HOUSTON – It was the decision that almost ended the New England Patriots' season before it even started. Five days before the season opener coach Bill Belichick cut Pro Bowl safety and captain Lawyer Milloy. There was dissension in the locker room. The Pats went out and lost 31-0 to Buffalo.
At that moment, the epicenter of the Patriots' problem was the secondary. It was the unit without its leader. New England was gambling on rookie safety Eugene Wilson to fill Milloy's shoes.
"Eugene was an experiment," defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel said. "We were not certain how it would turn out."
The whole thing, the whole season was in question. How the secondary went, it could be argued, was how the Patriots would go, too.
Here we are five months later, New England facing Carolina in its second Super Bowl in three years, the Pats winners of 14 consecutive games. And the secondary? It has turned into the strength of the defense and may provide a key to victory in Sunday's game.
Cornerbacks Ty Law and Tyrone Poole have developed into "the best cover tandem I have ever been around," Belichick said. Free-agent safety Rodney Harrison has stepped into Milloy's role as veteran emotional leader and big hit specialist.
"He came in and did some things that (made me) say, 'Man, that's Lawyer Milloy with a different number,' " Law said. "He hits anything that moves."
Then there was Wilson, who showed in training camp he was fast and talented, but he was just months removed from the University of Illinois. He's developed into a space-covering stud.
"It says a lot about his ability and his willingness to study," Crennel said.
The secondary has helped the Pats beat the league's co-MVPs – Tennessee's Steve McNair and Indianapolis' Peyton Manning – in the playoffs. In those two games the secondary racked up five interceptions and allowed just two touchdown passes. in the playoffs.
Now they face a run-intensive Carolina offense. But the ability of Law and Poole to cover in man situations will allow Belichick move eight men into the box to stop the Panthers' hard-charging running back, Stephen Davis. If the Patriots can control Davis, it is difficult to envision them losing.
"[The secondary has] been doing an excellent job all season," defensive lineman Richard Seymour said. "When you have two lock-down corners it gives the defense a lot of flexibility. They lock the guy down one-on-one and then Rodney can blitz, Eugene can blitz. It allows our linebackers a lot of range."
Said linebacker Tedy Bruschi, "There [were] certain games this year all we did was play man coverage. [We were] doing it because they lock guys down. Then you can continue to be aggressive because you can trust they are not going to miss a tackle, you can trust they are not going to get beat for 50, 60 yards."
Maybe best of all, the secondary has helped heal the wounds from releasing Milloy. After the Buffalo game everyone vowed to put it behind him, but that became a lot easier when the secondary started playing so well. Harrison and Wilson stepping into their roles proved to skeptics that Belichick knew what he was doing.
Had they failed, who knows what the mentality would be or how quickly all would have been forgiven?
"I was one of the guys vocal about it at the beginning, but you have to realize it was all done for a reason," Bruschi said. "I couldn't see the Patriots without Lawyer Milloy. But you see how this organization works. It is whatever is best for the team."
Law, who remains extremely close to Milloy, has put together perhaps his best season as a pro. His three picks of Manning in the AFC title game, two of which were exceptional plays, were a key to New England getting here.
"I probably took it harder because my closeness with [Milloy]," Law said. "But I just decided I wanted to go out there and do my job and shut down half the field."
He's taken care of one half, Poole the other. And Harrison and Wilson have taken care of the rest.
The Patriots' great concern of Week 1 is their great strength on Super Bowl Sunday, a turn of events that was not easy to envision that September day in Buffalo.