Do the Patriots belong with the best?
Every NFL dynasty must end. The cruelties of age, finances of free agency and emergence of other superpowers eventually finish them. This is the reality the New England Patriots face.
After the Patriots lost Super Bowl XLVI to the New York Giants, head coach Bill Belichick was not in the mood to discuss anything but the game itself, and even that was a brief affair. He stared straight ahead, unwilling to meet most questioners in the eye, and repeated variations of the following:
“It was very competitive,” Belichick said, his face ashen. “You know, we just came up a little bit short tonight. That’s about all there is to say.”
The post-game portrait of a coach who lost a championship is never a pretty one, but this was Belichick at his most sour. The window for a fourth Super Bowl title with quarterback Tom Brady, who will be 35 next season, is closing. Quickly.
That visage of a somber Belichick, now beaten twice by the New York Giants on a Super Bowl Sunday, may be the final snapshot of the Patriots dynasty, period.
“You don’t feel good after losing this game,” he said glumly.
To their credit, the Patriots have bounced back from bitter playoff losses after that early dynasty run in the 2000s. One year after its last Super Bowl championship in February 2005, New England was stunned by the Denver Broncos in the second round of the playoffs, and then the following season, Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis Colts staged a triumphant comeback in the AFC Championship Game.
At that point Brady asked for more aerial weapons, and New England delivered. Slot receiver Wes Welker and deep threat Randy Moss were acquired, and the 2007 season became a passing extravaganza. Brady threw for an NFL-record 50 touchdown passes, and his six-yard scoring strike to Moss late in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLII put them ahead of the Giants, 14-10.
Alas, corner Asante Samuel dropped what would have been a game-sealing interception on the Giants' game-winning series. Four years later in Super Bowl XLVI, Welker dropped a fourth-quarter pass deep downfield that would have picked up a first down and run time off the clock, and perhaps led to a clinching score.
Two drops. Two Super Bowl heartbreakers. Of course, New England’s wins were just as narrow. The Pats' margin of victory from their three Super Sunday wins was an Adam Vinatieri field goal. The difference in either direction is 1-2 plays.
So if their run ends with that Mario Manningham toe-tap catch and Ahmad Bradshaw touchdown run, then by simple addition the Belichick-era Patriots do not exceed the accomplishments of Lombardi’s Packers, Chuck Noll’s Steelers or Bill Walsh’s (and George Seifert’s) 49ers, a group that boasts more than three world titles over a 10-year span. Additionally, the Patriots only match the Cowboys' three Super Bowl championships over four seasons.
Belichick is now 3-2 on Super Sunday with the Patriots, an admirable record but not yet equal to the all-time greats. Lombardi claimed the first two Super Bowls after a round of NFL titles, Noll went 4-0, Walsh finished 3-0, and Seifert inherited that well-stocked Niners club and won it all the following season.
There is also the matter of Spygate, which sullies New England’s accolades in the eyes of some. No one will debate the Patriots weren’t punished for it, however.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell took away a first-round draft pick and levied $750,000 in fines.
If the Belichick-Brady combo finally lands that fourth Super Bowl victory, then an argument can be made the Pats become legendary. But that defense must be rebuilt, and the offense needs to continue to play at an elite level with the aging Brady.
No one needs to explain to Belichick his time with Brady is passing. You could see it on his face on that podium.
“We had our chances. We just couldn’t quite make enough plays,” he concluded.
HOW OTHER DYNASTIES DIED
The Packers won NFL titles in 1961, 1962, 1965, 1966 and 1967. But all good things come to an end. Vince Lombardi announced his retirement from the Green Bay Packers on Feb. 1, 1968, days after his second straight Super Bowl win, and invited up Phil Bengtson as the replacement. It was the end of that dynasty.
The Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s won in ’74, ’75, ’78 and ’79. But the ’80s were not as kind. They missed on the postseason altogether from 1980-81, made a quick playoff exit during the strike-shortened ’82 season, then suffered their most embarrassing loss in the ’83 divisional round against the Los Angeles Raiders. In the third quarter, a young Marcus Allen sprinted for a 49-yard touchdown against a creaky Steel Curtain defense for a 31-3 lead. The Raiders prevailed, 38-10, ending the Steelers' run for good.
The 49ers had a remarkable run through the 1980s, winning titles in ’81, ’84, ’88 and ’89. In the 1990 NFC Championship Game, 49er great Joe Montana was knocked out in the fourth quarter when Giants defensive lineman Leonard Marshall drilled the quarterback from behind. The Giants then kicked their way to a 15-13 win. That hit essentially ended Montana’s 49ers career, and it was also the final game for safety Ronnie Lott in a Niners jersey.
The Dallas Cowboys enjoyed a wild and entertaining run, with titles in '92, '93 and '95. The Cowboys “Triplets” dynasty of the ’90s faded more gradually, but a divisional playoff defeat to the expansion Carolina Panthers at the end of the 1996 season began the long, downward process.