There's just something about the Top 3, regardless of what you're ranking, that generates all kind of excitement. We can probably trace it all back to the Olympics, with those gold, silver, and bronze medals shining proudly up on the podium. Whatever it is, the Top 3 are really where it's at. Yes, a Top 10 list is fun, and everyone has their Top 5 in almost every category, but when it's really time to separate the wheat from the chaff, you only have room for three.
And when it comes to the Top 20 Most Memorable Patriots Moments of 2016, given the quality of the list so far:
20. The New England Patriots trade Jamie Collins to Cleveland for a bag of peanuts.
19. LeGarrette Blount runs through the entire Seahawks line on his way to the end zone.
18. A Chris Long strip sack helps to ice the game against the New York Jets.
17. The Patriots defense shuts down Trevor Siemian and the Denver Broncos on the road.
16. LeGarrette Blount owns Byron Maxwell with an epic hurdle.
15. A different kind of Malcolm Go highlights a convincing road win against the San Francisco 49ers.
14. Chris Hogan finds some nice redemption against his old team in the form of a beautiful 53 yard TD.
13. Shea McClellin leaps the line to block a FG against the Baltimore Ravens.
12. LeGarrette Blount sets a franchise record with his 15th rushing TD of the year against the Denver Broncos.
11. Tom Brady hits Chris Hogan for a 79 yard TD to ice the game against the Baltimore Ravens.
10. Rob Gronkowski sets a Patriots All-Time receiving TD record by notching his 69th against the Buffalo Bills.
9. A kickoff return for a TD highlights a historic night for Dion Lewis in the AFC Divisional Round against the Houston Texans.
8. Dont'a Hightower blows up Andy Dalton for a safety to give the Patriots some much-needed momentum against the Cincinnati Bengals.
7. Michael Floyd decapitates Tony Lippett to spring Julian Edelman for a 77 yard touchdown.
6. A Jacoby Brissett naked bootleg highlights a Thursday night shutout of the Houston Texans.
5. Tom Brady returns from suspension to the tune of 406 yards and 3 TDs in an absolute beatdown of the Cleveland Browns.
4. Tom Brady becomes the winningest quarterback in NFL history by notching win #201 against the Rams.
You know that we have some amazing stuff coming our way. And kicking off the Top 3 are a few highlights that I'm sure you have all watched hundreds of times this offseason.
3. A flea flicker and a rumbling run help send the Patriots to yet another Super Bowl.
Yawn. Yet another AFC Championship appearance for the New England Patriots. What is considered an amazing achievement for every other team in the league is more or less expected for Tommy B and crew. The opponent has changed, and the outcome is never a certainty, but most people pencil in the Patriots to be playing in the 2nd to last game of the year before the season even starts. And 2016 was no different.
The matchup? The Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers had just beaten the Chiefs on the road in an ugly game that saw Chris Boswell hit a playoff record six field goals as Pittsburgh secured a victory without ever finding the end zone. New England had come off a sloppy home win over a surprisingly resurgent Texans team in which the offense looked rusty, the defense looked slow, and had Houston had more certainty at quarterback, the outcome could very well have been different. The hope was that the Patriots had shaken off that playoff rust and would get off to a much hotter start, as Ben Roethlisberger is one of the best quarterbacks in the league.
And shake off the rust they did. The Patriots had nine total possessions in the game (11 if you count end of half/end of game kneeldowns), and they scored on 7 of them. The Steelers, on the other hand, scored on only 3 of their 10 possessions, courtesy of stifling defense, uncharacteristic drops, and a bit of bad luck when LeVeon Bell went out early with a knee injury. Although DeAngelo Williams filled in admirably, the Steelers simply didn't have an answer for a lot of what the Patriots did. The game was as close as 10-6 in the first quarter, but when the Patriots scored on their very next possession to make it 17-6, the game was more or less over at that point.
There are some scores that have larger impacts than others, either because of the points they accrue or the way in which the points come. A pick-six, for example, can totally swing the momentum of a game, as can a long bomb for a score. Sometimes, when the offense makes a big play that ends in points, it can take the wind out of a defense's sails and make it hard for a team to recover. The way the Patriots went up 17-6 was just such a play.
Starting from their own 18, the Patriots were able to drive down to the Pittsburgh 34 with a solid combination of stretch runs, short completions, and Chris Hogan; Hogan was having a career day so far, and his 22 yard catch and run on 3rd and 8 helped to keep the New England drive alive. On the very next play, new England came out with Dion Lewis in a single back set with Edelman, Hogan, and Mitchell lined up as receivers. At the snap, the entire Steelers defense bit on the handoff as Lewis ran towards the center of the line, quickly occupied by the linebackers and safeties. By the time Lewis stopped and tossed the ball back to Brady, Hogan had already made the cut on his deep post and beaten Mike Mitchell as he streaked towards the end zone. Brady hit him perfectly in stride for his second TD of the game.
It was a play in which every man on the field played his part to perfection. The offensive line sold the run blocking scheme. Lewis accelerated quickly on the handoff to draw the linebackers in and prevent them from bumping Hogan at the line. Edelman stayed in as a blocker to further sell the run and allow the sideline corner to commit to rush support. Malcolm Mitchell ran a go route to both take his defender with him and give Mike Mitchell another zone of the field to think about. Brady hit Hogan right on the numbers, and Hogan reeled it in. After this score, there was a tangible change in how the game went going forward.
The Steelers wouldn't score a touchdown again until there was under four minutes to go in the game. At that point, the score was 36-9 and a comeback just wasn't in the cards. New England dominated in all phases, never let up, and didn't give Pittsburgh an inch until the game was well out of hand.
And perhaps no play better reflected that dominance than an 18-yard LeGarrette Blount run late in the 3rd quarter. With New England up 20-9 and driving, they faced a 1st and 10 at the Steelers 19 following a (who else?) Chris Hogan 39 yard catch and run. The call was a simple Blount run through the A-gap, which he hit and exploded into the second level for nine yards before he was hit by two Steelers at the 11. However, he was able to barrel forward for three more yards before two, and then three, additional Steelers collided with him an an attempt to stop his momentum. Still not enough. Blount's legs kept churning, and by the time he finally went down at the one yard line, half of Pittsburgh's defense was hanging off him like Billy Bob in Varsity Blues.
Everyone went nuts. Cameras caught Malcolm Butler standing in awe on the sidelines. The Steelers defense kind of just stood there, hands on their hips, unsure as to how that just happened. And when Blount punched the ball into the end zone on the very next play to put New England up 27-9, that was the ballgame.
(My favorite part of the Blount run? Malcolm Mitchell was the first Patriot to charge in there to try and push the pile. There may have been a 230 lb back, a bunch of linemen, and a group big linebackers in that pile, but that wasn't going to stop all 195 pounds of Mitchell from running into that scrum and doing what he can to move Blount closer to the end zone. I love that kid.)
The final score of the game, 36-17, wasn't an accurate reflection of how one-sided this contest was. You absolutely do have to take into account Bell's injury, in addition to the number of drops Steeler receivers had...but still, this was yet another Tom Brady beatdown of a team he has historically owned. The Patriots 100% deserved to win this game, and the manner in which they did it gave them all kinds of momentum heading into the Super Bowl. They were now just one game away from achieving their goal, and if the AFC Championship game was any indicator, the Super Bowl was going to be a doozy.
See the Brady-to-Hogan flea flicker here.
Catch the Blount run here.
Full game highlights here.