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The understated greatness of Ty Law’s 15-year NFL career all boils down to one game

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One utter destruction of Peyton Manning showed the world how special Law was.

This week at SB Nation, we’re shining the spotlight on the NFL’s most underappreciated — from our favorite underdog stories to the most overlooked players and teams. Now’s the time to give them their due.

Ty Law wasn’t drafted into a perfect situation. He spent his first five NFL seasons starting for an interesting but limited Patriots team. While he earned first-team All-Pro honors in 1998, his spot on a flawed roster made the Super Bowl 31 loss to the Packers — one in which the Green Bay passing offense repeatedly torched his secondary for big plays — look like the apex of Law’s career.

The churning NFL landscape had other plans. Bill Belichick followed in Bill Parcells’ and Pete Carroll’s shoes when he took over sideline duties in Foxborough. A collapsed lung forced the 2001 Pats to turn to an unheralded second-year quarterback who pushed them from also-ran franchise to bonafide dynasty. And the backbone that allowed a budding Tom Brady to shine was a dominant defense capable of shutting down even the Greatest Show on Turf.

And leading the way was Law.

Ty Law was the foundational piece of a dynasty

The early 2000s Patriots weren’t the offensive juggernaut they’d become with a fully developed Brady behind center. Drew Bledsoe’s former backup learned the ropes as a limited downfield passer who lacked the top gear to propel the Pats on his own. Though a midrange passing game propped up a reasonable aerial offense, New England’s success began with a defense that kept opponents out of the end zone with regularity.

Belichick relied mostly on a group of veterans to lock down his side of the gridiron, turning to players like Willie McGinest, Lawyer Milloy, Mike Vrabel, Roman Phifer, Rodney Harrison, and Ted Johnson. None may have been more important than Law; the path to the Patriots’ first two Super Bowl wins can be traced directly through him.

The 2002 Divisional Round game between the Patriots and Raiders may be best known for Brady’s Tuck Rule non-fumble and Adam Vinatieri’s god-tier, game-saving kicks, but Law was the terminus for 14 different Oakland plays (12 tackles, two passes defensed) that evening.

Two weeks later, his 47-yard pick-six served as the Patriots’ first points and first lead against a Rams team that entered Super Bowl XXXVI as a 14-point favorite.

It’s no stretch to say New England would have fallen on its face without Law’s ability to jam rebar into the finely tuned gears of the St. Louis offense.

But Law’s greatest moment was completely dismantling Peyton Manning

As Brady’s star climbed, a rivalry grew between the Patriots and Colts. Indianapolis had developed into a perennial contender behind Peyton Manning, but the team’s regular season success had failed to translate to postseason glory early in the new millennium.

As the 2003 season drew to a close, Law emerged as the tourniquet cutting off the flow of resplendent offense through Manning’s veins.

The Colts’ young QB was ascendant that year. His 2003 regular season culminated in his first MVP award. His first playoff showcase that January saw him throw for 377 yards and five touchdowns in a win over the Broncos. One week later, his offense would punt zero times in a 38-31 Divisional Round win over the Chiefs. Another big playoff performance would serve as his coronation in a legendary season and give his team a shot at an NFL championship.

Instead, he was picked off four times in Gillette Stadium as Indianapolis’ Super Bowl hopes crumbled into dust. Three of those came courtesy of Law. Each was a work of art in its own way.

The first saw him recover after being left in no man’s land in zone coverage to pluck an underthrown ball out of the air with one swooping hand.

The second saw Manning, flushed to his right once again, badly overthrowing a short pass to Edgerrin James. In most cases, the ball would have bounced to the turf and out of bounds. Law, however, was keenly attuned to his rival QB’s personal brand of crappiness that Sunday. And the athleticism that would make him a 15-year staple in the league shined through as he corralled the ball before it could skip away.

And the third ... well, “art” may be a strong word for it, but it was still an athletic grab of a pass that had a less than 5 percent success rate to begin with.

The final tally for Manning’s targets that afternoon?

Hall of Fame Colts wide receiver Marvin Harrison: three catches, 19 yards
Hall of Fame cornerback Ty Law (not a Colt): three catches, 26 yards

Law’s three interceptions that day weren’t the product of sticky coverage as much as they were Manning’s mistakes. Still, his ability to capitalize on those opportunities and create the space to make these plays was endemic of his hall of fame career. He was proficient when it came to shutting down receivers in man-to-man or zone duties. He supplemented his ability to turn and run with receivers with the unteachable ability to recognize plays as they unfolded.

Few cornerbacks have ever been able to put themselves in the right place at the right time like Law. Though Brady and Belichick deserve much of the credit for launching the Patriots into orbit, much of that early success boils down to the man who scored the first Super Bowl points of the New England dynasty back in February 2002.

There are plenty of moments that create the argument for Law’s Pro Football Hall of Fame induction. He’s got 15 years of service, 53 interceptions, three Super Bowl rings, two All-Pro selections, and a spot on the NFL’s all-decade team of the 2000s on his resume. No one game encapsulates his greatness — but his innate ability to “be there” on one snowy afternoon in the winter of 2004 comes pretty damn close.

Ty Law wasn’t drafted into greatness. But he was ready for it when it came.