By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — It’s Week 13 of an always-eventful football season in New England. The Hall of Fame quarterback is hobbled, the star tight end is undergoing surgery that will likely end his season, postseason home-field advantage remains up for grabs, and the Super Bowl focus of the six-state region is a bit fuzzy at this exact moment in time.
That is, of course, to be expected. After seeing the Patriots succeed for so long, accomplishments that otherwise might get celebrated in other NFL locales — winning 10 games, securing a home playoff game, winning a single playoff game, setting some statistical records — just don’t put a charge into the team or its fanbase around here. It’s only natural.
But this week, with the Rams visiting Foxboro, and with the Patriots holding a celebration for the 15th anniversary of their franchise-altering upset victory in Super Bowl XXXVI, it’s now the perfect time to take a step out of the present and take a broader look at everything that’s taken place since that fateful night in New Orleans.
First, go back to even earlier than 2001, because that was the year the Patriots were supposed to be moving to Hartford. In 1998, a deadline of June 15, 2001 was set for a new waterfront stadium in the city of Hartford. That deal eventually fell apart, and the Patriots recommitted to the town of Foxboro with the announcement in 2000 that CMGI Field would be up and running by 2002.
That was good news. The bad news? Newly hired head coach Bill Belichick was not off to the greatest start. He inherited a team that had gone 27-21 over three years under Pete Carroll, and he promptly went 5-11. Morale was not too high — and it only dropped when the 2001 season began with two straight losses to the Bengals and Jets. And, much like some folks are feeling now regarding the injury to Rob Gronkowski, there was dread that the Patriots were going to be without their best and most important offensive player for the remainder of the season.
That is, famously, when everything changed.
“Coach Bill Belichick said second-year pro Tom Brady, a sixth-round draft choice from Michigan, will start Sunday, when the Patriots (0-2) host Peyton Manning and the undefeated Colts,” reads the Hartford Courtant article from September 2001.
“[The offense] won’t be quite as expanded as it was with Drew,” Belichick explained at the time. “But Tom and Damon [Huard] can both run the offense.”
As fate would have it, Brady really could run that offense.
He and the Patriots would go on to win 14 of the next 17 games, capped off with the unexpected upset of the Greatest Show On Turf, the St. Louis Rams, in Super Bowl XXXVI.
It was the Rams, really, who helped the Patriots reach that next level. Though the Patriots couldn’t manage to come away with a win when the potent Rams visited Foxboro for a Sunday night affair in mid-November, they more than held their own against the consensus best team in the NFL. The Patriots ended up losing by seven, in the process getting served a lesson on the areas in which they needed to improve, but also getting a confidence boost in knowing they could compete with the NFL’s best on a grand stage.
That would be the final loss of the year for Belichick’s team.
When the rematch took place for Super Bowl XXXVI, the prevalent feeling in New England was that the Patriots’ chances of victory remained relatively low. At the same time, merely making an incredible postseason run through the Snow Bowl vs. Oakland and the victory in Pittsburgh represented such unexpectedly rapid progress that the third Super Bowl appearance in franchise history was significant in and of itself.
But, when Rams receiver Ricky Proehl leaned in to a camera and said, “Tonight, a dynasty is born, baby,” he turned out to be absolutely correct. He just had the wrong team.
The Patriots, as you might have heard by now, won that game. Since that date, here’s what the Patriots have accomplished, among other things:
They’ve gone 180-55 in the regular season. That’s a .766 winning percentage. They’ve also captured the division crown 12 out of a possible 14 times, and they are on their way to a 13th (and eighth consecutive) this season.
They became the first team to finish a season with a perfect 16-0 record.
They’ve gone 19-9 in the postseason, making five more Super Bowls (2003, 2004, 2007, 2011, 2014) and winning three of them. Their only missed postseason appearances came after seasons with 9-7 and 11-5 records.
They’ve finished with a winning record in 15 straight seasons, and they’re one win shy of securing double-digit win totals for the 14th straight year.
They have sold out every single game in their new stadium, which opened in 2002.
They’ve had the same head coach for every single game.
Now, considering the Rams were just two years removed from their own Super Bowl victory back in 2001, they were supposed to be the dynasty born that night in New Orleans. Instead, here’s how they have fared since losing Super Bowl XXXVI:
They’ve gone 87-147-1 in the regular season. That’s a .370 winning percentage. They’ve won their division once in 15 years. That’s all despite selecting a player with either the No. 1 or No. 2 overall pick five times since 2008.
They went 1-15 in 2009, and they went 6-42 from 2007-09. They’ve finished seasons with double-digit losses six times.
They’ve played in just three total playoff games, winning just once. Their most recent playoff appearance came after an 8-8 season in 2004. They lost to the Falcons, 47-17. That postseason appearance came after an 8-8 regular season.
They have gone head-to-head with the Patriots three times. They have gone 0-3. They have been outscored 108-45.
They drafted quarterback Sam Bradford with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. He played just 49 games for the team, posting a 79.3 passer rating and leading the Rams to just 18 total victories.
They struggled to entice fans to attend games, which partially contributed to the team being moved out of St. Louis and back to Los Angeles this past offseason.
They’ve had six different head coaches.
Even now, with the Patriots currently dealing with the loss of Gronkowski, they’re still 9-2, with a relatively soft schedule remaining. A 12-4 record this year is a worst-case scenario. The Rams, meanwhile, sit at 4-7. Their head coach can’t name his opponent’s running backs. They’ve shown little faith in their No. 1 overall pick quarterback. Ratings and attendance numbers are not soaring.
Really, “doomsday” for the Patriots in 2016 is either an AFC Championship Game loss or a Super Bowl loss. Out in L.A., the Rams are just trying to win six games. They’ll probably fail in that endeavor.
At this point, the Patriots’ unparalleled success is well known. And it’s discussed often. But this week, when the Rams take the field, it’s worth taking an extra beat to step back and realize how remarkable the past 15 years have been for this football team.
Both the Rams and the Patriots have come a long, long way since they played at Foxboro Stadium, a sad hunk of concrete full of aluminium benches, where bitterness outweighed hope and very little ever seemed to go right for the home team. The Rams visited Foxboro in 2001 as an absolute powerhouse, well on their way to a second championship in three years. They beat the Patriots just like they were supposed to. A couple of months later, they weren’t quite as lucky.
A dynasty was indeed born. It then grew up, aged into maturity, and never once took a break over the course of 15 years — and counting — as a dominant power in the NFL.
They’ve defied the NFL’s steadfast quest for “parity.” They’ve overcome the ever-present football reality of injuries. They’ve navigated the challenges of a salary cap league. They’ve gotten some bad bounces, to be sure, but they’ve received their fair share of good fortune, too.
In the day-to-day madness that is the NFL, the short-term challenges and single-season goals always dominate the weekly conversation surrounding any team. But with the Rams visiting Foxboro to serve as the perfect contrast to how fleeting success can be in the NFL, with Drew Bledsoe and Lawyer Milloy and Antowain Smith and Tebucky Jones and Otis Smith and Roman Phifer and David Patten and many other members of the ’01 team being honored, and with Brady still taking those snaps under center and making the case even at 39 years old as the best quarterback in football, this weekend really ought to put in perspective how incredible Belichick’s Patriots have been for so long.