Don't you just hate it when your team has won four Super Bowls and you have to figure out how to best rank them? Isn't that just the WORST?
With the Patriots set to kick off their fourth championship parade through the streets of Boston this morning, I thought I would take a look back at all of the parades - and games that led to them - that preceded it. When I first got the idea to write this article, I thought it would be pretty easy; sure, every Super Bowl was special in its own way, but at the end of the day certain games simply stand out above the rest, right? This thing seemed ready to pretty much write itself. But as I started thinking more about it, the more I realized that this isn't as easy a task as I initially assumed. Each of the four Lombardi trophies that the Patriots have won were all so incredible, so unique, and so meaningful in their own way that I actually spent more time than I thought I would breaking these games down and remembering how I felt about them.
But let me tell you - what a sweet way to pass the time.
What follows are my own personal rankings of New England's Super Bowl victories. I initially thought about waiting for a little while before posting this, both to give myself some time to fully digest this latest win as well as allow us all a bit longer to just revel in the moment, but the glorious and awful truth is that the first NFL Regional Combine is this weekend, the full NFL Combine is less than two weeks away, franchise tag assignations are due in less than a month, and Free Agency officially begins in early March. Whether we like it or not, and as much as we're all going to enjoy this entire championship offseason, the 2015 league year is rapidly approaching, and it will be time to look ahead to next season before we know it. So while we're all still in the afterglow of Sunday's game and before we have to worry about what we're going to do about Revis and whether Shane Vereen has run his last wheel route as a Patriot, I thought I'd rank this latest win against all the others and see how things shook out.
I took several factors into account: the quality of the game, the overall climate of the season, the overall impact of that particular Super Bowl on the New England Patriots' narrative, and my own personal reaction to it. Obviously, this is just my own opinion, and you can certainly make a case for switching the order of these wins up. But that's the beauty of an offseason following a Super Bowl victory. We get to debate topics like this, over and over, for the next seven months.
4. Super Bowl XXXVIII, February 1, 2004. Patriots 32, Panthers 29. The second Patriots victory in three years saw Tom Brady lead yet another game-winning scoring drive to put New England up by 3 with less than five seconds left to play. It was a game dominated by defense, that saw no points followed by an explosion of points, and the win came once again on the leg of a kicker who is usually automatic, but was off for most of that game. The win put that Tom Brady guy in the conversation of whether we're witnessing one of the great ones emerging, and just the faintest whispers of the word "dynasty" could be heard circulating around the country. The Patriots had not yet evolved into the Evil Empire they would become, and still remained a fairly likable group of lunch-pail players that fought hard and bought fully into the system. And I had not yet evolved into the neurotic, illogical, obsessive, borderline certifiable nutjob I am today; I was still very much riding the initial high of rooting for a team that had actually won a world championship in my lifetime, and I enjoyed every up and down of that game in a way I never would again. I look back on that Super Bowl now the same way I look back on my childhood - just a naive little fool with no idea how much harder everything is going to get in just a few years, perfectly content to just enjoy the simple things in life and live in the moment.
3. Super Bowl XXXIX, February 6, 2005. Patriots 24, Eagles 21. While this Super Bowl wasn't as exciting as the one the Patriots had won just the year before, it was the one that established their dynasty and put them in the conversation as possibly one of the greatest franchises this sport has ever seen. Once again the defense was dominant, and once again the margin of victory came down to a field goal, but the Patriots took a 10 point lead with less than nine minutes left to play, and the score was never in doubt - particularly when Josh Miller downed a punt inside the Philadelphia five yard line to make an Eagles comeback all but impossible. But the fact that New England won their previous two in a more nail-biting fashion didn't matter, as the Pats now had taken three of the last four and were back-to-back Super Bowl champs. Everyone watching that game knew that they were witnessing something special, and as Tom Brady hoisted his third Lombardi, his status as a Hall of Famer was set in stone and, perhaps for the first time, Patriots Nation fully appreciated just what they had in their quarterback. This was also the game, looking back on it now, where I was officially down the rabbit hole with absolutely no chance of ever going back to the fan I once was. This team had given me so much for so long, and as I lit the victory cigar I didn't want and pretended to enjoy it as I sat on the couch celebrating with my friends, I made a silent, subconscious, irreversible blood oath in which I pledged my heart and soul to the New England Patriots beyond anything that should ever be expected from a rational human being.
2. Super Bowl XLIX, February 1, 2015. Patriots 28, Seahawks 24. It's very hard to overstate just how important this game was, not only to the Patriots, but to Tom Brady. The difference between a win and a loss for Tommy B was absolutely monumental, whether it should have been or not, and because of a play for which Brady wasn't even on the field, the conversation is not where does he rank on the All Time list, but rather whether or not he is the single greatest player ever to don a helmet. Right or wrong, for better or worse, that was the narrative. And the way the win happened, the nonsense in the weeks leading up to it, the season that preceded it, the playoffs that got the Patriots to where they were, the quality of the game overall, everything about it was just...otherworldly. With the final whistle of Super Bowl XLIX came the lifting of an absolutely massive weight off the collective shoulders of Patriots Nation, as the status of their quarterback and head coach could no longer be questioned. The legacy, already secure, was now elevated above the pantheon of greatness into the realm of immortality. Anything that happens from here on out is now just extra. When the chips were down, when the pressure was greatest, when Tom Brady needed to be at his most superb, he answered the bell and then some, having a fourth quarter for the ages and erasing the largest 2nd half deficit in Super Bowl history against a defense that was the subject of debates regarding where it ranked on the All-Time list. It was a win that was almost a loss, a loss that so closely mirrored the most heartbreaking defeat any of us will ever know. But where it has come up short in the past, the New England defense delivered in spectacular fashion, the hero of the game the ultimate example of The Patriot Way - an undrafted rookie who worked hard, took advantage of the opportunities he was given, and earned the right to take the field on the world's biggest stage and make the play that would forever cement him in the grand lexicon of Boston sports lore. The game was an instant classic, one of the best Super Bowls in NFL history, and one in which the Patriots emerged victorious after a full decade of coming so devastatingly close. Robert Kraft, as he received the trophy for the fourth time, said that this victory felt just as immense as the first, and it's very, very difficult to disagree with him.
1. Super Bowl XXXVI, February 3, 2002. Patriots 20, Rams 17. This one almost lost out to this past Sunday's game. It really did. I flip-flopped back and forth on this quite a bit. But ultimately I just couldn't allow anything to take away from what this win meant to me. It's easy to forget, based on everything that has happened since, that this was a game that the Patriots supposedly had no business being in. A game they were supposed to lose by at least two touchdowns. A game that was supposed to usher in a new era of dominance with the St. Louis Rams. It's also easy to forget that I, as a Patriots fan, was at that time just so happy to actually have my team in the Super Bowl that I actually enjoyed the game for a change. But then...well, we all know what happened. We can all remember exactly where we were, what we were wearing, and how we felt as that ball sailed through the uprights on that cold February night. And nothing, to me at least, will ever compare to that first win. And it wasn't just the victory itself, to be honest; everything about that game - about that entire year - was absolutely magical. What started out as a time full of the excitement and eager anticipation that accompanies the opening of every football season quickly turned to shock, fear, and sorrow as we all witnessed one of the greatest tragedies ever to occur on American soil. And in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, attacks that stopped even the NFL from going live for a week, the entire nation ultimately turned to football to help get us all through. For a brief period, fan loyalty and team allegiance didn't matter. Scores and records were unimportant. We were all just Americans, proud as hell of who we were and ready to start picking up the pieces in whatever ways that we could. And one of the ways we could do that was to celebrate one of our greatest joys - the National Football League. So we all threw ourselves into it. We were all ready to follow our beloved Patriots, led by the immortal Drew Bledsoe, through hell and high water. And then, just as things were slowly starting to return to normal, Mo Lewis took out our hero and left our football destiny in the hands of some skinny kid from Michigan that nobody had ever heard of. What happened next needs no description, as it is all etched in stone, and will forever be etched in stone, upon our collective memory. An improbable run. A playoff bye. A blizzard. A tuck. An impossible field goal. A trip to New Orleans. An unstoppable offense. A group of men who wanted to be introduced as a team. A masterful game plan. A pick six. A drive. A Troy Brown crossing route. And then, as the clock wound down and as time expired, a 48 yard Adam Vinatieri kick that left me sobbing on my knees in the middle of a crowded fraternity house as the city of Providence erupted around me. Nothing will ever compare to that game, that season, or that feeling, ever again. And that's OK with me. Because it happened. And it's something I can carry with me always.
So that's my list. Feel free to agree or disagree at will. It's the kind of debate I'll take every single time.
And just in case anyone on the Patriots is reading this right now: these lists work significantly better as a Top 5. Or better yet, a Top 10. Just throwing it out there...