When they defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship game, the New England Patriots leapfrogged the Broncos, Cowboys and Steelers with an NFL-record ninth Super Bowl trip. So far the Pats are 4-4 with six of the trips (not including LI) occurring during the ongoing Bill Belichick-Tom Brady reign. The Patriots have enjoyed some heartbreaking moments but a lot of glory. Here are the greatest:
Rob Gronkowski hauls in a 22-yard touchdown pass 36 seconds before the half (SB XLIX vs. Seahawks)
The two-minute drill started one play before the warning and ended when Gronk split out wide, matched up against K.J. Wright, and Tom Brady threw it over the top to the big fella for a score that put New England up 14-7.
"It’s unbelievable. It’s an unbelievable feeling” Gronk said after the game. "It means everything. This is awesome. I’ve got to go. I’ve got to celebrate."
Gronk’s play was huge, but incredibly 36 ticks proved time enough for Seattle to drive 80 yards down the field to answer with its own touchdown just before the half. And of course more fireworks would come later in the game.
Tom Brady hits David Patten for an 8-yard TD pass and a 14-3 lead (SB XXXVI vs. Rams)
A fairly unsung Patriots hero, wide receiver David Patten came up big during New England’s first (successful) Super Bowl run. On this play, Brady dropped back and fired to the right corner of the end zone, where Patten leaped up and extended and managed to come back down inside the lines for a score with 31 seconds left before halftime. The catch left Rams cornerback Dexter McCleon in total disbelief and the viewing audience stunned (or exuberant).
Tom Brady finds Danny Amendola for a 4-yard fourth-quarter score to close the gap to 24-21 (SB XLIX vs. Seahawks)
The drive started at New England’s 32-yard line with Bruce Irvin sack, but then the Patriots moved down the field methodically, arriving at the 4-yard line with 8:04 left in the game. Brady took the shotgun snap, and Amendola found some space in front of Earl Thomas near the back of the end zone and pulled down the TD.
“All the work we’ve put in all year, all the adversity, dealing with everything that we have – it’s paying off and it’s the best feeling in the world” Amendola said later. "I scored, but we all played great. We left some plays out there, and it came down to the end, but we’re really happy.”
Ty Law’s 47-yard interception return TD puts New England up 7-3 (SB XXXVI vs. Rams)
Before David Patten caught that touchdown against the Rams, the Patriots managed to slow the pace of the game and largely contain the Greatest Show on Turf, holding them to just one field goal in the opening half.
The Law play occurred after a Marshall Faulk 15-yard run out to their own 39-yard-line midway through the second quarter. Kurt Warner dropped back with Mike Vrabel bearing down on him on a blitz and sailed a pass intended for Isaac Bruce a bit too far. Law pulled it down and raced 47 yards down the sideline untouched for the score.
"It was force versus finesse and something had to give," Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. "It wasn't too complicated. We just concentrated on hitting them hard."
Patriots take the lead over the Panthers in the fourth quarter on a 1-yard Mike Vrabel TD (XXXVIII vs. Panthers)
This Super Bowl showdown was fairly uneventful, defensive-minded 14-13 contest until the wild fourth quarter, when Carolina and New England combined for 37 points. The most surprising 6 points came courtesy linebacker Mike Vrabel, on offense, on a goal-line touchdown catch.
“What started out as a gimmick certainly evolved into an every-game, every-week package,” said Vrabel, who released into the end zone on the play and easily caught the score to put New England up 29-22 with 2:51 remaining. The Patriots went on to win 32-29 (more on that later).
“Touchdowns are always bigger than sacks, especially in the Super Bowl” said Vrabel, who caught another touchdown in the Super Bowl against the Eagles the next year. “They’re few and far between.”
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Rodney Harrison picks off Donovan McNabb to seal the deal (SB XXXIX vs. Eagles)
The great-but-not-champion Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb-era Philadelphia Eagles had 46 seconds left in the game, a three-point deficit and a kicker with a strong leg. But they were backed up to their own 5-yard line. The clock ticked down to 0:22 when McNabb dropped back and threw a pass 20 yards that tipped off tight end L.J. Smith’s hands and into the arms of Harrison, who had already intercepted McNabb in the red zone in the first quarter. After Harrison’s clincher, Brady only had to kneel once and the Patriots hoisted the Lombardi trophy a third time.
Brady hits Deion Branch for a 17-yard gain to set up Adam Vinatieri’s game-winning field (SB XXXVIII vs. Panthers)
That wild fourth quarter included heroics by the game’s MVP, wide receiver Deion Branch, who recorded 10 receptions for 143 yards and a touchdown. Branch’s last catch came on the game’s final drive on a play beginning at Carolina’s 40-yard line with 14 seconds left on the clock.
Tied 29-29, Brady found Branch near the sideline for a 17-yard gain to put the Patriots in field-goal range for kicker Adam Vinatieri. Of course, Vinatieri nailed it (more on that).
"Tom was amazing again” Vinatieri said. “His receivers made unbelievable catches and gave us an opportunity again.”
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Troy Brown's 23-yard catch brings the Pats into field-goal range with 33 seconds left (SB XXXVI vs. Rams)
Tied 17-17, starting at their own 17 yard-line with 1:21 left, most viewers expected the Patriots to just play it safe and play for overtime. That wasn’t what the Patriots were thinking. After five passes and three completions to running back J.R. Redmond, Brady threw a strike up the middle to Brown who ran out of bounds to put Vinatieri in field-goal range. Here’s how John Madden put it after the Brown catch:
“This is amazing. This is something that I’ll admit as a coach and analyst I don’t think they should have done, but they had the guts, they have a young quarterback and they did it. They were backed up inside their own 20. They had no timeouts left, calling these plays and not only calling these plays but making these plays. At some point when you’re in the Super Bowl, you have to let it all hang out, and I’ll say this … they are letting it all hang out.”
15 years later, that Patriots team reunited in December 2016, when Brown, a captain, fired up the Gillette Stadium crowd:
“The best fans, we got them. The best coach, we got him” Brown said. The best owner, we got him. The most rings, we're working it. This is the original group of guys who did their job. The Optum Lounge, the nice seats and the scoreboard is here because of this group. Fifteen years ago, the Greatest Show on Turf lost to the Greatest Team on (expletive) Earth.”
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Brady hits wideout Julian Edelman for the go-ahead and game-winning score (SB XLIX vs. Seahawks)
Let’s go ahead and call Edelman’s 21-yard catch on a 3rd-and-14 earlier in the quarter the “4B” and an absolute imperative.
"I saw Jules. I had an opportunity to move up in the pocket, and Jules had kind of a deep in-cut,” Brady said after the game. “I tried to drill it to him and he caught it and made a great catch – took a big hit, and that was the key to the whole drive.”
But you’ve still gotta get the ball in the end zone as Edelman did on a 3-yard catch with just over two minutes remaining in the game to give New England a 28-24 lead. Both moments were huge for Brady’s biggest fan, Edelman, and perhaps Brady’s favorite all-time target.
Adam Vinatieri boots a game-winning 41-yard field goal (SB XXXVIII vs. Panthers)
There was no panic in Vinatieri and probably not much doubt on either sideline that he was going to break the 29-29 tie with under 10 seconds left when he lined up for the kick.
“The team knew [Vinatieri] was going to make the kick,” said former Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson. “He's the Iceman and he never misses when the game is on the line."
"They got the ball last," Carolina head coach John Fox said.
Vinatieri remarked on the final drive: "If you ever give us time, look out."
"This team has met all comers," Belichick said of the team’s performance and climactic finish. "That's 15 straight. We caused some heart attacks, but we came out on top.”
Malcolm Butler becomes an instant legend with a game-saving, mind-blowing interception at the goal line (SB XLIX vs. Seahawks)
In a play that fans, analysts, players and have scrutinized for two years, the Seahawks indeed called for Russell Wilson to throw a quick strike to receiver Ricardo Lockette on the goal line, instead of handing it off to Marshawn Lynch. It didn’t work out the way they intended. Belichick had prepared the team to defend that very play, and Butler, an undrafted then-rookie cornerback, made it.
“I saw what I saw in practice.” Butler recalled of the crucial moment. "At practice, the scout team ran that same play and I got beat on it. Bill told me, 'You've got to be on that.' At that time, memorization came through. … I just had a vision that I was going to make a big play.”
"Unbelievable play by Malcolm,” Brady said of the game’s final act. “We didn’t call a timeout, and the clock was winding down and we realized, you know, this is basically it if we stopped them. I saw the interception and couldn’t believe it. It was just an incredible play. You know, what a play. A championship play.”
Vinatieri nails the game-winning 48-yard field goal as time expires (SB XXXVI vs. Rams)
Why not Butler at No. 1? If he never made that catch, New England still had three Lombardi trophies back home to lean on. The arc of Brady and Belichick’s long, rich resumes would look a bit more imbalanced ,but their Hall of Fame plaques would have still included the line “Three-time (and counting) Super Bowl champions."
Super Bowl XXXVI was the genesis of the Patriots dynasty. They were 14-point underdogs to a not-quite-dynastic but still fantastic, high-scoring and transformative Rams squad. They shut down the Rams and had the guts to go for it all with the game on the line. And Vinatieri, as ever, was true.
"I was just so happy that the guys moved the ball down and gave me an opportunity," said Vinatieri. "Once I kicked it, I knew it was good. I looked up and it was just time to celebrate. It was unbelievable."