By this point in our shared NFL history, the New England Patriots’ greatness is less a notable data point and more an everlasting fact of life. You know the stats: six Super Bowl championships, nine AFC championships, 17 AFC East championships, 19 straight winning seasons.
So, yeah, the Pats are (or were) great, and Tom Brady is one of the best ever to play the game. But as the dynasty marches toward its inevitable end, and as Brady weighs his future, let’s cast our eyes back to the beginning. Let’s go full Butterfly Effect and make one tiny change: what if Touchdown Tom had never started at all for the Patriots? How would one single personnel decision change the course of NFL history and a dozen franchises? Join us as we look back through 10 crucial New England seasons....
With five minutes remaining and the Patriots down 10-3 to the Jets in the second game of the season, Drew Bledsoe tries to stretch an awkward third-and-long run into a first down. But rather than hitching up halfway through his run, Bledsoe runs straight, and darts out of bounds just before a Mo Lewis hit that, under other circumstances, would have surely knocked him out for several weeks.
Bledsoe’s backup, Tom Brady, watches from the sidelines as Bledsoe guides the Patriots to an 8-8 record — an improvement from the year before, but not good enough to make the playoffs. The Oakland Raiders, who had no need to visit New England in January and thus never got tuck-ruled out of the playoffs, knock off the St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl.
In their fourth year under Bill Belichick, the Patriots reach the playoffs, but don’t last long. Peyton Manning’s Colts decimate them en route to defeating the Panthers for Manning’s first Super Bowl.
Brady, having reached the end of his rookie contract, opts to leave New England after the 2002 season, since Bledsoe continues to block his path to the field. Brady decides to sign with Washington, hoping that he’ll be able to win a starting job against Tim Hasselbeck and Patrick Ramsey. With little competent coaching guidance to redirect his talent, he isn’t.
Again the Patriots reach the playoffs, and again they fall to a superior foe — this time the Pittsburgh Steelers, who’d gone 15-1 during the regular season. The Steelers absolutely thrash the Eagles in the Battle of Pennsylvania. Boston fans, meanwhile, are openly starting to wonder whether Bill Belichick has what it takes to win in the NFL.
Brady stumbles through another mediocre season with Washington. After long months as a free agent — there’s little clamor to sign a sixth-round career backup — he signs with Houston. He’s grown skilled at holding a clipboard behind his coach, but not much more.
Belichick had selected Matt Cassel in the seventh round of the 2005 draft, and within a season Cassel has replaced Bledsoe in the starting lineup. However, early in the 2007 season, the Patriots are caught recording a New York Jets practice. Belichick, with an unremarkable playoff record, is deemed expendable, and the Patriots fire him and promote the 31-year-old Josh McDaniels to emergency-interim head coach. Under McDaniels, a deep Patriots team that includes Randy Moss, Vince Wilfork and Asante Samuel, meets the New York Giants in the Super Bowl. A late prayer of a pass from Eli Manning to David Tyree bounces off the turf as Tyree tries to haul it in, and New England clinches its first Super Bowl victory.
Brady, meanwhile, had retired the year before. He’d returned to his hometown in California and hooked on as a stockbroker with Merrill Lynch, where he’d interned during college. They’re happy to have him on board, and they’ll mention his short stint as an NFL quarterback in his bio for five years, until he asks them to stop
The last vestiges of that 2007 championship team fade away as New England loses in the playoffs to a Tim Tebow-led Denver Broncos. Tebowmania sweeps the nation as Denver knocks off the Giants in the Super Bowl.
Bill Belichick spent one grumbly season on the CBS NFL set before heading back to the sideline, this time for the Buffalo Bills. Belichick’s presence in the same division as the team that had fired him does not elude anyone.
Brady creates the most complicated plays possible for a group of middle schoolers playing Pop Warner football near his house. They execute his ideas to perfection.
Under McDaniels, whose wunderkind aura has worn off, the Patriots drift, watching from home as Seattle runs the ball from the 1-yard line to ice their second straight Super Bowl win, this one over the Indianapolis Colts. Peyton Manning, who retired three years before because John Elway wasn’t willing to trade Super Bowl hero Tim Tebow for him, helps call the game for NBC.
Belichick, putting the pieces together in Buffalo, drafts Jimmy Garoppolo.
Brady, hanging at a Buffalo Wild Wings with his Merrill Lynch buddies after work one night, catches hell for staring too long at an Entertainment Tonight feature on the supermodel Gisele.
The Patriots are an NFL afterthought, and Boston sports fans are disgusted that they’ve only brought home one title as the city’s other three teams are racking up rings and playoff trips.
Roger Goodell, his power unchecked and unmocked since there was never any deflate-gate absurdity to sully his office, stands up to both President Trump and protesting NFL players, decreeing that The Shield’s word is law and that protests during the anthem will not be allowed, and criticism of the NFL will be disregarded. Both sides have no choice but to back down.
Belichick’s Bills make the playoffs but get knocked off by the eventual AFC champion Kansas City Chiefs. The Atlanta Falcons take a 28-3 lead over the Chiefs in the Super Bowl … and go on to win 42-3.
Belichick’s Bills have beaten the Patriots nearly every time they’ve faced one another. But they can’t quite get past Jacksonville in the playoffs. The Jaguars win one of the most unexpected titles in NFL history, defeating the Eagles when Jalen Ramsey sniffs out a special Philadelphia trick-play throw to Nick Foles just before halftime and returns it the length of the field for a touchdown.
Tom Brady watches half the game and goes to bed early. He has work the next day.
At long last, Belichick’s master plan pays off. Led by Jimmy Garoppolo, Julian Edelman and a mismatched cast, Belichick’s Buffalo Bills defeat the Los Angeles Rams for Buffalo’s first-ever Super Bowl title.
Brady drafts Garoppolo as his quarterback in the office fantasy football league.
Patriots quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick leads 4-11 New England to a Week 17 upset of Baltimore, giving Belichick, Garoppolo and Buffalo the No. 1 seed. They’ll ride that to a second straight Super Bowl championship.
At a Super Bowl watch party, Brady scrapes the last of the mango-strawberry salsa from a bowl and wonders, out loud, how much longer we’ll have to put up with Buffalo dominating the league.
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