It would have been hard to imagine entering Super Bowl LI that for those out there sick of the New England Patriots’ reign of terror for a decade-and-a-half, the worst was yet to come. But it did, and the hope now is that there is nowhere to go but south for the Patriots from here. Still, after witnessing the biggest comeback (or is it just the biggest choke-job?) in Super Bowl history, the sad truth is things still could have been worse. That’s because, for all of the Patriots’ glory and their five Lombardi trophies since 2001, they have been on the doorstep for more on many occasions. So let’s look back — more like happily reminisce — about the times that it was close-but-no-cigar for Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the Pats:
2006 AFC Championship Game
I have a line I always find myself uttering when the Patriots make history, and you might as well apply to it all the New England-area teams: “Boston always gets its retribution.” So how fitting that 10 years after squandering the biggest lead ever in a conference championship game, the Patriots would one-up that with a comeback of seven points more on an even bigger stage. Still, this may be one of my favorite games I’ve ever watched, and not just because it involved the Patriots choking in a big moment. New England led Peyton Manning and the Colts in Indianapolis, 21-3, late in the second quarter. A pick-six by Asante Samuel looked to be the kiss of death, but Manning was not to be denied for a third time in four years by New England. The Colts came back to forge a tie three different teams before falling behind again, 34-31. Bob Sanders saved the day by breaking up a third-down pass to give Manning a chance to drive the Colts 81 yards for the win. Marlin Jackson sealed the incredible comeback with an interception, denying New England its fourth trip to the Super Bowl in six years. There is absolutely no way the Patriots would have lost Super Bowl XLI to Rex Grossman and the Chicago Bears, especially considering they were one of only three teams to beat the Bears during the regular season. Crisis averted — until a year later when…
Super Bowl XLII Happened
Forget James Harrison, Malcolm Butler, Julian Edelman, or even Isaac Bruce. David Tyree’s helmet catch was, is, and forever will be the greatest all-around play in Super Bowl history. That’s because it wasn’t just the heroics of the bottom-of-the-depth-chart receiver on that play. It was Eli Manning escaping the grasp of Adalius Thomas, Jarvis Green, and Richard Seymour, and more importantly, referee Mike Carey not ruling Manning in the grasp for what would have been a deflating sack on 3rd-and-5. Earlier in the drive, the Patriots were theoretically a yard away from winning the Super Bowl (hence, they got their retribution by flipping the script in Super Bowl XLIX) when Brandon Jacobs was able to bull forward for a first-down run on 4th-and-1. Manning completed the game-winning drive by lofting a touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress, and America was spared from having to hear about the first undefeated, 19-0 team in NFL history. But it was that close.
And then Super Bowl XLVI Also Happened
Mario Manningham’s catch was almost as good as Tyree’s, but it was certainly good enough for Pats-Hater Nation. Wes Welker made this all possible with a critical dropped pass, setting the stage for Eli’s 88-yard drive, capped by Ahmad Bradshaw’s hesitant touchdown run with 57 seconds to play. Still, the Patriots had a few improbable tricks left in their bag, namely Brady avoiding the rush and completing a first-down pass to Deion Branch on 4th-and-16. The world then held its collective breath as Brady’s Hail Mary was suspended in air seemingly for an hour, before the ball narrowly avoided the reach of Rob Gronkowski and fell incomplete. Phew.
2015 AFC Championship Game
Enter Peyton Manning again to save the day. Of course, it was really the Broncos’ vaunted defense that kept the Patriots from playing on Super Bowl Sunday. Von Miller led a charge by the Broncos defense with 2.5 sacks and an interception, but naturally, a miracle was still needed to survive a game that the Broncos seemed to be in control of from the start (they never trailed). Denver led 20-12 late and made two fourth-down stops deep in its own territory, yet somehow, some way, the Patriots came back (sound familiar?). A long fourth-down pass down the middle of the field to Rob Gronkowski put New England in business, and then it was Gronkowski again on fourth-down doing some fancy footwork in the end zone to haul in a touchdown pass that made it 20-18. Fortunately, Denver’s defense, as it had all day, came up with one more tremendous play as Bradley Roby intercepted Brady’s pass over the middle to preserve the two-point lead. Despite pressuring Brady relentlessly all day, the Broncos could only escape by the skin of their teeth.
The J-E-T-S Just End the (Patriots’) Seasons in 2002, 2010
It’s hard to imagine that the 9-7 Patriots could have done serious damage in the 2002 postseason, but considering that Brady began his postseason career 10-0, it’s fortunate we didn’t have to find out. The only two times New England has not won the division in the Brady era, it still finished tied for the top record but lost the tiebreaker. That was also the case in the Matt Cassel year of 2008, when the Pats went 11-5 but couldn’t crack the playoff field. In 2002, the Patriots pulled off an epic comeback (or was it an epic choke?) against the Dolphins in Week 17, trailing 24-13 with four minutes to play before forcing overtime and ultimately winning on an Adam Vinatieri field goal. Had the 12-3 Green Bay Packers beat the Jets, the Patriots would have hosted Manning and the Colts in the first round of the playoffs, and the Patriots probably would have cruised considered that the Colts ended up losing to the Jets, 41-0. But the red-hot Jets helped prevent that with a 42-17 rout of the Packers, keeping Brady and the Pats on the sideline for the 2002 postseason. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers destroyed the Oakland Raiders, 48-21, in Super Bowl XXXVII that year.
In 2010, the 14-2 Patriots seemed poised to make another Super Bowl run with the top seed in the AFC. In to town came the Jets, who had lost a month earlier in Foxborough by an embarrassing 45-3 margin. But it turned out to truly be the Steelers’ year, because as we know by now the only way the Steelers can ever reach the Super Bowl is by avoiding their “big brother,” the Patriots. Gang Green’s defense controlled the game and New York pulled off the 28-21 upset before falling flat on its face a week later in Pittsburgh.
The Ravens Make History of Their Own
After becoming the first team to beat the Patriots in Foxborough in the playoffs under Brady in 2009, the Ravens were heartbroken and then some when Lee Evans dropped the game-winning touchdown pass and Billy Cundiff missed a chip-shot, 32-yard field goal in the 2011 AFC Championship Game. But the Ravens were not to be denied a year later, despite the fact that they fell behind, 13-7, at halftime of the 2012 AFC title game. New England had been 67-0 at home under Brady and Belichick when leading at home at the half, but the Ravens didn’t care. They dominated the second half with 21 unanswered points, keeping Ray Lewis’ final ride alive en route to a heart-stopping victory over the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII.