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The Narrative Of The 2001 NFL Season

When the 2001 NFL season began, the New England Patriots were just a franchise that had never won a Super Bowl and often been dysfunctional. Tom Brady was unknown second-year quarterback backing up Drew Bledsoe. 2001 was a threshold year in the arc of NFL history.

Two games into the season, Bledsoe was injured and Brady had to step in. The 24-year-old made the Pro Bowl. He had help from Antowain Smith in the backfield and Troy Brown at receiver. The New England defense, the specialty of head coach Bill Belichick was sixth in the league.

But the Patriots didn’t necessarily take off. They lost games to key AFC East contenders in the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets. They lost to a mediocre Denver team in late October. They lost to the powerful St. Louis Rams on a Sunday Night in November. But they hung in the race.

The Jets were led by Curtis Martin in the backfield, who rolled up a vintage 1,500-yard season. The Dolphins had a good running back of their own in Lamar Smith. There was Pro Bowl talent on defense, Zach Thomas for Miami, and John Abraham in New York. These two teams, along with the Patriots, came racing down the stretch.

New England got two clutch wins in December, nipping the Jets 17-16, and then beating the Dolphins 20-13 on a Saturday afternoon just prior to Christmas. It was enough to get the Patriots to 11-5, win the division and earn the #2 seed. The Dolphins and Jets still made the postseason as the #4 and #6 seeds, respectively.

It was the Rams who were setting the pace for the rest of the NFL. Kurt Warner won the MVP award with dazzling numbers that included a 69 percent completion rate, 8.8 yards-per-attempt, and 36 touchdown passes. Marshall Faulk was one of the great all-purpose backs of all-time, with nearly 1,400 yards rushing and 83 catches. Faulk was a 1st-team All-Pro. He ran behind an offensive line that included All-Pro tackle Orlando Pace. There were Pro Bowl receivers in Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce. After pointing out all this, it almost seems redundant to say the Rams scored more points than anyone in the league.

They could also play defense. Leonard Little rang up 14 ½ sacks, Aeneas Williams was an All-Pro corner, and Dre’ Bly picked of six passes. The St. Louis D ranked seventh in the league themselves.

St. Louis needed to be that good because San Francisco provided a stiff challenge in the NFC West. Veteran quarterback Jeff Garcia made the Pro Bowl at age 31. Terrell Owens, with 93 catches, was one of the league’s best receivers. Garrison Hearst ran for over 1,200 yards. The 49ers couldn’t beat the Rams in their two meetings, but San Francisco did pretty well against most everyone else. The Niners went 12-4 and made the playoffs. The Rams’ 14-2 record earned them the top seed in the NFC.

The Baltimore Ravens were the defending Super Bowl champs, on the strength of a historically great defense. The Raven D was still very good in 2001, led by an all-time great middle linebacker in Ray Lewis. Peter Boulware added 15 sacks at outside linebacker. But the Raven D “only” ranked fourth in the league this year and that couldn’t completely overcome the subpar offense.

That left the door open in the old AFC Central, and the Pittsburgh Steelers filled the void. The Steelers had some great linebackers of their own—All-Pro Jason Gildon, Kendrall Bell, and Joey Porter Sr. combined for 30 sacks. Chad Scott was physical and aggressive at his safety spot. The Pittsburgh D outpaced their counterparts in Baltimore, ranking third for points allowed.

And the Steelers had more offensive punch. Jerome Bettis, even after missing five games, still ran for 1,000 yards. Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress were each 1,000-yard receivers. Alan Faneca was one of the game’s top guards. With that kind of supporting cast, quarterback Kordell Stewart had the best year of his career.

Pittsburgh and Baltimore split their two games—both tough, close battles, in a prefiguring of what would be one of the NFL’s most heated rivalries for years to come. The Steelers finished 13-3 and got the #1 seed in the AFC. The Ravens settled for 10-6 and the #5 seed.

After two years out of the playoffs, Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers came roaring back in 2001. Favre threw for over 3,900 yards and made the Pro Bowl. Ahman Green emerged as a terrific all-purpose back, second only to Faulk when it came to being a threat both running and receiving. The Packers got defensive contributions from emerging pass-rusher Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila and veteran safety Darren Sharper. Green Bay was top-5 in the league both offensively and defensively.

But in the old NFC Central, the Chicago Bears jumped out of nowhere with a surprise season. It was the Bears who played the best defense in the entire league this season, led by an All-Pro at each level—Ted Washington up front, Brian Urlacher at linebacker and Mike Brown in the secondary. Anthony Thomas ran for nearly 1,200 yards and Marty Booker was a 1,000-yard receiver.

Tampa Bay had been a solid playoff team for the previous two years under Tony Dungy, and they got back in the hunt again in 2001. This was the last season that the Bucs were in the NFC Central, along with the four current teams of the NFC North. Tampa Bay did it with defense—namely, the great Warren Sapp up front and Ronde Barber at corner. But a mediocre offense would hold the Bucs back.

Green Bay beat Chicago twice, both games in the second half of the season. But the Bears made up the difference. They swept the Bucs, while Green Bay and Tampa Bay split. Chicago showed they could win a shootout when they beat San Francisco 37-31 in late October. The Bears got to 13-3 and won the division. The Packers’ 12-4 record still put them in with room to spare. The Buccaneers cut it close, but a big late-December win over Baltimore on a Saturday night was the difference. Tampa finished 9-7 and got the 6-seed.

The playoff bracket was filled out in both conferences by the Oakland Raiders and Philadelphia Eagles, each of whom won division titles and got the 3-seed. The Raiders were coached by Jon Gruden and did it with an offense fueled by old men. Quarterback Rich Gannon had a Pro Bowl year at age 36. He threw to Hall of Fame receivers. Tim Brown was 35 and Jerry Rice now 39, but both went over 1,100 yards. They were enough to paper over a pedestrian defense, go 10-6 and win the AFC West. A big 38-28 win over Denver on the first Monday Night in November was the key swing point in the race.

Philadelphia had an emerging coach/QB combo by the name of Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb. They made their first splash together in 2001. McNabb, at the age of 25, made the Pro Bowl and the offense ranked ninth in the league. The Eagle D was even better, ranking second behind All-Pro safety Brian Dawkins and Pro Bowl pass rusher Hugh Douglas. The NFC East was mediocre, even with the New York Giants’ Michael Strahan winning Defensive Player of the Year honors and setting the single-season sack record. The Eagles’ 11-5 record easily outpaced all rivals.

The highlight of Wild-Card Weekend was the early Sunday afternoon game between Green Bay and San Francisco. With both teams coming in at 12-4, it was—at least by combined record—the biggest matchup ever seen this early in the playoffs. The game was tight all the way, but a late touchdown from the Packers gave them some breathing room and Green Bay won 25-15 at home.

In the other three games, there was an easy winner. Philadelphia beat up Tampa Bay 31-9, the second straight year the Eagles had ousted the Bucs. The Raiders beat the Jets 38-24. And even on the road, the Ravens easily handled the Dolphins 20-3.

Soldier Field was the host for the opening game of the Divisional Round, and Chicago’s dream season crashed hard. McNabb and the Eagles lit up the league’s top defense and won 33-19. On the weekend’s opposite end, late Sunday afternoon, the Rams made a statement. They intercepted Favre six times and blew out the Packers 45-17. St. Louis looked unstoppable.

Pittsburgh and Baltimore played a highly anticipated Round 3 in the early time slot on Sunday afternoon. After two good games during the regular season, the Steelers turned this one into a rout, dominating the line of scrimmage and winning 27-10. Saying Pittsburgh looked unstoppable might be a stretch, but they certainly looked destined for the Super Bowl to see if that great defense could slow down the Rams.

But then there’s what happened on Saturday night. There was a blizzard in Foxboro, and the Raiders and Patriots would play a historic game. Oakland led 13-10 late in the fourth quarter. Brady appeared to fumble the ball away. But officials ruled his arm was moving forward. It was the “Tuck Rule” play, and it lives in Raider infamy. Although for it to matter, Adam Vinateri still had to hit a long field goal through a blizzard to tie the game, and then another field goal in overtime to win it.

Brady would be injured during the AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh and Bledsoe had to step in. Although the bigger story, at least in the moment, was that the Steelers couldn’t run the ball and Stewart threw three interceptions. New England jumped out to a 21-3 lead, held off a Pittsburgh rally and won 24-17 as a double-digit underdog. The Patriots were going to the Super Bowl.

St. Louis got a tougher-than-expected fight from Philadelphia later in the afternoon. An 11-point favorite, the Rams trailed 17-16 late in the third quarter. But they pulled ahead with two touchdowns and held on to win 29-24.

The week off the NFL had taken to honor the 9/11 terror attacks that happened two days after the season began, meant the Super Bowl was pushed into February for the first time, a change the league liked enough to make permanent. In the two weeks leading up to the Patriots-Rams, there was a lot of conversation about which quarterback New England would go to. Bledsoe, after all, had only lost his job due to injury, and then came up with a clutch long relief effort in Pittsburgh. But Brady was healthy again.

What wasn’t included in the conversation was any real thought the Patriots could win. After all, the Rams were “The Greatest Show on Turf,” they were a healthy two-touchdown favorite, and this game seemed more a coronation than a confrontation. So, the announcement that Brady would get the call seemed more interesting than impactful.

But Belichick’s defense had other ideas. They bogged down the St. Louis attack. They produced the big play any upset bid needs, when corner Ty Law took an interception to the house in the second quarter. New England led 17-3 in the fourth quarter.

Warner, to his credit, didn’t go quietly. The MVP rallied the Rams to the tying touchdown. But he never saw the field again after it was 17-17. Brady got the ball last. Only in retrospect do we know that effectively meant “ball game.” The young quarterback drove his team down the field. Vinateri knocked a field goal through on the final play and it ended 20-17.

The New England Patriots were Super Bowl champs. And not for the last time.