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Patriots history re-imagined: It just takes one big play in the Super Bowl

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Here are the less appreciated big plays in each of the Patriots seven Super Bowls under Bill Belichick.

Super Bowl LI - New England Patriots v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The New England Patriots failed to hold on to to their late lead against the New York Giants as they allowed a field goal in the final seconds to ultimately lose 40-38. Jacoby Brissett led a 20-point comeback in what would have lived in the legends of the final week of the preseason, but instead the history book on 2017 NFL Preseason Games will simply have an “L” next to the Patriots.

Just like how the Julio Jones catch or the Jermaine Kearse catch went from all-time plays to simple footnotes in the Patriots past two Super Bowls, it always seems like there’s one play that separates New England from victory and from defeat on the biggest stage (oh yeah, we’re using the fourth preseason game as a launching point for Super Bowl discussions).

Here are the biggest plays for the Patriots in each of their Super Bowls that could have changed history if they went in a different direction.

Super Bowl XXXVI - St. Louis Rams

4-0:29 2nd-10 NWE 41 Tom Brady pass complete to Troy Brown for 23 yards

This play moved New England from their own side of the field to the Rams 36-yard line and in range for a 54-yard field goal attempt. That would have been crazy to make, but the Patriots squeaked out six more yards and Adam Vinatieri made history.

But if Brown hadn’t made this catch, Brady would have been incomplete on three out of four passes and the Patriots would have third and 10 from their own 41 yard line. The Patriots hadn’t converted a third down the entire second half of the game. Brady had previously only been able to complete passes on this drive to RB J.R. Redmond for a total of 24 yards- not even close to what was necessary to lead a scoring drive.

Imagine if this Super Bowl went into overtime and the Rams won the coin toss and scored. We’d be talking about how the Patriots blew a 17-3 lead all in the fourth quarter.

All it took was for Troy Brown to break free for a huge 23-yard gain to flip the field and put the Patriots in position to kick a field goal.

Super Bowl XXXVIII - Carolina Panthers

4-1:13 CAR 30 John Kasay kicks off 52 yards, out of bounds

The Patriots were methodical in their victory against the Panthers, but the defense allowed back-to-back third down touchdowns to breathe life back into the Panthers. Muhsin Muhammad collected an 85-yard score on 3rd and 10 and on the next drive, Ricky Proehl scored on 3rd and 8. A Tom Brady touchdown to Mike Vrabel and a Kevin Faulk two-point conversion sits in the middle of the box score.

But after that Proehl score, the game was tied 29-29 and it again seemed like the defense couldn’t force a stop (the Panthers scored touchdowns on their final three drives in the fourth quarter). The Patriots had let a 21-10 lead in the fourth quarter slip through their fingers.

And then Kasay kicked the ball out of bounds, giving the Patriots 68 seconds to gain roughly 30 yards to get into field goal range; Brady and the offense gained 37 and Vinatieri hit a 41-yarder to win it.

Imagine if the Patriots had let fourth quarter leads slip away in both of these Super Bowls?

Super Bowl XXXIX - Philadelphia Eagles

4-1:55 PHI 30 David Akers kicks onside 13 yards, recovered by Christian Fauria and returned for 2 yards

The Patriots had a 24-14 lead with 5:48 left in the game, before Donovan McNabb and the Timeless Andy Reid led a 4-minute drive with three third down conversions and a 30-yard touchdown pass to bring the score to 24-21.

Imagine if the Eagles had recovered this onside kick, needing 30 yards to score a field goal with almost 2 minutes and two timeouts left on the clock. Three Super Bowls, all just a couple snaps away from going into overtime.

Super Bowl XLII - New York Giants

4-0:45 3rd-11 NWE 25 Eli Manning pass complete short right to Steve Smith for 12 yards

It’s not the Helmet Catch. It’s not Asante Samuel’s missed interception. It wasn’t Brandon Jacobs converting on 4th and 1. It’s Brandon Meriweather losing his receiver on third-and-long that flies under the radar for a key moment in the game.

Sure, Samuel could have iced the game, but David Tyree’s grab set the Giants up on the 24-yard line needing a score. The game wasn’t over yet, especially as Adalius Thomas sacked Eli Manning on first down and then Tyree dropped a pass on second down that was almost intercepted by Meriweather:

On third and 11, Meriweather ran into a rub route, freeing Steve Smith for a 12 yard gain. It was a well-executed play by the Giants and certainly not an indictment on Meriweather.

But if Meriweather stopped Smith short of the sticks, or prevented the play from happening, then the Giants would be facing a fourth down for all the marbles. Imagine if Meriweather was the Patriots unlikely hero from Super Bowl XLII?

Super Bowl XLVI - New York Giants

4-0:57 1st-10 NWE 20 Tom Brady pass incomplete deep middle intended for Deion Branch
or
4-0:52 2nd-10 NWE 20 Tom Brady pass incomplete short right intended for Aaron Hernandez

On both of these plays, the Patriots offense could have started to move down the field with more time on the clock. Kenny Phillips tipped the ball directed at Branch, but it still hit the receiver in the chest; Branch was at the 40-yard line with room to run if he made the grab. Hernandez could have picked up a first down and gave the offense life, but dropped the ball.

If either of those plays happen, perhaps Brady would have avoided the Justin Tuck sack on third and 10 that forced the Patriots to use their final timeout. If the Patriots had the ball at midfield with 50 seconds left in the game, perhaps Brady could have led a touchdown drive.

Branch and Hernandez recorded the team’s only remaining yards on the drive, but it was too little, too late.

Super Bowl XLIX - Seattle Seahawks

2-0:11 2nd-10 NWE 44 RUssell Wilson pass complete deep left to Ricardo Lockette for 23 yards; penalty on Kyle Arrington (face mask, 10 yards)

I could go with the obvious Malcolm Butler interception or the Kearse catch, but I’m going to dig a little deeper to a huge swing of lasting momentum for the Seahawks. Seattle had the ball on their own 20 yard line with 31 seconds left in the first half. The Patriots wanted to run out the clock.

Robert Turbin gained 19 on the ground. Russell Wilson gained 17 on the ground, setting up the Seahawks on the Patriots 44 yard line with 11 seconds left. If they failed to convert on this next play, they’d have to lean on a Hail Mary attempt on third down with only a few seconds left on the clock.

But this catch and ensuing penalty gave the Seahawks 33 yards and set up a touchdown to Chris Matthews, tying the score 14-14.

Then the Seahawks got the ball to start the second half and kicked a field goal. Then Tom Brady threw an interception to Bobby Wagner. The Russell Wilson threw a touchdown to Doug Baldwin. That was a 17 point swing in roughly 10 minutes and I really think that score before the half is what set the stage for that stretch.

Imagine if the Patriots go into the half with a 14-7 lead and that the Seahawks don’t turn the tide in the second half. Maybe the Patriots would have won this game in a much less exciting manner.

Super Bowl LI - Atlanta Falcons

3-6:04 4th-3 NWE 46 Tom Brady pass complete short left to Danny Amendola for 17 yards

Imagine no comeback. No overtime. No fifth ring. It all comes back to this 4th down conversion in the third quarter with the Patriots trailing 28-3. It’s the first time the Falcons held a 99.9% chance of victory according to the odds (they held those odds four other times, including prior to Dont’a Hightower’s strip sack).

The Patriots scored on this drive and on each of their next four as they mounted the most important comeback in NFL history. But if Brady doesn’t find Amendola for this fourth down conversion, then the story ends.