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The Narrative Of The 2004 NFL Season

The New England Patriots had already won two Super Bowl championships in the first three years of Tom Brady’s illustrious career as a starting quarterback. In the 2004 NFL season, the Patriots overcome some stiff competition to do it again, making it three titles in four years and completing what might be called Part I of the Dynasty.

New England was doing it primarily with defense in the early Brady years, and the ’04 Patriots ranked second in the league for points allowed, anchored by All-Pro defensive tackle Richard Seymour. 2004 was also the year that Brady’s offense really started to become elite themselves. The QB himself made the Pro Bowl, Cory Dillon ran for over 1,600 yards and the New England offense ranked fourth in the NFL for points scored.

A Thursday Night opener with Peyton Manning’s Colts set the tone, as the Patriots pulled out a 27-24 win. They knocked off playoff-bound teams in the Seattle Seahawks and New York Jets in October and got off to a 6-0 start. That brought New England’s cumulative two-year winning streak to a record 21 games. Not until October 31, when they lost in Pittsburgh, did the Patriots finally taste defeat.

New England ran away with the AFC East, but the New York Jets, coached by Herm Edwards, were a contender. A good defense was led by pass-rushing ends Shaun Ellis and John Abraham combined for 20 sacks. The offense as a whole was mediocre, but with Curtis Martin making All-Pro and rolling up over 1,700 yards, it was enough to win games.

The Jets went 10-6 and made the postseason. The Patriots rolled up a 14-2 record. But as good as that mark was, it wasn’t enough to get the top seed in the AFC playoffs this year.

It was new era in Pittsburgh. The Steelers handed the keys to the offense over to rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, starting a run that would last 18 years. Pittsburgh took a brutal early loss to the Baltimore Ravens, and Defensive Player of the Year Ed Reed. But that was it.

The Steelers had a pair of All-Pros on the offensive line in center Jeff Hartings and guard Alan Faneca. The best defense in the league was led by linebacker James Farrior, a ballhawking strong safety named Troy Polamulu, and good pass rushers with Aaron Smith and Joey Porter.

Their 34-20 win over New England to end the Patriots’ win streak on October 31 was impressive enough, but Pittsburgh followed that up by hammering the Philadephia Eagles, the best team in the NFC, 27-3 a week later. The Steelers beat the Jets 17-6 in December, and they got a 20-7 revenge win over the Ravens on the day after Christmas. It all added up to a surprise 15-1 season and the #1 seed in the AFC bracket.

Peyton and the Colts were putting together another big year themselves. Manning threw for 49 touchdowns against just 10 interceptions and won the MVP award. He had three 1,000-yard receivers in Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, and Brandon Stokeley. Edgerrin James was a 1,500-yard rusher. No one in the NFL scored more points than Indianapolis.

The defense was below average, but they had playmakers in All-Pro defensive end Dwight Freeney, who combined with Robert Mathis on the other end to get pressure on the quarterback. Indy outgunned Brett Favre’s Green Bay Packers 45-31 in late September. They beat the playoff-bound Minnesota Vikings 31-28 on a Monday Night in November. And they outscored another top AFC contender, the San Diego Chargers, 34-31 in December. Indianapolis finished 12-4 and secured the #3 seed in the AFC.

The aforementioned Chargers were having a big year under Marty Schottenheimer, and it was keyed by the running of the great LaDanian Tomlinson. With over 1,300 yards on the ground, L.T. made All-Pro. Drew Brees, still in San Diego and prior to his shoulder injury, had a Pro Bowl year throwing the ball to the best tight end in the league, Antonio Gates. The Charger offense was third-best in the NFL, and the defense had playmakers at linebacker with Donnie Edwards and Steve Foley.

Mike Shanahan’s Denver Broncos were also in the hunt for the AFC West. Shanahan, renowned for churning out good running games, turned Reuben Droughns into a 1,200-yard back. Rod Smith and Ashley Leslie each had over 1,000 yards receiving, catching Jake Plummer’s passes. Champ Bailey was one of the league’s top corners.

Denver struck first and beat San Diego 23-13 at the end of September. But the Bolts were more consistent, beating Jacksonville 34-21, blowing out NFC hopeful New Orleans 43-17 and ultimately winning the December rematch with the Broncos 20-17. That game was the difference in the race, as San Diego finished 12-4 and Denver settled in at 10-6. The Chargers were the 4-seed. The Broncos edged out the Ravens and Jaguars for the 6-seed that was then the final playoff berth.

Philadelphia was, by far, the pace-setter on the NFC side. The Eagle defense was one of the NFL’s best, thanks primarily to a secondary that had a pair of All-Pros in Brian Dawkins and Lito Sheppard. On the offensive side, Donovan McNabb had the best season to date in his still-young career, with a TD/INT ratio of 31/8. Terrell Owens was the primary target, and with 77 catches for over 1,200 yards, T.O. was another All-Pro. Brian Westbrook was one of the league’s best all-purpose backs.

The Eagles ran away and hid from the rest of the NFC East, and, to a certain extent, the rest of the conference. They racked up blowouts of playoff teams from the NFC North, hammering the Vikings 27-16 on a Monday Night in September, and destroying the Packers 47-17 in a late afternoon game in December. Philadelphia ended up 13-3 and was the top-heavy favorite to at least make the Super Bowl when the NFC playoffs began.

Atlanta, with the 24-year-old Michael Vick having a Pro Bowl year at quarterback, came in as the 2-seed. Vick, who ran for 900 yards to augment his passing numbers, had a 1,100-yard rusher in Warrick Dunn in the backfield. Patrick Kerney and Roderick Coleman were a tough pass-rushing duo up front and combined for 24 sacks.

The Falcons were not a statistically great team, ranking in the middle of the league, both offensive and defensively. But they made it work. Atlanta nipped San Diego 21-20 in mid-October and then beat Denver 41-28 two weeks later. A 24-21 win over New Orleans at the end of November gave Atlanta a nice cushion in the NFC South and they coasted home at 11-5 and into the 2-seed.

Green Bay and Minnesota staged an exciting race in the NFC North. Both teams played well offensively. Favre was still going strong at age 35. Ahman Green was a Pro Bowl back, who ran for over 1,100 yards and was a versatile receiver. Javon Walker and Donald Driver combined for over 2,500 yards receiving. William Henderson was an All-Pro fullback. As for Minnesota, Daunte Culpepper threw 39 touchdown passes and Nate Burleson was a 1,000-yard receiver.

The Packers and Vikings finished 5-6 in the NFL for points scored, but both had defensive problems. That showed up in their head-to-head meetings. Green Bay won a pair of 34-31 shootouts and that was the difference in the division race. The Packers ended up at 10-6 and were the 3-seed in the playoffs. The Vikings, at 8-8, were fortunate to combine good tiebreaker fortune and a mediocre year generally in the NFC, to still sneak in as the 6-seed. They two rivals were set for a third meeting in the postseason.

The NFC West was a race between the Seahawks and St. Louis Rams. Seattle did it by running the football, getting nearly 1,700 yards rushing from Shaun Alexander. St. Louis traveled via the air—Marc Bulger throwing to Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, who combined for over 2,700 yards receiving. Neither team played particularly well on defense, but they scored enough to stay above water.

St. Louis won both head-to-head games, 33-27 in October and 23-12 in the November rematch. The Rams also got a big 20-7 win over the Eagles on a Monday Night just after Christmas. But Seattle was a little more consistent. They beat Minnesota 27-23 in December. They edged Atlanta 28-26 in the final game of the season. The Seahawks only finished 9-7, but that was good enough to bring home the division title.

The Rams came into the season finale at 7-8, in a joust with the Vikings and Saints for the two wild-card spots. With everything on the line, St. Louis beat the Jets 32-29, knocked out New Orleans and took the 5-seed for themselves. Just like in the NFC North, there would be a wild-card round rematch between division rivals.

In those rematches, it was the road wild-cards that came out on top. St. Louis and Seattle opened the weekend with an exciting game that came down to a Bulger touchdown pass with just over two minutes left that gave the Rams a 27-20 win. The weekend concluded with the Vikings again scoring 31 points against the Packers. This time though, Favre threw four interceptions and Minnesota walked out of Lambeau Field with a 31-17 win.

On the AFC side, Indianapolis took care of business by hammering Denver 49-24, the second straight year the Colts had blown out the Broncos in this round. And the best game of the weekend took place Saturday night in San Diego. The Jets and Chargers went to overtime and then used up almost the entire fifth period. San Diego missed a 40-yard field goal with four minutes left in the first OT. New York hit one with five seconds left. The 20-17 win sent the Jets onto Pittsburgh.

New York and Pittsburgh opened up the Divisional Round and the game was almost a replay of the Jets-Chargers. We had a 17-17 tie. This time it was the Jets who missed the big kick, a makeable game-ending field goal that went wide. And it was the Steelers who came through in overtime. Pittsburgh pulled it out 20-17.

That was the only real excitement on Divisional Round Weekend. It wasn’t a big surprise that Atlanta blew out St. Louis 47-17, or that Philadelphia efficiently dispatched Minnesota 27-14. But the ease with which New England got rid of Indianapolis wasn’t expected. The Patriots were only a one-point favorite on their homefield. But their defense, aided by some rough Northeast weather on Sunday afternoon, manhandled the Colts. With a 20-3 victory, the Patriot bid for another title continued.

Philadelphia was a comfortable six-point favorite over Atlanta, but after losing the previous three NFC Championship Games—the last two at home—the Eagles weren’t taking anything for granted. Defensively, they kept Vick contained and in the pocket. Offensively, McNabb was efficient, Westbrook had a vintage all-around game and Philadelphia gradually pulled away to a 27-10 win.

The Steel City Showdown, between two teams with a combined record of 29-3 was the nightcap on Championship Sunday. Oddsmakers questioned Pittsburgh—the combination of a rookie quarterback and a shaky divisional playoff win left them a three-point underdog on their homefield. The skepticism proved justified. New England took an early 17-3 lead and then just prior to halftime, Rodney Harrison picked off Roethlisberger and went to the house on an 87-yard interception return. The Patriots cruised to a 41-27 win.

It all came down to New England and Philadelphia, who journeyed to Jacksonville for the Super Bowl. In a good game that was tied 14-14 after three quarters, Brady and the Patriots got some breathing room. Deion Branch caught 11 balls for 133 yards and New England took a 24-14 lead. Philadelphia got a late touchdown pass that was marked by a drive done with a curious lack of urgency. It was too little too late and the final score was 24-21. Owens deserves a hat-tip for catching nine passes for 122 yards on a torn ligament. But Branch was the game’s MVP.

For the third time in four years, the New England Patriots were champions. This concluded what might be called the first installment of the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick Dynasty. The second installment began ten years later when the dynasty concluded with another burst of three championships. And with a playoff run that included beating Peyton Manning, a 15-1 Steeler team, and the NFC’s best in Philadelphia, there’s a good argument that the 2004 edition was the best of them all.