Four Weeks Without Brady: How the NFL spurred the Patriots to the Super Bowl

1:39 | NFL
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Wednesday January 25th, 2017

This story appears in the Jan. 30, 2017, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.

This season was different, right from the beginning. It was different in the heat of summer, it was different when the leaves turned, and it was different on Sunday night when a cold mist fell through a January fog and the Patriots celebrated a 36–17 drubbing of the Steelers en route to another Super Bowl. Different in so many ways.

Over the course of a decade and a half the Patriots of Belichick and Brady have taken a place in the culture of New England sports alongside the Celtics of Auerbach and Russell in their delivery of annual excellence. Playing in a 32-team league designed to prevent lasting dominance, they have now won 14 division titles in 16 years, played 10 times in the AFC championship game and won four Super Bowls in six appearances. A seventh awaits, on Feb. 5 in Houston against the Falcons. A certain, completely understandable expectation has taken root, especially among the youngest generation of fans. "I tell my kids all the time: You've grown up in the golden age of Boston sports," says Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker, 60, a native of Needham and a lifelong Boston sports fan, whose children range from 19 to 26. “Every year you expected to win.”

A sports populace had come of age as B and B established roots in Foxborough and the Red Sox overcame the Curse of the Bambino. Their soundtrack was success. The Patriots' emotional rivals came and went. Ray Lewis, gone. Peyton Manning, gone. Rex Ryan, gone—twice. It became too easy.

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What Boston fans embrace as a metronomic presumption of greatness, fans outside the Hub deride as nauseating arrogance. The QB is too pretty, the coach too dour and the entire machine just a little too efficient. Take your Patriot Way and stick it. And so it was last July that the script was finally flipped. Seventeen months after Brady and his team were first accused of letting the air out of footballs to make them easier to throw (or something), a judge upheld the four-game suspension levied against the QB by commissioner Roger Goodell, ensuring that the first quarter of the 2016 season would be played with Brady off the field. Here was a new narrative for New England fans and, truth be told, for the Patriots themselves. “We all saw the MIT study on Ideal Gas Theory,” says Baker. “What you saw this year was a fan base rooting harder than in the past.”

And not only cheering with more passion, but also with a common, constant opponent. “It became a revenge tour,” says Gerry Callahan, a longtime Boston sports radio personality, “everybody waiting for the moment when Roger Goodell has to hand the Lombardi Trophy to [Pats owner Robert] Kraft, with Brady and Belichick standing there.”

Matthew Slater saw the difference in training camp. A special teams captain in his ninth year with New England, Slater passed FREE BRADY signs driving to work and heard the phrase shouted by spectators at practice. “Fans took it to heart,” he says. “You could feel it.” Yet the bile would yield at some point to the reality of playing the first four games without one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history, whose work ethic and skills—in concert with Belichick's control—have made exceptional offenses from modest parts.

“We got dealt a tough hand, so we played it. That's what we do here.” – LeGarrette Blount

Four games in 22 days, stretching from Sept. 11 to Oct. 2, one at Arizona and then three at home; two against AFC East division rivals. Four games in which the Patriots would be spiritual—if not actual—underdogs (they were favored three times), neutered by the absence of their star. Four games that would shape the season. It would stir a familiar feeling for older fans like Baker, who sat through Boston Patriots games at Fenway Park and Harvard Stadium. Who had been driving his young sons to a game at the old Foxboro Stadium (née Schaefer Stadium, née Sullivan Stadium) in the early 2000s when the car in front of them stopped to allow a passenger to step outside and vomit prodigiously. ("Dad, that man is sick," said one of Baker's boys. "He should go home.") Who had flown to Glendale, Ariz., only to watch his team be stunned 17–14 by the Giants at Super Bowl XLII. Who after that game had to walk back into the stadium to retrieve misplaced rental car keys wearing his Tedy Bruschi number 54 jersey, navigating a sea of celebrating Giants fans. (“A long, horrible, ugly, miserable walk,” says Baker, “from a parking lot 1,000 miles from the stadium.”) Who understands the franchise from a longer view.

Baker is of the generation that still feels a certain type of pain when the names Buckner and Boone are spoken and that knows what it's like to win against any kind of odds. It's a feeling that all sports fans savor and that Bostonians take a certain special pride in owning. “Our teams are always more fun to root for when you have a little chip on your shoulder,” says Baker. “A lot of people felt—and still feel—that the punishment didn't fit the crime. So, before those first three games, everybody was playing the game of What would be satisfactory? I think the consensus was, Maybe we can go 2–2 and run the table with Brady.”

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And from the seeds of such modest expectations came a remarkable season that lands again at the Super Bowl. The Patriots won the first three of those four games, handing Brady the reins of a first-place team. That start helped ensure that New England would have a first-round bye in the playoffs and home field all the way to the conference championship game. And more: “It was a chance to build the brotherhood in the locker room,” says Slater. “You know, keep the noise out.”

Running back LeGarrette Blount, twice rescued from professional oblivion by the Pats, says, "We got dealt a tough hand, so we played it. That's what we do here."

On Sunday night in Foxborough, in the shiny stadium that the rest of NFL fans see so often on their television screens in January, the Patriots sent the Steelers home. A game that pundits had anticipated might become a classic between rock-solid franchises with celebrity quarterbacks was instead a mismatch. Brady completed 32 of 42 passes for 384 yards and three touchdowns, and after one of them radio analyst Scott Zolak, a former Pats QB himself, held up a handmade sign in his broadcast booth, black letters colored on a yellow background: WHERE IS ROGER? It was a reference to the fact that Goodell had traveled for a second consecutive week to Atlanta, rather than to the home of the team with the league's best record. It's an absence that Patriots fans consider cowardly. “I made the sign today around noon,” Zolak said afterward. “I was hoping for an opportune moment to hold it up.” When Brady gave him that moment, home fans began chanting Where is RO-ger?

Receiver Julian Edelman heard the noise. “I couldn't really tell what they were saying,” he said, straight-faced. Then he paused and smiled. “But I'll say this: It was nice to hear them.”

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The Steelers' chances were blunted when running back Le'Veon Bell suffered a first-quarter groin injury and when, trailing 17–6 just before halftime, they failed to take advantage of first-and-goal from the one.

Brady was the common theme on the field, connecting all of the greatness of the last 16 years. But there are always other moving parts, many of them unexpected. On Sunday a former college lacrosse player named Chris Hogan, who this season developed into one of the most dangerous receivers in the NFL, caught nine passes for 180 yards (a New England postseason record) and two touchdowns. Hogan, 28, is the archetypal Patriot. He was an excellent high school football player in New Jersey but chose to join Penn State's nascent lacrosse program in 2006 and played there for three years. He used his last year of college athletic eligibility to play football at Monmouth and was signed by the 49ers in '11. San Francisco cut him before he played a game, as did the Giants and the Dolphins; he finally stuck with the Bills, catching 77 passes over the last two years, and New England signed the restricted free agent last spring. As with so many other players, the Patriots did not discover Hogan, but they made him better. “I'm so happy to be a part of this team,” Hogan said Sunday, standing at his cubicle, confronted by a mass of reporters. “It's been a long journey.”

Half an hour earlier, on the field, cannons had blasted confetti into the murky sky, and Bruce Springsteen's “Glory Days” had blared from the stadium's public address system. It was a noisy and choreographed display. Yet as Hogan spoke, the locker room was starkly quiet. There is a reason for this. “We've got one more game,” said Edelman.

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Upon the finalization last July 13 of Brady's suspension, the starting QB job fell to Jimmy Garoppolo, a then 24-year-old product of Eastern Illinois who was taken in the second round of the 2014 draft, the highest Belichick has selected a passer in his 17 years. Garoppolo appeared in six games as a rookie, all of them in garbage time. He played five more in '15, under the same circumstances. He had thrown a total of 31 passes. He also had been acutely attuned to every narrative twist in the saga that became known as Deflategate. “I had spent a lot of time in '15 getting myself mentally prepared,” says Garoppolo. “I think that helped. Somewhat.” He also admits: "I always get nervous before games."

The Patriots' locker room is famously demanding. Belichick does not suffer fools or failures, and practices are conducted with game-level intensity and pressure. This is part of the machinery. "They expect you to get up to speed and to know your stuff," says Austin Collie, a receiver who joined New England in the middle of the 2013 season and played nine games. "It's a pretty serious environment." And while that approach can be intimidating, it breeds a preparedness that underscores the truth in the Patriots' Next Man Up mantra. In July, Garoppolo was the next man up. He was tactically ready but emotionally edgy. There, too, the locker room functioned effectively.

During training camp Slater made multiple visits to Garoppolo's cubicle, three down from Brady's. "Jimmy is a talented kid, we all knew that," says Slater. "We had a few chats. I wanted him to get comfortable in his job. He needed to realize that all 45 of us were behind him. With Tom out, it was a unique situation for everybody. We were going to have to do a great job of living in the now."

"Those talks with Matt," Garoppolo says, "they helped me calm down. And I needed that."

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On the first night of the season, the Patriots, 8½-point underdogs, beat the Cardinals in the desert 23–21 when Chandler Catanzaro missed a 47-yard field goal as time ticked down. Garoppolo was terrific, completing 24 of 33 passes for 264 yards and one TD. Even four months later he takes particular pride in a 32-yard completion to Danny Amendola on third-and-15 from his own 20. After 10 more snaps Stephen Gostkowski kicked what proved to be the game-winner. “That's the play I remember,” says Garoppolo, before reverting quickly to Patriot-speak: “Huge catch by Danny.” (Arizona coordinator James Bettcher remembers that play too: “We spent all night trying to get them in third-and-long, then they make that one; it was a big, big play.”)

Seven days later the Patriots were at home against the Dolphins, who would ultimately make the playoffs. Garoppolo was even better, throwing three TDs in the first 17 minutes before leaving with a right-shoulder injury just prior to halftime. In that time he passed for 234 yards, with a rating of 130.8—just south of perfect. It was the kind of performance that could make Garoppolo seriously wealthy if he's shipped to another team this off-season—but just as much, it was a measure of how efficiently New England plugged an inexperienced athlete into the hole left by a Hall of Fame QB and scarcely missed a beat.

“First of all, Jimmy is a talented player,” says Miami coach Adam Gase. “But there's something people forget: Veteran wide receivers doing the right thing, being in the right position, can help out a quarterback a lot. And that's what you saw early in the season. You saw the same thing all the way back in 2008 when Matt Cassel was playing [for an injured Brady]. Smart, veteran receivers doing good things for their quarterback.”

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According to Bettcher, the Cardinals were prepared for the Pats to make wholesale adjustments to accommodate Garoppolo's lack of game experience. Instead, they got essentially a Brady package. “They came out and did what they do,” says Bettcher. “They went empty, spread us out, moved people around. They ran a bunch of pick-and-rub routes, legally, which they're very good at, which puts Edelman in space; then he makes people miss, and they get to third-and-three instead of third-and-eight. And the quarterback got the ball out of his hand. Maybe if Tom was in there, he would have been in control more at the line of scrimmage. But they were really good.”

It's a media sport to lampoon Belichick's control and paranoia. That doesn't make those qualities any less significant, especially in a crisis. “It starts at the top,” says Gase, who worked under Patriots coordinator Josh McDaniels when McDaniels was coaching the Broncos in 2009 and '10. “There's a reason some people say [Belichick is] the best of all time. They have an expectation up there that the next man will be ready and the team will step up, even when the guy who goes down is Brady. When you play that team, no matter who's out there, you have to play a level up.”

The Patriots changed course again after Garoppolo went down, inserting rookie Jacoby Brissett (whom New England drafted 91st out of NC State last spring, in the third round) to preserve the win over Miami. Brissett threw only nine passes in more than 30 minutes of football; Blount had 15 carries after halftime. Brissett wasn't ready, and the Patriots knew it. “We all knew we had to play for Jacoby, because he's a young kid,” says Slater. “We had to try to make plays in the kicking game, make plays defensively.”

In Week 3, against the Texans, Brissett attempted only 19 passes while Blount carried 24 times (the sixth-most carries in his 107-game NFL career) for 105 yards and two touchdowns. “I'm very proud of what we accomplished that day,” tackle Nate Solder says of a 27–0 victory over another 2016 playoff team. “The attitude around here is that you can't be too reliant on one person, or two people. That day was pretty awesome, the way we came together.”

Standing at his locker earlier this postseason, Brissett smiled at the memory of the victory. “You know what I remember?” he said. “I remember giving the ball to LeGarrette and watching him run 40 yards for a touchdown.” (Forty-one yards, to be exact.) Sitting in a folding chair at the locker adjoining Brissett's, Blount nodded and growled a slow, deliberate chuckle; it was one of the most perfectly Patriots moments in history.

Belichick gave Garoppolo a game ball after each of the first two wins, and the QB shipped them off to his parents' home outside Chicago. Brissett got the game ball after Week 3; it's at his apartment near Foxborough. No teammates have signed it. “Nobody is putting a hand on that ball,” he says. “Not ever.”

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The Patriots went flat in Week 4, losing 16–0 to the Bills at home. Ryan stuffed the defensive box and held the Patriots to just 90 yards on the ground; Brissett completed 17 of 27 passes, but New England converted just one of 12 third downs. “When we studied them, I thought Garoppolo created some problems that you don't have with Brady, because [Garoppolo] can move,” says Bills linebacker Preston Brown. “But with Brissett they tried to use bootlegs to get him moving and throw simple stuff. We were ready for all that.”

The Patriots' performance that day was the work of a team that had already accomplished its mission. “Three out of four without Brady,” says Baker. “People were pumped.”

They lost to the Bills as Brady idled in his car outside the facility, a fresh season soon to begin. The fans celebrated greatness achieved with the world aligned against them, underdogs for a month. It was not a punishment at all. It was a gift.

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