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Who's #1? (Part II)

By Patriots Blog Writer Doug Cutler Jr.

(This is part two of a two-part column)

First, a word about the Super Bowl

I keep hearing from people in the media that this was the best Super Bowl ever. It was a good game, for sure, but one impeccable quarter (the fourth) does not a complete game make. For sheer, all encompassing drama, no Super Bowl tops XXV. From two heavyweights pounding each other, to Desert Storm, to Buffalo lining up to attempt a game-winning field goal after a furious comeback, that game had everything, including a pre-zombie Whitney Houston with those marvelous pipes banging out the national anthem. That was a contest for the ages.

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I need to tell you that while I didn’t have a favorite in the game and don’t think 9-7 teams should be in the NFL championship game…I think the Cardinals got jobbed by the officiating. Between a phantom roughing the passer call to ticky-tack fouls on Arizona defensive backs to James Harrison not getting ejected to no penalty for Santonio Holmes using the football as a prop after his scintillating touchdown, Pittsburgh absolutely was the beneficiary of some suspect officiating. Again.

In the end, I appreciated the resiliency of both teams and even though he lost, I think Kurt Warner still punched his ticket to Canton with his performance against the #1 defense in the NFL.

Last week we started the discussion of which Patriots Super Bowl team was the best of the bunch. After seeding all six teams into a playoff format we saw the third seeded 2004 Pats beat the sixth seeded 1985 team by exploiting Tony Eason and clubbing him like a baby seal.

2004 Patriots: 27 1985 Patriots: 13

We also witnessed the battle of the Bills (Parcells and Belichick) when the 1996 squad sought to erase its Super Bowl loss by beating the first Patriots team to win one. In an epic contest of iron wills, the game went into overtime and was capped by an Adam Vinatieri field goal…for Bill Belichick’s ’01 team.

2001 Patriots: 31 1996 Patriots: 28

Now that the wild card round is in the can, we move on to the divisional round, the semi-finals, and our two match-ups are 2003 vs. 2004 and 2007 vs. 2001.

2003 vs. 2004

Here we pit two nearly identical teams against each other. In fact, the similarities between the two are so pervasive it’d make more sense if we listed the few obvious differences. The most drastic change was the addition of Corey Dillon in ’04 compared to the small army of running backs that were utilized in ’03. After that, you are scraping the bottom of the barrel looking for concrete differences in personnel.

In an abstract sense, you could say the ’03 team had more of an underdog “us against the world” mentality than in ’04, especially considering that at the time the Patriots were coming off a non-playoff 9-7 2002 season and most of the football universe still believed the Super Bowl win in ’01 was a fluke. After the ’03 team finished its championship run, ’04 players couldn’t legitimately claim underdog status anymore, try as they might. And boy, did they try.

So here we are, left with two nearly identical offenses. Both are led by Tom Brady, both sets of receivers are largely the same, and both offensive lines are pretty much the same as well. The only significant roster variation is the aforementioned Dillon at running back. Armed with this knowledge, how does one pick a winner? Is Dillon that much of a difference maker, all else being equal?

To find our answer, I think we need to pay homage to the old adage about defense winning championships. “But both defenses were staffed by the same players,” you say? True, but which unit played better? ’03 or ’04? Let’s take a look. In ’03, the Patriots held opponents to single digit points five times, three going for shut-outs and none yielding a single touchdown. That’s some serious defensive mojo going on in 2003. How about ’04? Well, they also had five games where they held opponents to single digit points. However, they had no shut-outs and only once did they not give up a touchdown.

Rushing defense tells the same story. In ’03, opponents were held to fewer than 100 yards 11 times with the largest total yielded that year being 119. The ’04 team was a few ticks off that pace by holding nine teams under 100 yards rushing but twice gave up 200 yards or more.

This tells me that while the 2004 offense could run the ball a little better than in 2003, the ’03 defense put the hammer down harder and with more consistency than the ’04 defense could. Add in the underdog mentality the guys had in 2003 and I believe they win a low scoring game punctuated more by exceptional defense than Corey Dillon.

2003 Patriots: 13 2004 Patriots: 10

2007 vs. 2001

Sorry folks, but this one’s the laugher. I know, I know, the ’01 Patriots should get more respect for actually being Super Bowl champs, especially while playing against a team that didn’t finish the year with a win, but on no level do I see the ’01 team beating ’07.

2007 Patriots: 35 2001 Patriots: 9

Championship Game: 2007 vs. 2003

Here it is. #1 vs. #2. 16-0 vs. 14-2. Record-breaking offense vs. a very stingy #1 ranked defense. Can the ’03 defense slow down (or stop) the ’07 offense? Is the ’03 offense strong enough to score the points it needs to keep up?

In the first quarter, I see Brady leading ’07 to two scoring drives, one for a touchdown and one for a Gostkowski field goal. They are long drives that eat up the clock with short passes and strategic runs. Wes Welker goes nuts running under routes while Randy Moss gets blanketed by Ty Law and either Rodney Harrison or Eugene Wilson.

For his part, Brady ’03 isn’t so lucky. He also has his opportunities but each one stalls around mid field. There is virtually no running game for him to fall back on so it’s all on his shoulders at this point.

The second quarter is more of the same with Welker chewing up the clock with his short receptions and a few runs mixed in by Laurence Maroney. There aren’t many rushing yards to be gained against this ’03 defense and he pays a stiff price every time he touches the ball. Given his history, you’ve got a better chance of toilet training a wildcat than seeing Maroney finish this game with his pads still on.

’03 closes out the first half with a late Vinatieri field goal to pull within seven points.

In the second half, the ’03 defense is unyielding, giving up nothing. Conversely, the ’07 defense hasn’t stopped locking down the ’03 offense either. The biggest development is Harrison knocking Moss out of the game with a vicious hit and the game goes into the fourth quarter with the same score it had at halftime: 10-3.

Now facing a fourth quarter without its best two backs (Maroney and ‘07’s best running back, Sammy Morris, who missed most of the year with a chest injury) and most dangerous deep threat (Moss is still on the sideline replying “Thursday” to questions about how many fingers the trainers are holding up), ’07 is forced to rely exclusively on a short ball control passing game. Even with everybody headhunting for him, Welker takes it in for a 17-3 lead with just minutes to go.

After the ensuing kickoff, Brady ’03 connects on five straight passes to five different receivers (Troy Brown, Daniel Graham, David Givens, Deion Branch, and Kevin Faulk) and scores a much-needed touchdown on the play to the versatile Faulk. The score is now 17-10 at the two minute warning.

With that, ’03 kicks the ball off and watches as Ellis Hobbs takes it all the way for the score to put ’07 up for good.

2007 Patriots: 24 2003 Patriots: 10

Readers: What do you think is the best Patriots Super Bowl team? Why?


  1. Well another great article Doug, I think it's hard to play something like that out. It's doing a lot of guessing, but I think you got it right with your take on your column of the PATS superbowl teams playoff! I get sick of listening to "PATS TALK" around New England (go figure)but your articles make me think. You got it right on the superbowl too, and although I agree with your take, I will say that PITT is tough and good enough to stay with or beat any team on any given day. Big Ben continues to prove himself more every year!

  2. Good stuff, Doug.

    I absolutely agree the Cards got jobbed, and at least a few of you will call a spade a spade.

    While I'm a huge Texans fan, the reality is this: Tom Brady steps on the field next year and the Pats are automatically favored to win the Super Bowl. The QB situation reminds me a little bit of Montana/Young, although Cassell isn't Young yet.

    In all seriousness, last year's Pats team was the best, and if they played the Giants the Pats would win 8-9 out of 10 games.

    Great writing, keep up the good work!


  3. I told you that was gonna happen!

  4. In on 1...

    Oh teh noes!


    It's Bushs' fault...

  5. I agree with you on the superbowl, but I will say that the 01 superbowl was by far the the best game that I have ever seen in my time.

  6. Another great article! I hope you are getting paid for this stuff!

  7. agreed, takes more to make a spectacular game......finally, a writer who says it like it is....