By Matt Dolloff
BOSTON (CBS) — How does this list exist? It’s absurd.
The Patriots have played in 11 AFC Divisional Round playoff games since Bill Belichick took over as head coach and Tom Brady became the starting quarterback. And they have delivered enough memorable moments to pick out the five best games.
Most fanbases can only wish to have this kind of debate … So savor this one, New England.
With the red-hot Kansas City Chiefs coming to Foxboro for what certain dillweeds like to call the annual “Tomato Can Game,” but the reality is the Patriots have faced some formidable opponents in these games and had to come from behind or battle all the way to the final minutes to win some of them. Throughout Belichick and Brady’s tenure, these games have gone one of three ways: They lose convincingly in a disappointing effort; they win in a gut-wrenching war to the wire; or the opponent, to quote Magic Johnson, gets blew out.
This list is mostly comprised of the gut-wrenchers and heart-pounders that the Patriots ended up winning. Of course, their losses in 2005 at Denver and in 2010 at home against Rex Ryan’s Jets were memorable in negative ways, but consider this list a “safe space” for re-living Patriots divisional playoff glory. Honorable mention goes to Tom Brady’s legendarily efficient divisional round game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, which also featured perhaps the prettiest Statue of Liberty play you’ll ever see.
Again, I can’t stress enough how absurd it was to have enough divisional games to pick the five best out of the list. Check out the top five games below, and share your thoughts on the rankings (or give your own) in the comments.
5. 2011: Patriots Destroy Tebow’s Broncos, Brady Throws 6 Touchdowns And Punts The Ball
The NFL may have reached Peak Tebow down the stretch in 2011, when the quarterback almost miraculously led the Denver Broncos to a playoff berth. It grew even greater after Tebow threw a game-winning touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas in the Wild Card game to set up the Broncos for a visit to Gillette Stadium.
You know what happened from there … Tom Brady threw six touchdowns – five in the first half alone – and the Tebow-led Broncos offense couldn’t get anything going. The game reached surreal levels when Brady did a “quick kick” punt on 3rd and 10 with just over three minutes left in the game, basically telling the Broncos “We don’t need to do anything anymore, you guys just play it out.”
Then-rookie Von Miller obviously took it as a sign of disrespect and picked a fight with Dan Connolly while Robert Ayers and Matt Light had a scrum after the play. It was just a weird, ugly ending to an entertaining romp for the Patriots.
4. 2004: Patriots Defense Stymies Peyton Manning In Playoffs For Second Straight Year
Peyton Manning’s reputation as “Legendary regular season quarterback, mediocre playoff quarterback” started with his humbling playoff losses to the Patriots and Bill Belichick’s elite defense. Brady may have eventually won the debate over him vs. Manning, but there’s no question that early on in their rivalry, the Patriots defense made a huge difference.
Ty Law’s three-interception game in the 2003 AFC Championship may be the more notable example of Belichick’s defense having Manning’s number, but it was arguably worse for Manning in the 2004 Divisional Round. After a record-setting regular season in which he threw 49 touchdown passes and compiled a 121.1 passer rating, Manning was choked out to the tune of 238 yards, no touchdowns, one interception, and a 20-3 loss.
Manning eventually overcame his Belichickian demons and has beaten the Patriots the last two times he faced them in the playoffs. But his 2004 disaster is one that will stick out in New England fans’ memories.
3. 2006: Patriots Upset Favored Chargers In San Diego
Of all the down-to-the-wire, every-play-matters kind of battles that the Patriots have fought so much in the playoffs, the 2006 AFC Divisional Round win over the San Diego Chargers was arguably the most gut-wrenching. San Diego was 14-2 that season and were considered the favorite to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, while the Patriots scrapped their way to a 12-4 record with a still-sturdy defense and Brady basically making things up with the paltry offense around him.
Troy Brown’s fourth-quarter forced fumble on Marlon McCree, who inexplicably tried to gain extra yardage when simply going down would have given the Chargers a chance to clock the game away, still shines as one of the ultimate examples of why Bill Belichick is so much better than every other coach in the league. Brown was prepared for that situation and McCree played like a selfish idiot.
The fumble recovery set up the tying touchdown for the Patriots, who went on to win 24-21. In a season that felt like a massive overachievement from the get-go, the Patriots’ upset of the 14-2 Chargers stood as their finest accomplishment.
2. 2014: Patriots Come From Behind To Beat Ravens En Route To Super Bowl
Just a few minutes in, it looked bad. After a stellar regular season on both sides of the ball, led by a resurgent Tom Brady and renaissance season from hired gun Darrelle Revis, the Patriots’ Super Bowl hopes looked to be evaporating before their eyes after Joe Flacco threw the ball down New England’s throat to go up 14-0. The Ravens again went up two touchdowns early in the third quarter, and it looked like the Patriots’ greatest chance at a championship in several years was unraveling.
But that’s when Brady and the Patriots took over. Brady got the Pats back within striking distance with a touchdown pass to Rob Gronkowski, then Julian Edelman pulled off the out-of-nowhere double-pass to Danny Amendola, easily one of the most memorable trick plays in franchise history. And after the Ravens briefly took a three-point lead, Brady finished off the comeback with a beautiful touchdown pass to Brandon LaFell to give the Patriots their first lead of the game – and the only lead that mattered, the one with the clock reading zeroes.
The comeback over the Ravens gave a bit of foreshadowing to the fourth-quarter come-from-behind drives that Brady led in the Super Bowl against the Seahawks. For a Divisional Round game, it was as memorable as it gets. But it’s nothing compared to…
1. 2001: The Tuck Rule And The Snow Kick
Ahh, the game that started it all. We can save the “Tuck Rule” debates for another story. But just looking at what went down on that snowy night in Foxboro, it will be tough to top what they accomplished in the Snow Bowl against the Oakland Raiders.
The overturned fumble obviously gave the Patriots new life, as they drove down the field for Adam Vinatieri to finish it off with a tying field goal in frigid temperatures and through heavy snow. The Raiders had several more chances to stop the Patriots, even as the game rolled into overtime, but Vinatieri simply could not be held down.
Vinatieri’s kick through the snow to win the game remains arguably the most famous kick in NFL history, at least among the ones that weren’t in the Super Bowl. You know what happened later that month, and for the next 15 years.
The Divisional Round may have built up a “gimme” reputation for the Patriots over the past several years, but as you see, these games always have the potential to be unforgettable.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. His opinions do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.