The New England Patriots had won a Super Bowl in 2001 when they were seen as a miracle team on a magical ride. When the Pats missed the playoffs in 2002 there were fair questions as to whether this duo of head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady were really going to have long-term success. The 2003 New England Patriots obliterated those questions with another Super Bowl trophy that said Belichick and Brady were here to stay.
New England’s season didn’t start well though. Free safety Lawyer Milloy had departed for the Buffalo Bills in an acrimonious split and the Patriots lost to the Bills 31-0 in Week 1. ESPN studio analyst Tom Jackson said there was a rift in the locker room over the handling of Milloy. Jackson, normally not prone to overstatement said bluntly “they hate their coach.” New England’s season appeared ready to unravel.
It took three more weeks for the Patriots to find their form. They got their record to 2-2, but also lost to the lowly Washington Redskins. Then came a 38-30 victory over the Tennessee Titans, who had reached the 2002 AFC Championship Game and were playoff-bound again.
The Patriots never looked back, winning out the rest of the way. The 12-game win streak to close the season included victories over Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts, a 38-34 shootout, and a 30-26 win over the playoff-bound Denver Broncos. Both wins came on the road.
New England had the #1 seed in the AFC and got a first-round bye. The NFL’s round of eight was dramatic up and down the card and the Patriots survived a rematch with the Titans. It set up an AFC Championship battle with the Colts, the first time Brady and Manning had met in the postseason.
The weather was a factor here, with the snow coming down in Foxboro and the physical Patriot secondary forced Manning into four interceptions. New England’s own offense kept bogging down in the red zone, and Adam Vinateri kicked five field goals on drives that ended inside the 20-yard line. New England also got a safety and won the game 24-14.
The Carolina Panthers were the opponent in the Super Bowl down in Houston. A 14-10 New England lead after three quarters was the prelude to a game that suddenly went crazy. The Pats went up 21-10, but the Panthers responded with two successive touchdowns. The conversion failed both times though, and when New England answered with a TD and successful two-pointer, they led 29-22.
The Panthers, led by Jake Delhomme, responded with a game-tying touchdown in the final minute, but the ensuing kickoff went out of bounds. Brady was locked in, his 32/48 for 354 yards easily being the best of his five Super Bowl appearances, and starting a drive at the 40-yard line was too easy. New England got in field goal range, and for the second time in three years, Vinateri hit a walkoff field goal on the final play to win the Super Bowl.
If the 2001 title had a magical aura to it, and the 2004 run a year later had a dynastic feel, this 2003 New England Patriots team is the one that made it clear this was a franchise that had arrived and was here to stay.