Revisiting the Forgotten Heroes and Adversaries of the Brady Super Bowl Era

We remember Brady’s heroics and shortcomings, but many once unforgettable players and storylines have faded from memory since 2001.

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have appeared in seven Super Bowls over the last 16 seasons. While we remember most of Brady’s heroics, the sources of heartbreak, and the heart-racing conclusions, it’s easy to lose track of who made what play in what game. When an era of success lasts for the better part of two decades, key contributors are forgotten, interesting storylines overlooked, and valiant opponents underappreciated.

Thanks to the NFL Network, I had the chance over the past few days to get reacquainted with each of the Patriots’ prior Super Bowl appearances, from the Rams to the Seahawks. Join me on a walk down memory lane as we reminisce on “The Greatest Show On Turf”, Ricky freaking Proehl, Jake “Daylight Come and You Gotta” Delhomme, Andy Reid’s clock management, David Tyree, Mario Manningham, and Chris Matthews.

What a ride it’s been.

Super Bowl XXXVI — 2001 Season

New England Patriots 20, St. Louis Rams 17

On the Call: Pat Summerall and John Madden

It was the only Super Bowl in the Belichick era in which the Patriots were true underdogs. The St. Louis Rams were “the Greatest Show on Turf” and boasted the NFL’s MVP, so most thought that the Patriots didn’t stake a chance. Undaunted, the New England defense was up to the challenge, and a fearless, young quarterback did his part on the biggest stage.

The Patriots’ defense, not Tom Brady, was the story of the game. The Rams’ offense featured NFL MVP Kurt Warner, two 1100 yard receivers, and a 1400 yard rusher who also won NFL Offensive Player of the Year. That same offense generated only 17 points in the Super Bowl. It was the most improbable performance by a defense until the Giants held the Patriots to 14 in 2008, but we’ll get to that later.

While the New England defense didn’t rank particularly well during the regular season, it was a veteran group that clicked at the right moment, allowing fewer than 20 points in each postseason game. While it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that most Patriots players were strangers to big games at that point, several members of the defense actually appeared in the Patriots’ 1996 Super Bowl loss to the Packers: Ty Law, Lawyer Milloy, Tedy Bruschi, Otis Smith, and Willie McGinest.

McGinest combined with rookie Richard Seymour, Mike Vrabel, and veteran Bobby Hamilton to provide an effective pass rush. Bruschi commanded the middle of the field alongside Roman Phifer, who had played for the Rams for a decade. In the secondary, Law and Smith were consistent interception threats, each picking a Kurt Warner pass in this game. Law’s was a pick six in the second quarter that turned the Patriots into believers.

Eventually, the New England defense was unable to slow the Rams’ momentum in the key moments of the fourth quarter. Nonetheless, by forcing turnovers and sending the Patriots into halftime with a 14–3 lead, they put the team in better position than most of America could’ve imagined before the game.

It’s lost in the midst of everything that followed for Tom Brady and the Patriots, but the New England defense was the story of the first Super Bowl victory.

I miss the NFL equipment of the ‘90s and early 2000s. The facemasks: gigantic. The shoulder pads: impossibly high. Neck rolls: as far as the eye can see. Sleeves: put Sam Bradford’s to shame.

It’s almost comical to watch these games in 2017. I’m pretty sure helmet to helmet contact was borderline impossible because the shoulder pads inadvertently got in the way.

While the equipment is fodder for comedy now, the players actually looked infinitely more intimidating. I wouldn’t be eager to cross the middle with Tedy Bruschi, Bryan Cox, and their neck rolls waiting for me.

We were closer to seeing Bledsoe than we remember. Most people remember that Drew Bledsoe’s performance in relief of Tom Brady, who suffered an ankle injury in the AFC Championship game, created some controversy over who would start the Super Bowl. Of course, Brady recovered and was named starter, but what most don’t remember was Drew Bledsoe getting loose on the sideline with about three minutes left in the fourth quarter.

It’s unclear exactly why Bledsoe started to throw. Was he simply staying ready? Was Brady’s ankle causing him more problems than we knew of at the time? Was the quality of Brady’s performance in doubt? To that point in the game, he had only been responsible for seven points.

Brady returned to the field, and the rest is history. We may never know just how close we were to seeing Bledsoe under center for the decisive moments, though.

My hunch: probably not that close.

Still, I had totally forgotten that there was even the slimmest prospect of him taking the field until Madden mentioned that Bledsoe “had a vision that he would play at some point and that the Patriots would win.”

To this day, I can’t say enough about the class with which Bledsoe handled the situation. It’s almost difficult to watch now, as Brady ecstatically pound on Bledsoe’s shoulder pads in celebration, shouting “We won!”. You could tell that the moment was incredibly bittersweet, and yet, Drew still smiled back at Brady, nodding along and trying to preserve his young replacement’s perfect moment.

Of all people, Ricky freaking Proehl burned the Patriots. Isaac Bruce? Nope. Torry Holt? Keep guessing. Marshall Faulk? Kind of, but not really. Nope, it was Ricky freaking Proehl, with a mere three catches, that made the Patriots defense look vulnerable in the waning moments of the game. Three catches for 73 yards. A 17 yarder in the first half resulted in a fumble. A 30 yarder late in the fourth was mitigated by a stalled drive. Eventually, it was Proehl’s 26 yard touchdown reception with 1:30 left that finally made the Patriots pay, tying the game.

Proehl was wide open, but Tebucky Jones quickly closed on him. It was too early in the Patriots’ era or success to be wary of Belichickian tactics, but after watching it, I’m borderline convinced that Jones let Proehl score. Either that, or it was the worst tackling effort of all time. Proehl didn’t so much make a juke as he did take a wide turn away from the sideline. It was a tackle that should be made in the NFL nine times out of ten. Either this was the tenth, or Belichick was playing chess. No timeouts left. The Rams offense finding rhythm. 1:30 is just enough time to make something happen. Bill, you dog, you!

Soundbite of the game. “The Patriots, with this field position, you have to just run the clock out. You have to play for overtime now…I don’t agree with what the Patriots are doing right here.”

Madden famously called for the Patriots to play for overtime in a game in which they had lost considerable momentum. It wasn’t an outrageous opinion — they were backed up with no timeouts left, and none of us knew exactly who Tom Brady was yet.

“Now I kind of like what the Patriots are doing.”

That was Madden just two plays later. Shrug emoji.

Overall, it wasn’t Madden and Summerall’s finest hour. It was taking them just a beat too long to process most of the action and comment. Later in the drive, after Brady threw to Wiggins for a small gain in the middle of the field to set up the field goal attempt, Summerall commented “maybe they can spike it.” Yikes. Summerall’s reaction as Vinatieri split the uprights on a field goal that won the Super Bowl as time expired: “and it’s right down the middle”, with all of the excitement of a preseason extra point.

Super Bowl XXXVIII — 2003 Season

New England Patriots 32, Carolina Panthers 29

On the Call: Greg Gumbel and Phil Simms

Super Bowl 38 was a tale of two halves, with the momentum shifting from a sloppy affair for much of the first half to a shootout throughout the second. Jake Delhomme led a series of fantastic drives to rally Carolina back into the game, but ultimately his heroics took a back seat, as so many have, to those of Tom Brady and Adam Vinatieri.

The game was riddled with many “un-Patriot-like” moments. Adam Vinatieri went 0 for 2 on field goal attempts in the first half. The first, from a mere 31 yards out, never stood a chance. The second, from a similarly undaunting 36 yards was blocked. Despite a 1st half performance that would rattle most kickers, Vinatieri struck the decisive attempt perfectly, with the ball headed straight for the center of the goal posts from the moment it left his foot.

Vinatieri wasn’t alone in uncharacteristic play. Tom Brady made the ill-conceived decision to rush a throw in the red zone up 21–16 mid-way through the fourth quarter, which was easily intercepted by Reggie Howard. Harried by pressure from a fearsome Carolina defensive front that featured Julius Peppers and Kris Jenkins, Brady took points off the board for the Patriots and gave momentum to the opposition, as would unfortunately become a pattern in the Super Bowls that have followed.

Jake “Daylight Come and You Gotta” Delhomme started slow and finished strong. Before leading a touchdown drive that ended with a pass to the immortal Steve Smith with a little over a minute remaining in the half, Delhomme was 1–9 for 1 YARD. He started slow, fumbling on a Mike Vrabel strip sack, but became virtually unstoppable after stringing together a few completions.

Time was ultimately his enemy, but if the game had lasted one more minute, we might be looking at Delhomme a bit differently today.

This may have been Brady’s most reliable receiving corps. Patriots’ football of the early 2000s was not marked by elite receiving talent. There was no intimidating size or big play speed. Instead, this team boasted a group of incredible route runners with sure hands and a knack for getting open.

Most impressive in this game was David Givens, who caught a number of key passes, including a touchdown reception on the scoring drive that immediately followed Smith’s touchdown late in the first half. Givens also had enormous receptions of 18 and 25 yards on the drive that gave New England a 29–22 lead. Givens, in particular, is a player who has seemingly been lost in the longevity of Patriots success, but he played a critical role in Super Bowls 38 and 39.

Notably, Brady didn’t consider Givens to be the most reliable receiver on the roster, as was noted by Gumbel on the broadcast. It wasn’t veteran Troy Brown or David Patten, unsung hero of the first Super Bowl run who had returned from injury. Instead, it was second year wideout, Deion Branch, who amassed 143 yards and a touchdown on 10 catches.

The Patriots played defensive players on offense with alarming frequency. Mike Vrabel and Richard Seymour lined up on offense several times over the course of the game. Vrabel had established himself as a competent tight end in goal line packages, while Seymour lined up in the backfield to plow the road for Antowain Smith. Vrabel had a touchdown reception in this game, as he would in the following year’s Super Bowl.

It was a strategy that Belichick employed often in the early 2000s, but is rarely seen today — perhaps because the roles are more than aptly filled by James Develin and Martellus Bennett.

A familiar play gave the Patriots a 7 point lead. Following a touchdown pass to Mike Vrabel which pushed the score to 27–22 in favor of New England, the Patriots lined up in shotgun for a two point conversion attempt that would extend the lead to seven. Brady leapt into the air and turned, as if chasing an errant snap, while Dan Koppen actually snapped the ball directly to Kevin Faulk, who ran up the middle for the score. The Patriots then ran the exact same play, one of my all-time personal favorites, with James White to bring New England within 8 against Atlanta 14 years later. Should’ve watched your early 2000s film, Dan Quinn.

Ricky freaking Proehl was back and ready for vengeance. I had to check the box score to be sure that Proehl didn’t line up for the Falcons in the fourth quarter in 2017. The Patriots seemingly couldn’t escape Proehl, an under the radar threat in Super Bowl 36, who shouldn’t have flown under the radar this time around. Yet, here he was again, torturing the Patriots’ defense, particularly in the fourth quarter. Proehl caught four key balls for 71 yards and, of course, the tying touchdown. Ricky freaking Proehl. The guy must hate Tom Brady and the Patriots more than anyone.

Stadium Music Choices — Good and Bad. On one hand, the decision to play the Hey Song after every touchdown is well-conceived. That song gets the people goin’ like Michael Scott on Pretzel Day every single time.

Now, it’s criminally underplayed. The Hey Song. Let’s bring it back.

On the other hand, there were some unforgivable song choices made down the stretch. None, however, were worse than the decision to play “Shake Your Booty” immediately before Vinatieri’s game-deciding field goal attempt. I kid you not. Disco was the genre of choice for the biggest sports moment of the year. The only situation in which it’s excusable to go with disco in a stressful moment is if you’re Matt Damon and that’s the only music at your disposal when you get deserted on Mars. That’s it.

Luckily, I don’t recall Houston erring in such fashion again in 2017. Then again, I don’t think I was paying much attention to the tune-age.

Soundbite of the game. “In this era of of free agency and player movement, that’s as close to a dynasty as you’re going to find.”

Little did Phil Simms know, the Patriots would be further undeterred by a league designed for parity, reaching 5 more Super Bowls and winning three of them.

Super Bowl XXXIX — 2004 Season

New England Patriots 24, Philadelphia Eagles 21

On the Call: Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Cris Collinsworth

The matchup with the Eagles has existed in my memory as the most anticlimactic of the Super Bowls — the game that was never truly in doubt. I could never put my finger on why that was, given that, like the preceding two victories, the margin was a mere three points. After reacquainting myself with the time-management abilities of Andy Reid, Donovan McNabb, and the Eagles, it became abundantly clear why this game doesn’t evoke the same goosebump-inducing memories of excitement as others do.

The game was seemingly a microcosm of Donovan McNabb’s career. The look on McNabb’s face as he jogged onto the field was that of a man who wanted nothing to do with the moment. It’s widely held, but not confirmed, that he puked in the fourth quarter. Literal puke or not, McNabb was sure to metaphorically puke all over Super Bowl 39.

In the first drive, McNabb was sacked and fumbled after being careless with the ball, only to have the call overturned as McNabb’s knee had touched the ground pre-fumble. The reversal prompted Collinsworth to remark that it was “a huge start to the game for Andy Reid.” That’s right, an overturned fumble, which resulted in a sack and a fourth down on their opening drive, was a huge start for the Eagles. That tells you a lot about their chances going in.

Undeterred by the near turnover, McNabb proceeded to throw interceptions in the end zone on consecutive plays at the end of the first quarter. The first was nullified by an illegal contact penalty away from the play, and the second was easily read and picked by Rodney Harrison.

Down 10 midway through the fourth, McNabb overthrew Dorsey Levens, resulting in an interception for Tedy Bruschi. If you’re keeping score at home, that was his second official (and fourth unofficial) turnover of the game. He would later add another pick to Harrison to end the game.

Despite McNabb’s miscues, there were also moments of absolute brilliance. Touchdown throws to L.J. Smith, Brian Westbrook, and Greg Lewis were all beautifully delivered. For all of the errors and poor clock management (more on this later), McNabb still had his team within three in the waning moments. As seemed to be the case throughout his career though, the miscues simply overcame the talent when it mattered most.

That Eagles roster had some legit mainstays. It’s not difficult to understand why the Eagles had their mid-2000s run of success, which included a bounty of NFC Championship game appearances and one victory. Their roster was replete with cornerstones — the types of guys that you can build a franchise around and be reasonably confident in its success.

Among them: Jeremiah Trotter, Brian Dawkins, Brian Westbrook, and even McNabb. Westbrook remains criminally underrated outside of Philadelphia, where he essentially carried the team to the playoffs in the 2006 season in McNabb’s absence and eclipsed 2000 yards from scrimmage in the 2007 season.

The reliable receiving corps was back for more. Branch, Givens, and Brown — all were still on the roster for the Patriots, and all had an impact. Givens and Brown both played a part, but it was Branch that stole the show, becoming the only player other than Tom Brady to win MVP in a Brady Super Bowl victory. While Branch didn’t find the endzone, he bailed Brady out and likely won the game for the Patriots, tearing an interception from the eagerly awaiting grasp of Sheldon Brown and setting up a Vinatieri field goal that put New England up 10 with 8 minutes to play.

Corey Dillon began the lineage of Patriots’ reclamation projects. There’s a reason why we constantly hear the Patriots linked to whichever troubled “locker room cancer” is seeking an exit from his current team. That reason is Corey Dillon.

One of the NFL’s most talented running backs at the time, Dillon had said that he would rather flip burgers than play another year in Cincinnati’s losing culture. Belichick rolled the dice, trading a second round pick to bring Dillon to New England, and the results were outstanding. Dillon provided a more effective version of the north-south ground game employed with Antowain Smith in prior years, rushing for over 1600 yards on the season. He added over 100 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown in the Super Bowl.

The successful Dillon experiment led to countless other reclamation projects over the years, with varying levels of success. Among others, they’ve included Randy Moss, Chad Ochocinco, Albert Haynesworth, and Michael Floyd.

Andy Reid is fully deserving of his reputation for horrendous clock management. Down 10 points midway through the fourth quarter, the Eagles used a full huddle for every single play of a 13 play, 79 yard drive which lasted 3:52 and left them with only 1:48 remaining. We’re not talking about quick huddles followed by sprints to the line, either. We’re talking about receivers lumbering back from the prior play, huddling for 10–15 seconds, and lumbering back to the line of scrimmage. Center Hank Fraley implored the team to get to the line at one point, only for McNabb to call them back to the huddle.

The Patriots, who had lost both of their starting cornerbacks, Ty Law and Tyrone Poole, to injury, were more than content to sit back, play bend-don’t-break defense, and allow the Eagles to move down the field 8–10 yards at a time.

After a failed onside kick, three timeouts, and a Patriots punt, the Eagles threw over the middle to Brian Westbrook for no gain. McNabb then called another play at the line of scrimmage, wasting more time — Collinsworth astutely noted that two plays should’ve been called in the prior huddle.

If the previous drive was any indication, and it was, there was no chance that the Eagles were going to be able to hurt the Patriots with 50 seconds remaining on the clock. After an incompletion to Owens and with about 15 seconds remaining, McNabb dropped back and threw the decisive pick to Harrison.

The clock management was unbelievable. I use the word in its most literal sense. *Chris Traeger voice* I literally could not believe the clock management.

Terrell Owens’ performance STILL doesn’t get enough credit. It’s most fans’ lasting memory of this game: Terrell Owens caught nine balls for 122 yards a mere six weeks after breaking his ankle. Even so, the performance is still underappreciated.

The man was a mere SIX weeks removed from having a plate and two screws inserted into his ankle. No matter, he was still the Eagles’ most confident offensive player, even imploring a visibly rattled McNabb to relax after the fourth quarter Bruschi interception.

He made the novice Patriot cornerbacks look like boys, his mere presence serving as a source of intimidation. At one point, Buck asked who could’ve predicted Owens having such an impact so soon in the aftermath of his injury. Aikman replied, simply, “Terrell.”

With better time management and more consistent quarterback play, he would’ve been the game’s MVP and a surefire Hall of Fame inductee. Instead, his performance is a footnote of the least memorable New England Super Bowl victory. Nonetheless, it’s eminently clear that #81 for the Eagles in Super Bowl 39 was a Hall of Fame caliber receiver.

Soundbite of the game.

“How many Philadelphia fans are screaming at their TV, ‘hurry up!’”

To answer your question, Joe, literally all of them. It was that plainly obvious to everyone but Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb that the Eagles were losing their already weak grip on comeback hopes with each passing second.

Super Bowl XLII — 2007 Season

New York Giants 17, New England Patriots 14

On the Call: Joe Buck and Troy Aikman

As a Patriot fan, it hurt to rewatch this one. Sometimes, you have to fuel the fire though. It’s always felt like a game that slipped through the Patriots’ fingers in the dying moments, and that’s true. However, it’s also a game that, wire to wire, they never really deserved to win. At 18–0, we thought that the Patriots were a team of destiny, but destiny wasn’t enough to overcome a resilient, self-believing Giants team with all of the momentum.

Bill Belichick wore a RED cutoff hoodie. We should’ve known what was to come as soon as we saw him. WHAT were you thinking, Bill? Red? RED?! What are you, a fashion icon all of a sudden with your flashy red hoodie? Like Arthur Blank traveling to field level in the third quarter in 2017, critical errors can be made that have nothing to do with the actual game. Bill Belichick wearing a red hoodie was one of them. You’ll never convince me otherwise.

Please Bill, I’m retroactively pleading with you, navy blue or grey only from here on out.

Eli exuded a champion’s confidence throughout. If I could use one word to describe Eli Manning’s body language in 2017, it would be “resigned”. Win or lose, he just appears resigned to the outcome. Throw a pick? Eli face. Throw a 70 yard touchdown to Odell? Eli face with lips curled slightly upward. There’s just no fire.

So, it was with great surprise that I noticed the range of Eli Manning emotions in Super Bowl 42. Consistent among all of the emotions was a look of complete confidence. When they panned to Eli after Brady orchestrated a masterful drive to take the lead, he was not resigned to an outcome in which he would be bested by an all-time great. He had the look of a man ready to etch his own name in all-time greatness.

Wes Welker’s ability has been lost in the success of Edelman and Amendola. The latter two receivers have now won multiple Super Bowls in New England, while Welker failed to capture a ring in his two appearances. When Welker departed for Denver, Edelman’s emergence essentially wiped his accomplishments from the memory of most Patriots’ fans. It’s a shame, because Welker was absolutely incredible for the Patriots, and contrary to popular belief, he wasn’t the exact same player that Edelman now is.

Welker was shiftier and quicker than his successor. He found his way into the tightest pockets of space, and often into danger, making difficult catches and impossibly quick turns upfield, while eluding tacklers by the narrowest of margins. Edelman is tougher, more durable, and stronger through contact, and he’s accomplished things that will endear him to New England fans forever. They shouldn’t, however, lose sight of what Welker was able to achieve, particularly in that first magical season.

Welker finished with 11 catches for 103 yards for the game, providing a critical outlet to Tom Brady time and time again.

The Giants ensured it would be a game early. Through the two-headed rushing attack of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw, the Giants were able to stay on the field for nearly the first ten minutes of the first quarter before settling for a field goal. It was the longest drive (time) in Super Bowl history. How do you beat the most prolific offense of all time? Don’t let them on the field.

The Giants remained committed to the run, with 26 total attempts for the game. While it wasn’t tremendously successful, it meant fewer quick three-and-outs and, consequently, more rest for a Giants’ defense that desperately needed to keep the pressure on Brady.

The teams finished nearly even in time of possession, but the tone was set early. There would be no blowout on this night.

Eli could’ve been picked three times on the final drive. To win any Super Bowl, you need to get your fair share of breaks. Well, Eli got his fair share and then some in 2008. First, on an overthrow in Giants territory, the ball bounced off of the fingertips of Rodney Harrison. Next, and most importantly, Eli overthrew David Tyree only to watch the ball slip right through the hands of Asante Samuel. More than any of the others, this was the opportunity that could’ve and should’ve been a game-ending interception. Finally, deep in Patriots territory, a Manning underthrow brushed Brandon Meriweather’s hands as he tilted his head back like Willie Mays to locate the ball.

Without a doubt, Eli escaped some close calls, and yet we haven’t even mentioned the luckiest play of all, which of course brings us to…David Tyree.

I will never ever get over the David Tyree catch. What’s crazy about the Tyree catch is that it’s reached such mythological levels that people act as if he was bagging groceries in the third quarter, put on a uniform for that drive, went on the field, and made the catch. Not the case. Tyree actually scored the touchdown to put the Giants up 10–7 with 11 minutes to play, which is a fact I had completely forgotten due to the omnipresent shadow of the Helmet Catch.

Edelman’s 2017 catch, the immaculate gritception, may have supplanted the helmet catch as the best Super Bowl catch of all time, but make no mistake, the Manning-Tyree connection remains the best Super Bowl play of all time. I’ll never forget the wave of relief that washed over me as I assumed Manning had been sacked by Adalius Thomas and then by Jarvis Green and then by Richard Seymour, immediately washed away by the sinking nausea of realizing that a 17th string receiver had just pinned a ball to his helmet to move the Giants deep into Patriots’ territory. That his grip was able to survive Rodney Harrison’s best efforts to dislodge the ball from the initial catch all the way to the ground is nothing short of miraculous.

It made no sense. It makes no sense. It will never make sense.

David freaking Tyree.

I’m not sure how Giants’ fans could bear to watch the hail mary attempts. The final two plays of the game were 70–75 yard heaves from Brady to Moss that would’ve at least put them in chipshot distance for Gostkowski. Desperation heaves from the greatest quarterback of all time, who has a knack for engineering miraculous late game victories, to arguably the most dangerous deep threat in NFL history. Watching those footballs fall harmlessly to the ground must have been unforgettably euphoric.

Soundbite of the game. “Airs it out down the field — it is caught by Tyree.”

Yup, that was it. That was Joe Buck’s call of the most exciting play in Super Bowl history. Not exactly the stuff of legend.

Super Bowl XLVI — 2011 Season

New York Giants 21, New England Patriots 17

On the Call: Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth

Most Patriots fans won’t hesitate to tell you that this was the Super Bowl matchup they most feared. Any other team and it’s just an opportunity to add a fourth title, but lining up across from the Giants meant impossibly high stakes. Win, and get revenge for a highly improbable defeat years earlier. Lose, and Tom Brady and Bill Belichick fall to 0–2 on the biggest stage against Eli Manning and Tom Coughlin. Fear of the latter far outweighed excitement for the former, because again, the Giants were seemingly a team of destiny, climbing from the brink of missing the playoffs to a 9–7 record and finally to the Super Bowl. You know the rest: the failed connection with Welker, the Manningham catch, and Eli Manning punching his ticket into the realm of the elite quarterback.

The Patriots’ bend-don’t-break secondary never got a break of its own. Bend-don’t-break only works to a point. During the regular season, New England’s young secondary had forced enough takeaways to paper over cracks of youth. There were no takeaways to be had in this game, and the offense didn’t provide its typical scoring punch.

The Patriots were reliant on a young Kyle Arrington, a Devin McCourty who had not yet switched to safety full time, a Sterling Moore of whom you’ll never hear me say a bad word due to his game-saving strip of Lee Evans in the AFC Championship game, and Antwan Molden, which sounds like a fake name Anquan Bolden would use when making a reservation.

Needless to say, it wasn’t the best secondary that the Patriots have put on the field in a Super Bowl. They made their fair share of plays for much of the season, but ultimately came up empty against the Giants. The Giants tried to help, fumbling twice, but the bounces fell in their favor.

Did I mention that third year receiver, Julian Edelman, frequently featured at cornerback during the season? Yeah, that’s what we were working with.

The game featured Brady’s strangest collection of targets. Chad Ochocinco played in this game. I totally forgot about that. He had one catch for 26 yards — his only catch of the postseason. Oh yeah, that’s why I totally forgot about that.

Rob Gronkowski played on a bum ankle, catching only two balls for 26 yards. One of those was a prototypical strike down the seam in the second quarter, which begged the question why he didn’t see more involvement as the game went on.

Deion Branch — the very same one that was Brady’s most reliable target nearly a decade earlier — had returned from exile in Seattle the season prior and was his usual reliable self, though a step slower. He was good for three catches to the tune of 48 yards.

Wes Welker was typically solid, catching seven balls on eight targets. Unfortunately, it’s that 8th target that people will always remember. More to come on that.

Finally, Brady’s most unstoppable target in Super Bowl XLVI was Aaron Hernandez. The Giants had no answer for his combination of speed and size. The same could be said for most of the NFL. There’s no more to be said here.

When Brady needed them most, the group’s hands failed them. Welker, Branch, and Hernandez all had drops in critical moments, the latter two coming on the final drive.

Only one of these targets, Gronkowski, would still be in New England by the 2013 season. Edelman, who had carved out roles on special teams, punt returns, at cornerback, and intermittently at receiver, was not targeted in Super Bowl XLVI.

The Giants overcame seemingly interminable Patriots’ momentum. The Patriots closed the 1st half with a 14 play, 96 yard drive (tied for the longest by yards in Super Bowl history) to take a 10–9 lead. They opened the 2nd half with an 8 play, 78 yard drive to extend the lead to 17–9. That’s right — they bookended halftime with touchdown drives. Surely, despite it being a one score game, New England had the momentum and Tom Brady was unlikely to relinquish it. Right?

Nope. The Giants chipped away. First, it was a 38 yard field goal from Lawrence Tynes. Then, it was a Patriots 3 and out that saw Brady plowed into the ground by Justin Tuck, which clearly stung Brady’s shoulder. Next, another Tynes field goal, forced by a Rob Ninkovich sack of Manning.

Two plays into the fourth quarter, after two Patriots’ first downs, a rattled Brady escaped the pass rush, only to uncork a deep ball for Gronkowski that had NOTHING on it and was easily picked by Chase Blackburn. And thus, “Bradying” was born. Momentum officially gone.

“The Law Firm” was a terrific nickname and a forgotten contributor. BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Bet he hasn’t crossed your mind in awhile. BJGE is the epitome of a key contributor who has essentially been overwritten by later Patriot successes. In four seasons in New England, he NEVER once fumbled the football. The Law Firm: straight out of Belichick’s dreams and onto the field.

Tom Brady and Wes Welker snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Aside from “Bradying”, the sad lasting image of Super Bowl XLVI is likely that of Wes Welker dropping a back shoulder catch that would’ve brought the Patriots to victory’s doorstep. Collinsworth was right — Welker makes that catch 100 times out of 100. It was indeed stunning to see him miss it. That said, the fault was not entirely his.

The throw didn’t need to be lofted to the back shoulder. In real time, Welker was so uncovered that leading him with a bullet pass would’ve likely resulted in a touchdown if the throw was on the money. Throwing a high-velocity back shoulder pass would’ve more likely resulted in a catch. The lofted, back-shoulder pass, though, didn’t fit the rhythm of the play. The ball should have been caught, but it could have been so much easier.

The replay of Vince Wilfork’s reaction, cringing harder than anyone has ever cringed, indicated that both #75 and the entire Patriots’ sideline knew exactly how decisive the blunder could and would be.

Ahmad Bradshaw’s existential crisis was wild to watch. In the game’s dying moments, the Patriots had decided to let Bradshaw into the endzone in the interest of saving time for Brady. Bradshaw had clearly never encountered a defense that was so generously willing to gift him six points — who has?! At the last second, he realized he should go down and set the Giants up for a game winning field goal with no time remaining. It was too late. Or was it? He couldn’t seem to decide and assumed the fetal position before rocking backwards into the end zone.

For Bradshaw’s sake, I’m glad circumstances didn’t turn him into a goat. Can you imagine? Running back reviled for scoring go-ahead touchdown?

Soundbite of the game.

“I’ve seen Mario Manningham have this issue in the past. He fades his deep routes, and when he does that, he leaves Eli nowhere to throw the ball. He’s got plenty of room….watch how he goes straight to the sideline. By doing that, he drives himself out of bounds….and costs the Giants a big play.”

This was Chris Collinsworth addressing a narrowly missed connection down the sideline between Manning and Manningham with about 10 minutes to go in the 4th quarter. With 4 minutes left, Manningham faded a deep route, and Eli found somewhere to throw the ball. Sigh.

Super Bowl XLIX — 2014 Season

New England Patriots 28, Seattle Seahawks 24

On the Call: Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth

The Patriots failed to establish a ground game — again. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but after Lagarrette Blount struggled to get going, the Patriots kept their third down back on the field for much of the game and threw to him with startling frequency. In 2015, that third down back was Shane Vereen, not James White. Blount was only able to amass 40 yards on 14 carries, which was actually a slightly better performance than his recent effort against the Falcons (30 yards on 11 carries). Vereen, like White, reached double digits in receptions, catching 10 balls, but for only 64 yards.

After Corey Dillon’s solid performance against the Eagles, an inability to lean on the run became an alarming pattern for the Patriots in the Super Bowls to follow. Consequently, a heavier burden fell squarely on Tom Brady’s shoulders in each of those games, fostering circumstances in which costly mistakes were more probable. Brady was forced to throw 11 times in the first quarter alone, and in a continuation of what had also become an alarming pattern, he forced a throw and gifted the Seahawks a redzone interception.

Poor Dan Quinn didn’t know what the future had in store for him. During the game’s opening drive, with the Patriots on offense, the camera panned to an anxious Dan Quinn, Seattle’s defensive coordinator, on the sidelines. Michaels remarked that within the next 36 hours, Quinn would be named the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons.

So much hope. So much potential.

Little did Quinn know, he was to be a firsthand witness to heartbreaking defeats at the hands of New England both 3 hours and 2 years later. All of a sudden, I’m realizing that we got the exact same shot and commentary on Kyle Shanahan this year. I’m very much looking forward to the 2019 Patriots 49ers Super Bowl.

The Legion of Boom was short on Boom. Richard Sherman came into the game with an injured elbow. Jeremy Lane was forced out of action in the first quarter, replaced by Tharold Simon, who Brady subsequently targeted on a LaFell touchdown. Earl Thomas was nursing a shoulder that he dislocated in the NFC Championship game. Point being: the timing wasn’t great for a Seahawks secondary to matchup against a versatile Patriots attack.

That attack also featured a Rob Gronkowski that was making his first (and still only for that matter) appearance in a Super Bowl while fully healthy. The second K.J. Wright trotted out wide to cover Gronk 1-on-1 in the red zone towards the end of the second quarter, the Patriots knew they had six. It’s sad that one of the most dominant players in NFL history has had limited opportunity to leave his mark on the Super Bowl, but nonetheless, this was a moment and a Gronk spike that can’t be taken away from him.

Chris Matthews went from nobody to Chris Freaking Matthews. This shouldn’t have come as any surprise. It’s rarely the household names that torch the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Ricky freaking Proehl passed the torch to David freaking Tyree, who passed the torch to Mario freaking Manningham, who apparently passed it to Chris freaking Matthews. If your middle name becomes “freaking” in Boston, you’ve done something right.

Despite the continuation of the trend, the emergence of Matthews was still unfathomable at the time.

Where did this guy come from?

It was maddening to watch an unknown receiver with a Megatron frame make big catch after big catch, something that he had made exactly ZERO of during the regular season. The catches in this game were literally the first of his career. Four of them. For 109 yards. And a game-changing touchdown with just 2 seconds left in the first half.

Most of his damage was done before halftime, but for a Seahawks offense that was having difficulty getting anything going through the air (Wilson didn’t complete a pass until five minutes remained in the 2nd quarter), Matthews was a godsend.

Reminder: this man was working at Foot Locker before the Seahawks invited him to try out.

The Patriots’ “comeback” was historic at the time. A dominant third quarter from the Seahawks created a ten point deficit for New England going into the fourth quarter. Oh the horror!

To that point, no team in Super Bowl history had overcome more than a seven point fourth quarter deficit. Well, the Patriots spat in the face of that stat and spat in the face of 19 points two years later. If there’s a lesson here, it’s that Tom Brady and Bill Belichick don’t adhere to history, they create it.

Malcolm Butler emerged before “the pick”. Lost in the hysteria of what was one of the most memorable plays in Super Bowl history was the fact that Malcolm Butler had answered the call of duty multiple times already. He broke up a key deep pass play to Kearse late in the third quarter, ending a threatening Seahawks drive. On Seattle’s final drive, he denied Kearse a twenty yard catch down the seam with a perfectly timed reach and swat. Three plays later, he played a deep ball down the right sideline almost perfectly — 99% perfectly — but that 1% allowed Kearse to make yet another logic-defying catch at the Patriots’ expense. Moreover, and he gets little credit for this because of what came next, Butler had the presence of mind to recover and push Kearse out of bounds, recognizing that a catch may have been made without contact.

Butler was an undrafted rookie playing on the brightest stage alongside what was the best cornerback tandem the Patriots had featured in years in Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. In the biggest moment imaginable, with a little help from Browner, he proceeded to make the once in a lifetime play that would grasp a Patriot victory from the jaws of defeat.

The conditioning of New England receivers again made a difference. When the game reaches the fourth quarter, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola always seem to find space. Perhaps there is something to “running the hill” after all. The pass rush gets tired, which means Brady has more time, which means the Patriot wideouts can run to their hearts’ content until they find a pocket that Brady can throw to. Sooner or later, they’ll find that pocket, and when they get the ball, the defense is going to have to work to bring them down.

It’s with little issue that Edelman was able to break free from his coverage at the goal line twice. He actually got better separation on the out route midway through the fourth quarter, only for the ball to fall incomplete on an errant throw from Brady. The ease with which he got open (and the absence of a flag), convinced the Patriots to run the same play 5 minutes later for the decisive score. When your opponent is gassed and you’re not, it’s best not to overthink things.

Michael Bennett’s offsides penalty was a costly blunder. After the Butler pick and an excessive celebration penalty, the Patriots were on their own one yard line. Brady didn’t really have the space to safely take a knee. Everybody in the stadium knew that they were going to use the entirety of the play clock to try to draw the Seahawks offsides and earn some breathing room — everybody except for Michael Bennett. He jumped across the line prematurely, and the outcome was decided.

Soundbite of the game. “How many different plays are the Patriots going to have like this? Mario Manningham. David Tyree. And now Kearse!”

“But they’re not in yet. Now you have to stop Marshawn Lynch.”

We all thought it was as simple as Collinsworth had laid out. The Patriots had been suckerpunched by another circus catch, and now they had to stop Beast Mode from crossing the goal line.

On first down, he brought it to the one yard line. We waited for Belichick to take a timeout. We hysterically asked our TVs why he wasn’t taking a timeout. Brady needed time! Marshawn Lynch was going to score!

Only he wasn’t, and Belichick knew it.

It’s remarkable. The Brady Belichick era has featured players born in 1965 (Otis Smith) and 1994 (Elandon Roberts). Time and time again, the cast of characters has changed. New heroes have emerged while older ones have faded into obscurity. Adversaries have risen, fallen, and in the Giants case, risen again and then fallen again. Yet, these two men keep plugging away with no end in sight.

The scariest takeaway from viewings of football games spanning 15 years was that with each passing game, a certain quarterback grew less robotic, moving with an increasing level of grace and elasticity. Father Time is undefeated, but it certainly seems that Tom Brady has a few more game-saving drives to orchestrate before he takes the inevitable L. A Super Bowl appearance, much less a victory, is never to be taken for granted, as a return trip is anything but assured. It’s entirely possible, though, that in five years’ time, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick will have given us new Kevin Faulks, Ricky Proehls, and Mike Vrabels to talk about….and if nobody takes up the mantle of David Tyree, well, that’s okay by me.