Even the most optimistic Patriots fans didn't think their team's offseason shopping spree would have them back in the Big Easy for a third shot at a Super Bowl title. But five months after opening training camp in Smithfield, R.I., the Patriots are doing just that after rebuilding a roster badly in need of veteran guidance and experience.
None of the 17 free agents that signed with New England since the start of 2000 will make a trip to Hawaii next week for the annual Pro Bowl, but almost all of them contributed to the team's 11-5 record and unexpected run through the playoffs to Super Bowl XXXVI – a trip they would take over next week's any day.
Whether it was Bryan Coax pummeling Jerome Pathon in September, David Patten running, catching and throwing for a touchdown in October, Antowain Smith eclipsing the 100-yard mark three times in November or Terrell Buckley making a big interception against the Jets in December, the Patriots free agent acquisitions have helped the team rebound from a dismal 5-11 season in 2000 into AFC Champions a year later.
"The guys that we brought in all have a very similar attitude, philosophy and work ethic toward football," Head Coach Bill Belichick said, "and that's made it a pretty compatible group – one that not only gets along well together, but has respect for each other. We've really developed a good level of teamwork, not only on the playing the field, but also off the playing field. I think the players have so many things in common that allows them to function well together."
The common threads Belichick sees are maturity, selflessness, hunger and a love of football. All of those things have helped the 2001 Patriots maintain consistency, especially since November when the team began to turn the corner from pretender to contender.
It won in Atlanta in Week Eight and struggled past Buffalo the following Sunday before losing a hard-fought game to the Rams on Nov. 18. That game was the Patriots last loss of 2001 as the team romped past the Saints for the first of eight straight wins – the same streak the Rams bring to New Orleans.
Through the winning streak, the Patriots have found ways to win games in every imaginable fashion. Fred Coleman made a huge play against the Jets to get the Patriots offense going in a dramatic come-from-behind, 17-16, win on Dec. 2.
Two weeks later, Patten lay unconscious on the sideline after he fumbled the football with the Bills pouncing on it. But because Patten's head was out of bounds and his feet remained in contact with the ball, the ball was ruled out of bounds and the Patriots maintained possession and went on to take an ugly overtime win.
But that may be Patriots football in a nutshell. Wait for the opponent to make a mistake, capitalize on it and be sure not to make any of your own. Because the style of play has been successful, the players believe in it, and it shows in their on-field confidence.
But that style of play depends on players who buy into playing "team" football, which of course, the Patriots have done.
"The reason we're so successful is that we have a lot of unselfish players on this team," 11-year veteran Roman Phifer said upon arriving in New Orleans for his first Super Bowl berth in his first career trip to the playoffs. "There are no ego problems and no conflict. Everyone tries to play their role and do their part to help the team. We encourage each other and we play as a team, and that's one of the reasons we've been so successful."
Only one of the 17 players signed this year, wide receiver Charles Johnson, ever played in a Super Bowl and so there also was a hunger that allowed the veterans to sacrifice their own status for the team's success. Oftentimes, younger players aren't as willing to do that as they play to prove they belong while also looking ahead to an eventual big play day.
"Older guys have been there and seen the kind of attitude [that some young guys come in with] and know what it can do to a team and it doesn't help it," Phifer said. "But you get older guys like myself who are kind of humble and you try to teach the younger guys to stay humble and let their performance speak for itself rather than their mouth."
"I think it's a combination of a lot of veterans that have been around and haven't had [this kind of success]," offensive lineman Mike Compton said. "Like Roman Phifer … he's been in this league forever and then you have Damien Woody who is in his third year, but neither guy went to the playoffs before. Anytime you can mix veteran leadership and the enthusiasm of youth and you can bond it together and keep it going, it breeds success. I think the veterans and younger players have done a lot of growing up to make this team what it is."
Despite overcoming everyone's odds to reach this point in the season, a win Sunday against the heavily favored Rams could constitute the biggest upset in Super Bowl history. But underdog status doesn't bother the Patriots as the Pittsburgh Steelers found out the hard way, and to count them out just because the oddsmakers do once again would be foolhardy.