The New England Patriots will play in their ninth Super Bowl under head coach Bill Belichick on February 3. It will not be boring.
Edit, February 4, 2019: I’m so, so sorry everyone. Last night’s game was a punt-heavy rock fight played with all the grace and elegance of a GG Allin show. Consider it an exception to the rule.
Why was I so confident? Because the Patriots were incapable of playing a boring Super Bowl — and history backed me up on this.
Last year’s eight-point loss to the Eagles in Super Bowl 52 was the largest margin of victory any team had in an NFL championship game involving Belichick as head coach before 2019. Before that, it was a six point win over the Falcons in Super Bowl LI — a game that featured a 25-point comeback and the first overtime period in Super Bowl history.
And then the Patriots finally got a two-possession win, and it came in a game where they scored 13 points. That’s great news if you love complex defensive alignments and blitz packages, but bad news if you love entertaining football.
Before 2019, every other Super Bowl the Patriots had played in under the future Hall of Fame coach was decided by three or four points. Two came down to field goals with fewer than 10 seconds left on the clock. One came down to an end zone interception with 20 seconds to play. In 2017, victory was served on the game’s final play when the Pats capped the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history with a two-yard scoring plunge.
Tom Brady’s inclusion in the Super Bowl has been a boon for advertisers stuck with fourth quarter time slots. Every time the Patriots play for an NFL title, the final 15 minutes of the game becomes appointment viewing. The four-time Super Bowl MVP has been the catalyst behind 87 fourth quarter and overtime points with the franchise.
Sorting the franchise’s biggest games by order of watchability is a tall task, but a valuable exercise in clutch plays on both sides of the ball. Here’s the definitive list of New England Super Bowls, ranging from nap material to late game rallies that induce more sweat and panicky breathing than a bottle of Blair’s Death Sauce.
11. Super Bowl 53: Patriots 13, Rams 3
This game started with a Tom Brady interception and ended with a missed Greg Zuerlein field goal. It featured the fewest points ever scored by the Patriots in the Belichick era and yet stands as the largest margin of victory the team’s ever had in the Super Bowl. It was ugly and gross and beautiful and magnificent and will one day be appreciated as the halting defensive battle it actually was.
Not today, though.
Two boring remnants from the pre-Belichick era sandwich a wasteland of terrible football. We remember No. 9 because a 300-pound defensive lineman scored a touchdown. We remember No. 8 because Desmond Howard ripped out the hearts of Patriots fans with a 99-yard kickoff return touchdown in the third quarter. Ultimately, these were bad games, no matter what Chicago and Green Bay fans say.
8. Super Bowl XXXIX: Patriots 24, Eagles 21
The fact Terrell Owens isn’t in the Hall of Fame is proof this game remains the most easily forgotten of New England’s Super Bowl wins (EDIT: 18 months after this article was first published, he made it). The outspoken wide receiver made a stunning recovery from a broken leg to catch nine passes for 126 yards. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to overcome Brady and his own coach’s bizarre clock management.
Philadelphia trailed 24-14 with just under six minutes to play when it got the ball back on its own 21-yard line. Rather than execute a hurry-up offense, Andy Reid took a more relaxed approach. By the time Greg Lewis’ 30-yard touchdown catch made this a one-possession game, the two-minute warning had come and gone. A failed onside kick pretty much sealed this one, though the aborted rally did give us the urban legend of Donovan McNabb puking during the most important game of his life.
7. Super Bowl XLVI: Giants 21, Patriots 17
New York overcame a 17-9 second half deficit thanks in part to Mario Manningham’s over-the-shoulder, tiptoe catch down the sideline. However, this game was slightly boring, featuring only four touchdowns but cementing Eli Manning’s status as the only man who can derail the Patriots’ dynasty.
6. Super Bowl XXXVIII: Patriots 32, Panthers 29
This game went from boring to bananas extremely quickly, and the fact it’s only ranked fifth is a testament to how great the rest of these games are. No one scored for the first 26:55 before the floodgates opened. The two teams combined for 24 points in the final three-plus minutes, took the third quarter off, and then blew up for 37 more in a bonkers fourth.
An 85-yard bomb from Jake Delhomme to Muhsin Muhammad gave Carolina its first lead of the game with 6:53 left, but a two-yard pass to linebacker/touchdown machine Mike Vrabel put the Pats up by seven with fewer than three minutes to play. Delhomme ran a masterful two-minute drill to knot this game back up and kick off a million “no Super Bowl has ever gone to overtime” talking points.
But like the Rams two years prior, the Panthers gave Brady and Adam Vinatieri too much time to counterpunch. John Kasay’s ensuing kickoff went out of bounds, leaving a short field for Brady, who calmly drove his offense 37 yards to set up Vinatieri’s game-winning 41-yard kick.
Also, we saw Janet Jackson’s nipple, and it was wearing armor like a tiny Spartan soldier, which was neat.
5. Super Bowl XXXVI: Patriots 20, Rams 17
The game that made Brady a star and got thousands of New England fans telling John Madden to shut his fat mouth. New England was a two-touchdown underdog thanks to the unheralded second-year quarterback behind center and a roster that weighed heavily both young, unproven players (Brady, Richard Seymour, Kevin Faulk) other team’s castaways (Vrabel, Antowain Smith, Otis Smith). Across the sideline were the Rams, led by a Hall of Fame quarterback and The Greatest Show on Turf.
The Patriots were able to grind their way to a 17-3 fourth-quarter lead, but 2002 Kurt Warner was not a force to be contained for long. He rallied St. Louis to two late touchdown drives that made the Rams’ ascension to mini-dynasty a foregone conclusion. When New England got the ball back on its own 17-yard line with 1:21 to play, Madden implored the team to play for overtime rather than risk losing.
Instead, Brady did what he does best, turning anonymous players into stars en route to a jaw-dropping win. He completed passes to Troy Brown, J.R. Redmond, and Jermaine Wiggins to set up Vinatieri’s 48-yard game winning field goal. The ball dropped through the uprights as time expired, and the Patriots earned their first-ever NFL championship.
4. Super Bowl XLII: Giants 17, Patriots 14
New England’s 19-0 season was chewed up and spit out by a Giants defense that adjusted masterfully after giving up 38 points to Brady and his offense in the final game of the regular season. The Patriots were 12.5-point favorites, but scored the fewest points they had all season in a stunning defeat.
Those 14 points were nearly enough to win, too. The Patriots took a 14-10 lead late in the fourth quarter on a six-yard touchdown toss to Randy Moss, then looked to have the game wrapped up when an Eli Manning pass wound up in the hands of All-Pro cornerback Asante Samuel. But Samuel couldn’t corral the ball, and his drop gave New York new life. The opportunity led to this display of all-time wizardry from Manning and David Tyree.
Four plays later, an end zone fade route to Plaxico Burress gave the Giants a dramatic win and erased New England’s bid to be the greatest team of all time.
3. Super Bowl LII: Eagles 41, Patriots 33
It looked like the Patriots were going to pull off a classic late-game comeback. New England took their first lead of the game with just over nine minutes left to play. But the underdog Eagles, led by backup quarterback Nick Foles, were relentless. They took a 38-33 lead back with just over two minutes remaining, then forced a rare Tom Brady fumble and recovered it. The Eagles turned that into three more points, taking a 41-33 lead, and held off the Patriots offense to get the first Super Bowl win in franchise history.
2. Super Bowl XLIX: Patriots 28, Seahawks 24
Malcolm Butler had a bad game against the Falcons on Sunday. He could have stood at midfield singing campfire songs for 60 minutes and it still would have been a net win for New England. The undrafted cornerback’s end zone interception of Russell Wilson preserved the Patriots’ fourth Super Bowl win and may be the most clutch play in Super Bowl history.
Butler’s play is the headliner, but Brady’s ability to drive his team back from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit was the true difference maker. The veteran quarterback had played poorly early, even taking points off the scoreboard with an ill-advised interception in the end zone. Then, with the game on the line, he completed 14 of his final 16 passes to lead New England to a pair of touchdowns and set up Butler’s heroic pick.
No Super Bowl has ever swung so wildly on a single play.
1. Super Bowl LI: Patriots 34, Falcons 28 (OT)
Didn’t think anything could top Butler’s dramatic interception? It turns out you’d need a game that tied or set 31 different Super Bowl records to do so. Brady looked like garbage in the first half; his passes came in soft and were strangely inaccurate for the legendary passer. A bullying Falcons pass rush kept him from getting comfortable and doing Brady things, even capitalizing on a misread for an 82-yard Robert Alford pick-six.
That changed in the second half. The Patriots shored up the holes in their offensive line and Brady went to work. A 28-3 deficit shrunk like plastic in the oven, aided by some questionable playcalling from Atlanta offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. As the clock wound down on an “everything has to go right” situation, every outcome came up New England.
As if the fates weren’t telegraphing the outcome enough, the Patriots even got their own version of Tyree’s helmet catch.
Brady kept completing passes, finding holes in the Atlanta secondary en route to a record 462 passing yards. James White, the unheralded third-down back who spent the season overshadowed by LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis, set his own title game record with 14 receptions. A defense that was gashed for 28 points in a 15:17 span went the final 27 minutes of the game without surrendering a single point.
No team in the NFL has ever done what the Patriots did in Super Bowl LI. At this juncture, those record breaking, sweaty-palmed, beer gripping performances are becoming the standard for which New England Super Bowls have become known.