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.
"Death of a Dynasty"
Written January 21st, 2007
I couldn't sleep that night.
I tossed and I turned, my mind racing, my stomach churning. How did we lose that game? We were up by 18 points. We didn't make any huge mistakes. We didn't get hosed by the referees. How did the Patriots lose that game?
I think it's safe to say that after Sunday's AFC Championship game, all Patriots fans feel like they've stumbled into the Twighlight Zone. That was the type of game that the Patriots win, not throw away. It's Brady and Belichick who rise the occasion late in the fourth quarter, not Manning and Dungy. Yet when everything was all said and done, it was the Colts hoisting the Lamar Hunt trophy into the air. And the Patriots Nation was left watching, completely befuddled, and trying to make sense of the apparent disconnect between Asante Samuel's interception and the image we were seeing now.
No loss was worse than last season's defeat at the hand of the Denver Broncos. That game featured horrendous officiating which cost a surging Patriots team their shot at a third straight title. I fervently believe that the Patriots were the best team last season and had their shot at immortality stolen from them. The days that followed that debacle were filled with an anger that still boils to this day.
This loss hurt, but it didn't leave me angry. It left me asking "what if", but I never questioned the fairness of the outcome. There was no meltdown, no bad call, no miraculous reversal of fortune. The Colts simply won. Yet as easy as that is to say, it was nearly impossible for me to accept. These were the New England Patriots! This is the team that thrives during big games! This is the team that doesn't blow 18-point leads! How did this happen?
I just didn't have an answer to that question. Even though I had watched every play in between, my mind just couldn't process how we went from Asante Samuel celebrating a 21-3 lead to Peyton Manning celebrating a trip to the Super Bowl. It was like going to sleep in New York City and waking up in Los Angeles. To me, it was simply unexplainable.
That thought of "How did this happen" plagued me all night. It plagued me all the next day. I wanted to put this game to rest, to stop thinking about it, to get over the disappointment, but I just couldn't. I tried rationalizing it away. "You didn't do anything to lose that game, so why are you so upset?" "Not a single player in that locker room even knows who you are, so why are you going to let this bother you?" But none of those helped. I searched my mind for a scapegoat; a play gone horribly wrong, a bad call, any excuse. But there was none to be found. There was simply no redeeming way to explain how the New England Patriots, this team that for years has always overcome the odds and won when it counted most, had lost this game. And after 24 hours of wrestling with this issue my mind was finally willing to accept, what was clearly the case: The Indianapolis Colts were the better team.
Sure, the Patriots jumped out to an early advantage, but over the course of the entire 60 minutes, the Colts clearly were the more dominant team. Their offense was so powerful and their determination to stay the course was so strong, that ironically, it was Indianapolis who looked the most like "The New England Patriots" on that night. The team that had been the class of the league for so many years had finally been out-classed. And far more sobering than the disappointing reality that there would be no fourth title in six years, was the grave fact that was now crystal clear...
The Dynasty is Dead.
Born September 30th, 2001, the day Tom Brady made his first start and shocked the heralded Peyton Manning and his Indianapolis Colts, the New England Patriots Dynasty succumbed on January 21st, 2007 as those same Colts became the first team to legitimately defeat Tom Brady in an important game. The Patriots Dynasty was survived by coach Bill Belichick, linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel, receiver Troy Brown, linemen Richard Seymour and Matt Light, running back Kevin Faulk, and the aforementioned Tom Brady. It was a Cinderella story where David ultimately became Goliath. It was a time that was characterized by teamwork, determination, intelligence, and excellence. It was an era that no Patriots fan will ever, ever forget.
2001 was the Realization of a Dream. No movie in history has been able to portray an underdog better than those New England Patriots. When this nation was hurting the most, the Patriots brought everyone to their feet and showed that no obstacle was too difficult to overcome.
2002 was a Search for Identity. Were they the team of misfits everyone claimed them to be who had just gotten lucky? Were they now a bunch of superstars who could handle the distractions of fame like dating famous actresses and just flip their level of play off and on like a switch? After sixteen weeks of soul-searching, the Patriots found the answer in their improbable overtime win in Miami. Though they had struggled all year, the team had finally regained its winning edge. Unfortunately, a playoff tie-breaker cost them their chance to defend their title.
2003 was the Year of Redemption. After all the doubters mocked their failure to make the playoffs, the Patriots shut them up - permanently. They rode a 15-game winning streak to the Super Bowl, where they captured a second title by defeating the Panthers in the greatest "Big Game" ever.
2004 was the Establishment of a Dynasty. When the Patriots 21-game winning streak was snapped in Pittsburgh, it marked over a calendar year where New England had not tasted defeat. Previously, that was simply unheard of. Once again, they finished 14-2, the best record in franchise history, for a second year in a row. In the post-season, the Patriots took down their two most-hated rivals, the Colts and Steelers, setting up a Championship match with the greatest team of their reign, the Philadelphia Eagles. The Patriots won, and a dynasty was born.
2005 was a Test of Character. With the pressure to defend the Dynasty mounting, New England faced its most brutal slew of injuries ever. Tedy Bruschi's off-season stroke, Rodney Harrison's torn ACL, and many other injuries affecting stalwarts such as Matt Light, Corey Dillon, and Richard Seymour left the Patriots depleted beyond repair. Yet somehow, Tom Brady willed his team to the playoffs, and rode a 7-2 second half record into Denver. There, a slew of egregious calls would put the game out of New England's reach and prevent a patented Patriots comeback.
2006 was the End of an Era. Thanks to a number of salary cuts and back-stabbings, the Patriots entered this past season as a shell of their former greatness. No fan that was truly being honest with himself thought that we had a Super Bowl team on our hands. In the back of our minds we hoped that this team would somehow catch lightning in a bottle, some opponents would falter, and we could squeeze our way into the Super Bowl. And you know what? That almost happened.
Despite our 12-4 record, I can't ever say that the Patriots looked like a truly great team. Great teams don't regularly turn the ball over three or four times in a game. Great teams don't consistently need fourth down conversions to keep their drives alive. Great teams have faith in their kicker. Great teams don't get shut-out late in the season versus a division rival. New England fans had been a watching a great team for the past five seasons, and we just knew that what we were watching now wasn't one.
And then something changed. I first recognized it after the Miami shut-out. It was as if that small embarrassment had invigorated that aging Dynasty. Instead of being resolved to slowly fade into the night during some unremarkable divisional game, the Patriots began playing like a team with a purpose. They throttled the Texans, strangled the Jaguars, and punished the Titans. They then faced off against a Jets team who had bested them weeks before, and came up with a convincing victory. That set up a legendary game in San Diego.
Going into the divisional round match-up, with the winner poised to play the Colts, I had one request for my team: "Don't bother to win this week, if you aren't going to win next week." In my mind, it was better to let the Chargers advance and take down Peyton Manning, than have him get the best of us in an AFC Championship game. In retrospect, losing that round would have been a lot less painful, but I'm glad things played out the way they did.
The Chargers game gave Patriots fans everywhere one last glimpse of our fading dynasty. New England dethroned a fifth NFL MVP in six years and the Patriots came up with yet another unbelievable victory that had come to define this era. It was a game for the ages, as San Diego was clearly the toughest opponent this Dynasty ever faced. And true to form, the New England Patriots came up big when they faced their biggest challenge.
Perhaps the challenge of the Chargers was a little too big. That final triumphant moment in the sun had left the Patriots battered. The old Dynasty had held firm through the toughest of storms, but not without taking considerable damage. The sore muscles and bruises were met with bouts of the flu, and by the time Adam Vinatieri kicked off the AFC Championship game, it was a wonder the Patriots were still standing, let alone about to take a 21-3 lead.
In the end, the Colts simply proved to be too much. This Dynasty that had soared to height that had never before been reached was finally pushed too far. And as Peyton Manning lead that touchdown drive and Brady's final comeback attempt fell short, The New England Patriots Dynasty finally gave up the ghost.
Some may say that's an awful ending for a storybook team. But no dynasty ever ends well. Otherwise it wouldn't end. You can only keep that caliber of play up for so long. And in today's NFL with its tight salary cap, it's incredible the Patriots' run lasted as long as it did. The Dynasty had to end. And I for one am glad that its finale featured a final jab at the Jets and a comeback for the ages, before it finally fell at the hands of the Colts. Yeah, they're our rivals. Yeah, we hate them. But seriously, who was better to end this ride than the team that started it, who also happened to be the rival that defined it? It stung like no other, but there was no shame in this loss to Indianapolis.
When the Patriots were winning those titles, I thought to myself, "Enjoy this. Because it isn't going to last forever". And I did enjoy every second of this Dynasty. Most fans never get to experience anything that comes close to this. And no fan base has ever experienced anything that was actually as good as this. I will be eternally grateful that these New England Patriots somehow became "my team". Ironically, when I picked them back in 1994, I was deciding between them and the Colts. And even though I'd be whooping it up right now had I picked the Horseshoes, I would never, ever trade these past six years with the Patriots. It's been the fan experience of a lifetime.
Where do the Patriots go from here? Well, they've got a ton of draft picks to use, some salary cap room to work with, some players to resign, and some free-agents to scoop up for sure. I have a feeling that when this off-season is over, we'll be looking at a squad we barely recognize. The Dynasty is officially over, but don't think for a moment that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady aren't going to do everything in their power to assemble a new one. That's right...
2007 is "The Second Coming."