The 2003 New England Patriots went 14-2 and won the Super Bowl, so they must have been one of the greatest teams of all-time. Winning the championship is an automatic bid into the conversation, but winning 14 times and knowing that this would be the second of at least six championships for Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, the 2003 Patriots get to be counted among the best teams ever constructed.
In the NFL’s recent ranking of the Top 100 teams, the 2003 Patriots came in 32nd. Maybe even too low perhaps for a 14-2 championship team? Maybe.
But what else could you tell me about that New England roster and season?
You know that Brady was the quarterback, but who else was on the team? Corey Dillon at running back? No, that didn’t happen until 2004. The running back was Antowain Smith, who had 642 yards and three touchdowns, plus Kevin Faulk, who had 638 and 0.
Leading receiver Deion Branch caught only 57 of 104 targets for 803 yards and three touchdowns. Followed by David Givens at 510 yards and Troy Brown at 472.
The offensive line was young, but talented, and the Patriots offense finished 19th in points per drive, 30th in yards per carry, and 13th in net yards per pass attempt. By DVOA, they ranked 14th on offense, 12th in passing, and 25th in rushing. Imagine how frustrating it must have been to watch that offense.
Imagine how frustrating it must have been to start the season with a 31-0 loss to the Buffalo Bills.
(McDonald’s tune) Bud-duh-buh-buh-buh, I’m repeating it.
The 2003 Patriots started the 2003 season with a 31-0 loss to former New England superstar Drew Bledsoe and the Bills. Brady threw four interceptions that day AND WAS REPLACED by Rohan Davey for the final two drives. I can’t buy a subscription to the Boston Globe now just to write one article about the Patriots on a Seattle Seahawks website, but I imagine that the response was not warm. And that was just from the writers, how about the fans?
What if we had Twitter back in September of 2003, when New England, now coming off of a 9-7 season with no playoffs and two seasons removed from a shocking championship that I’m sure many fans felt lucky to have, had lost 31-0 to a division rival with the starting quarterback getting benched? What was the temp Bill Belchick’s seat at the start of 2003?
It might seem insane to write “lukewarm” but these are often the variances of reactions to team performance not just season to season or week to week, but quarter to quarter. Play to play.
And despite their 14-2 record and Super Bowl championship, the Patriots were not consistently good week to week or play to play.
Brady bounced back in Week 2 to beat the Philadelphia Eagles 31-10 with three touchdowns and no picks, as New England forced six turnovers. In Week 3, they held off Vinny Testaverde and the New York Jets for a 23-16 victory. And in Week 4, they lost 20-17 to a Steve Spurrier Washington football team that would end the season at 5-11.
The picture of the New England Patriots after four games was:
2-2, losses to the eventual 6-10 Bills and 5-11 Washington, and Brady had completed 62% of his passes for 848 yards, five touchdowns, seven interceptions, 10 sacks, three fumbles, and a passer rating of 70.8.
Does that seem like a team that would win its next 15 games? (21 if you go into 2004.)
But I mean, “they got hot and dominated the rest of the way”, right? Not really.
Here are their next 15 games, succinctly:
Week 5: Trailed Titans 27-24 in the 4th quarter, won 38-30
Week 6: Beat Giants 17-6, Giants finished season 4-12; Brady went 8-of-21 for 112 yards
Week 7: Beat Dolphins 19-13 in OT on an 82-yard touchdown pass by Brady; Olindo Mare had a 35-yard field goal blocked with 2 minutes in regulation and just straight missed a 35-yard field goal attempt in overtime.
Week 8: At home vs Browns, scoring was 3-0, 3-3, 6-3, 9-3. Patriots beat a 5-11 team 9-3 without any touchdowns. It was essentially the end of Tim Couch’s career in this game, and he was replaced by Kelly Holcomb, who still had a chance to win it in the final two minutes but couldn’t.
Week 9: Beat the Broncos 30-26 on a TD pass to David Givens with :36 seconds remaining. Denver took the lead at four different times in the game but couldn’t hang on with quarterback Danny Kanell. Yes, quarterback Danny Kanell almost led his team to a win over the eventual Super Bowl champions.
Week 10: Bye
Week 11: Scored 12 points and beat the Cowboys 12-0. Dallas’s quarterback was Quincy Carter.
Week 12: Trailed the Houston Texans 20-13 in the fourth quarter. Houston’s QB was Tony Banks, making the second to last start of his career. The Patriots scored a touchdown with :40 seconds left on a 4th-and-1. The Texans had multiple opportunities to end the game in the fourth quarter, couldn’t. Threw a pick on the first play of OT, but blocked an Adam Vinatieri field goal try. Had 1st-and-10 from the NE 42, couldn’t get into FG range. Patriots win 23-20 in OT on a last second FG by Vinatieri.
Week 13: New England had a 31-10 lead in the middle of the third quarter but the Colts came back to tie it 31-31 over the course of six game minutes. Indy had 1st-and-goal from the NE 2, down 38-34, but couldn’t get it in on four tries. (3 Edgerrin James runs included.) Patriots win again.
Week 14: For the second time in four weeks, the Patriots win a game by the score of 12-0 and don’t score an offensive touchdown. It was 3-0 in the fourth quarter against the Dolphins, with Jay Fiedler throwing a pick-six to Tedy Bruschi.
Week 15: Beat the 5-11 Jaguars by a score of 27-13.
It is New England’s first win by more than seven points since Week 2. They are now 12-2 at this point. Going into Week 15, the Patriots were 13th in scoring, 4th in scoring defense, and at +60, 7th in point differential. Brady had a passer rating of 80.7 with 15 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
Week 16: Rematch against the Jets. Now having switched over to Chad Pennington, the Jets hang on to stay close in the fourth quarter but lose 21-16 after Pennington throws five interceptions, including two in the fourth quarter with the game in reach.
Week 17: Rematch against the Bills. They flip the score from Week 1, winning 31-0 as Buffalo replaced Bledsoe midgame with a player named Travis Brown. Brown had zero career starts and never played again. (His first and only pass attempt on another team came with the Seahawks in 2000.)
Patriots record: 14-2. They have the number one scoring defense and surely they are not a defense to be taken lightly, but the quarterbacks and offenses faced were what they were. Nevertheless, New England goes into the playoffs as the 1-seed and gets a bye week + home game in the divisional round.
The Patriots are 4th in DVOA, ranking behind the Kansas City Chiefs (who they didn’t have to face once all year, including in the playoffs), Titans, and Colts.
Divisional round: Rematch against Steve McNair and the Titans. Down 14-7, Tennessee elected to punt rather than attempt a 45-yard field goal with Gary Anderson, who didn’t have a single try beyond 50 all year and was 10-of-14 beyond 40. On the next drive, Anderson had a 31-yard attempt blocked by Richard Seymour. The Titans tied the game in the third quarter, but Vinatieri made it 17-14 with 4:11 left to play. A holding call negated a key pickup for McNair on the final drive, Patriots hold on to advance.
AFC Championship: “Playoff Peyton” throws a pick on each of Indy’s first two drives (including one at New England’s goal line), then a fumble/safety on Hunter Smith on drive three, and a lost fumble by Marvin Harrison on drive four. Despite this and two more picks, Manning gets the ball down 21-14 with 2 minutes left, but goes 0-for-4.
Super Bowl: If New England had “all the luck” in 2003, then the Carolina Panthers had ... “some of it also.” They went 11-5 but had three regular season wins in overtime, plus four other wins by three points or less. In the playoffs, they had another OT win, this time against the St. Louis Rams. The defense then played lights out against the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship game, 14-3 win.
Down 21-10 at the start of the fourth quarter, it looked like Carolina’s fortune was out, but 12 unanswered points (thanks to two failed 2-point conversions) gave the Panthers a 22-21 lead with under 7 minutes to play. The Patriots, with a made conversion, go up 29-22 with 2:55 remaining, but Jake Delhomme answers to tie the score with 1:13 left.
But Brady completes his last five passes and puts Vinatieri in field goal range to win the game with a 41-yarder, 32-29.
If the Panthers had made their first 2-point conversation attempt, then the score is 21-18. The ensuing touchdown would have made it 25-21 instead of 22-21. New England might score again, as they did, making it 28-25 instead of 29-22. We can play the “shoulda, woulda” game all day long, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to wonder if the Patriots second of six Super Bowl championships wasn’t helped by a potentially too-soon two-point attempt by John Fox — among many, many, many other factors.
Factors we have all completely ignored and forgotten about as the last 16 years have passed. Hell, we forgot about them after 16 minutes had passed from the end of Super Bowl XXXVIII.
We forget about it all except the championships.
The “best team” in 2003 was probably the Chiefs. They went 13-3, finished first in scoring, won six games by blowout, and featured Priest Holmes (1,420 yards, 27 touchdowns, 690 receiving), Tony Gonzalez, and Eddie Kennison around Trent Green, who was probably better at that point than Brady. Or at least, would have been regarded as better by many.
But in the divisional round against the Colts, KC forced ZERO punts as they allowed five touchdowns and a field goal on Indy’s first six drives, ultimately losing 38-31 when the defense couldn’t get off the field in the fourth quarter.
Had the Chiefs won that one game, who knows what the AFC Championship game looks like. Had KC won one more time in the regular season, or the Patriots lost any of those close games I listed above, then the seeds change and the Chiefs host the Titans instead of the Colts.
Maybe it all stays the same, maybe New England still wins the title, but the way we remember these teams remains based on how the season ended, with virtually zero attention paid to how they got there. Nobody cares if they barely beat a Panthers team that ranked 16th in DVOA that season. And if Carolina had won, nobody would have cared that they were the team that was 16th in DVOA. The 2007 and 2011 New York Giants certainly don’t care what the DVOA is, and neither do you. You care about David Tyree and Mario Manningham maybe — but only because they won.
People don’t care about Jermaine Kearse’s catch vs the Patriots. They only care about the pick at the 1 — and that’s only because of what it represents:
A Super Bowl win.
Remember that on the way to the dance, whatever that dance for the Seahawks might be this season. Nobody’s gonna care how they got there.
Things you’ll still care about it your team wins the Super Bowl:— Field Gulls (@FieldGulls) November 19, 2019
❌ W/L record
❌ Point differential
❌ MVP / awards
❌ decisions to run or pass
❌ How First round picks did
❌ Off field issues
❌ “Letting” a player leave
✅ They won the Super Bowl