JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- It's official.
Tom Brady follows Joe Montana into the football Hall of Fame. The University of Belichick takes its rightful place alongside Harvard and MIT. And the New England Patriots of the 21st century are established as an NFL dynasty on a par with the Packers of the 1960s, the Steelers of the '70s, the 49ers of the '80s, and the Cowboys of the '90s.
The Patriots last night won their second consecutive Super Bowl, and their third in four years, beating the Philadelphia Eagles, 24-21, by the banks of the St. Johns River. In front of 78,125 at
The legend grows. Brady goes to 9-0 lifetime in the postseason, Bill Belichick moves ahead of Vince Lombardi with a playoff record of 10-1, Sam Adams gets bragging rights over Ben Franklin, and the Patriots are a gaudy 32-2 since Sept. 28, 2003. The Patriots tied a Packers record with their ninth consecutive playoff win. New England's stretch of domination includes an NFL-record 21-game winning streak, and a model of selflessness and teamwork for any coach who ever lived.
"Perhaps this one is more special," said Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi. "This shows everyone what kind of team we are and what kind of players we have to achieve this. People are going to have to start saying, 'These guys are one of the better teams in history.' "
"We're a title city," boasted Boston mayor Tom Menino, as he stood on the confetti-littered field moments after the game ended.
Heady times indeed. Years from now, it will be difficult to explain exactly what went on in New England sports during the golden days at the beginning of the 21st century. Who will believe that Greater Boston ruled the worlds of baseball and football simultaneously?
It's true. One hundred and two days after the Red Sox ended an 86-year drought in St. Louis, the sons of Belichick submitted another clutch performance in the ultimate game. Corey Dillon ran for 75 yards on 18 carries, including the go-ahead touchdown, and Branch caught everything thrown his way. New England's veteran, smashmouth defense did the rest, rattling Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb and forcing four Eagles turnovers. Patriots captain and spiritual leader Rodney Harrison sealed the victory with an interception of a desperation McNabb heave just before the clock expired.
Holding the Lombardi Trophy, Patriots owner Bob Kraft said, "To the fans of New England -- the best fans that any team could wish for. This is your third Super Bowl in four years. This great accomplishment happened because we are blessed to have smart players and a brilliant coach in Bill Belichick and a great personnel department led by Scott Pioli . . . I'm proud that we won stressing team and not individual accomplishment."
Taking the stage after Kraft, Belichick told the crowd, "This trophy belongs to these players. They played great all year, played their best in the big games, and they deserve it."
The Patriots were far from perfect. It was 0-0 after one quarter, 7-7 at halftime, and 14-14 after three quarters. But New England wore down the Eagles' defense in the final quarter, scoring the go-ahead touchdown on a 2-yard run by Dillon at the beginning of the fourth, then making it 24-14 on a 22-yard Adam Vinatieri field goal with 8:40 left.
New England appeared to clinch the win with a Bruschi interception on the Eagles' ensuing possession, but McNabb connected with Greg Lewis for a 30-yard TD with 1:48 left and the Eagles got the ball one more time. With 46 seconds left, the Patriots pinned the Eagles on their 4-yard line on a nifty punt by Josh Miller, and Harrison's interception ended it.
"For us to finish it off defensively, that was nice," said Bruschi. "It was nice Adam didn't have to go out there again with the game on the line."
"The Eagles were tough," Brady said while he walked toward the interview room. "But we had the determination. We fought hard for 60 minutes and came out the champs. It really hasn't sunk in yet and I don't think it's going to sink in for a while."
Brady played the game with a heavy heart. His 94-year-old grandmother passed away during the week and he was more subdued than usual. On the field, though, he was his usual calm, commanding self.
It was 59 degrees at gametime, better than Foxborough in February, but not quite dome-warm. In keeping with tradition established in 2002 in New Orleans, the Patriots came out of the smoke-filled tunnel en masse, wearing their white jerseys. Veterans Troy Brown, Vinatieri, and Christian Fauria fronted the first wave of defending champs. The Eagles followed the Patriots onto the field and it was immediately apparent that Philadelphia fans outnumbered those from New England.
After an All-American pregame celebration, which featured former presidents Clinton and Bush, the captains gathered at midfield for the ceremonial coin toss. Harrison called heads for the Patriots, the coin landed tails, and the Eagles naturally elected to receive.
Terrell Owens, who broke his right leg and tore ankle ligaments Dec. 19, was on the field for the Eagles' first series and caught a pass for 7 yards on the Eagles' second play from scrimmage. Owens went on to make nine catches for 122 yards in Philadelphia's defeat.
Philadelphia took a 7-0 lead in the fifth minute of the second quarter. The big play was a 40-yard completion over the middle to Todd Pinkston, who made a tremendous leaping catch ('scuse me while I kiss the sky). The nine-play, 81-yard drive was capped with a 6-yard TD pass from McNabb (who had too much time to throw) to L.J. Smith. At that juncture, the Eagles had nine first downs to New England's one.
The Patriots did not trail in many games in 2004-05.
"Down 7-0 in a Super Bowl, sometimes you might get tight," said Bruschi. "But we've been in the big games."
Brady found David Givens in the right corner for a 4-yard touchdown pass to complete a 37-yard drive and make it 7-7. Givens entertained 800 million watchers with a little T.O.-style celebration. Before halftime, Eugene Wilson broke his arm on kick return coverage, further depleting the Patriot secondary.
Brady surgically dissected the Eagles in the opening drive of the second half, taking the Patriots 69 yards on nine plays, capping the drive with a 2-yard TD toss to linebacker Mike Vrabel (seen that before?) for a 14-7 lead.
The Eagles were not dead. McNabb took advantage of the Patriots' impaired defensive backfield and took Philadelphia 74 yards in 10 plays. When McNabb hit Brian Westbrook over the middle for a 10-yard TD strike, it was 14-14 with 3:35 left in the third.
It was still tied when the third quarter ended (the first Super Bowl tied after three), but the Patriots were driving. With Dillon and Kevin Faulk grinding out yardage, the Patriots rolled to the Eagle 2-yard line, finally scoring from there on a run by Dillon. It was 21-14 with 13:44 left.
The Patriots never trailed again. And now they've won three Super Bowls in four years, something that's only been done once (Cowboys in 1992, '94, '95) in the history of the NFL.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is email@example.com.