On Sunday, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick will appear in their ninth Super Bowl together. The nine appearances for the duo are more than any other franchise has in league history. The total point differential for the eight previous appearances by the Brady bunch is 4. In fact, their largest margin of defeat (8) and victory (6) are from their two most recent trips, and still both were one possession games.
Needless to say, if Brady and Belichick are involved in a Super Bowl, history tells us we are guaranteed a close, entertaining game. That could all change this coming Sunday but more than likely, we will all be treated to another Super Bowl classic. Before kickoff, let’s take time to rank and review the prior eight appearances of the New England Patriots dynasty.
In an attempt to apply a consistent set of criteria for judging these games and not having this list dissemble into a personal satisfaction ranking, it’s important to lay out parameters for rating each game against one another.
“Buzzer beaters” get a boost. If the game ends as time expires, that is the definition of the most exciting ending. There is some wiggle room, though. For example, the Malcolm Butler interception came with 20 seconds remaining in the game. For all intents and purposes, this was a buzzer beater, even though time didn’t expire on the play. Furthermore, the James White touchdown to secure the overtime victory against the Falcons did expire the clock, but there could have been another play, or many other plays, to come. It didn’t have the same final, do-or-die, exhilarating feel as, say, an Adam Vinatieri walk off.
Storylines have no impact. A rematch with Eli Manning isn’t as relevant as how exciting the actual game was. Had the Patriots, or the New York Giants, won the rematch in a blowout, the rematch storyline doesn’t make it a better game. Beating the Falcons in the greatest comeback of all-time isn’t improved by Brady securing his record fifth title.
Who won is irrelevant. It’s not a list of how successful each Brady/Belichick Super Bowl team was. Whether or not the Patriots won is not the point. The intent is an objective ranking of the quality of the games.
#8. Super Bowl XXXIX – Patriots 24 Eagles 21
A Dynasty Solidified
It is easy to lump this game in as another Patriots Super Bowl nail biter, given the final score, but this was New England’s most decisive victory. Seeing as how the prior two Super Bowl victories were the result of a last second Vinatieri field goal, the original match against the Philadelphia Eagles is thought of in the same way due to a three point final margin.
The game was more in hand down the stretch than the score suggests. New England led 24-14 with 8:40 remaining in the 4th quarter. At the 7:20 mark, Donovan McNabb threw an interception. The Patriots took one minute and forty seconds off the clock, and the Eagles got the ball back down 10 with 5:40 remaining.
McNabb and the Eagles then proceeded to show absolutely no sense of urgency as they methodically drove downfield. Philadelphia huddled after every play, and the broadcast team questioned why they were not hurrying, and even asserted that Eagles fans at home must be screaming at their television screens.
Philadelphia finally hit a big play immediately following the two minute warning. With 1:55 to go, McNabb connected with Greg Lewis for a 30 yard touchdown. The ensuing onside kick attempt was collected by New England. The Patriots ran three straight times, gaining 5 yards, and punted.
The Eagles got the ball at their own 4-yard line with 46 seconds remaining. Brian Westbrook caught a pass in the middle of the field for a 1-yard game and was immediately tackled. 20 seconds came off the clock before Philadelphia ran the next play, which resulted in an incompletion stopping the clock at 17 seconds.
Then came the Rodney Harrison game clinching interception you have seen infinity times on highlight reels. It was McNabb’s third interception on the day, and the team’s fourth turnover in the game. Two of the four turnovers occurred in the red zone for the Eagles. The win gave New England its third Super Bowl in 4 years, solidifying its place in NFL history as a dynasty.
The biggest takeaway from re watching this game was how poor McNabb’s accuracy was. He spent the entire game throwing high, low, and behind receivers. His first interception came in the red zone on a ball he just threw up for grabs and was intercepted by Harrison. This came just one play after an Asante Samuel interception at the 3-yard line was wiped out by a penalty.
Of note is what Terrell Owens did in this game. five weeks after having screws surgically placed in his broken ankle, Owens caught 9 of 14 targets for 122 yards. He consistently exploded off the line of scrimmage and got separation from his defender, only to limp his way back to the huddle after every play. Had the Eagles won this game, Owens’ performance would be that of folk lore by this point.
Super Bowl XLVI – Giants 21 Patriots 17
This just wasn’t that great a game. It was poorly played and not very exciting. The Patriots offense was hindered by Rob Gronkowski’s ankle injury, but still.
After the Giants kicked a field goal with 6:43 remaining in the third quarter to cut the Patriots lead to 17-12, it felt like each team spent the rest of the game just trying to hang on and get the hell out of dodge.
The Patriots went three-and-out on the ensuing possession, and the defense allowed another field goal drive by the Giants, this time with 35 seconds remaining in the third quarter to make the score 17-15.
After picking up a pair of first downs following the Giants second field goal of the half, Brady inexplicably hurled a bomb downfield to the limited Gronkowski. The pass was interception by the Giants at their own 8-yard line. The next two drives were a punt by each team.
In all, on the opening drive of the second half, the Patriots marched down the field, picking up 79 yards in 3 minutes and 40 seconds to score a touchdown and push the lead to 17-9. It would be the last points they scored that day.
The New England offense and Tom Brady had three chances after that touchdown to again march down the field and put the game away. They failed to do so each time. The Wes Welker drop might have cost this team the game by itself.
And yes, it was a drop. Eric Mangini has made multiple public comments since this game saying that the play design is/was a back shoulder throw, regardless of how open Welker gets off the line. It was the way it was practiced, and it was the way the play was expected to be executed. It’s not the easiest catch in the world, but Welker has to make it.
We all know what happened next. Two plays after the drop, the Patriots punted. Starting from their own 12-yard line, the Giants went 88 yards in 2 minutes and 49 seconds to score the game winning touchdown. Once again, the Patriots defense could not be trusted to gain one stop to clinch a victory.
While we’re here, let’s all agree that the Manning-to-Manningham pass is the single greatest throw and catch in the history of one human being throwing an object to another human being, and the other human being catching that object. We can all agree on that, yes? Great.
The Patriots were left with 57 seconds to drive 80 yards for a touchdown. Spoiler: they failed to do so. The Giants victory was late but not quite at the buzzer, and a last second desperation throw by Brady was knocked down in the end zone as time expired.
#6. Super Bowl XLII – Giants 17 Patriots 14
18 Wins and 1 Giant Loss
As iconic as this Super Bowl is, the game itself wasn’t very good. The Patriots blew a once in a lifetime opportunity at a perfect season, but all the excitement happened over a roughly 4 and a half minute time span late in the 4th quarter.
The New England offense, the one that rewrote the record book during the regular season, was stopped dead in its tracks by the Giants defense. Brady spent most of the day getting drilled by New York’s pass rush.
But Manning and the Giants were not lighting up the scoreboard either. The game was 7-3, Patriots, at halftime. On the first possession of the second half, the Patriots went for it on fourth-and-13 from the Giants 31 and didn’t convert. At the time, Stephen Gostkowski was in his second year. The team was two years removed from Vinatieri committing what amounts to treason in the city of Boston. Belichick didn’t appear to trust the young kicker on a 49-yard attempt in his first Super Bowl, when it is a virtual guarantee Vinatieri would have been trotted out there.
Fast forward to 7:54 remaining in the 4th quarter, and the Patriots are trailing 10-7, and beginning a drive on their own 20-yard line. Brady does Brady things and goes 8/11 on a 75 yard touchdown drive, resulting in a Randy Moss score with 2:45 left to put the team ahead 14-10. The drive took 5 minutes and 12 seconds off the clock.
You don’t need this article to remind you that David Tyree caught a lame duck prayer from Manning to help the 1972 Miami Dolphins remain blissfully spiteful. What is forgotten in the aftermath of 18-1 is that David Tyree never should have happened. On the preceding play, Manning throws a ball directly into the hands of Samuels, who drops the ball as he is trying to concentrate on keeping his feet inbounds along the sideline.
The very next play, David Tyree happened. The rest is (painful) history.
#5. Super Bowl XXXVI – Patriots 20 Rams 17
A Dynasty is Born
It really is interesting how similar this game is to the forthcoming Patriots vs. Rams Super Bowl. Beyond the fact that it was played in a dome, the St. Louis Rams sported a seemingly unstoppable offense that constantly spread three receivers wide and featured a running back that was as big a threat as a receiver as a runner.
New England’s game plan was clear: make life a living hell for Kurt Warner and do not allow Marshall Faulk to be the reason the Rams won. The Patriots continuously brought pressure on Warner, sending blitz after blitz to disrupt the timing of the offense. Funny enough, the Rams offense finished the 2001 season ranked 2nd in DVOA, just as the Rams offense finished the 2018 season ranked 2nd in DVOA.
Oddly, while eerily similar to what we might see 17 years later, watching this game was almost like watching a different sport. The kickoff was spotted at the 30-yard line. Receivers were absolutely blasted across the middle and never drew a penalty flag. First-and-20 was a running down. The Rams punted on fourth-and-1 at midfield. The score / clock / down & distance bar was on the top of the screen (seriously, what the heck was Fox thinking?).
The broadcast even showed a graphic of how often New England was putting X amount of defensive backs on the field at once, because it was so uncommon for a defense to do so. The graphic appeared midway through the third quarter, and showed the Patriots had used the “standard” four defensive backs 12 times, five defensive backs 10 times, six defensive backs 15 times, and seven defensive backs three times. This was unheard of at the time. How often do you think the Patriots will have only four defensive backs on the field in Super Bowl LIII?
In fact, the second most iconic play from this game would never have counted should had it happened in the current NFL environment.
Under duress from a Mike Vrabel blitz, Warner threw an inaccurate pass that Ty Law returned for a touchdown. On the play, Vrabel clearly hits Warner in the face mask, but there is no penalty flag thrown. Missed call at the time or not, there is no way there is not a roughing the passer penalty administered in league year 2018, when Clay Matthews spent the first three weeks of the season getting fined for tackling the guy holding the ball.
New England only scored 13 offensive points in the game, 10 of which came in the final 2 minutes of either half. Right before halftime, Brady found David Patten on a back shoulder fade perfectly thrown above the defender to push the lead to 14-3. The other three points are, of course, Vinatieri’s game winning field goal as time expired.
There was a fiery come back in the 4th as well. Trailing 17-3, St. Louis mounted two touchdown drives on their last three possessions. The first touchdown came on a Kurt Warner scramble with 9:33 remaining in the game to cut the lead to 17-10.
Four plays earlier, Lawyer Milloy dropped an interception in the end zone. Three plays earlier, Law also dropped an interception in the end zone.
Two plays earlier, on fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line, the Rams went for it. Warner fumbled the ball, and Tebucky Jones picked up the ball and ran 97 yards for what-looked-like a game sealing touchdown.
However, a holding penalty on Willie McGinnest on the far side of the play wiped out the fumble return, and instead gave the Rams a fresh set of downs at the 1-yard line, setting up the Warner scramble.
Later on, it took the Rams three plays and 14 seconds to go 55 yards for the game tying touchdown with 1:37 left in the game, starting the New England defense’s constitutional incapability of protecting a late game lead to clinch the victory.
John Madden then vehemently disagreed with New England’s decision to attempt to go win the game in the final 1:21 of regulation, as opposed to just heading to overtime. Belichick had another strategy in mind, and thus a dynasty was born, as Brady drove his team 53 yards to set up Vinatieri’s game winning kick as time expired.
#4. Super Bowl XLIX – Patriots 28 Seahawks 24
And it is INTERCEPTED
Arguably, the most iconic ending in Super Bowl history. Both teams had difficulty scoring in the first half, until a flurry of three straight touchdown drives put the game at 14-14 at halftime.
In the third quarter, Brady threw his second pick of the game and New England fell behind 24-14. The next four drives combined resulted in four punts. The Patriots got the ball back with 12:10 to go, and drove 68 yards in 4 minutes and 15 seconds to cut the Seattle lead to 24-21.
After a three-and-out by Seattle, the Patriots put together a 10 play, 64 yard, 4 minute and 50 seconds touchdown drive to take the lead 28-24.
On the two touchdown drives combined in the 4th quarter, Brady went 13/15 for 121 yards and 2 touchdowns. On the second touchdown drive, what proved to be the game winner, Brady went a perfect 8/8 for 65 yards and the final touchdown of the game.
Seattle got the ball back with 2:02 remaining, and Russell Wilson immediately hit Marshawn Lynch up the sideline on a wheel route for a 31 yard game, putting them at the New England 49. After two consecutive incompletions, Wilson found Tyler Lockett for an 11 yard gain on third-and-10. What happens next will likely forever live as the craziest three consecutive plays in Super Bowl history.
Before Malcolm Butler was a Super Bowl hero, he was snake bitten by the most unfortunate luck. Russell Wilson launched a pass down the right sideline, intended for Jermaine Kearse. Butler played absolutely perfect defense on the throw, blanketing Kearse and tipping the ball to break up the pass. All that, only to have the ball bounce around, including off Kearse’s leg and lap, and into his hands for a 33 yard completion that left Tom Brady stunned and seemingly paralyzed.
Chris Collinsworth even said on the broadcast “how many times is this going to happen to the Patriots?” It just seemed like some higher power didn’t want New England to ever claim a 4th Lombardi trophy.
The lesser talked about hero of this game is Dont’a Hightower. After the lap catch, Seattle ran the ball off tackle from the 5-yard line. Hightower shed a block and made a game saving tackle at the 1. As the clock ticked down, everyone in the world was wondering why Belichick wasn’t calling a timeout to preserve time for the offense.
Belichick has said that he looked over to the Seattle sideline and noticed that something just wasn’t right. They were out of sorts. There was chaos. Everyone was still in shock from the lap catch. Belichick was betting that the chaos would benefit him and his team, and he didn’t want to bail out the Seahawks by calling a timeout to let them get organized.
Belichick was right. Seattle threw the ball. Malcolm Butler will never pay for a drink in the city of Boston ever again.
#3. Super Bowl XXXVIII – Patriots 32 Panthers 29
“This is as close to a Dynasty as you’re going to get”
This has a claim as the most underrated Super Bowl in NFL history. Perhaps it is just forgotten amongst the sheer volume of appearances Brady and Belichick have had. Who knows. But in a game where there were 0 points scored for the first nearly 27 minutes, the final score saw a combined 61 points put on the board, with a 3 point margin of victory.
This game set the Super Bowl record for most points scored in a single quarter with the 37 put up in the 4th(!).
With 3:05 left to go in the first half, the Patriots finally break the 0-0 tie with the game’s first touchdown. 1 minute and 58 seconds later, the Panthers tied the game at 7-7. 49 seconds later, Brady threw his second touchdown pass of the game to put the Patriots back in front, 14-7, with 18 seconds left in the half. As the first half expired, John Kasay hit a 50 yard field goal to make the halftime score 14-10.
The 3rd quarter went scoreless. Then the fireworks ensued.
New England struck first, 11 seconds into the 4th. Antowain Smith rushed in from 2 yards out to put the Patriots up 21-10. The Panthers came right down the field on the next drive, and scored off a 33 yard DeShaun Foster run only 2 minutes and 5 seconds after the Patriots last touchdown. Carolina went for two and failed, and the score was at 21-16.
New England then marched down the field to the Panthers’ 9 yard line, only to see Brady throw up a terrible interception near the goal line. Four plays later, the Patriots decided to just not cover Muhsin Muhammad, as he went unguarded and untouched 85 yards down the left sideline for a touchdown that put Carolina in front. The Panthers again went for two and again failed. They lead 22-21.
On the next drive the Patriots went 68 yards in just under 4 minutes to regain the lead. The drive was capped by a Tom Brady touchdown pass to linebacker Mike Vrabel, who is also the greatest receiver in NFL history. New England went for 2 and got it, putting them up 29-22.
But as we know all too well, 2 minutes and 55 seconds is just far too long to ask the Patriots defense to protect a lead with the game on the line. The Panthers went 80 yards in 7 plays and 1 minute 42 seconds, to tie the game at 29-29.
John Kasay then kicked the ensuing kickoff out of bounds, placing the ball at the New England 40-yard line by rule, with 1:08 left. Brady completed 4 of 5 attempts on the game winning drive, picking up 37 yards to set up the 41 yard Adam Vinatieri game winner.
The Patriots did have to kick off with four seconds remaining. The coverage team tackled Rod Smart, and then New England took the field to celebrate. As the confetti came down, Greg Gumble said “a second Super Bowl in three years in this era of free agency, that’s as close to a dynasty as you’re ever going to come.”
Little did he know. Little did any of us know.
#2. Super Bowl LII – Eagles 41 Patriots 33
This was by far Tom Brady’s best performance in a Super Bowl, and it came in a losing effort. Brady threw for 505 yards, 3 touchdowns, and posted an 83.8 QBR in the game. The Patriots offense never punted.
For the game, there were only 7 of 21 drives that did not result in points. One of drives was a missed Gostkowski field goal on a bad hold, another was the end of the first half, another was the Patriots’ final ditch effort at the end of the game, and there were two turnovers. The game saw only one punt total, the least amount in a game in Super Bowl history. Allowing a field goal was this game’s version of a defensive stop.
This game is all over the Super Bowl record book. Brady’s 505 yards is a single game record. His 48 pass attempts without an interception tied his own Super Bowl record set in Super Bowl XLII. It has the second highest point total, the 74 combined points trailing Super Bowl XXIX by 1. The nine combined touchdowns are also second most all-time, trailing the 10 from Super Bowl XXIX.
The 54 combined first downs is tied for the most in Super Bowl history. The 42 first downs achieved by passing are a record. The 613 yards gained by New England is a single game record, as is the combined 1,151 yards gained by both teams. The 1,151 yards is nearly 200 more yards than the second place 929 yards in Super Bowl XXII
This game was everything that could have summarized the 2017 season. The RPO’s from Philadelphia. The aggressive play calling that gave us the “Philly Special” (which was a missed illegal formation) on fourth-and-goal right before halftime, and the fourth-and-1 conversation by Philadelphia from their own 45-yard line with 5:39 remaining in the game down just 1 point. Eagles head coach Doug Pederson has stated on the Freakonomics Radio podcast that there was no way in the world he was going to just punt the ball to Tom Brady in that scenario, because that meant game over.
Plus the NFL’s “what is a catch?” controversy reared it’s head, yet on its biggest stage, the league tucked its tail between its legs and looked the other way. The 2017 season is the straw that broke the camels back regarding the “process of the catch,” and “surviving the ground,” nonsense that screwed Calvin Johnson, Dez Bryant, Jesse James, and countless others. But at that point, the rule was the rule, and being administered correctly by the letter of the law.
Yet, when Corey Clement bobbled the ball in the back of the end zone in the 3rd quarter, and only got one foot down after securing complete control, the NFL let the call on the field (touchdown) stand, for what was probably pure terror of the backlash that would accompany micromanaging the legislation of a close call in the biggest game.
New England took their first lead of the game, 33-32, with 9:22 remaining in the game after a 10 play, 75 yard touchdown drive. The Eagles then followed that up with a 14 play, 75 yard touchdown drive of their own that included the aforementioned fourth-and-1 conversion. With 2:21 to go, Philadelphia was leading 38-33.
Stop me when you’ve heard this one before: There’s roughly two minutes left, and the Patriots need Tom Brady to drive down the field and win the game.
It just seemed like the Eagles had left Brady too much time. He hadn’t been stopped all day. The offense hadn’t punted once. It seemed fait accompli that we were all about to witness the one million and first time Brady puts on a game winning drive on the biggest of stages.
We were all wrong. Brandon Graham knocked the ball out of Brady’s hands on the second play of the drive and the Eagles recovered. The Patriots defense held Philadelphia to a field goal that pushed the lead to 8. With 1:05 left, New England got to their own 49-yard line before heaving it to the end zone and praying for a miracle.
The prayer wasn’t answered, and the Eagles celebrated their first Super Bowl victory in franchise history.
#1. Super Bowl LI – Patriots 34 Falcons 28
This is 40
The greatest comeback in NFL history. The first (and for now only) overtime in Super Bowl history. Two Herculean catches late in the 4th quarter. Not only is this the greatest Super Bowl of the Brady/Belichick era, but it is likely the greatest game in Super Bowl history.
We all know the set up. It was 28-3, and with 2:06 remaining in the 3rd quarter, the Patriots scored a very uneventful touchdown. Gostkowski missed the extra point, and the score was 28-9 on the ensuing kickoff. No one knew what was to follow.
This game is equal parts the Patriots launching the most incredible comeback coupled with the Falcons mismanaging the hell out of the situation. Following that first New England touchdown, the Atlanta Falcons went three-and-out. The Patriots then came down the field and hit a field goal to cut the lead to 28-12. After that is when the madness really started.
On the Falcons next drive they picked up 9 yards total from first and second down. On third-and-1 from their own 36, Atlanta decided to run a deep pass play, instead of looking to just gain the 1 yard. As a result, Matt Ryan held the ball longer than what the strategy should have been, and Dont’a Hightower came rushing off the end and strip sacked Ryan. The Patriots recovered the fumble, and this air of “they blew it” came over the game.
Down 16 and needing two 2-point conversions, New England started their drive at the Atlanta 25 yard line with 8:24 left to go. It took the Patriots five plays to get into the end zone, and converted the first of two necessary 2-point attempts.
On the Falcon’s next drive they had appeared to put the game away. Matt Ryan continuously, and erroneously, snapped the ball with 20 seconds left on the play clock, but eventually found Julio Jones down the right sideline for a 27 yard gain that put the ball at the New England 22 and right in field goal territory.
Ryan, on the run, threw the ball into perfect coverage. There is nothing more that Eric Rowe could have done. Ryan put the ball in the one inch window where only Jones could have made the catch, and he did. It was an acrobatic catch, with an incredible two-footed two tap.
If the Falcons run the ball three times, the odds are overwhelming they emerge victorious. Upon completion of the Jones pass, ESPN’s win probability calculator put at Atlanta at a 98.1% chance of victory.
But the meltdown continued. The Falcons first down run play was stuffed and on second down, Trey Flowers dropped Ryan for a 12 yard sack. Now back at the New England 35 and facing third-and-23, Jake Matthews commits a holding penalty to knock Atlanta back another 10 yards. On third-and-33 Ryan fires an incomplete pass that stops the clock, and the Falcons punt from the Patriots 45-yard line as they are no longer in field goal range.
With 3:30 left in the game and trailing by 8, the Patriots started their drive from their own 9-yard line. 91 yards to go and another 2-point conversion necessary. Stop me when you’ve heard this one before – There’s roughly three minutes left in the game and the Patriots need Tom Brady to drive down the field and save their ass.
And he did. After the Tyree, Manningham, lap-dance, and even Julio catches, New England finally gets an absurd catch to go their way late in a Super Bowl. Julian Edelman defied our understanding of concentration when he corralled that pass into his arms.
In total, New England went 91 yards in 10 plays and 2 minutes and 33 seconds. They converted the second 2-point attempt to tie the game at 28-28. There were 57 seconds remaining when the Patriots kicked the ball back to Atlanta, and for the what seems like the only time ever the Patriots defense did not blow it at the last second.
Atlanta went three-and-out, and the game went to overtime. The Patriots won the coin toss and as soon as they did, it just felt like there was no way Tom Brady was going to let the Falcons ever touch the ball.
He didn’t, and the Patriots pulled off the wildest comeback we have ever seen.