Pats among greatest-ever clutch teams
The Patriots weren't perfect like the '72 Dolphins, but their Super Bowl-winning 15th straight victory places them in elite company.
HOUSTON -- The New England Patriots live for the pressure. What else could be expected from a team that beat the Titans and Colts a total of four times in games that Steve McNair and Peyton Manning had chances to win or tie in the final minutes?
The 2003 Patriots will go down as one of the greatest clutch teams in NFL history. Their 15-game winning streak will never erase Don Shula's champagne celebrations for the Dolphins' perfect season in 1972, but the degree of difficulty of this streak puts this Patriots team in rare company.
The Dolphins went undefeated against one of the easiest schedules in NFL history. That doesn't take anything way from their accomplishment. Perfection is perfection. But the Patriots won 15 straight the hard way. They went 10-0 against winning teams and played every style of football in the process.
"I know for a bunch of non-stars and non-celebrities and non-football players that we accomplished something only one other team in this history of this league has ever done," Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel said. "I think that's credit enough."
The Patriots embody the team concept, as did the 1972 Dolphins. Don Shula and company had "The No-Name Defense." The Patriots team is almost too anonymous to have a name. Including guard Russ Hochstein, who was called out earlier in the week by Warren Sapp for being a weak link that the Panthers offensive line would exploit, the Patriots have had 43 different players start.
The problem in praising the Patriots is that they are not easy to pin down. They beat teams in high-scoring games. They beat teams in low-scoring games. They are a like a dangerous chameleon that disguises itself until it makes the kill.
Brady has all the looks of the next Montana.
"Over the last three years, who else do you want driving your team during the last minute of the game?" offensive coordinator Charlie Weis said. "Tom is the guy that you want."
Brady moved himself to the on-deck circle of the elite Super Bowl club that includes Montana, Bart Starr and Terry Bradshaw with his play. Trailing 22-21 in the fourth quarter, Brady drove the Patriots 68 yards on 11 plays and hit Vrabel with a 1-yard touchdown with 2:51 left.
Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme answered with an 80-yard drive against a secondary down to backup safeties Chris Akins and Shawn Mayer. Free safety Eugene Wilson pulled a groin muscle falling to the ground on Muhsin Muhammad's 85-yard touchdown pass. Strong safety Rodney Harrison suffered a right shoulder injury.
Tied at 29, Brady needed only a minute to move the team 37 yards for Vinatieri's game-winning 41-yard field goal. He fought through adversity. Troy Brown was flagged for a ticky-tacky offensive interference call when he barely touched cornerback Terry Cousin with one hand.
Brady found Brown for 13 yards and then Deion Branch for 17 yards to the Panthers 23 on a third down against a Panthers' two-deep zone, giving Vinatieri a relatively easy 41-yard game-winning attempt.
"You guys have labeled us the East Coast 'dink and dunk' offense," Weis said. "But we are a matchup team. We are a game-plan organization. We try to find a team's strengths and weaknesses. And to be honest with you, we thought we would have a good day against their cornerbacks."
Football fans like consistency in labeling dynasties and special teams. The Packers were a team built around Vince Lombardi's discipline and simplicity. The Steelers were the Steel Curtain. The 49ers were like a great wine, coached by the eloquent Bill Walsh and well-versed in his West Coast offense. The Patriots can't be pinned down from week to week. They adjust their game plans to what they hear or see from their opponents.
"We listened to what their players were saying," Weis said. "They were saying how we throw off of three-step drops, so they had to have their hands up and try to hit Brady. We knew they were going to be attacking at the line of scrimmage. But we also knew if they were going to do that, the immediate zone behind the defensive line was open. So we were attacking that area."
Weis decided not to overuse four- and five-receiver sets because the Panthers had success in games against similar offenses by blitzing extra defenders.
"We're not going to get our quarterback hit," Weis said.
Here was the Patriots' game plan: The key to everything was the offensive line blocking. From a zone-blocking scheme, Bill Belichick had the five offensive linemen do the equivalent of run-blocking on passing plays. That took away the aggressiveness of Julius Peppers, Brentson Buckner, Kris Jenkins and Mike Rucker by hitting them as they made their first step.
"They jumped us at the line of scrimmage." Buckner said. "When they do that, you are fighting on your first step. They also did a good job of play-action passing. We have to get into a transition rush."
For the first half, it was a game of cat and mouse. New England established the play-action game by handing the ball to Antowain Smith 26 times for 83 yards and Kevin Faulk six times for 42. That gave Brady a little extra time to throw 48 passes, completing a Super Bowl-record 32 for 354 yards.
|“||I know for a bunch of non-stars and non-celebrities and non-football players that we accomplished something only one other team in this history of this league has ever done. I think that's credit enough. ”|
|— Patriots LB Mike Vrabel|
It took Brady until the 3:05 mark of the second quarter to crack the end zone with a 5-yard touchdown pass to Branch, but after that, the Panthers' talented defense became vulnerable. Brady led drives for four touchdowns and one field goal in the final eight possessions. He even survived an interception in the end zone in the fourth quarter.
"I just didn't make the best throw," Brady said. "I think I was throwing to the right guy; I just didn't get enough air on it. We fought back from that and went down and scored."
As they did in beating the Rams two years ago, the Patriots were the epitome of "team." Brown made numerous key receptions down the stretch. His teammates call him "Mr. Clutch."
Vinatieri is 15-for-20 on game-winning kicks. Call him "Mr. Reliant." He's 32-for-36 kicking indoors, with all four misses being in Reliant Stadium. With four seconds left on the clock, he nailed the game-winner.
And Brady is the ultimate in clutch players.
"We just pull together when we need to, and we made big plays all across the board when we need to," Brown said. "You can never say enough about Tom Brady. He just finds the open guy. It's just our whole receiving crew. I don't know why Steve Young and Warren Sapp and all those guys say things about our receiving crew like we can't get off the jam and we're not physical. Those guys couldn't touch us all game. They talk about Ricky Manning Jr. being better than Ty Law, but we have the real No. 24 on our team. (Manning) didn't lay a hand on us all day."
And Weis rubbed it in on Sapp for saying the Panthers would whip the no-names on the Patriots' offensive line who didn't give up a sack in three playoff games.
"Tell Warren, it's Russ Hock-stein (pronounced HOK-steen)," Weis said.
The Patriots may not have an identifiable label, but with 15 consecutive wins, they have put themselves in Super Bowl history as one of the great teams.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.