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A season worth remembering

Red-hot team streaks into Houston

As inglorious as this season began, the Patriots quickly made it one to remember in New England. Through September, there was barely a hint of greatness. As the weather cooled, though, expectations rose with the quality of play. Now, on the cusp of Super Bowl XXXVIII with a 14-game winning streak in tow, Bill Belichick's squad has a chance to cement its status as one of the top teams in NFL history. Here's a look at how the 2003 campaign took shape:

Game 1 -- Sept. 7, 2003

At Buffalo 31, New England 0

The curiously timed release of longtime defensive leader Lawyer Milloy triggered a few raised eyebrows, national media scrutiny, and a season-opening flogging by the Bills. Many Patriots players later admitted Milloy's sudden relocation was a major distraction, and it showed. Buffalo had scoring drives of 80 and 90 yards on its opening two possessions, an accomplishment almost unfathomable now against the Patriots defense. The Bills' Drew Bledsoe far outplayed his former backup, Tom Brady, throwing for 230 yards and a touchdown. Brady suffocated under the Buffalo pressure, tying his career high with four interceptions and managing just 123 yards passing.

As for Milloy, the safety had an interception, sack, five tackles, and an ear-to-ear grin. He had to share defensive honors, though, with mammoth tackle Sam Adams, who lumbered 37 yards on an interception return in the second quarter for a 21-0 lead.

Frankly, never has an opening game been so misleading. Record: 0-1. . . .

Game 2 -- Sept. 14, 2003

New England 31, at Philadelphia 10

In the first sign of the Patriots' immeasurable tenacity, New England managed to shake off any Buffalo hangover and throttle the Eagles before a hostile crowd at Lincoln Financial Field. In a defensive masterpiece, New England forced six Eagles turnovers, recorded seven sacks, and sent a dejected Donovan McNabb to the bench with his worst outing in years (18 of 46, 186 yards, 2 INTs, 2 lost fumbles). Willie McGinest embarked on his revival season with a pair of sacks and a fumble recovery. Tedy Bruschi returned McNabb's second pick 18 yards for a 21-point bulge with 5:02 to play. It was the last we'd see of linebacker Rosevelt Colvin, though; the prize free agent acquisition broke his left hip and was placed on injured reserve the following week.

Down, 7-3, the New England offense perked up, scoring 21 straight points. In a six-minute span in the second quarter, Brady (30 of 44, 255 yards, 3 TDs) connected with Christian Fauria on two scoring passes. Brady added a 26-yard touchdown toss to Deion Branch in the third quarter.

Win No. 1 was about as easy they came this season. Record: 1-1. . . .

Game 3 -- Sept. 21, 2003

At New England 23, NY Jets 16

The first, but certainly not the last, winning streak of the season. It was your typical roughhouse matchup between the AFC East rivals, so physical that Ted Washington (leg), David Patten (leg), and Ty Law (ankle) all left the field. But New York was hindered by injures, too, namely quarterback Chad Pennington, who was recuperating from a dislocated wrist. That put Vinny Testaverde in charge of the Jets offense, and he threw an interception that rookie Asante Samuel used to make a name for himself, bringing it back 55 yards for a fourth-quarter touchdown.

Brady broke a 9-9 tie at the end of the third quarter with his only rushing touchdown of the season, calling his own number from a yard out. An earlier sack by Sam Cowart had left a grimacing Brady holding his right elbow, but he stayed in to oversee an offense that gained 147 yards rushing and 147 yards passing.

Funny how symmetry would become a staple of 2003. Record: 2-1. . . .

Game 4 -- Sept. 28, 2003

At Washington 20, New England 17

It's easy to forget just how close the Patriots came to starting their winning streak a week earlier. The Redskins scored 14 points in the third quarter to cultivate a 20-3 advantage, then watched a sore-armed Brady go to work. First came a 29-yard touchdown pass to David Givens on a 71-yard march in the third quarter. With 2:10 to play, Brady drew New England within 3, hitting Larry Centers from 7 yards out. But the Patriots ran out of time, going four and out in the final two minutes. A missed Adam Vinatieri 46-yard field goal try in the third quarter certainly hurt.

Three of New England's four turnovers came via Brady interceptions (one in the end zone, one at the Redskins' 9). The other came early in the third on a Kevin Faulk fumble that was recovered at the New England 1. One play later the Patriots were facing a 13-3 deficit.

Four months later, they have yet to lose again. Record: 2-2. . . .

Game 5 -- Oct. 5, 2003

At New England 38, Tennessee 30

An unsung but familiar hero emerged from a game many thought New England wouldn't win. Then again, unsung heroes became the driving force on a team that wouldn't lose. In his first game back from an NFL-imposed four-game suspension for violating the league's steroid policy, former Boston College standout Mike Cloud gave the Patriots' running game a lift by providing 73 yards and two scores, including the go-ahead 15-yarder with 3:14 to go. The touchdown followed a 71-yard kickoff return by rookie Bethel Johnson.

Steve McNair threw for 391 yards and ran for two scores for the Titans, but his failed rally was set back when a gimpy Law stepped in front of a pass intended for Tyrone Calico and went 65 yards the other way for a 38-27 lead with 1:49 remaining. Tennessee's Gary Anderson added a 41-yard field goal before Fauria pounced on the onside kick to clinch the win.

The streak is on, and the Titans haven't seen the last of it. Record: 3-2. . . .

Game 6 -- Oct. 12, 2003

At New England 17, NY Giants 6

Twenty-nine yards and one first down in the first half. Not for the Giants, but the Patriots, who suffered an early offensive blackout. If not for a Matt Chatham 38-yard fumble return on New York's third play from scrimmage, this would've meant serious trouble. Instead, New England held a 7-3 halftime lead, and things soon started to shape up on a muddy afternoon at Gillette Stadium. Faulk (87 yards rushing) came off the bench to set up Vinatieri's 28-yard field goal. Brady, who was 7 of 11 for 105 yards in the second half, engineered a 10-play, 85-yard quest that resulted in Cloud's 1-yard touchdown run and a 17-3 lead.

New York held almost every statistical advantage except on the scoreboard. Only two Brett Conway field goals were to show for 381 total yards and 35 minutes of possession. Fault would lie with Kerry Collins, who was picked off four times, twice by Rodney Harrison.

A harbinger of defensive supremacy at home. Record: 4-2. . . .

Game 7 -- Oct. 19, 2003

New England 19, at Miami 13 (OT)

A little help never hurts during a win streak, and the Dolphins sure were gracious as the Patriots broke a 13-game skid in Miami in September and October. OK, Brady had something to do with it, too. Miami had two prime chances to put an end to New England's modest two-game run. With Olindo Mare, the league's second-most accurate kicker, poised to connect from 35 yards with two minutes left, Richard Seymour preserved the tie with a clutch block. Mare had another chance on the Dolphins' first overtime possession, but pushed another 35-yard bid wide right.

The Patriots didn't immediately capitalize, but Tyrone Poole's interception of Jay Fiedler at the New England 18 made sure the offense would get another shot. It took Brady (24 of 34, 283 yards) just one play to end it, hitting Troy Brown on a slant, and Brown outran the defense for 82 yards for the team's longest reception of the season.

Alone in first and there to stay. Record: 5-2. . . .

Game 8 -- Oct. 26, 2003

At New England 9, Cleveland 3

It's tough for any opposing offense to dictate the action at Gillette Stadium. For a team with two injured quarterbacks, why bother? Turning first to Tim Couch (sprained thumb) then Kelly Holcomb (broken fibula), the Browns somehow averaged more yards per rush (4.4) than per pass (3.0), even without leading rusher William Green. The Patriots defense was that good, allowing Cleveland to cross midfield just twice. Mike Vrabel, a former follower of the Dawg Pound as an Ohio youth, powered his way to a career-high three sacks and a forced fumble. Law proved his toughness again, shaking off his lingering ankle woes to intercept Holcomb at the Patriots' 25 in the final minute.

The only reason the outcome was still in doubt in the fourth quarter was because the Patriots offense kept faltering on third down (4 of 14) and in the red zone (three Vinatieri field goals). A bright spot was a breakthrough game for tight end Daniel Graham, who made seven catches for 110 yards.

Halfway home, the best is yet to come. Record: 6-2. . . .

Game 9 -- Nov. 3, 2003

New England 30, at Denver 26

It could've been a long Monday night. Very long. Brady fumbled the second snap, and four plays later, Denver had a 7-0 lead. Brady's third pass was intercepted, and the Broncos had a chance for more. Then things got really interesting. Denver's Jason Elam missed a 44-yard field goal, and the next play Brady hit Branch for a 66-yard score. Broncos backup Danny Kanell morphed into John Elway for a second-quarter possession, directing a 14-play, 72-yard touchdown march, but Johnson again proved his value as a returner with a 63-yard runback to put Vinatieri in position to make it a 17-13 halftime deficit.

Brady's sensational second half began with a 6-yard touchdown pass to Graham for a brief lead. Brief because Deltha O'Neal gave it back to Denver three minutes later with a 57-yard punt return. After Vinatieri had brought the Patriots within 1, Belichick opted for an intentional safety with 2:49 left to hinder Denver's field position. Risky but reasonable. New England forced a punt and six plays later, Brady (20 of 35, 350 yards, 3 TDs) found Givens in the end zone with 30 seconds left for the winning 18-yard score.

Hello to the bye week. Record: 7-2. . . .

Game 10 -- Nov. 16, 2003

At New England 12, Dallas 0

A three-ring circus descended on Foxborough -- one for Bill Parcells's Cowboys, one for Belichick's Patriots, and one for the media frenzy surrounding this Sunday night matchup between playoff-bound teams. What everyone was treated to was New England's first shutout in the Belichick era, a truly deflating experience for Parcells since Dallas outgained the Patriots, 291 yards to 268. Not that the Cowboys deserved any points, either -- Quincy Carter threw three interceptions (twice picked off by Law) and Dallas averaged 3 yards per rush.

Brady didn't fare much better (15 of 34, 212 yards), but he was turnover free and two of his big gainers (46 yards to Branch, 57 yards to Givens) led to a 9-0 halftime lead (Vinatieri 23-yard field goal, Antowain Smith 2-yard run).

Diversion averted, back to business. Record: 8-2. . . .

Game 11 -- Nov. 23, 2003

New England 23, at Houston 20 (OT)

The Patriots can only hope their upcoming visit to Reliant Stadium isn't as much of a struggle as their first trip there. Statistical dominance aside (and a 472-169 edge in total net yards is just that), New England needed a few great escapes to preserve its streak and improve to a franchise-best 9-2. Twice the Patriots settled for 3 points in goal-to-go situations. Two of their three turnovers led to Texan touchdowns. Vinatieri plunked the right upright on a 38-yard attempt before halftime. It was up to Brady to erase a late 7-point deficit, moving the offense 80 yards in the final minutes and finding Graham in the end zone on fourth down to force overtime.

New England's first shot at victory resulted in a blocked Vinatieri attempt from 35 yards. Houston didn't capitalize on a poor Ken Walter punt, and this time, with a tie looming, the Patriots moved 76 yards to put Vinatieri in position for his winning 28-yard kick with 41 seconds remaining. There's a horseshoe on the horizon. Record: 9-2. . . .

Game 12 -- Nov. 30, 2003

New England 38, at Indianapolis 34

For all the Patriots did right (31-10 lead), so much so soon went wrong (31-31 tie). If not for a single yard, their Super Bowl run might have taken on a different complexion. Brady was on target early, setting up a 43-yard Vinatieri field goal and a 4-yard touchdown run by Cloud. When Brady found Dedric Ward for a 31-yard scoring pass the lead was 17-0. It would grow to 24-10 when the Colts, following a Peyton Manning touchdown pass, inexplicably kicked off deep to Johnson (92-yard return) to end the half. Cloud's second scoring run seemed like gravy.

Then came the flurry. A Brady interception led to a Manning touchdown. Another Brady pick, another Manning score. A Patriot punt, another Manning TD, this one to tie it at 31. Brady regrouped for a 13-yard scoring strike to Branch with 8:36 remaining, and the rest was up to the New England defense. Down 4 on their final drive, the Colts reached the Patriots' 1 before McGinest blasted through the pile and stuffed Edgerrin James for a 1-yard loss on fourth down.

Streak is preserved at eight and counting. Record: 10-2. . . .

Game 13 -- Dec. 7, 2003

At New England 12, Miami 0

No one was expecting much stylistically, not with more than 2 feet of snow turning Gillette Stadium into an oversized igloo. So how did Foxborough become a hearth of humanity? How about a second AFC East title in three years, not to mention a shutout and season sweep of a hated rival. The run-oriented weather not only failed to play into Miami's hands (Ricky Williams had just 68 yards, Matt Turk punted a team-record 11 times) it compounded a horrendous day for Jay Fiedler, who was sacked five times and picked off twice. His second interception was a disaster, plucked off the line of scrimmage by Bruschi and returned 5 yards to make it 10-0 with 8:55 to play.

Vinatieri's 29-yard field goal in the first quarter was much needed; New England managed just 2.3 yards per carry and 36.5 yards per punt (they also had 11 total). Branch was on the receiving end of 93 of Brady's 163 yards passing.

A Kansas City loss means they're No. 1 in AFC. Record: 11-2. . . .

Game 14 -- Dec. 14, 2003

At New England 27, Jacksonville 13

For the first time in 19 quarters at Gillette Stadium, an opponent reached the end zone. Not that it mattered much. The Patriots' franchise-record 12th win of the season was already secure. Brady connected with Graham for a 27-yard score on the team's opening possession (he was 6 for 6 on the drive), and finished 22 of 34 for 228 yards. Jacksonville retaliated with two drives inside the red zone, but settled for two Seth Marler field goals. In his first action since Nov. 3, Brown was the recipient of a 10-yard touchdown pass, good for a 20-6 lead early in the fourth quarter.

Playing catch-up in the snow didn't work out for Jaguars rookie Byron Leftwich. He was picked off twice by Poole, and the second enabled Smith to tack on a 1-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.

They're limbered up for stretch run. Record: 12-2. . . .

Game 15 -- Dec. 20, 2003

New England 21, at NY Jets 16

It was a quick turnaround for a Saturday night affair at the Meadowlands. Too bad for the Jets, Pennington was the one who looked like he was sleep-walking. Patriots defenders were seemingly everywhere, or at least where New York receivers should have been. They intercepted Pennington five times (he had never even thrown three in one game), and sacked him on four occasions (two by Vrabel). Pennington's opening pick (by Bruschi) led to Brady's 35-yard touchdown pass to Givens on New England's first offensive play. McGinest returned his second-quarter interception 15 yards to break a 7-7 tie.

New England's offensive focus was on the ground, with Smith (18 carries, 121 yards) giving the Patriots their first 100-yard rusher in 22 contests. Givens and Brady collaborated again in the third quarter for a 5-yard scoring pass.

Thanks for the memory, Broadway Joe. Record: 13-2. . . .

Game 16 -- Dec. 27, 2003

At New England 31, Buffalo 0

You know Larry Izzo was paying attention. With his team just decimating the Bills (it was 28-0 at halftime), Izzo helped keep Buffalo off the scoreboard in the waning seconds by intercepting backup Travis Brown in the end zone, providing a mirror image to the season opener. Another shutout was fitting to cap the only undefeated home season in team history. There was a laundry list of potential vindicators for the Week 1 debacle. Among them was Brady, who rebounded from his four interceptions in the first meeting to fire four touchdown passes before the break. For the third straight game, he led the Patriots to a score on their opening possession.

Only the 1972 Dolphins and 1934 Bears closed out the regular season in such fashion -- 12 straight wins. With a dominating defense (only 22 points allowed in last six home games) and two weeks to rest, the sky's the limit.

A titanic rematch is on tap. Record: 14-2.

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