Flash back to Nov. 3, 2003, a chilly Monday night at Denver’s Invesco Field.
The 6-2 Patriots trailed Danny Kanell’s Broncos – a team they’d lost to in 13 of their previous 15 meetings – by three, 26-23, late in the fourth quarter. With 2:15 to play, a 26-year-old Tom Brady was handed the ball.
Cue what, even then, was not so stunning.
Kevin Faulk made back-to-back catches for 24 total yards. An incompletion later, Antowain Smith ran up the middle for no gain. Brady to Faulk once again, this time for 16 yards. And, with 36 seconds remaining on the clock, the deliberate and methodical quarterback found David Givens in the end zone on an 18-yard strike.
New England traveled 58 yards over 105 seconds without the use of a timeout to win 30-26, its fifth victory in a row to improve to 7-2.
A decade later, not far from the day, the Patriots welcomed the undefeated Saints into Foxborough. Brady entered the game having never beaten fellow champion Drew Brees in three previous matchups.
That all changed on Sunday.
After two frustratingly futile drives in the final 3:29 of regulation and his team down 27-23, Brady took advantage of poor New Orleans clock management and got one more chance with 1:13 left. For the 38th time in 13 seasons, he made it count.
Absent any timeouts, Brady ran quick, no-huddle, hesitation-free plays to Julian Edelman, Austin Collie, and Aaron Dobson for completions. Following consecutive misses to Edelman, the QB hit the newly indoctrinated Collie for a nine-yard gain on 4th-and-4. Two plays later and with five seconds on the clock, he found undrafted rookie Kenbrell Thompkins for his fourth touchdown of the season, a 17-yard score to punctuate a 68-second, 70-yard drive that resulted in a 30-27 victory.
Half of Gillette Stadium’s consumers bellowed in joy, while the other half screamed obscenities in the parking lot or in their cars.
Even so, two things became clear with that jaw-dropping win:
1) At 5-1, the injury-riddled Patriots have proven they can hang with the NFL’s elite.
2) If all goes well, we might just be looking at the 2003 Pats all over again.
Even as success-after-success has found Bill Belichick’s squad with each passing week, many fans continue to lament the loss of an offense that paced the league with 34.8 points-per-game in 2012.
A year later, whether because of injuries, personnel decisions, bad luck, Brady’s frustration, or a pie chart-filled combination, that number has dipped to a 20.8 average.
Danny Amendola can’t stay on the field, Rob Gronkowski may never be back (hyperbole, we hope), Shane Vereen is out until Week 11, and, yes, Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Aaron Hernandez, and Danny Woodhead are all long gone for one strikingly different reason or another.
An offense instead led by Edelman – taking nothing away from the work put in by a guy making the veteran’s minimum – and the drop-prone Thompkins and Dobson isn’t remarkably dissimilar from the club 10 years ago that scored just 21.8 points-per-game while relying on Deion Branch, Givens, and Troy Brown. Branch paced that team with 803 receiving yards, something nearly three players achieved last year, and Brown missed a quarter of the season to injury.
In place of that scoring dominance has come defensive brilliance, even for a group that’s also taken its fair share of hits.
Captain Vince Wilfork is done for the year with an Achilles injury, veteran Tommy Kelly missed Sunday’s tilt with a knee injury, and Jerod Mayo and Defensive Player of the Year candidate Aqib Talib both left that affair with ailments of their own.
And, yet, the Pats are allowing a slim 16.2 points-per-game, not drastically more than the 14.9 surrendered by a loaded ’03 squad that featured such names as Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison, Ty Law, Willie McGinest, Richard Seymour, and Mike Vrabel.
How is this happening? How are the Patriots, led by an often-underwhelming Brady and an infirmary of stars, 5-1? Sure, they’ve beaten the hapless Bills, Jets, and Bucs, but they’ve also defeated the Falcons on the road and now the Saints. Bet you wouldn’t have picked the Bengals, stout as they are defensively, to produce that lone blemish.
Whether on offense or defense, the recipe has been execution. Gritty, dirty execution.
A no-name receiving corps, aided by a running-back-by-committee format, has simply found a way, even while dropping more balls than any other team in the league and converting a dismal 40.9 percent of the time in the red zone. Interestingly, that 2003 team suffered from similar anemic tendencies inside the 20, showing just a 43.1 percent success rate.
On defense, Talib, Kelly, and company have shut down every stud receiver or running back that’s stood in the way, and that’s not a short list. The Saints alone visited with Brees, Jimmy Graham, Darren Sproles, and Marques Colston. It’s been championship-caliber, which brings us back to the time machine.
Most people entering the football season looked at a largely new offense and an improving defense and drew comparisons to the 2006 campaign, when Brady had another humdrum group of targets, but the defenders were sensational.
To date, the contrast doesn’t quite work because that Patriots contingent was actually quite a bit better than this year’s incarnation on both fronts.
The ’03 team, however, is far more appropriate. Like this one, that squad was plagued by injuries to such key players as Brown, Vrabel, David Patten, Ted Johnson, and Rosevelt Colvin, leading to 42 players getting starts. You might also remember it never lost after Sept. 28, finishing 14-2 before winning the Super Bowl.
We didn’t complain much about the offense then, though, because we hadn’t experienced 2007 or the years that followed. Since, poor defenses have mostly gotten a pass because the passing game was so good.
But those flashy, high-octane offenses didn’t win. Not when they had to.
A trip down memory lane might just be a bit better.
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About this blog
Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.
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