The New England Patriots were an organization transformed in the early half of the ‘00s. The Patriots had been mostly dysfunctional irrelevant until their fortunes turned with the hiring of head coach Bill Belichick and the surprise development of sixth-round draft pick Tom Brady at quarterback.
New England made a surprise run to win the Super Bowl in 2001, an upset of the heavily favored St. Louis Rams. Two years later they won it again, beating Carolina. The 2004 New England Patriots came into the season riding a 15-game winning streak.
It was not a team loaded with Pro Bowl talent, but Brady had a good running back in Corey Dillon, who finished with over 1,600 yards on the ground. The defense was led by Richard Seymour on the line, Tedy Bruschi at linebacker and had notable players in linebackers Mike Vrabel and Willie McGinest, plus strong safety Rodney Harrrison, currently a commentator on NBC’s Football Night In America each Sunday.
As the Super Bowl champ, New England hosted the NFL’s Thursday night opener and with the Indianapolis Colts as the opponent, the league was happy to showcase a Tom Brady-Peyton Manning showdown to start the season. The game didn’t disappoint, as Manning threw for 256 yards, while Brady outgunned him with 335 and a 27-24 win. New England went to Arizona ten days later for another win, took a week off and then beat Buffalo.
At this point in the season, even given how dominant the Patriots were, and how dominant the NFL is as far as popularity, the football team took a back seat to what was going on with the 2004 Boston Red Sox in the baseball season.
A Patriots’ win over the Miami Dolphins was sandwiched in between the Red Sox’ clinching of the Division Series and beginning of what would be a historic American League Championship Series battle with the New York Yankees. One week later, a New England victory over the Seattle Seahawks kept local fans distracted, as they waited for the Sunday night Game 4 between the Red Sox-Yankees that would start the last push to a World Series title. And the week following, the Pats knocked off the New York Jets on the Sunday afternoon leading up to Game 2 of the World Series, as everyone wondered if Curt Schilling’s ankle could hold up.
Of these three wins that took place in the shadow of the Green Monster, the victory over the Jets was the biggest. New York was a team that would make the playoffs by season’s end and the Patriot win streak was at 20 games coming in. There were no points scored in the first half. Brady would ultimately be able to complete 20-of-29 passes and get 290 yards out of them, while Dillon rushed for 115. Pennington completed 19-of-30, a decent percentage, but good for only 162 yards. New England won 13-7 and hit blackjack, as the win streak landed on 21.
Halloween Sunday saw New England puts its winning streak on the line against the Pittsburgh Steelers. After three straight subpar years, the Steelers were back as a contender behind rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, a stout running game with Jerome Bettis and tough offensive line and the swarming defense they’ve become known for.
The Patriots had won in Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship Game in 2001, but this was the Steelers’ day. After an early Vinateri field goal, Roethlisberger hit Plaxico Burress with consecutive touchdown passes and then a Brady interception came back to the house, putting New England in a 21-3 hole. The Pats only got 15 rush yards, while Roethlisberger was an efficient 18/24 for 196 yards and zero picks. Pittsburgh had out-Patrioted the Patriots, as I create a new verb. The 34-20 final was never really close and New England could only hope for another chance.
One week later the Pats were in St. Louis. The Rams were no longer the juggernaut who’d been such a prohibitive favorite in the ’01 Super Bowl, but they would make the playoffs this year (albeit at 8-8 in a year where the NFC bracket resembled a minor college bowl game, with three .500 teams). For the second straight week, the Pats allowed a defensive touchdown, as Brady fumbled in the end zone. But they led 19-14 at half and eventually opened it up to win 40-22.
Consecutive wins over Buffalo, Kansas City, Baltimore, Cleveland and Kansas City followed, as the Pats took advantage of a soft schedule stretch to put away the AFC East and keep themselves in position for a first-round playoff bye.
Pittsburgh had only one loss, and both San Diego and Indianapolis, on their way to division titles, were in hot pursuit. New England needed to at least hold the two-seed. On a Monday Night Game in Miami five days before Christmas, the Patriots blew a 28-17 lead late in the fourth quarter. After a Miami touchdown cut it to 28-23, Brady threw an interception on third down, an almost unbelievable mistake from a quarterback of his caliber and in a situation where the Fish still needed to go the distance to win. Given a short field, the Dolphins scored the game-winning touchdown.
New England recovered to win a big game at the Jets, 26-7 and at least secure the #2 seed—Pittsburgh would finish at 15-1—so it turns out any shot at homefield was gone on Halloween even if no one realized it. The season finale was a 21-7 win over San Francisco.
Now it was playoff time. Because the 2002 Pats had missed the postseason, the coach/QB combo of Belichick and Brady was 6-0 in the playoffs and got ready for their time of year again.
After New England’s week off, the NFL had the playoff matchup it wanted—the rematch of the September 9 season opener of New England-Indianapolis Peyton brought his Colts into Foxboro on a miserable, windy day.
I was living in Pittsburgh at the time and the weather was even worse there, as we were completely snowed in and all I had besides the NFL playoffs to keep me awake was the crazy lady next door who kept shouting threats at me by name. Who knows, maybe she was a Yankee fan who hadn’t gotten over it.
Anyway, the New England defense completely shut down Indy, to the point the Colts griped at the amount of physical play allowed in the secondary—something they, as a finesse-oriented team, couldn’t really capitalize on. The teams traded field goals in the second quarter and in the third Brady found receiver David Givens on a 15-yard scoring play.
A 13-3 lead looked close to insurmountable although the quarterback scored one more time on a sneak. New England outrushed Indianapolis 210-46, committed zero turnovers and forced four of their own, including two picks of Manning (albeit one, with 12 seconds left). A victory formula had unfolded before the country’s eyes.
The same formula went with New England to Pittsburgh, although in better conditions this week, so the passing games could open up a little more. After a Vinateri field goal started the scoring, Brady went over the top and found Deion Branch on a 60-yard touchdown strike.
After a Steeler field goal, Brady again went long, hitting Givens from 39 and making it 17-3. The Steelers were driving right back down the field. Roethlisberger threw to the sideline near the 10-yard line. Harrison stepped in front of the receiver picked off the pass and cruised into an open field. 87 yards later the much-hyped AFC title game—the first time ever two teams playing prior to the Super Bowl had a combined 29 regular season wins—was all but over.
Pittsburgh did its best to come back from the 24-3 deficit. The closest they got was 31-17 early in the fourth quarter. With a fourth down on the New England 3, Steeler coach Bill Cowher settled for a field goal. Steeler fans were furious that he’d left it a two-score game, but what was more revealing was that the coach apparently didn’t think he could keep Brady from putting more points on the board and that at least another field goal would be necessary. It proved to be correct, because the Patriots did add three more points with eight minutes left and won 34-20.
The Philadelphia Eagles had come out of the NFC, a long-sought win for Donovan McNabb and the Eagles after having lost each conference championship game from 2001-03. At 13-3, the Eagles were the only NFC team who could reasonably hope to even make the second round of the AFC playoffs.
McNabb’s primary target was Terrell Owens, a controversial receiver, but still productive. And playing on a badly injured leg, Owens was about to turn into a Schilling-esque performance that would lack everything but the visibility of the bloody sock and ultimate victory at the end. Owens, with doctors imploring him not to play, caught nine passes for 122 yards and was the only consistent offensive threat the Birds had.
But Philly could play defense themselves and there was no score after one quarter and the teams swapped TDs in the second quarter. The folks of Jacksonville had a good game for their first go-around hosting a Super Bowl.
The third quarter was more of the same. Brady flipped a two-yard TD pass to Vrabel, who was known to line up as a receiver-eligible in the goal-line package. McNabb came back and threw a touchdown pass to versatile back Brian Westbrook and the game went to the fourth quarter tied 14-14.
But the formula was holding up—McNabb would throw three interceptions on the day and the Eagles would lose a fumble, while the Patriots had just one turnover. Brady was efficient at 23-for-33 with 236 yards and no mistakes. Eleven of those catches were by Branch, on his way to game MVP honors.
A two-yard run by Dillon put the Pats on top and Vinateri added a field goal with 8:43 left. The Eagles got the ball with five minutes left and eventually scored, but the conducted themselves so cavalierly on the drive and used up so much time that even Belichick—according to biographer David Halberstam—asked an assistant to confirm that it was indeed a two-score game. It was sarcasm to be sure, but it reflected what fans were thinking as we watched the casual drive.
New England was able to mostly kill the clock, pin the Eagles on their own 4 with only time for a couple plays, the last of which was an interception by Harrison. With a 24-21 final, the 2004 New England Patriots had their third Super Bowl win in four years, and were truly a dynasty.