SLAM Presents TD: Special Super Bowl Issue is on sale now! In it, we took every Super Bowl winner and ranked them in order of greatness. Example: If the ’85 Bears played the ’75 Steelers, who would win? That team is higher. We’re counting them down from 47-1; next up, the 2003 New England Patriots.—Ed.
No. 37: New England Patriots, Super Bowl XXXVIII
- Date: February 1, 2004
- Game MVP: Tom Brady
- Record: 14-2
When the ’03 Patriots were sitting at 2-2 a month into the season, it would have been hard to believe that the team would not lose another game. New England had courted controversy less than a week before the season began by cutting popular safety Lawyer Milloy, one of the stalwarts of its Super Bowl Championship team two years before. A season-opening 31-0 loss to Buffalo compounded the trouble, as did reports that players didn’t like head coach Bill Belichick.
Four months later, as the Pats hoisted the Lombardi Trophy and reflected on a stretch of 15 straight victories, it was hard to imagine any bad feelings. The team’s moves had worked, and for the second time in three years, New England was the best in the NFL.
There were some old faces and new faces on this title-winning roster. Of course, QB Tom Brady was still there, and he threw for 3,620 yards and 23 touchdowns. And though Brady wasn’t infallible—he threw 12 interceptions and completed a modest 60.2 percent of his passes—he was clearly in charge of the offense. He piloted an attack that was productive but hardly overwhelming. Neither Antowain Smith nor Kevin Faulk topped 650 yards, but each was a hard runner, and Faulk was key to the passing game. The wideout triumvirate of Deion Branch, Troy Brown and David Givens was solid but not gamebreaking.
This New England team was about the defense, which ranked No. 1 in the NFL in points allowed. The Pats placed three members of the unit—CB Ty Law, tackle Richard Seymour and linebacker Willie McGinest—in the Pro Bowl and boasted plenty more stalwarts, including mammoth nose tackle Ted Washington, hard-hitting safety Rodney Harrison and versatile linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel. During their 12-game regular-season winning streak, the Pats held eight teams to 16 or fewer points and pitched three shutouts.
By running away with the AFC East, New England earned a first-round Playoff bye. They opened the postseason against Tennessee in brutally cold conditions and needed a late Adam Vinatieri field goal to hold off the Titans, 17-14. That earned a date with Indianapolis in the AFC title game. That one was played in the snow, but the Patriots’ defense sure didn’t mind the inclement weather. It picked off four Peyton Manning passes (three by Law) en route to a 24-14 win that featured five Vinatieri field goals.
Awaiting New England in Houston was Carolina, which had executed one of the most dramatic turnarounds in sports history, going from 1-15 just two seasons before to the cusp of the world championship. Although the game started slowly, with neither team scoring until deep into the second quarter, it turned out to be highly entertaining. Even the halftime show, which featured the now-infamous “wardrobe malfunction,” was out of the ordinary.
A pair of Brady TD passes staked the Patriots to a 14-10 lead at the half, but neither team scored in the third quarter. That was no problem, since the final 15 minutes had plenty of everything, from a combined 37 points to plenty of late fireworks.
A TD score by Smith early in the fourth gave New England a 21-10 lead, but Carolina fired back with a pair of touchdowns—and two missed 2-point conversions—to jump in front, 22-21. A 1-yard Brady-to-Vrabel TD pass with 2:51 remaining and a Kevin Faulk 2-pointer made it 29-22, but the Panthers hit back quickly when Jake Delhomme connected with Ricky Proehl for 12 yards with 1:08 left. John Kasay’s PAT knotted the score at 29.
Those who were expecting overtime at that point didn’t know all that much about the Patriots—or Vinatieri. A kickoff out of bounds by Kasay gave New England possession at the 40, and four Brady passes set up Vinatieri (at left) for a 41-yard field goal that he drilled with 0:04 remaining to put a beautiful ending on a season that began amidst dark clouds.
To see the full countdown, click here.