BOSTON (CBS) — Football is most often associated with Thanksgiving, but the NFL is also known to deliver some great gridiron battles just in time for Christmas. The Patriots have certainly had their share of memorable Christmastime clashes in the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era alone, some of which carried playoff implications.
They’ll have another meaningful Christmastime showdown against the New York Jets on Saturday night, Christmas Eve. No, the Jets are not a significant threat to beat the Patriots, but Brady & Co. still have good reason to make sure they come out of Saturday night with a win. They would have a chance to clinch home-field advantage in the AFC Playoffs if they can get the W and the Oakland Raiders lose. That would be one heck of a good early Christmas present for the team and the fans.
It’s imperative that the Patriots keep their foot on the gas and secure the win on Christmas Eve, rather than run the risk of landing in a must-win situation against the Dolphins to clinch home-field in Week 17. So expect another superlative effort from the Patriots on Christmas Eve, as has become the norm for the team under Belichick and Brady at this time of year.
Here are the Patriots’ five best early Christmas presents of the Belichick-Brady era …
Dec. 20, 2003: Patriots 21, Jets 16
Tom Brady wasn’t quite Tom Brady yet, but his legend was growing rapidly in 2003 as the Patriots continued to steamroll their schedule and make a big statement to the league that they were not just a one-year wonder. Ty Law was most certainly Ty Law, however, and he and the Patriots defense turned out to be the heroes in this one, as they were for most of the time in the Patriots’ first three championship seasons.
Almost every time then-Jets quarterback Chad Pennington had a chance to get the Jets back in the game, he set them back. He threw an incredible five interceptions in the game, the first of which went to Tedy Bruschi on the Jets’ opening drive. Pennington started off the third quarter by throwing a pick-six to Willie McGinest.
With the Jets down 21-10 and a chance to get the Jets back in the game, he took a shot at the end zone for Santana Moss only to be picked off by Law in the end zone (pictured above). And on the Jets’ final drive of the game, safety Eugene Wilson sealed the win with yet another interception with under a minute left.
Dec. 23, 2007: Patriots 28, Dolphins 7
For the 2007 Patriots, winning by three touchdowns felt like an off day. Besides a 21-point explosion in the second quarter, the Pats offense didn’t get a whole lot going on this day against the Dolphins in Miami, where Tom Brady has historically struggled. But that was all the Patriots needed, as Dolphins quarterback Cleo Lemon had as bad a day as any young QB has had against Bill Belichick’s defense.
Lemon was laughably inefficient, going 18-for-41 passing and ending up with a 64.2 passer rating that actually sounds a bit high, considering the results. Brady wasn’t that much better, going 18-for-33 (55 percent) with 215 yards, three touchdowns, and two interceptions. But in a span of about 10 minutes of game action, he threw two touchdowns and Laurence Maroney added a 59-yard score on the ground to put the Patriots up 28-0 on their way to the 28-7 win.
The Patriots hit 15-0 at that time, and while the season certainly didn’t end like Patriots fans hoped, the journey to the end was as exciting to watch as any in the Belichick-Brady era.
Dec. 21, 2008: Patriots 47, Cardinals 7
This is the only game on the list that didn’t involve Brady, but there’s good reason to spotlight it. That’s not just because Karlos Dansby accused the Patriots of messing with the Cardinals’ headsets during the game … the game was one of the most complete victories in Belichick’s tenure and was the “signature win” of a season that saw the Patriots go 11-5 and miss the playoffs.
The Cardinals, who eventually went to the Super Bowl that year, were just 8-6 heading into the game and couldn’t exactly afford to lose. They couldn’t get anything going on that snowy afternoon, as quarterback Kurt Warner was a positively putrid 6-for-18 passing with just 30 yards before giving way to Matt Leinart, who didn’t do much better (6-for-14, 138 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception).
The Patriots, meanwhile, scored points on nine of their first 10 drives of the game (five touchdowns, four field goals). Cassel threw for 345 yards and three touchdowns with no picks, the immortal Lamont Jordan punched in two scores, and Stephen Gostkowski had a perfect day kicking the ball. In a massive blizzard. Makes you wonder what the Brady-less Pats could have done if they were able to sneak into the playoffs …
Dec. 24, 2011: Patriots 27, Dolphins 24
For one reason or another, the Patriots don’t always get the best out of Tom Brady when they play in Miami. The problem was especially glaring in the 2011 season, when the offense was its usual dominant self but the defense ranked near the bottom of the league in several statistical categories. It very nearly reared its ugly head in a Christmas Eve showdown with the Dolphins.
The Patriots had one of the worst first-half performances in the Belichick-Brady era, as the offense punted on its first six possessions in a row and ended it with a missed field goal by Stephen Gostkowski. The defense, meanwhile, allowed two long touchdown drives to the Dolphins and quarterback Matt Moore. The Patriots’ 17-0 halftime deficit felt insurmountable.
Well, that’s precisely when the game completely flipped on its head. The Patriots scored 27 unanswered points in the second half, including three touchdowns for Brady – two of the rushing variety. The Dolphins’ second-half possessions went fumble, punt, interception, punt before they scored a touchdown with under two minutes in regulation, but the score was too little, too late. The Patriots had completed what at the time was the second-biggest second-half comeback of Brady’s career.
Dec. 22, 2013: Patriots 41, Ravens 7
Starved for revenge after a frustrating loss to the Ravens on their home field in the 2012 AFC Championship Game, the Patriots marched into Baltimore on a mission to reverse their troubles against the team that has long been Brady and Belichick’s most consistently formidable foe. The depleted Patriots offense had evolved into a rushing-heavy attack after mostly struggling to move the ball over the course of the 2013 season, but the ground attack really boosted them in this game, one of the most convincing Christmastime wins in Patriots history.
The Patriots rushed 34 times for 142 yards, including two touchdowns for LeGarrette Blount, compared to just 26 pass attempts for Tom Brady (he completed just 14 of those attempts). They scored points on three of their first four possessions to go up 17-0 and that would be more than enough, as the Ravens didn’t score a touchdown until there were just over 12 minutes left in the fourth quarter.
The game was certainly an outlier in the usually tight, suspenseful battles between the Patriots and Ravens. But it was also a fresh reminder of what has made the Patriots so consistently great over the course of Bill Belichick’s tenure. They are usually playing their best football by the end of the season into late-December and January, and it’s resulted in plenty of great wins just in time for the holidays.
There’s a good chance the Patriots add another early Christmas present to the Boston sports wish list when they play the Jets on Christmas Eve 2016.