The 2001 New England Patriots & Destiny’s Ride

The 2001 New England Patriots weren’t a team coming into the season with great expectations. Their second-year head coach, Bill Belichick, had gone 5-11 in his first year. After having been fired in Cleveland, there was nothing to suggest Belichick was anything more than another run-of-the-mill NFL coach. When the Patriots lost their first two games, and franchise quarterback Drew Bledsoe got hurt, it seemed as though as all was lost.

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Belichick turned to a quarterback in his second year, Tom Brady out of Michigan. Week 3 of the 2001 NFL season marked a pivotal turning point in the history of the league–Brady got his first start, and ironically enough it came against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. The Patriots won 44-13, and a new era was underway.

The turnaround wasn’t immediate. New England was still 3-4 at the end of October and 5-5 late in November, when a closing push of six straight wins gave them the AFC East title and the #2 seed in the playoffs.

The Pats had an 1,100-yard rusher in Antowain Smith, and a good defense led by Pro Bowl defensive backs Ty Law and Lawyer Milloy, and a talented front seven that included Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi and Richard Seymour.

It looked like this would just be a nice season and a building block for next year when New England fell behind the Oakland Raiders 13-3  after three quarters of their second-round playoff game. With a blizzard pounding Foxboro, coming back from this deficit seemed impossible. Then Brady ran for one touchdown and had his team driving a potential game-tying field goal when controversy struck.

Brady appeared to fumble and the ball recovered by the Raiders, a circumstance that would have all but ended the game. Officials ruled that Brady had his arm moving just enough to constitute it a forward pass attempt–the now-legendary “Tuck Rule.”

To this day, Raider Nation believes they were robbed. They’re right in a sense–any rule that deems the play anything other than a fumble is a bad rule. But…a bad rule is still a rule, and it’s not the officials’ place to change that. The call was made correctly.

Even so, by rights, the game should still have ended here at 13-10. What are the odds that Patriot kicker Adam Vinateri is going to kick a 45-yard field goal into a driving blizzard when there is no room to even plant his leg cleanly? Whatever the odds were, Vinateri did the impossible and sent the game to overtime. New England eventually won 16-13 and made it safe to utter the word “destiny.”

It was going to take some serious destiny to complete this run. New England was a 10-point underdog on the road in Pittsburgh for the 2001 AFC Championship Game. The Patriots used special teams to get a 21-3 lead. Troy Brown returned a punt for a touchdown, and Brown then blocked a field goal which was taken to the house. Belichick’s defense completely shut down the potent Steeler ground attack and forced quarterback Kordell Stewart into three interceptions, the latter which sealed a 24-17 upset.

The quarterback controversy resurfaced though. Brady had to leave the game in the second quarter and Bledsoe came in, played well and threw a touchdown pass. Who would start in the Super Bowl? Belichick decided to go back to Brady.

The Pats would be an even bigger underdog when they faced the St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl. With MVP quarterback Kurt Warner and all-everything running back Marshall Faulk, the Rams would have been a heavy favorite against most anyone. Against the Patriots, they were a 14-point favorite.

Belichick’s defense would again come up strong. Ty Law returned an interception for a touchdown and with Brady playing it close to the vest, New England built a 17-3 lead after three quarters. St. Louis rallied to tie it, but Brady led the team down the field and Vinateri would be a hero one more time, kicking a field goal on the last play for a 20-17 win.

Brady was named Super Bowl MVP, but at 16/27 for 145 yards, this should not have happened. The defense was the reason New England won and Law had directly produced a touchdown. The cornerback deserved the award.

The 2001 New England Patriots truly were a team of destiny, getting a future Hall of Fame quarterback basically dropped in their lap, winning one miracle playoff game and then two more as double-digit underdogs. It was  the first championship of any kind in 15 years for the sports fans of Boston, who would soon become quite used to such celebrations.