't. If anything, they're just a reminder of the awesome experience the Patriots nation just missed out on. I've gotten used to feeling euphoria in early February. It's going to be a very difficult withdrawal.
Three titles in a row is something you'll probably only have one shot at in your lifetime. We didn't get it done. And to do it on a stage as big as Super Bowl XL would be... Well like I said, it just makes me sick to think about it. So without further ado, here's Bill Simmons from ESPN.com. Even though he can barely type about it himself, he and his readers have managed to do a fairly decent job of describing what we're all going through...
The Champ Kind Award for Most Anguished Reaction in the Face of Suddenly Losing Someone You Loved
To me and every other Patriots fan -- we've been walking around like zombies for four days and counting. It's one thing to lose the championship belts; it's another thing to give them away in the most uncharacteristic way possible. Hey, we want to seem like good losers -- after all, the Belichick-Brady teams won more than a few games in which they outplayed a more talented team simply by sticking together and not screwing up, and we always bristled whenever the fans from a vanquished opponent played the whole "we gave that gave away, we were better than you" card. At the same time, that was a Hall of Fame "No F-ing Way Game," between the killer turnovers and the consistently ludicrous officiating (did Jeff Triplett bury Ed Hochuli in a shallow grave or something?), only none of us could hit the reset button and start the game over. Unbelievable. I still can't get over it. One of the toughest Boston losses ever. Grace period, schmace period.
(Did the Broncos do a terrific job of banging bodies, punishing Brady, avoiding turnovers and taking advantage of mistakes? Absolutely. They were a better football team on Saturday night. But I will go to my grave wondering what would have happened if Kevin Faulking Faulk didn't fumble with 1:54 remaining in the first half. All season long, this Broncos team was fearing a situation in which Plummer had to make plays in the second half to win a game for them. The Pats were one more quarter away from making that happen. And they blew it. Aaaaaaargh. I can't talk about it anymore.)
The TiVo Award for Best Three-Second Delay in Real Life
To the back judge who whistled Asante Samuel for pass interference, the worst anti-Patriots call since Ben Dreith saved Oakland's season by whistling Ray "Sugar Bear" Hamilton for an unconscionable roughing the passer penalty in the 1976 playoffs. Not to break out a batch of sour grapes, but ...
1. If anything, that penalty should have been called on Ashley Lelie, who would have needed Freddie Krueger's arms to catch that ball, whether he was "impeded with" or not. But ever since Dungy and Bill Polian pulled their hissy fit after the 2004 AFC Championship and pushed the competition committee to change the pass defense rules to help out their quarterback, referees have adopted the "if there's even a modicum of contact and it seems like the receiver has a 10 percent chance of making the catch, throw the flag to be safe" policy. Well, you know what's going to happen? Eventually, this is just going to become some team's offense -- run the ball, kill some clock, and lob 15 to 20 passes per game. Figure you get lucky and catch two, get another four to five pass interferences, and maybe give up two interceptions (which would be like punts). That's still worth about 250 extra yards of offense per game. If you're the Bills with J.P. Losman, would you rather run the West Coast offense or the "Screw it, maybe we can draw some flags" offense?
2. The flag was thrown three seconds after the ball bounced off the grass. Put it this way: If you were making a football movie, and you wanted a scene in which the crooked refs were making every call for the home team, the back judge wouldn't wait that long to throw a late flag because it would seem too unrealistic. I mean, this wouldn't have even happened in "Remember the Titans."
3. That was the sideline judge's call since he was right there and all, so having the back judge intervene was the equivalent of an NBA referee standing at midcourt, then running 50 feet to overturn an out-of-bounds call under the basket. If that's not bad enough, the sideline judge tried to talk the back judge out of the flag, since he had a better angle and all, but the back judge wouldn't be denied.
4. The Pats were leading, 3-0, with under 2 minutes to play in the first half. By throwing this flag, the back judge was making a conscious decision to completely alter the course of the game. He waited three seconds and did it anyway. Also, the next day, a similar situation happened when Manning tried to hit Reggie Wayne in the end zone two plays before Vanderjagt's final shank, right down to Pittsburgh's defensive back running stride for stride and Wayne pushing off. No flag. And yes, I'm getting angry.
Again, the Patriots deserved to lose. They were terrible. But it's tough enough to win against a good home team without the officials handing them seven free points. If that was the only bad officiating moment of the weekend, it would be one thing -- obviously the reversal of the Troy Polamalu interception was 10 times more damaging and reprehensible -- but we're reaching the point where they need to run a disclaimer before every game:
"We'd like to apologize in advance for the horrible officiating. We swear, these games aren't fixed, it just looks that way. We're just too cheap to make officiating a real priority or hire anyone who's under 40 years old and might still have his reflexes and eyesight. Even instant replay isn't helping -- it just makes these guys look three times more incompetent when they're overruling calls that never should have been made in the first place. These guys are boobs. We're sorry. Anyway, enjoy the game!"
-- Sincerely, the NFL
The Prosecutor Jim Garrison Award for Best Impression of the "Magic Bullet"
I swear, I'm not blaming the officiating for the Pats' loss. Really, I'm not. I know it seems that way ... I just can't handle it when my favorite team gets screwed over by bad calls. For my sake, let's look at the Bailey fumble logically, and only because I slow-mo'ed it on TiVo 345,323 times this weekend before ultimately bludgeoning myself with the remote.
A. There's Champ running full-speed down the left sideline with ball in his right hand, with young Ben Watson heroically running full-speed toward him at a 55-degree angle.
B. Watson nails Champ at the 2-yard line, but because Champ has so much forward momentum going, he doesn't really start to fumble until he's one-and-a-half yards from the goal line. Also, the direction of Watson's hit pushes Champ toward the sideline.
C. Again, he's carrying the ball in his right hand -- the same side where Watson popped him. Watson's momentum pushes the arm forward before he fumbles, so his hand probably released the ball one yard from the goal line.
E. Here's the best way to describe the direction of the ball after it comes out: If Champ fumbled in a direction of a clock, the ball would have gone toward 10:30 on the clock.
My first point: Given Bailey's position on the field, his momentum from running full-speed, how close he was to the goal line, and where the ball eventually landed, it would have been logistically impossible for the football to go out of bounds before it crossed the goal line. There is no possible way. It's impossible. The football would have had to have taken a hard-left (almost a 90-degree angle), then a hard-right (to end up where it ended up). Almost like the magic bullet embedding itself into Gov. John Connelly's back.
My second point: With all of the technology we have, isn't there an ironclad way to prove this once and for all? If that was ruled a touchback, the Pats would have been down only 10-6. With an entire quarter to play. Starting another drive from their own 20. I find this to be significant. Not as significant as Jason Priestley making his TV comeback in a show called "Love Monkey," then spending the entire show deadpanning lines with his head tilted upwards like George Plimpton ... but significant nonetheless.
My third point: As Las Vegas reader Kyle tells us, "I was at the Pats-Broncos game, sitting in Section 111, Row 7. That Bailey interception return came right at me. Let me tell you, that was a freaking touchback. But, there wasn't a ref or cameraman within 20 yards of the play. Even the Broncos fans knew it was a touchback and were screaming for Shanahan to get the play off. Also, Ben Watson leveled Champ. Champ was on the ground for the entire review time."
My fourth point: I really, really need to let this go. Remind me to break out the Super Bowl DVDs this weekend. You know, assuming I'm still alive and all.
So that basically sums it all up, much better than I ever could. But I'll quickly add my two cents before the vomit begins to rise in my throat again.
Allow for my irate tirade...
1. We stunk it up. 5 turnovers is unacceptable. You turn the ball over five times, you deserve to lose. There's no excuse.
2. However... Doing absolutely nothing on offense is also unacceptable, as in the case of the Denver Broncos. You score a total of six legitimately earned points the entire game, you also deserve to lose.
3. Basically, our five turnovers were just as awful as Denver's offense was. And in my book, that sends us into overtime...
4. Which is exactly where this game would go if you took the 14 points off the board that the referees handed to Denver on a silver platter with their ridiculously awful, WWE quality calls. We were screwed!
Now that that's off my chest... let me calm down. I know what you're thinking, especially if you aren't a Patriots fan, and I don't blame you. Here's my logical conclusions...
1. We won three Super Bowls in four years. I should just shut-up and be happy.
2. The Patriots have won by doing the exact same thing to 20 other teams over the past four years. You live by the sword, you die by the sword. We had it coming.
3. The tuck rule. Our entire dynasty began on an iffy call (although far more legitimate than either of the bad calls in this game). It's only fair that we end up getting knocked out by them.
4. I need to stop the whining right now so I don't end up sounding like the Colts, Steelers, Raiders, and Rams fans that I've been laughing at for the past five years.
All in all, 2005 was just an awful season. Nothing went our way from the tough schedule, to the injuries, to the horrific end. I honestly don't think it's possible to have a worse winning season. In fact, that we even ended up with a winning season after everything that went wrong is a testament to this team in itself. It shows that this team, even after three Super Bowls, still hasn't lost its hunger. And now that we've finally been knocked to the canvas and tasted blood in our mouths, we're just more determined than ever.
Set it in stone... The Patriots are going to XLI.