When the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl in 2001, they seemed like a nice out-of-nowhere story. When they missed the playoffs in 2002, that championship run seemed like a one-shot thing. But when the 2003 NFL season ended with the Patriots again on top of the heap, fans knew that this combination of head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady was here to stay.
The Patriots of the early ‘00s were built on defense and their ’03 unit was the best in the league, with defensive tackle Richard Seymour, safety Rodney Harrison, and corner Ty Law all being named 1st-team All-Pro. Brady, at this stage of his career was still somewhere in between game-manager and difference-maker and he didn’t make the Pro Bowl. But the Pats offense still ranked a respectable 12th in the league for points scored.
New England got a signature win early over the contending Philadelphia Eagles. The Patriots beat a good Tennessee Titans team in early October. They won shootouts, like a 30-26 Monday Night game in Denver and a 38-34 decision over Peyton Manning’s Colts at the end of November. New England won defensive battles—a pair of 12-0 wins over the playoff-bound Dallas Cowboys and their top division rival, the Miami Dolphins.
All in all, the Patriots rolled to a 14-2 record and held the #1 seed in the AFC bracket when the playoffs began.
As for Peyton Manning, the man who would join Brady in defining quarterback play for an entire generation, he won the first MVP of his career in Indianapolis. Manning shared the award with a QB from his own division—Steve McNair from Tennessee. And the Colts and Titans staged a stirring race in the AFC South.
Manning’s prime target was the great Marvin Harrison, and Edgerrin James provided the punch in the running game. The trio helped Indy cover for a shaky defense. The Titans had a top rusher in Eddie George, a solid receiver in Derrick Mason and an All-Pro linebacker with Keith Bulluck.
In the head-to-head battles, Indianapolis struck first with a 33-7 blowout win in early September. The rematch in December was close, but the Colts still won, 29-27. That was the difference in the race. Both teams finished 12-4, with Indy winning the division and Tennessee picking up the top wild-card.
What the Colts did not have was the 2-seed and the first-round bye that came with that prior to 2020. The Kansas City Chiefs used an explosive offense to ride to the top of the AFC West. The Chiefs not only had the most prolific offense in the league, they took almost half the All-Pro spots on the offensive side. Running back Priest Holmes and wide receiver Dante Hall had huge years. So did Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez. Up front, both Will Shields and Willie Roaf were honored as the league’s best. All 33-year-old quarterback Trent Green had to do was play point guard and move the ball around.
Kansas City showed they could win a defense-oriented game in late September with a 17-10 win over the physical Baltimore Ravens. The Chiefs’ offense outgunned Brett Favre and the Packers with a 40-34 win in October. They churned out a 13-3 record, cruised to the AFC West title and had a first-round bye for the playoffs.
The Denver Broncos also reached the playoffs out of the West. Clinton Portis rolled up over 1,600 yards rushing, running behind All-Pro center Tom Nalen. Defensive end Bertrand Berry recorded 11 ½ sacks and Denver was top-10 for both offense and defense. They got two huge wins in December—a 45-27 win over the Chiefs, and a 31-17 Sunday Night win against the Colts. It got the Broncos to 10-6 and they nipped the Dolphins for the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC.
The AFC bracket was filled out by the Ravens in the North. The great Ray Lewis won Defensive Player of the Year and keyed a fantastic linebacking corps that included Defensive Rookie of the Year Terrell Suggs and Pro Bowler Peter Boulware. Ed Reed intercepted seven passes from his free safety spot. And while quarterback inconsistency plagued the Ravens, they could just give the ball to Jamal Lewis. Running behind All-Pro tackle Jonathan Ogden, Lewis rolled up over 2,000 yards and was the best back in the NFL.
Baltimore got a late October win over Denver, and then won a 44-41 shootout over the playoff-bound Seattle Seahawks in late November. The biggest win came in early December—a 31-13 rout of the Cincinnati Bengals that was the difference in the AFC North. The Bengals finished 8-8, while the Ravens ended up 10-6 and positioned as the 4-seed.
The Carolina Panthers had never reached a Super Bowl since entering the league as an expansion franchise in 1995. This year’s Panther team got into contention behind the running of Stephen Davis, who produced over 1,400 yards. Steve Smith had over 1,100 yards receiving, catching Jake Delhomme’s passes. Mike Rucker provided a pass rush on the edge. The NFC South wasn’t great, and Carolina got a pair of 23-20 wins over their prime challenger in the New Orleans Saints. And with an 11-5 record, the Panthers were going to the playoffs.
Carolina still wasn’t considered one of the prime frontrunners in the NFC. That honor fell to the Eagles. Donovan McNabb enjoyed a Pro Bowl season leading a well-balanced team coached by Andy Reid. Philly got a challenge from Dallas in the NFC East. Bill Parcells was down in Big D, and he produced the league’s second-best defense, one that covered for a no-name offense.
Dallas got a 23-21 win over Philadelphia in October, but the Eagles strung together a series of good wins that included beating the Packers, Saints, and Panther. In the December rematch, Philly pounded the Cowboys 36-10, then followed it up with a 34-7 Monday Night blowout of the Dolphins. At 12-4, Philadelphia was the #1 seed in the NFC. Dallas clocked in at 10-6, and the 6-seed.
The St. Louis Rams were the other lead contender in the NFC. An explosive offense was led by Pro Bowl quarterback Marc Bulger and a dynamic group of receivers. Torry Holt was an All-Pro with almost 1,700 yards to his credit. Isaac Bruce was still going strong and nearly reached the 1K threshold himself. The great Orlando Pace was protecting the pocket at his tackle spot. And the Rams, with the second-best offense in the league, were able to score enough to compensate for mediocre defense.
Seattle gave St. Louis a challenge in the NFC West. All-Pro guard Steve Hutchinson helped pave the way for Shaun Alexander to run for over 1,400 yards. Matt Hasselbeck earned a Pro Bowl trip throwing the football to Darrell Jackson.
The Seahawks struck first in the division race, nipping the Rams 24-23 in September. St. Louis began to make up ground, highlighted by a 33-22 win over Baltimore on a Sunday Night in November. And the Rams won the December rematch, 27-22. St. Louis was 12-4, division champs and the 2-seed. The Seahawks would be the 5-seed.
No division race had a more dramatic finish than the one that went down between the Packers and Minnesota Vikings in the NFC North. Favre, now 34-years-old, had another Pro Bowl campaign in Green Bay. Ahman Green was one of the best backs in the league, with over 1,800 yards rushing and a versatile receiver. The Viking offense relied on the deep ball to the great Randy Moss.
Minnesota beat Green Bay 30-25 to open the season and as the race came down the stretch, the Vikings seemed in control. The Packers, at 6-6, seemed dead in the water. But they got on a run that had a destiny feel to it. Green Bay won their final four games. That includes a Monday Night win in Oakland where Favre threw four touchdowns after hearing about the death of his father.
But all the Vikings had to do was win against lowly Arizona in the finale and the division crown was theirs. At the same time Green Bay was comfortably beating Denver, Minnesota was blowing a fourth-quarter lead. The Vikings collapsed and lost on a stunning late-touchdown pass. This all took place with Lambeau Field fans, their win comfortably in hand, frantically checking scores and roaring as the final result came in. The Packers had an improbable division title and 4-seed.
Green Bay took that momentum into the wild-card round against Seattle. A thriller went to overtime. Even the coin toss in this game ended up being legendary. The Seahawks won the toss, and Hasselbeck informed the official “we’re gonna score.” He was half right. Hasselbeck threw a Pick-6 to Packer defensive back Al Harris and Green Bay’s ride continued with a 33-27 win.
Another thriller went down in Baltimore, when Tennessee went to the wire to nip the Ravens 20-17, getting a field goal with under a minute to play. The other two games were a less dramatic. Carolina exposed Dallas’ shortcomings in an easy 29-10 win. And the weekend came to an end with Peyton and Indy unloading on Denver for a 41-10 blowout.
All of that set the stage for what would be a dramatic Divisional Round Weekend. It started in St. Louis. The Rams and Panthers went into the second overtime before Delhomme and Smith connected on a 69-yard touchdown pass that gave Carolina the 29-23 upset. In prime-time, on a bitter cold night in Foxboro, New England got a 46-yard field goal from Adam Vinateri with four minutes left to pull out a 17-14 win over Tennessee.
The league’s two best offenses hooked up in Kansas City on Sunday afternoon. Peyton threw for over 300 yards, three touchdowns and the Colts outgunned the Chiefs 38-31. In the late afternoon in Philly, it looked like Green Bay’s destiny ride might keep going. The Packers led 17-14 in the closing minute and had the Eagles facing a 4th-and-26 in their own end. Instead, McNabb converted the fourth down and led the Birds to the tying field goal. Favre threw a reckless interception in overtime and Philadelphia won it, 20-17.
On Championship Sunday, the first of what would be many postseason battles between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning went down in Foxboro. With the snow coming down, the defense was the story here. The physical New England D completely disrupted Indy’s rhythm and the Patriots won 24-14. What no one expected was what happened in Philadelphia that night. The Carolina defense intercepted four passes and completely controlled the game, beating the Eagles 14-3.
It was down to New England and Carolina to meet in Houston for the Super Bowl. The game would be a classic. With the defenses mostly in control for three quarters, the Patriots led 14-10. An TD early in the fourth quarter seemed to have New England in control, 21-10. Then everything exploded. The Panthers scored twice, including an 85-yard touchdown pass from Delhomme to Muhsin Muhammad. But Carolina missed two-point conversions both times and only led 22-21.
The back-and-forth continued and the game was tied at 29-29 with 1:08 left. The fatal mistake came when Carolina’s kickoff went out of bounds. Set up at the 40-yard line, Brady quickly moved the Patriots into field goal range. And Vinateri hit his second last-play field goal to win a Super Bowl in three years. New England was back on top of the NFL world.