With the playoffs approaching and so many big favorites around, everyone wonders whether the hangers-on have a chance. Usually they don't. But they've come up big a few times in the past several years.
The Giants did it twice, following mediocre seasons. The Ravens did it last year with a strong finish. What was the unlikeliest Super Bowl run, anyway? Fans everywhere probably have their favorites. For example, the 1968-9 Jets surely qualify, as they had to upset their way out of the AFL before stunningly toppling the Colts. But I believe the unlikeliest run I ever saw --- a true miracle run --- was that of the Patriots in 2001.
They came into the season a shadow of what Parcells had left behind when he walked, as he did from so many teams so many times. They had spent valuable capital to shanghai Bill Belichick, a relatively unknown commodity at the time, from the Jets. They started the season as if ready to repeat the past year's 5-11 performance, losing to the Bengals and the Jets.
In that second game, delayed a week by 9/11, one of the season's turning points occurred, and it wasn't very positive either. The team had already lost quarterback coach Dick Rehbein, who passed away before the season began. Now Drew Bledsoe, the face of the team and one of the league's premier quarterbacks, went down trying to scramble for a first down. His injury was more severe than it appeared (including a severed blood vessel), and he was gone for a long while as it turned out, perhaps lucky to be alive. Sophomore who-dat Tom Brady came in to manage the Pats to an uninspiring 10-3 loss as fans packed their figurative bags for the year.
A surprise 44-13 pasting of the Colts in the next game gave those fans some hope, but the Fins quashed that in week 4 and the Patriots went into the following weekend at 1-3, looking every bit their old 5-11 calibre. But they were playing harder than before and some fans seemed able to sense it. The sacrifice of Bledsoe's arm, far stronger and more accurate than Brady's, was being picked up by the rest of the team.
Still, it wasn't enough. I recall that next game on radio. I was dropping off my son for a classmate's birthday party at one of those awful rent-a-party arcades. I got him inside and went off to kill some time in the shopping district before picking him up. As I climbed back into the car, the radio told me the bad news --- the Flutie-led Chargers had a 10-point lead in the 4th. The Chargers were strong, and the Patriots had put up a good fight, but it was clear they didn't have enough. So I shut the radio off.
After picking my son up a bit later, I clicked the radio on again to catch the score and hear the post-game commiseration. I thought I must be listening to a replay. I mentioned to my son how silly radio replays were. Then I realized the game was still on! I figured by now it must be overtime and they must somehow have tied it. Before I could even determine where the ball was, Vinatieri kicked a field goal and won the game!
From then on, fans had some reason to believe in the 2-3 team. Slowly they improved, losing a few but winning as many. Fans hoped now for a winning season. The team was at least becoming a gang of likeable overachievers it seemed.
At 5-4, they suffered their last loss --- to the Greatest Show on Turf, in Foxboro. It was a 24-17 game, not a blowout. Even as it dropped New England to 5-5, fans still felt good about their team's progress even if the wildest dreams of boundless optimists had seemingly been put to bed.
That they finished the season on a 6-0 run was something nobody anticipated. They were going to the playoffs, incredibly with a 2-seed and a bye! This was more than anyone had hoped for... by a lot. 'Anyone' included the analysts, who made New England a solid underdog for their first game --- at home --- against 10-6 Oakland.
You may recall the Snow Bowl from watching, from rebroadcasts or from hand-wringing editorials, but I had it on my old projector tv, blasting onto a bulletin board covered with an oilcloth. Even before the game began announcers were busy writing the Patriots' epitaph. Big, strong Oakland in the snow? Surely the game would feature line play, Oakland's strong suit. It was the return of the big, bad Raiders and the Patriots were the opening course on the menu.
And Oakland did dominate the lines for most of the game. But the Patriots had developed a persona and they kept plugging, keeping the game close despite an inability to move the ball in what had become a blizzard. Still, it looked nearly hopeless, clearly so to the broadcast crew.
That the game should be eulogized as a fluke due to the Tuck Rule is a disservice to the Patriots. Their 1976 loss to Oakland, a clear fix by the officiating crew, has never been so documented by the league, which has conveniently suppressed most of the footage covering the last few minutes. Besides, New England had been bitten by the same new 1999 rule earlier in the season when it favored Vinny Testaverde. We've even seen it called in the past weekend of the current season in some form, despite its being abolished in March by team vote (the Patriots and Redskins abstained, and the Steelers cast the one opposing ballot).
That it gave New England nothing more than a 3rd down near midfield with less than 2 minutes to go in half a foot of snow seems lost in translation too. But Brady threw several flawless passes and his no-name receiving corps made some absurd catches to keep the Patriots in it. Ultimately the game came down to an unlikely 45-yard field goal try for Vinatieri on a white, slippery and windswept field. Vinatieri was known for accuracy inside of 40 yards and not much more. His line drive looked doomed from the time it left the snow, but it split the uprights and sent the game to overtime. Oakland had blown its first chance.
They rapidly blew their second chance in overtime as Brady again led the team downfield with short passes in run-only weather. This time Vinatieri had a shorter shot. He made it. The game was marked by whining from announcers and Oakland players, including Jerry Rice. Lincoln Kennedy has a famous clip telling the world that the Raiders knew it was over when the call was made. That tells you all you need to know.
Then came the second game, the AFC conference title game in Pittsburgh. The Steelers were, of course, favorites. They became bigger favorites when Brady was cut down in the second quarter, despite New England holding a 7-3 lead on Troy Brown's punt return. The Patriot offense had been going nowhere. But the nearly forgotten Drew Bledsoe came into the game on a white horse and led New England to what would be an impenetrable 14-3 halftime lead, drilling David Patten in the back of the end zone with a pass only he could have thrown --- a sinking fastball over the heads of the defense. It looked like he was throwing it away. He wasn't.
The Patriots would increase the lead to 21-3 in the second half as Antawan Harris (Remember him? Thought so.) took a lateral from Troy Brown into the end zone on a blocked field goal. Pittsburgh would score twice more, but the New England defense held on and the final scoring play of the game was a Vinatieri kick to give the Patriots a 7-point lead they never relinquished. Amazingly, they were headed to the Super Bowl. Kordell Stewart gave his stunning "The best team did not win today" speech afterward. It turned out to be his swan song as an NFL star.
On to New Orleans to play the unbeatable Rams went the Patriots. Most fans in New England were happy just to be there. Most fans elsewhere tuned in to watch Kurt Warner and his slew of explosive receivers run up the score.
Many fans today recall the game as fed to them after the fact, in condensed form. Tom Brady led the Patriots on a brilliant drive at the end, capped by a 48-yard kick from Vinatieri, and the Patriots won it at the gun. What many don't recall is that with New England up 17-3, the Rams went for it on 4th-and-goal, Warner was stripped, and Tebucky Jones returned the ball 97 yards for the touchdown that made it a rout with about a quarter to go.
But Willie McGinest, all day assigned to disrupt Marshall Faulk coming out of the backfield, was called for defensive holding. Was it a hold? Maybe. McGinest was doing what he had been allowed to do for the entire game --- and it had worked. Now, instead of a 24-3 deficit, the Rams were given a 1st-and-goal from the 1. They scored, and later they scored again on a brilliant drive to tie the game with under 2 minutes to go. Things suddenly looked bitter in New England, but history was in the making.
Brady himself says Charlie Weis instructed him to be careful with the ball. Drew Bledsoe then slid up next to him and said "F**k taking care of the ball. Go out there and sling it!" It was another huge Bledsoe contribution to the title run. The Ram offense, reenergized since the call on McGinest, was in gear and unlikely to be stopped at that point. Playing for overtime would have been a mistake.
Unlike other teams that overcame bad seasons with a final run, the Patriots were a true surprise. Their trip to the 1997 Super Bowl was ancient history. Many of the players and staff were different. They were largely a crew of no-names, castoffs and low-rounders, not the least being the quarterback.
Even after the victory, fans in New England settled back for the rest of the rebuild, minus the miracles. This was lightning, and it couldn't strike twice. That the bolt would strike twice more in three years was undreamed of. That the season would initiate a run of success marked by huge win totals and annual contention never occurred to the vast majority. Neither did the fact that the Rams were done. That Tom Brady would blossom into the rival of Peyton Manning was even less evident. It was truly a miracle win at the time, and as years have passed it has become a cornerstone moment in NFL history.