Behind their coach-quarterback combination of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, the Patriots are a dynasty, and they seem nearly unbeatable in the big game. Brady will start his ninth Super Bowl in his age-41 season. Shockingly enough, the Patriots are back in the big game for the third time in a row, the fourth time in five years, and the ninth time since 2002.
Super Bowl LIII -- which you can stream right here on CBSSports.com or on CBS All Access -- will kick off in a matter of minutes, and we'll get to see if the Pats can do it again, or if the young upstart Rams will be a surprising champion.
It's easy to forget that when Brady suited up for his first one, he was one of the all-time underdogs in Super Bowl history.
That's what is so fascinating about the Patriots dynasty: There is a what-if scenario, admittedly one needing a lot of what-ifs, that has New England as a great, well-run team that came up short more often than not. What makes Brady, Bill Belichick and whatever rotating cast of characters they're trotting out so good is the ability to stare into the fire and, unflinchingly, execute in near-perfect fashion.
Once upon a time, the Patriots were a two-touchdown underdog that upset the Rams. Within a decade they were nearly a two-touchdown favorite that lost to the Giants. They've won Super Bowls with historic comebacks. They've won Super Bowls with a lead.
At one point, people wondered if they would ever get back to a Super Bowl. Knee-jerk historians legitimately thought Belichick and Brady might not be able to win a Super Bowl in a post-SpyGate world. This is not hyperbole, it is fact. From January 2015:
Before the Pats ripped off their recent run of four Super Bowl appearances in five years, there were still old opponents on the Rams and Panthers . Before New England played Seattle in Super Bowl XLIX, about how the Patriots might ... prepare. The Patriots' 18-year run is fueled by determination, filled with drama and shrouded in controversy.
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Now, despite the constant talking-head predictions that the gas has to run out of the machine at some point, it sincerely feels like the Brady-Belichick Pats might have two or three more titles left in the tank. If someone showed up from the future and told you Brady retired with eight Super Bowl rings, you couldn't outright dismiss them as a crazy person.
Even though the Patriots are a dominant force in the NFL, what stands out more than anything is just how dramatic these Super Bowls have been. Nothing was ever really easy for them, with maybe the exception of their third Super Bowl victory, against the Eagles. And even then they didn't cover.
Super Bowl XXXVI (Feb. 2002)
St. Louis Rams
20-17 Patriots win
Super Bowl XXXVIII (Feb. 2004)
32-29 Patriots win
Super Bowl XXXIX (Feb. 2005)
24-21 Patriots win
Super Bowl XLII (Feb. 2008)
New York Giants
17-14 Patriots loss
Super Bowl XLVI (Feb. 2012)
New York Giants
21-17 Patriots loss
Super Bowl XLIX (Feb. 2015)
28-24 Patriots win
Super Bowl LI (Feb. 2017)
34-28 Patriots win
Super Bowl LII (Feb. 2018)
41-33 Patriots loss
As they embark on the voyage for their sixth Super Bowl title in their ninth appearance, let's look back at how the past eight unfolded.
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Patriots 20, Rams 17
Not only did this game kickstart the Patriots dynasty, it would kickstart a nice little run of pretty good Super Bowl matchups. This was the ultimate square vs. sharp situation, which, again, was not how you would picture the Pats. They were the scrappy underdog with the no-name quarterback who captained a perfectly fine, low-octane offense that came up big in the clutch moments. The Pats, now considered unstoppable on offense, were up against "The Greatest Show on Turf" and they were underdogs by 14 points. I distinctly remember watching this game at our Groveland Ave. house in college -- one of the guys in the house had purchased what, at the time, was a huge (46 inches maybe?) flat-screen television from Best Buy (sorry about that, Mr. Cherry). The quality would probably qualify as SD now. You can relive the glory of John Madden and Pat Summerall announcing a Super Bowl in all its low-def glory thanks to the NFL uploading the whole thing to YouTube.
The over in this game was 52.5 (!) and anyone who took that and/or laid the points knew they were dead men walking before halftime. We talk about underdogs pulling off upsets all the time, but you really can't overstate how huge a favorite the Rams were here. The Pats pulling this off is the greatest post-merger Super Bowl upset if you go strictly by the point spread. The Pats choked off the Rams offense, few points were scored and when Ty Law picked off Kurt Warner and took it to the house to make it 7-3 New England with 8:49 to go in the second quarter, the realization that the Patriots could win the game really started to set in.
New England led 17-3 going into the fourth quarter. Friendly reminder: The Rams led the NFL in scoring at 31.4 points per game, lost just two regular-season games, finished the season with an eye-popping plus-230 point differential and hung a 40 burger in the divisional round against Brett Favre and the Packers. This was a heretofore unstoppable offense and it was being almost shut out through three quarters of the Super Bowl.
The score wasn't dramatic, but it was stunning. Fortunately, Warner and Co. would rally to make it a game, with the one-time grocery bagger sneaking in for a 2-yard score and following it up with a pass to Ricky Proehl for a 26-yard touchdown with 1:30 left that tied the game at 17-17. Enter Tom Brady.
Nine plays, 53 yards later, enter Adam Vinatieri.
And the rest is history.
Except no one really knew the Pats were starting a dynasty at that point. They would miss the playoffs the next year before returning in 2003 with a vengeance.
Patriots 32, Panthers 29
New England steamrolled through the regular season, going 14-2, behind the best scoring defense in the league. The offense was average, but Brady produced his second successive season with more than 3,600 yards (which is a funny thing to say today -- his 3,620 yards would have fallen between Blake Bortles and Case Keenum's respective totals this season) but the Patriots still hadn't become an offensive juggernaut. Carolina's defense was loaded on the defensive line, with Julius Peppers, Mike Rucker, Kris Jenkins and Brentson Buckner. John Fox was the head coach, Stephen Davis was a dominant power back and Steve Smith had just burst on the scene with his first 1,000-yard season.
Carolina played over its head, mostly, and was a big underdog in this spot. The total here should tell you a lot about what Vegas expected: 38 is a crazy low number for a Super Bowl, with the public usually leaning over. It looked like a good bet, though, with these teams smashing heads and going scoreless almost the entire first half, until a Deion Branch touchdown from Brady broke open the floodgates.
"I'll tell anyone to this day, that was the most physical game I've ever played," former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison recalled later.
The Panthers would score before the two-minute warning, but what would be a precursor to later, they left a minute on the clock, and it was too much time for Brady, who would find David Givens with 18 seconds left. Somehow, the Panthers squeezed a 50-yard field goal from John Kasay in after. What was a slog suddenly became a shootout. The scoring dried up after the break, with neither team scoring in the third quarter, but a touchdown to kick off the fourth quarter by Brady would give the Pats an 11-point lead.
Carolina scored two minutes later on a long DeShaun Foster run, and Fox decided to go for two. After the Panthers took the lead on an 85-yard bomb to Mushin Muhammad, he doubled down on the two-point try. There's a decent chance those failed attempts keep him up at night.
Newly minted Titans coach Mike Vrabel would catch a 1-yard touchdown pass with under three minutes left (even though everyone saw it coming) and the Panthers would answer with 1:08 left on a Jake Delhomme pass to Ricky Proehl (that guy again).
Spoiler: Brady got too much time. After Kasay sent the ensuing kickoff out of bounds -- an all-time stomach punch penalty -- Brady went 37 yards in six plays and Vinatieri again would bury a Super Bowl-winning field goal. There is something awe-inspiring about watching Brady casually cut someone open on live television, especially when you know it's coming. This happened during Tiger Woods' peak; he and the Pats were a lot alike in that regard. Good luck stopping them.
Patriots 24, Eagles 21
If you broke down every funny bounce the Patriots had into a worst-case scenario for them and tried to conceive of a way they never won a Super Bowl, you can almost get there. But this game was always New England's to win. The Pats entered this game as touchdown favorites again after going 14-2 in the regular season for the second straight year. People don't remember this either all that well, but at the time of this Super Bowl, Tom Brady had NEVER LOST A PLAYOFF GAME. There were actual debates about whether he would ever lose one. Brady won his first 10 playoff starts. A look at the Win Probability graph from Pro-Football-Reference makes it clear this was by far the easiest win of the Patriots dynasty.
The biggest drama in this game involved the Eagles, and not necessarily in great ways. Terrell Owens, who broke his leg in the middle of the season, came back for the Super Bowl and caught nine passes for 122 yards on a busted pole.
Donovan McNabb might or might not have thrown up -- he denies it but we all saw it happen and yet no video footage exists -- and the Eagles definitely puked on their own shoes in metaphorical fashion, botching their clock management late and never giving themselves a real shot to pull off what the Rams did a few years earlier. The Eagles trailed 24-14 at the two-minute warning but had the ball, because they had gotten it back with 5:40 left in the game. Unfortunately they needed a 13-play drive that took 3:52 to score a touchdown, leaving them little time left for another scoring drive. After using their timeouts and forcing a Pats punt, the Eagles got the ball back at their own 4-yard line with 46 seconds left. McNabb would throw a pick to end the game and give the Pats their third Super Bowl in four years.
Giants 17, Patriots 14
The Pats would make the playoffs the next two years but -- GASP -- lose before the Super Bowl, once to Jake Plummer and a second time to Peyton Manning. Basically the same guy. Losing made the Patriots angry, so they decided to uncork arguably the greatest offensive season of all time in 2007. New England added Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte Stallworth that offseason and shattered every passing and/or scoring record that was out there. They destroyed every team in their path, going 16-0 in the regular season and actually inspiring columns about whether they were bad sports for running up the score on everyone. That actually happened. More than once.
Yada, yada, yada, the Patriots made it back to the Super Bowl, morphed into the NFL's Yankees, the ultimate villain after spending half a decade as America's underdog who kept winning in a gritty fashion, and were 12.5-point favorites against the scrappy New York Giants. The over/under in this game was 54.5! And the Giants provided the first formula for beating the Pats: Get pressure on Brady by only bringing four guys, keep things close and come away with an impossible helmet grab from an obscure receiver late in the game to keep the drive alive before throwing a touchdown to your star wideout (who would eventually spend time in prison for shooting himself in the leg).
"The Helmet Catch" was one of the greatest Super Bowl moments in NFL history. It has layers. Eli Manning escaping from pressure multiple times before putting what was basically a Hail Mary up into the air.
You'll see this clip 100 times over the next two weeks because the Pats are back in the Super Bowl. But just know this: The Giants upending the Pats was one of the most dramatic and stunning games you will ever see. New England was supposed to ROUT the G-Men and instead had the tables flipped on them, just like they flipped them on the Rams to start the dynasty. The Pats were one minute from perfection and instead had to spend the offseason asking "How?"
Giants 21, Patriots 17
Actually they had to spend longer than that, because in Week 1 the next season, Brady tore his ACL against the Chiefs. The Pats would go 14-2 in 2010, but lose in the divisional round of the playoffs to Rex Ryan and the New York Jets. The next season featured the unleashing of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, both in their second season. Coupling the two tight ends with Welker (1,569 yards) made the Pats unstoppable on offense, again, but in a different way. And again, they found themselves against the Giants in the Super Bowl, this time in Indianapolis. Revenge was on their mind, but Tom Coughlin and Eli had a different idea about how things should go. The Pats were only -3 this time; Vegas learned its lesson from 2007. But the over (53.5) was still cranked up and so was the pressure on Brady. The Giants had a similar team, with tons of talent on the defensive line, and they put pressure on Brady throughout the game.
The week leading up to the Super Bowl was all about Gronk, who had suffered an ankle injury in the AFC Championship Game. He would play, mostly as a decoy and the Pats offense once again struggled. The Giants jumped out to a 9-0 lead (first score safety, prop bet cashes huge!) but the Pats answered with 10 points in the second quarter. A third-quarter Hernandez touchdown -- the Pats scored with eight seconds left in the second quarter and with 11 minutes left in the third quarter because they always do that -- gave the Pats a 17-9 lead and, finally, an answer to their "long" Super Bowl drought.
The Giants tacked on two Lawrence Tynes field goals in the third quarter, cutting the lead to 17-15. The Pats had Eli and Co. pinned late when history decided to repeat itself. Cue the Mario Manningham footage.
Again, LOOK AT THAT CATCH:
This set up a touchdown by Ahmad Bradshaw -- the Pats let him score, but he shouldn't have scored but it worked out OK -- to give the Giants the lead.
This was probably the greatest THROW of Eli Manning's Super Bowl career, but the Tyree catch was the better PLAY.
Three underrated "WOW" moments from the ending of that game:
One, Bill Belichick challenged the Manningham catch, and who can blame him. I was in the stadium near the end zone where Manning threw the ball from and I was sure it was incomplete. But it did cost the Patriots a timeout.
Two, before the play, Brady couldn't find Wes Welker on a second-and-11 with four minutes left that would have sealed the game. Welker was wide open and got blamed for the drop by Gisele but Brady sort of missed him if we're being fair.
And three, the Patriots secretly almost won the game on a Hail Mary. Talk about changing history -- Gronk was on the field trying to haul in a midfield bomb from Brady and it nearly happened. Watch the play. There were two Pats players who got a look at the Hail Mary. It would have been the greatest ending to a Super Bowl we had ever seen, and instead was a second time in just a few years the Giants took down New England.
Coughlin's reputation for being a Belichick Beater blossomed and the questions about whether the Patriots would ever win another Super Bowl (see: above) got fired up with a fury.
Patriots 28, Seahawks 24
And here's where this gets really interesting, because the narrative could be VERY different right now. Imagine a world where the Seahawks beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX -- New England has its three titles but after losing a third consecutive Super Bowl appearance, people might really be questioning the Pats dynasty. That should have happened, except Pete Carroll and Darrell Bevell decided to let Russell Wilson throw instead of having Marshawn Lynch run.
One Malcolm Butler interception later and the Patriots were on top of the world again.
Let's get another angle because WHY ARE YOU PASSING, PETE???
I've stuck with this game as Broncos and were set to kick off their own dynasty with that dominant defense and Wilson at quarterback. They got their own version of the Tyree-Manningham catch before that interception, thanks to Jermaine Kearse reeling in this bananas catch:in my ranking of all the big games (Belichick's Patriots take the top FOUR spots on the list). I think that argument holds up. The Seahawks were coming off a 43-8 Super Bowl victory the year before against the
No one talks about this catch at all because of how the game ended. No one mentions how the Seahawks stymied the Patriots early -- the game was scoreless in the first quarter. A second-quarter Brandon LaFell touchdown from Brady started the scoring, with Lynch answering seven minutes later. I'm pretty sure Wilson didn't complete his first pass until the second quarter either. But he made an unbelievable completion late in the first half, throwing a touchdown to Chris Matthews with two seconds left in the half after New England got a touchdown with 30 seconds left.
The Seahawks took a 24-14 lead in the third quarter; once again the Pats were trailing late and once again Brady had to work some magic. He did that, throwing a pair of scrappy short white guy TDs (one to Playoff Danny Amendola, one to Julian Edelman) in the final eight minutes of the game.
Seattle was going to answer and win the game. Everyone knew it. And then they passed the ball. In a game that was a pick 'em, it had all the drama you could ever ask for in a Super Bowl.
Patriots 34, Falcons 28
And, yet, New England saved more drama for the following year, with their Super Bowl LI win over the Falcons going down in almost impossible fashion. It set up to be a snoozer of a game, with the Falcons stomping the Pats. Once again, no points were scored in the first quarter as the two teams felt each other out. Once again, the second quarter went bonkers.
The Falcons got a Devonta Freeman touchdown run to take a 7-0 lead, followed it up with a Austin Hooper touchdown catch to push the lead to 14-0 and then Robert Alford had a pick-six of Brady to make it 21-0. You couldn't feel your face in that stadium. The Patriots were being stomped in a Super Bowl? The Pats got a field goal before the half because the Pats always get a field goal before the half, but Tevin Coleman scored to make it 28-3 -- you might have seen that score before -- with less than nine minutes left in the third quarter. The game was over and everyone was writing their "Dan Quinn gets revenge for Seattle by building Baby Seahawks in Atlanta" columns. I was anyway. The Falcons had summoned an incredible performance to dominate the Patriots on both sides of the ball and MVP Matt Ryan was about to claim the franchise's first Super Bowl.
Then Tom Brady happened.
A third-quarter score to James White cut the lead to 28-9 and gave us the "all right, if [X, X and X] happen, maybe this is a game" thought. A Pats field goal made it a two-score game and a Dont'a Hightower strip sack of Ryan shook everything up.
The Pats would follow that five plays later with a Danny Amendola touchdown catch, followed by a White two-point conversion, to make it 28-20. How did we get here??? Suddenly the Falcons couldn't breath. They still had the best offense in football, they still had the play-makers and they still had an eight-point lead. Get some first downs and it would be a tough situation. Get a field goal and the game would be over.
Freeman picked up 39 yards on a pass from Ryan that opened up the lungs a bit. Two plays later Ryan hit Julio for the Falcons' version of THE CATCH -- how does this happen to the Pats every time??
The Falcons were in field-goal range at this point, but after Freeman was stuffed, Ryan dropped back to pass ... and GOT SACKED.
Oh no. The Falcons were called for holding on the next play and forced to punt. Brady got the ball down one score with more than three minutes left. You know how this story ends.
There was drama left for the Pats, of course, with Edelman having to catch this ball:
Impossible. And yet, it all happened. It wasn't a roller coaster so much as it was the Falcons going full "Thelma & Louise."
Going against Tom Brady and the Patriots is just tough though. When they got the ball in overtime, the game was over. Everyone watching knew it and everyone in the stadium knew it. Brady and the Pats were scoring and winning the Super Bowl.
Oddly enough, their only overtime victory -- and the first Super Bowl to ever go to overtime -- was the Pats' biggest margin of victory (six points) in their lengthy history.
Eagles 41, Patriots 33
Going into this one, we had four straight Patriots Super Bowls featuring incredible drama, where you couldn't look away for even a second or you might miss something historic. Did we really think this one would be any different?
After the Eagles took a 9-3 lead into the second quarter, the Patriots dipped into their bag of tricks and called the perfect play -- perfect, except for Brady's hands:
That might have been the play that decided the Eagles would win the game. No, really. If McDaniels doesn't try that play, do the Eagles even think about trying this at the end of the first half?
That's the Eagles, up 15-12 heading into halftime, going for it on FOURTH-AND-GOAL and telling tight end Trey Burton to throw a pass to Nick Foles. It was as crazy in the moment as it sounds now. After Foles did what Brady couldn't, you knew at that point the Eagles were going to win the game.
And yet ... after the teams traded touchdown drives twice to open the second half, the Eagles only managed a field goal on their next drive. That was the opening the Patriots needed, with Gronk catching his second touchdown of the game early in the fourth quarter to give the Patriots the lead for the first time all game. And the Pats maintained that 33-32 lead until there was 2:21 left in the game, when Foles and Zach Ertz did this:
That still gave Brady more than enough time to do what he does best in crunch time: win the game. Except ...
The Eagles kicked a field goal from there and gave Brady the ball back with under a minute left, but he was only able to march to midfield, and the Eagles chalked up another Super Bowl win over the Patriots for the NFC East.
Somehow, some way, the Patriots manage to shoot a heaping pile of drama into the biggest stage of the NFL season every single time they show up.
Hopefully Super Bowl LIII is no different.