FOXBOROUGH -- Images often can convey so much more than words. A lot of good things can be said about the New England Patriots. But the (moving) picture that says it all, that epitomizes what it means to be a Patriot in 2003, is Ty Law's game-clinching interception return for a touchdown Oct. 5 against the Tennessee Titans, New England's opponent Saturday night at Gillette Stadium in an AFC divisional playoff game.
Law was in pain, as so many of the Patriots have been this season, and the outcome of the game was still in doubt. The team needed someone to step forward, and it was the turn of the guy with the ailing ankle. Law got it done, even though just minutes earlier he had left the game.
There's 2 minutes 1 second left. New England leads, 31-27. Tennessee faces second and 3 from New England's 40. Titans quarterback Steve McNair, having completed a 7-yard pass to Tyrone Calico the play before, drops back and fires to Calico along the right sideline. Law, tender ankle and all, steps in front of Calico for by far the most clutch of his six interceptions this season and brings it back 65 yards for the most dramatic of the six picks he's returned for a touchdown in his career (regular season, that is). The man hobbled the last 30 yards or so to the end zone. That's what these Patriots are about. Making a play when you have to. Ignoring the circumstances and finding a way to get it done.
"Kids see that highlight and think, `I want to be like that guy,' " tight end Christian Fauria said yesterday. "It was about doing whatever it takes. It's about people playing injured, playing hurt. Blocking it out and still being able to do what you do. I think that's a sign of someone who's a really good player, someone who can play hurt and still play at a high level."
Law had his peers' vote for his fourth Pro Bowl and third straight right there. "People definitely recognized it," Law said Tuesday. "It was definitely not a publicity stunt, though. My peers playing in games afterward were just really basically wishing me well and hoping that I would get better, but really respecting me for still going out there and continuing to play."
Fauria didn't realize how much pain Law was in because Law, whose ankle looked like it had been crushed when Roman Phifer fell on it against the Jets Sept. 21, hadn't spent two weeks whining about it. "I didn't even know he was hurt until he started limping," Fauria said. "Just the fact that he had the [intestinal fortitude] to know that was going to happen and make a break on it as quick as he did, and then take the sucker all the way in . . . That was a gutsy play. Because if he misses it, it's going the other way."
McNair had had his way with New England's secondary with Law on the bench for much of the second half. McNair took the Titans 86 yards in 17 plays, 12 of them passes, on the possession before Law's interception to pull within 4. Law talked Bill Belichick into putting him back in the game even though he was hurting because he saw his teammates hurting worse without him. He saw McNair's pass coming before it came. You get pretty good at that sort of thing over nine years. "You anticipate because of where the game is and how much time is left," he said after the game. "I anticipated they'd try to get to the sideline. I just took a chance and went for it."
Law risked further injury the moment he stepped back on the field. "I know a lot of other guys around the league will feel like they've got so much to lose by going out there, getting hurt, being in the position I'm in as far as my status and uncertainty whether I'm going to be around," he added yesterday. "It would have been easy to sit around and say, `I'm not going to go out there and hurt myself.' That's not in my nature. I want to go out there and play, and it would take a lot for me not to. I'm not going to go out there and hurt the team, but the point is, you get paid to play."
He reflected on one of the plays of the year while autographing photos of one of the biggest plays in the 34 years of the franchise: his 47-yard interception return for a touchdown in Super Bowl XXXVI. He was asked if, all things considered, the Tennessee interception was his favorite big play. "I've been a part of some big plays," he said, "but I don't think anything could compare to that Super Bowl. [Tennessee] was a big play, no doubt, being that I was injured. But running down there in the Super Bowl, because it was on the biggest stage in the world, that was big."
Law made a lot of rather important plays this season, including six interceptions, his highest number since he hijacked nine deliveries in 1998, and 23 deflections, second only to his 37 breakups in '98. Are we seeing the best of Ty Law?
"I've had some pretty good seasons in nine years, so I don't want to put this above anything else," he said. "But I'm appreciating this season a lot more because of some of the things that happened early on, being injured, losing my best friend in Lawyer [Milloy, released], having a whole new secondary, and everybody speculating that this is going to be my last year and things like that. It's been pretty gratifying from that standpoint, but other than that, it's just another day at the office."
Not to his colleagues. "The way he tried to practice and the way he was limping during games, it just shows why he's the best corner in the league," Rodney Harrison said. "People always give all these other cornerbacks all the recognition, but Ty Law, he's the real deal. It just shows that he has a lot of heart and character, too . . . He's the best corner I've ever played with. When he's done, he should [get] Hall of Fame [consideration]. That's how good I think he is."