Here’s our annual column reviewing every Super Bowl champion’s dependence on some lucky bounces of the proverbial ball since the beginning of New England’s winning run.
Half of the 16 Super Bowls listed here were decided by four points or less, and that’s not including last year’s six-point win in overtime. For a look at how each squad needed some good fortune, see our list of season-saving moments, starting with the wintery spectacle of a certain night in January 2002.
(Note: each Super Bowl year is listed when played, meaning each team played their regular season the year before. Ah, calendars. So random.)
2002 Super Bowl: New England 20, St. Louis 17
Most Fortunate Moment: Has to be the Tuck Rule, right? An obscure, now-abolished rule – albeit one with which Patriots fans had become familiar in 2001 after their Week Two game against the Jets – was implemented to overturn an apparent Tom Brady fumble, thus prolonging a drive and allowing Adam Vinatieri to kick the football into the maw of a blizzard for the greatest field goal in playoff history.
Hey, Raiders fans? That was 16 years ago. Yet, as we saw in last fall’s Tuck Rule documentary via NFL Films, conspiracy theories still abound. Still can’t figure out why Al Davis traded Coach Jon Gruden.
Honorable Mention: Pittsburgh’s special teams implosion in the AFC Championship game, allowing two TDs (punt return and blocked kick return); having Drew Bledsoe as a bench QB after Brady hurt his ankle in the first half of that game; the Super Bowl refs adapting a “let ’em play” attitude, with Pats DBs getting more hands on more Rams than a Dodge Touch A Truck contest.
2003 Super Bowl: Tampa Bay 48, Oakland 21
Most Fortunate Moment: Coach Gruden got to play his previous team in the Super Bowl, which proved beneficial when new Oakland head coach Bill Callahan failed to make significant changes to the offense. Talk about an in-depth scouting report. Seriously, Raiders fans should stop fretting over the Tuck Rule and wonder why on earth, after actually making the Super Bowl, their coach neglected to put in four or five dummy calls from the line of scrimmage. In terms of planning, this compares only slightly favorably to the itinerary for the Donner Party.
Honorable Mention: Oakland’s starting center Barret Robbins did not show up to practice Super Bowl week (he was barred from playing and later diagnosed with manic depression).
2004 Super Bowl: New England 32, Carolina 29
Most Fortunate Moment: After Carolina tied it at 29, John Kasay’s kickoff sailed out-of-bounds, giving New England possession at their own 40 with 1:08 left. Vinatieri booted the game-winner with four seconds remaining.
Honorable Mention: Panthers coach John Fox went for two 2-point conversions in the fourth quarter and failed; in the divisional playoffs, normally sure-handed Titans receiver Drew Bennett dropped a pass that would have gotten Tennessee into field goal position to tie it; in the AFC Championship vs. Peyton Manning and the Colts, the refs allowed the Pats’ defensive backs to play with the type of aggression that would get penalized today; plus, snow fell in Foxboro, an anathema to most dome teams. Also? Good timing, health-wise (see below).
2005 Super Bowl: New England 24, Philadelphia 21
Most Fortunate Moment: The failure of the Eagles to assist shaken QB Donovan McNabb. Down by 10, Philly failed to hurry on offense, in part because McNabb was having trouble breathing after getting hit by Tedy Bruschi. (You can read a more in-depth story on that here.)
Honorable Mention: Optimum health at the optimum time. As they had in 2003, many New England starters missed games due to injury, but most came back in time for the playoffs. Once again, Khione (the goddess of snow) smiled upon Foxboro vs. the Colts.
Overall, it’s tough to associate pure luck with this team: one of the best of the decade and certainly one of the most talented, deepest squads in Patriots history.
2006 Super Bowl: Pittsburgh 21, Seattle 10
Most Fortunate Moment: Not having to face the Patriots in the playoffs. (This isn’t pure homerism: New England had booted Pittsburgh back home in January of 2002 and 2005.)
Honorable Mention: Some close officiating in the big game. This is not to say that Pittsburgh didn’t deserve to win (they appeared to be the better squad), but had some of those close calls gone the other way, Seattle would have been the lucky ones. In the divisional playoffs at Indianapolis, Jerome Bettis fumbled on the Colts’ two-yard line, potentially paving the way for glory for Nick Harper on the fumble return, but Roethlisberger made a desperation-dive tackle at Indy’s 42; Colts idiot kicker Mike Vanderjagt missed a potential game-tying 47-yard field goal.
2007 Super Bowl: Indianapolis 29, Chicago 17
Most Fortunate Moment: Whatever career-altering transformation happened to Peyton Manning in the AFC Championship, where he started looking for drive-sustaining first downs instead of long passes. The Patriots defense had to stay on the field forever and couldn’t protect their halftime lead.
Honorable Mention: The Patriots defense was also suffering from the flu, wearing them down further; NE receiver Reche Caldwell dropped an easy pass that would have at least led to a clock-killing first down; cornerback Ellis Hobbs got a questionable pass interference call in the end zone that led to a Colts score; Indy got to play Rex Grossman in the Super Bowl.
2008 Super Bowl: New York 17, New England 14
Most Fortunate Moment: We think we know what most fans would say, but we’ll point to the NFC Championship, specifically Brett Favre and his ill-advised pass-punt in overtime. This easy interception led to the Giants’ game-winning field goal. Most New England fans believe that the Pats would have cruised past the Packers.
Honorable Mention: The Helmet Catch, of course; Eli Manning fumbled twice in the Super Bowl but lost neither; Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel failed to secure what could have been the game-sealing interception on New York’s final drive.
2009 Super Bowl: Pittsburgh 27, Arizona 23
Most Fortunate Moment: While Steelers defender and new Patriot James Harrison returned an interception 100 yards for a touchdown, he got an accidental block from Cardinal Antrel Rolle who – stepping onto the edge of the field for a closer look – bumped into receiver Larry Fitzgerald, preventing Fitzgerald from making the tackle in time. (Keep an eye on Rolle (21) as Fitzgerald (11) runs along the sideline in this clip.)
Honorable Mention: Roethlisberger bounced back from a concussion suffered during the final week of the regular season to beat the Chargers in the divisional round (um, maybe “bounced back” is the wrong phrase to use when discussing concussions); in the AFC Championship, the QB fumbled twice but lost neither in a 24-19 win over the Jets.
2010 Super Bowl Winner: New Orleans 31, Indianapolis 17
Most Fortunate Moment: On a potential game-tying drive, Colts receiver Reggie Wayne (who had a shot of espresso with the Patriots) came up short on his route, allowing Tracy Porter to cut in front of him for a pick-six.
Honorable Mention: With the Saints gambling on an on-sides kick to open the second half – akin to betting everything on New England at halftime last February – Indy receiver Hank Baskett failed to corral the football, giving the Saints possession.
2011 Super Bowl: Green Bay 31, Pittsburgh 25
Most Fortunate Moment: I’ve written this for the past couple of years, and I have to repeat that, honest to God, I remember nothing about these playoffs. Apparently the Chicago Bears had to resort to a third-stringer named Caleb Hanie throwing the ball in the NFC Championship game; Hanie tossed an interception directly at Packers defensive lineman B. J. Raji, which seems like trying to throw a crumpled-up piece of paper into a wastebasket and not realizing there’s a door in front of it.
Honorable Mention: Um, I dunno … health? Seriously, I got nothing. Did these playoffs happen?
2012 Super Bowl: New York 21, New England 17
Most Fortunate Moment: An injury to regular San Francisco punt returner Ted Ginn, Jr. put Kyle Williams into the spotlight for the NFC Championship. That worked out great for New York, as Williams muffed one return and fumbled the other, respectively leading to a regulation TD and the game-winning field goal in overtime for a 20-17 win.
Honorable Mention: Gronkowski getting hurt during the AFC Championship, making him less than 100 percent for the Super Bowl; New York fumbling three times in the big game and – again – managing to keep possession of each.
2013 Super Bowl: Baltimore 34, San Francisco 31
Most Fortunate Moment: In the divisional playoff, Denver safety Rahim Moore got lost on Joe Flacco’s 70-yard pass, allowing the tying touchdown with 31 seconds left to play. Baltimore won in OT.
Honorable Mention: Gronkowski’s absence from the AFC Championship game; Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib’s injury during that game opening up the passing lanes for Flacco; in the Super Bowl, terrible play-calling for the 49ers on their potential game-winning drive; on that drive, the refs allowed contact on a potential pass interference penalty in the end zone. (Something that probably would get the call this year.)
2014 Super Bowl: Seattle 43, Denver 8
Most Fortunate Moment: On the first snap of the game, Denver center Manny Ramirez shotgunned the football past Peyton Manning into the end zone for a what-the-hell-is-that? safety. Seattle’s defense got their team the lead by just standing there. The Broncos’ lack of preparedness for the Seahawks’ 12th man set the tone for the night.
Honorable Mention: In the NFC title game, on a fourth-and-seven play, Niners defensive end Aldon Smith went offside, giving QB Russell Wilson a freebie; Jermaine Kearse snatched Wilson’s pass in the end zone, giving Seattle a 20-17 lead on their way to a 23-17 win.
2015 Super Bowl: New England 28, Seattle 24
Most Fortunate Moment: You know, I just don’t think running the ball was the worst play call in Super Bowl history. However, the Seahawks’ decision to pass the ball from the one-yard line gave rookie Malcolm Butler the chance to intercept it and seal the game. As we saw in that year’s “Do Your Job,” the Patriots had planned for that exact play in the previous week’s practice.
So, maybe not the best play call.
Honorable Mention: After dealing with key injuries in previous playoffs, the Patriots finally got to compete with a mostly healthy roster, as Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Vince Wilfork and a full O-line contributed; Cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner signed with New England and re-shaped the defense. (For a year, at least. One shining moment, if you will.)
Reviewing their final two playoff games, the Seahawks seemed destined to win. From Green Bay’s inexplicable breakdown in the NFC Championship, to Tom Brady’s first interception (Not. Good.) to what is now deemed The Kearse Catch, Seattle looked like SB repeaters for sure.
The Pats just needed a break. And they got it.
2016 Super Bowl: Denver 24, Carolina 10
Most Fortunate Moment: Stephen Gostkowski’s missed extra-point kick in the American Conference Championship. I know, Denver deserves credit for a great defensive effort throughout the playoffs. Still, if you consider that Brady got beaten more than Tony Janiro in Raging Bull, yet still managed to bring the Patriots down the field for a touchdown in the final minute, who’s to say they couldn’t have pulled it off in overtime?
Honorable Mention: General good health throughout the year, plus a backup QB in Brock Osweiler who played well. Also, in the Super Bowl Peyton Manning converted only one of 14 third down attempts (a whopping seven percent). Lucky to have such a great defense, I guess?
2017 Super Bowl: New England 34, Atlanta 28
Most Fortunate Moment: Sticking with the idea of luck as something you do not control, I’m going with Atlanta calling a pass on second down from New England’s 23-yard line with under four minutes left and a 28-20 lead. (This rant clip from last year tells me most gamblers agree.) Trey Flowers got the sack. Atlanta dropped back to pass again to make up some yardage, aaaaand: holding call. Replay third down, incomplete pass. Fourth down, punt. Pats get the ball back with 3:30 left. A crazy sequence of events, there.
Honorable Mention: As much as Edelman deserves credit for maintaining focus during his Catch, we must consider that the football hit more limbs than if it had gotten thrown into a tree; running back Tevin Coleman’s injury in the fourth quarter may have convinced the Falcons’ staff to pass on the ensuing third and one play – unfortunately for Atlanta, Devonta Freeman slowed down Dont’a Hightower only slightly more than the friction of air, leading to the linebacker’s game-changing strip sack.
At that point (8:24 left), a 28-12 lead didn’t seem so safe anymore.
Interesting to see who might get lucky on Sunday, especially considering both teams had to overcome injury-plagued rosters to get there. See you next week.
Chris Warner hopes to get over this head cold some time in 2018. You can reach him at email@example.com or @cwarn89 on Twitter.