It is entirely too early to say that this game could mark the beginning of some kind of franchise resurgence, but for one week anyway, the Patriots turned the tables on an opponent and won a game in a manner in which they've lost so many over the past year-and-a-half.
So maybe the 29-26 overtime win over the San Diego Chargers win before 59,093 at Foxboro Stadium is a sign of things to come and maybe it isn't. Regardless, it was a gutsy performance in a game the team had to have as it embarks on a three-game road trip. Only the coming weeks will determine if the win was a character builder, but it kept hope alive for a fragile team that feels much better at 2-3 than it would have at 1-4.
Head Coach Bill Belichick's postgame sigh as he stepped up to the podium for his press conference said it all. It was a sigh of relief for a coach that has watched his team walk off on the losing end of that game script too many times.
"Unfortunately, we've been on the other end of a couple games like this so it was really a terrific win for our football team," Belichick said. "I thought they showed a lot of courage coming back, down 10 with eight minutes to go. I'm sure there are some people who didn't think we would be able to do that, but it is a real credit to our players."
The Patriots made plenty of mistakes in digging themselves that 10-point hole with 8:48 to go, but instead of rolling over and succumbing the way 1-3 teams coming off a 5-11 season often do, they actually showed some heart, led by second-year quarterback Tom Brady and a defense that made the plays it had to make in crunch time.
With the offensive game plan calling on the first-year starter to win the game with his arm, Brady did just that, completing 33-of-54 passes for 364 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions in a performance normally reserved for established veterans teetering on stardom.
"I can't say enough about Brady," Belichick said. "We went into the game wanting to throw the ball, feeling that they are one of the toughest run defense teams in the league. Tom had a great day throwing the ball, spreading it around and getting all the receivers involved."
"Our game plan was to come out firing," Brady confirmed. "Getting the ball to Terry [Glenn], Troy [Brown] and David [Patten] ... You see what happens when they get the ball in their hands. It was a great performance by them and certainly a great performance by the offensive line. They hung in and gave me all the time in the world."
The New England Patriots take on the San Diego Chargers at Foxboro Stadium on Sunday, October 14, 2001.
Despite Brady's exploits and those of his new wide receiver, Glenn, it was the Patriots defense that made its most critical stops of the season late in the game, giving the offense a chance to stage the comeback. The surprise of the day may be that the offense actually came through on three separate occasions when a failure on any one might have sealed its chances.
The first of the two defensive stops came with 2:10 left on a third-and-one play from the Charger 40-yard line when Bryan Cox and Willie McGinest stuffed San Diego rookie running back LaDainian Tomlinson for no gain, forcing the punt that allowed the Patriots to drive to the tying score.
Then after losing the overtime coin toss, the defense forced only its third three-and-out in the game, getting the ball back for a Patriots offense poised to win the game, which it did when Adam Vinatieri avenged an earlier miss from 44 yards with the game-winner from that distance.
"When we went back out there [late in the fourth quarter], the offense told us to keep believing and they would score if we got the ball back," defensive lineman Bobby Hamilton said. "We just went out there and kept fighting. Then Bill [Belichick] made a good call and we just reacted and did what we were supposed to do."
The game was loaded with subplots as so many Patriots games seem to be. Whether it was the return of San Diego quarterback Doug Flutie to his hometown or the return of Glenn from his NFL suspension, there were plenty stories within the game. Factor in a pair of missed extra points, some horrid special teams play that included a fumble by punter Lee Johnson for a Charger touchdown and costly penalties by both teams and the game had a circus-type atmosphere.
That aside, the back-and-forth second half action provided the entertainment that has been missing in recent Patriots history. When the dust cleared and the fog rolled into Foxboro Stadium, there were five lead changes and two ties with sudden death needed to determine the winner.
"We were down, we were up, we were down, but nobody was giving up," Patten said. "I can honestly say that was one of the best experiences in a game I've had."
"You're up by seven points and the next thing you know you're in overtime," Charger linebacker and former Buffalo Bill Sam Rogers said. "Every time I come to Foxborough, we're always in overtime. Playing against New England for seven years, I know how tough it is to win up here."
A big part of the final outcome was sitting in Columbus, Ohio, for the season's first month when the Patriots went 1-3, but Glenn made his presence felt from the outset, proving his importance to an offense in desperate need of weapons.
In his first game of the season, Glenn hauled in seven passes for 110 yards including six for 97 in the first half when the offense was churning and building confidence. There is little doubt that his effort in the first 30 minutes forced coverage changes that allowed Brady to target Brown throughout the second half. Brown finished with 11 grabs for 117 yards after catching just two for 40 yards in the first half.
"It was a huge difference," Brown said in reference to Glenn's return. "I didn't know how he was going to come back. Some people come back a little rusty their first game. It was like he was playing flag football while he was away."
"I knew that I did a lot of things at home to prepare for this game," Glenn said. "I had the expectation to come out here and contribute to the team whether it was one big catch or six big ones. I wanted to contribute to the win."
Additionally, Patten's (7 receptions for 73 yards) presence as a third viable option was not available in 2000 or through four games of 2001 when Glenn was out of action.
Brady certainly spread the ball around in guiding his team to the dramatic win, hitting nine different receivers, including Cox and tight end Jermaine Wiggins, whose only catch in two weeks resulted in the game-tying touchdown in the final minute of regulation.
But while there was joy in Foxborough on this day, there also were some ugly mistakes. Very rarely will a team botch so much on special teams and come away with a win, but that is indeed what happened. Beyond his fumble for a touchdown, Johnson punted miserably, averaging just 38.8 yards on his four kicks. When he did get it downfield, the coverage was full of holes as was the case on kickoff coverage. San Diego Punt returner Tim Dwight fielded only one punt, but returned it 26 yards into Patriots territory in the fourth quarter. The Chargers returned seven kickoffs for a 30.6-yard average with their average drive starting on their 34-yard line following a Patriots kickoff. Also, three of the Patriots seven penalties came on special teams and there was a missed extra point and a missed field goal.
"We had a terrible day in the kicking game," Belichick said frankly. "We have to get that corrected or it will catch up with us."
The Johnson fumble, which Derrick Harris recovered on the 6-yard line before walking into the end zone, could have been the nail in the Patriots coffin as it put them 10 down with 8:48 to go.
"Last year we might have given up on that and said, 'Here we go with the same old [crap],' but this year is different. I'm not just saying that because we won. We will keep fighting." Hamilton said.
They did just that as Flutie lost in Foxboro Stadium for only the second time in nine professional games. Flutie played well, however, in completing 20-of-32 passes for 270 yards and a touchdown, but he was just 1-for-3 in overtime when the Chargers failed to convert a first down with the first possession in the extra session.
But Flutie being Flutie, he nearly pulled out a dramatic win after the Patriots tied the score with 36 seconds left. He completed a 24-yard pass to Curtis Conway to the Patriots 39 and then spiked the ball with one second left, setting up Wade Richey for a 59-yard field goal try that landed 5 yards short.
While Flutie had success throwing against the Patriots secondary, New England's defense stood strong against Tomlinson, the NFL's leading rusher entering the game. The star rookie runner ran 24 times for only 74 yards and failed to convert the crucial third-and-one to effectively end the game late in the fourth quarter.
"This is a good win, but we have to build on it," Cox said. "We have to get more consistent. We can't win one, lose two; we have to find a way to put some wins together."
That consistency will be hard to come by with three straight road games looming, but if this team is indeed ready to turn the corner, that stretch will provide a needed test.
2001: A Super Bowl Sound Odyssey
An aural history of the 2001 Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. The six-part podcast features interviews with over 20 players, coaches, media members and others who were there to witness this historic season, mixed with the iconic sounds that detailed every dramatic twist and turn of an unforgettable season. Every memorable moment from the 2001 Patriots season is revisited with new-found perspective 20 years later. It's a fresh and thorough look back at the team that started a football dynasty.
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