Bill Belichick is a coaching mastermind, and these improbable victories prove it.
The New England Patriots are 3–0, which wouldn't be a big surprise any other season. But this year, it's simply incredible.
With Tom Brady suspended four games to start the season, New England beat the Cardinals (a popular Super Bowl pick!) and Dolphins with Jimmy Garoppolo under center. But to make matters worse, Jimmy Garoppolo sustained a shoulder injury, forcing rookie Jacoby Brissett into the starting lineup in just his third NFL game.
You can probably guess what happened next.
Under Bill Belichick's leadership, the Patriots have shown they can conjure victory from thin air. Here's a look at some of Belichick's most impressive coaching jobs over his career with New England.
Sept. 30, 2001 – Brady’s first start
It’s fitting that we begin with Tom Brady’s first NFL start, which came against the 2–0 Colts and a very much in-his-prime Peyton Manning. Edgerrin James and Marvin Harrison gave Indy a vaunted star trio, and the Patriots were without starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe, placing a young, unheralded Brady in the spotlight. In true Patriots fashion, New England pulled out a huge surprise win, intercepting Manning three times, twice for touchdowns, and taking the pressure off Brady, who completed 13 of 23 passes for 168 yards and effectively managed the game at home. The Patriots won 44–13 and held Indy scoreless in the first half.
Bonus context: The Pats traveled to Indy three weeks later and won again, with receiver David Patten accounting for four touchdowns in three separate ways, including a 91-yard catch, 29-yard rush, and a 60-yard pass to Troy Brown.
Jan. 19, 2002 – The Snow Bowl, or, The Tuck Rule Game
Belichick, Brady and the Patriots would go on to win the Super Bowl that season, but not before one of the more controversial games in NFL history went their way. In the final game ever played at Foxboro Stadium, in what was essentially a blizzard, the Pats and Raiders met in the divisional playoffs.
New England squeaked out a 16–13 win after it was ruled Brady had “tucked” the ball on a late-game sack by Charles Woodson that led to a turnover. The referees overturned the original fumble call and deemed the play an incomplete pass, allowing the Patriots to keep possession and later kick a field goal to send it to overtime. Adam Vinatieri kicked another one to win it shortly afterward. In a sense, it was the play that launched a dynasty.
We all remember the game for its controversy. But lest we forget, the Pats were down 13–3 in the middle of the fourth quarter. Oakland had dominated the game. Somehow, Belichick and Brady found a way to win—with a little help from dodgy officiating.
Nov. 4, 2003 vs. Denver – The Time The Patriots Made A Safety On Purpose
Remember the time Bill Belichick took an intentional safety trailing late in the game, and the Patriots still managed to win? New England faced Denver on the road on Monday Night Football, down 24–23 with 2:51 left and were stuck with fourth-and-10 on their own 1-yard line.
Punt? Go for it? Never. At least, not that time. Belichick refused to cede strong field position and ordered long snapper Lonie Paxton to send the ball sailing over the head of punter Ken Walter into the back of the end zone, giving the Broncos a safety, two points and the ball back.
Denver was relying on third-string quarterback Danny Kanell, which is probably a big part of why this worked. The Patriots, of course, got a stop and regained possession, then drove back the other way and won 30–26, with Brady finding David Givens in the end zone.
Jan. 24, 2005 – Brady beats illness, Pats beat Steelers
We sometimes forget about what was essentially the Brady “Flu Game.” The quarterback came down with an 103-degree fever the night before the 2004 AFC Championship and was hooked into an IV in his hotel. He then trotted out into freezing conditions in Pittsburgh anyway to throw for two touchdowns, topping rookie Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers—who were on a 15-game winning streak, by the way.
It certainly helped that New England intercepted Roethlisberger three times, including an 87-yard touchdown return by Rodney Harrison. The Patriots won 41–27, avenging a loss to Pittsburgh earlier in the season. They would go on to beat the Eagles in the Super Bowl. Brady improved to 8–0 for his career in the playoffs.
Dec. 29, 2007 – Completing an undefeated regular season
In a rare regular-season game that actually spawned its own Wikipedia page, the Patriots rallied to beat the Giants 38–35 on the road and cement a 16–0 regular season record.
Tom Brady and Randy Moss set regular–season records for touchdown passes and touchdown catches, respectively, on New England’s final touchdown of the game. It was a wild, back-and-forth contest that included six lead changes, a 74-yard Giants kick return, and the Patriots rallying from down 12 in the fourth quarter to seal a victory.
New York, of course, got revenge in the Super Bowl that year.
Sept. 14, 2009 – Bills fumble one away
Tom Brady led two scoring drives in the final 2:06 of a 25–24 win over the Bills, making up for a rough performance with some late heroics. The Bills, of course, did their part to help the Patriots come back.
Leodis McKelvin fumbled a fourth-quarter kickoff return that was recovered at the Buffalo 31 by … kicker and future fantasy football demigod Stephen Gostkowski. Probably not how it was drawn up, but considering it's Belichick we're talking about, who knows?
Brady took just three plays from there to find Ben Watson for the winning score.
Nov. 23, 2013 – Brady leads comeback against Manning
The Manning–Brady rivalry was definitely a thing, and Peyton Manning was totally about to win this time in a huge Sunday Night Football matchup. Except, nah. The Broncos held a 24–0 halftime lead, which the Patriots somehow flipped into a 34–31 overtime victory in the biggest comeback win of Tom Brady’s career.
It was really cold and windy, and Manning especially felt the ill-effects, but Knowshon Moreno somehow ran for 224 yards and carried the ball 37 times for Denver. The conditions made passing tough and the halftime deficit look insurmountable.
But, of course, weird stuff tends to happen to (or rather, for) the Patriots. This game included 11 fumbles and 10 total turnovers. It was decided after a Patriots punt in overtime took a weird bounce, hit a Broncos special-teamer, and wound up in the hands of New England, setting up Gostkowski’s winning field goal. Just how Belichick drew it up, probably.
Jan. 10, 2015 – Edelman throws TD vs. Ravens, Pats steal playoff win
This divisional–round matchup between New England and Baltimore was an epic affair.
The show here was largely stolen by wide receiver Julian Edelman’s 51-yard touchdown pass to Danny Amendola. Edelman played quarterback in college at Kent State, and his first pass in the NFL was for a score. The score tied the game at 28 late in the third quarter.
Also, Brady threw for 367 yards and four touchdowns to cancel out a masterful showing from Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. It was all very Patriots.
Edelman, by the way, could be called on to take snaps for New England this season if the team's quarterback injuries continue to mount.
Feb. 1, 2015: Super Bowl 49
You probably remember what happened here. The Seahawks blew a 10-point late fourth-quarter lead, the Patriots won the Super Bowl, Pete Carroll decided not to let Marshawn Lynch run it in from the one–yard line, and then Malcolm Butler intercepted the ensuing pass. Russell Wilson was sad. The Patriots won. A week after playing scientist and explaining the physics of the Deflategate scandal, Belichick reminded us he's a genius on the football field too.
The entire 2016 season to date
And so here we are in the present day, when literally anyone can start at quarterback for Bill Belichick's Patriots and they'll still win. Tom Brady was suspended four games because of whatever Deflategate actually was. Jimmy Garoppolo led a Week 1 win without Rob Gronkowski. Garoppolo got hurt in a Week 2 win without Rob Gronkowski, and rookie Jacoby Brissett got the Patriots to the finish line. Brissett then started in Week 3 and led a 27–0 destruction of the Houston Texans.
Brissett, however, injured his thumb, which means Julian Edelman is currently the Patriots’ healthiest, non–suspended Player Who Can Throw.
Would you bet against a Belichick team quarterbacked by Julian Edelman?
Andrew Vailliencourt contributed research.