Here we go again with our mostly-annual rundown of every NFL champ since 2001 finding good fortune. A bounce, a call, an unforced error from their opponent: with the competitiveness of the playoffs, any one play can help determine a team’s fate.
Take New England’s win over Los Angeles as an example. While Rams receiver Brandin Cooks streaked toward the end zone, free as an antelope, quarterback Jared Goff took a few seconds to recognize the situation and threw a wrinkled paper airplane of a pass. Goff’s lack of recognition and ball control allowed cornerback Jason McCourty to zip toward Cooks and strike his arm, breaking up the attempt.
Without Goff’s misstep and McCourty’s efforts, the Rams take a 7-3 lead in the third quarter of a game where points were harder to come by than in a drawer of spoons. That, dear readers, becomes a different game, and then maybe we’re discussing how the Rams got lucky on Stephen Gostkowski’s missed first quarter field goal.
The next time someone tells you the Patriots got lucky, just say yes, they did, just like every other team on this list. That said, New England is the only team to do it six times out of 18, an accomplishment that is absolutely batguano banana nuts.
Let’s get this started with a snowy night in January 2002. (Note: each Super Bowl year is listed for the season just played, e.g., the 2001 Patriots played in the January/February 2002 playoffs.)
2001 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 (take it away, ESPN.com’s Mike Reiss!) – 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? Of course you’re upset. I’m just saying, consider the idea that your team may have lost in Pittsburgh the following week, or come up short against the Rams in the Super Bowl. Beating New England wouldn’t have necessarily put Oakland on the same championship path. We can all be friends, right?
Ah. I see. Fair enough.
Honorable Mention: Pittsburgh’s special teams collapse 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 defensive backs getting more hands on more Rams than a consortium of sheep farmers.
2002 Super Bowl: Tampa Bay 48, Oakland 21
Most Fortunate Moment: Coach Jon 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 obsessing over the Tuck Rule and wonder how their coach neglected to put in any dummy calls leading up to the Super Bowl. Deep-sea robots found a better map to success on the Titanic.
Honorable Mention: Oakland’s starting center Barret Robbins did not play after failing to show up to practice Super Bowl week (he was later diagnosed with manic depression).
2003 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 left on the clock.
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, putting the dome-denizen Colts at a disadvantage.
2004 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 the myth- and vomit-busting 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, Elsa let it go in 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 strongest, deepest squads in Patriots history.
2005 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 escorted Pittsburgh home twice in four years.)
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 tackle at Indy’s 42; Colts kicker/villain Mike Vanderjagt missed a potential game-tying 47-yard field goal.
2006 Super Bowl: Indianapolis 29, Chicago 17
Most Fortunate Moment: Peyton Manning finally figured out in the AFC Championship that he could settle for drive-sustaining first downs instead of heaving 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; Troy Brown got flagged for offensive pass interference on a rarely called pick play; Indy got to play Rex Grossman in the Super Bowl.
2007 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. Few New England fans doubt 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.
2008 Super Bowl: Pittsburgh 27, Arizona 23
Most Fortunate Moment: This is one of the most overlooked plays in Super Bowl history. While Steelers defender James Harrison returned an interception 100 yards for a touchdown, he got unintentional help from Cardinal Antrel Rolle who – stepping onto the edge of the field for a closer look – bumped receiver Larry Fitzgerald, preventing Fitzgerald from making the tackle in time. (Keep an eye on number 11 running along the sideline in this clip.) At least a 10-point swing in a four-point game.
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.
2009 Super Bowl: New Orleans 31, Indianapolis 17
Most Fortunate Moment: On a potential game-tying drive, Colts receiver Reggie Wayne came up short on his route, allowing Tracy Porter to cut in front of him for a pick-six.
Honorable Mention: During their on-sides kick – a gamble akin to betting on the Patriots at halftime in SB 51 – Indy receiver Hank Baskett had the ball bounce off of him, giving the Saints possession to open the second half.
2010 Super Bowl: Green Bay 31, Pittsburgh 25
Most Fortunate Moment: As I’ve written for the past few years, honest to God, I remember nothing about these playoffs. Apparently the Chicago Bears were down to their third-string QB (Caleb Hanie) in the NFC Championship game; Hanie threw 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: Uh, health, probably? Seriously, I got nothing. Did these playoffs happen?
2011 Super Bowl: New York 21, New England 17
Most Fortunate Moment: An injury to regular San Francisco punt returner Ted Ginn, Jr. forced Kyle Williams into the spotlight for the NFC Championship. Not ideal for the Niners, as Williams muffed one return and fumbled the other, respectively leading to a regulation TD and the game-winning field goal in overtime for New York’s 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 – maintaining possession on each.
2012 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.)
2013 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 an oh-I-guess-the-game-started-already safety. Seattle’s D ended up having a huge game, but they didn’t have to lift a finger to get the lead. 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 (as he told in this game story); Jermaine Kearse snatched Wilson’s pass in the end zone, giving Seattle a 20-17 lead on their way to a 23-17 win.
2014 Super Bowl: New England 28, Seattle 24
Most Fortunate Moment: You know, considering the Seahawks failed to convert an earlier third-and-one, I never thought that play call was the worst in Super Bowl history (take it easy, Seattle Times). However, their decision to pass from the one-yard line gave rookie Patriots defensive back (and budding star) Malcolm Butler the chance to intercept the ball and seal the game. Call it a combination of fortune and diligence, as the Patriots had planned for that exact play in the previous week’s practice (cue the “Do Your Job” review).
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 one year, at least. One remarkable year.)
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.
2015 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, Brady got knocked down and got back up again more than the lead singer of Chumbawumba, yet still managed to bring the Patriots down the field for a touchdown to Gronk in the final minute. We all have to agree that overtime would have been awfully interesting.
Honorable Mention: General good health throughout the year, plus a backup QB in Brock Osweiler who played well. Also (and I’m not sure where this lies in terms of luck), but it’s amazing that in the Super Bowl Peyton Manning converted only one of 14 third down attempts (a whopping seven percent). Lucky that everything came together for such a great defense, I guess?
2016 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 (running the ball would have been the safe call there, as this particular gambler would vehemently attest.) Sack, Trey Flowers. Atlanta drops back to pass again to make up some yardage – holding call. Third down again, incomplete pass. Fourth down, punt. Pats get the ball back with 3:30 left. A crazy sequence of events, there.
Honorable Mention: Kudos to Edelman for maintaining his focus during his Catch, but – considering every defensive back in the vicinity touched the football – the play seems more remarkable with each viewing; 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, smaller back Devonta Freeman slowed down Dont’a Hightower only slightly more than wind resistance, leading to the linebacker’s game-changing strip sack. At that point (8:24 left), the Falcons’ 28-12 lead didn’t seem so safe anymore.
2017 Super Bowl: Philadelphia 41, New England 33
Most Fortunate Moment: At the end of the first half, the Eagles called a pass to the quarterback on fourth and goal at the one that netted them a touchdown. On that play, the Eagles receiver lined up a full yard off the line, yet the refs neglected to call illegal formation. “Philly Special,” indeed.
Honorable Mention: Gostkowski missed a short field goal and an extra point; a Philly touchdown to Corey Clement was called a catch when it did not qualify as a catch according to 2017 rules (it was later revealed that the replay crew applied 2018 rules, according to this well-researched piece by CBS Boston Sports’ Michael Hurley); cornerback Malcolm Butler joined the team late due to illness and admitted to lacking focus, which influenced Belichick to keep the long-term starter on the sideline.
2018 Super Bowl: New England 13, Los Angeles 3
Most Fortunate Moment: Heads. Yeah, I think if you look at their entire playoff run, the coin coming up heads in overtime at Kansas City, where that offense had awoken after a three-quarter dormancy like Godzilla from the deep, qualifies as the luckiest event in all three games. (Of course, the Pats followed through with three consecutive third-and-10 conversions on their game-winning touchdown drive. Luck only gets you so far.)
Honorable Mention: A Brady interception that could have ended the game was nullified by Chiefs defensive end Dee Ford lining up offside; KC’s Patrick Mahomes overthrew a wide open Damien Williams in the end zone; in the Super Bowl, as with the first Pats-Rams meeting, the officials letting both teams’ defensive backs get physical probably helped New England more; the aforementioned late read by Goff looking for Cooks, though New England’s defense should take some credit for Goff’s confusion; the Rams strip-sacked Brady but couldn’t recover the football, as center Dave Andrews pounced on it first.
Not to be overlooked? Just as in 2003 and 2004, New England found optimal roster health at the end of the year, a consistent trend through this review.
In the next couple of months, we’re on to the draft. We’ll follow up the NFL Combine February 26 through March 4 with our Patriots “That Guy” Combine column (last year’s here) and our annual Patriots Round-By-Round Review.
Now that Six is in the books, Chris Warner keeps thinking of that Seinfeld episode where George wants to name his kid Seven. You can reach him (Chris, not George) at firstname.lastname@example.org or @cwarn89 on Twitter.