Does this Super Bowl feel familiar? Is there an echo in here?
If you’re too young to remember Super Bowl XXXIX, I feel sorry for you, because that means your entire life has been encapsulated by the New England Patriots’ reign of terror on the NFL. But if you can recall the 2004 season, you may have a strong sense of deja vu right now.
The similarities between this portion of the Patriots’ dynasty and the earlier one are striking. Like in 2004, the Pats are trying to win three Super Bowls in four years, something only done by the 1992-93 and 1995 Dallas Cowboys prior to New England. That year, the Patriots defeated — who else? — the Philadelphia Eagles. Like in 2017, the ’04 version was handicapped by a key injury to its best player. Terrell Owens played with his leg still partially broken and put up tremendous numbers, but it wasn’t enough in a 24-21 New England victory. This year, Carson Wentz, not to mention Jason Peters, Darren Sproles, Jordan Hicks, and Chris Maragos, will all be spectators.
But of course, it doesn’t end there. Not only are the Pats going for three out of four by beating an NFC West team, and NFC South team in Houston, and then the Eagles for a second time this century, they are doing all sorts of 2004-type things.
That season, the Eagles finished with the best mark in franchise history at 13-3, with their only home loss being an ugly defeat in a meaningless season finale. The top two AFC seeds that year? Pittsburgh and New England, who flip-flopped spots here in 2017. The Patriots hung 41 points on the Steelers in the AFC championship game at Heinz Field, which were the most ever allowed by Pittsburgh in a home playoff game… until the Jacksonville Jaguars put up 45 in the divisional round this year.
The 2004 Patriots were widely expected to repeat (and Chris Berman correctly picked them to face the Eagles in Jacksonville), but beefed up their roster before the season by trading for disgruntled Cincinnati Bengals running back Corey Dillon. They similarly strengthened their offense in 2017 by trading for New Orleans Saints wide receiver Brandin Cooks. Both Patriots teams’ last loss of the season came in Miami in December, and those losses were followed by big road wins — at the Jets in 2004 to clinch a bye, and at the Steelers this year to clinch the AFC East.
For Philadelphia, the similarities are even better. The Eagles were 13-1 in 2004, with Owens getting injured in a Week 15 win over Dallas. Philly rested its starters the last two games, losses to the Rams and Bengals. The two teams’ playoff runs were almost identical, with Super Bowl trips preceded by wins over Atlanta and Minnesota, except it was Minnesota and then Atlanta in 2004. Current head coach Doug Pederson cut his teeth as an assistant for Andy Reid, who of course guided the Eagles to Super Bowl XXXIX.
All seven of the Brady/Belichick New England Super Bowls have been decided by six points or less, and six have been decided by four points or less. Perhaps the least exciting game of all seven was the previous Patriots-Eagles Super Bowl. The final score, 24-21, might make you think otherwise, but it was a game controlled almost entirely by the Patriots in the second half. Philadelphia scored with under two minutes to play to make it close, and the Eagles were only the second team that year to actually score first in a game against the Patriots. But it wasn’t enough, and the Eagles’ lack of urgency down the stretch — perhaps exacerbated by a sick Donovan McNabb — never made the game feel that scintillating.
That was the final game as coordinators for Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel, just as it figures to be the final game for Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia before they land head-coaching gigs elsewhere. A lingering sense that this “could be the end” for the Patriots, which as we know is a load of you-know-what until proven otherwise, hangs over this Super Bowl.
The only constants here are Brady and Belichick, with an entirely new cast of characters (although McDaniels was the quarterbacks coach in 2004) representing this second phase of the Patriots’ incredible dynasty. Prior to New England, only one team in the history of the Super Bowl era had ever won three out of four. The Patriots are on the verge of doing it twice, with the same coach and quarterback, no less.
Philadelphia certainly has a chance to prevent this symmetry for the Patriots. The one thing vastly different from 2004 is that the perception entering the big game was that the Patriots had emerged from the much tougher conference to get here. That 2004 AFC was a loaded conference, with Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning, and Drew Brees being the other three division-winning quarterbacks. The NFC runner-up was the Michael Vick-led Falcons, who were 11-5 but often blown out in their losses that year, and the playoff field featured a 9-7 division winner (Seattle) and two 8-8 wild card teams (St. Louis and Minnesota). In 2017, the NFC was the much deeper conference. Consider that the Carolina Panthers, who went 11-5 this year and beat the Patriots in Week 4, were the No. 5 seed in the NFC, yet finished with a better record than the Jacksonville Jaguars, whom the Patriots beat in the AFC championship game to reach Super Bowl LII.
In an otherwise-boring (from my perspective, anyway) lead-up to this Super Bowl, it’s fun to look back and compare some of these things. Think about the public perception now, how the overwhelming sense is that everyone in country who isn’t from New England will be rooting for the Eagles because of wide-spread Patriots-hatred. To me, this seems silly — as in, why is that only a thing now? It’s 2017, but yours truly has been on the anti-bandwagon since midway through the 2003 season, when this budding dynasty seemed ready to take over a game that had started to trend in the direction of parity the previous four years. Sure, the Pats went nine seasons without winning a Lombardi trophy, but they were knocking at the door virtually every year. So I don’t want to hear about this “newfound Patriots hate” when watching this Super Bowl, because it should not be considered “newfound.”
It was certainly there in 2004. And 2017 is feeling eerily similar.