Last Sunday’s overtime thriller in Kansas City sent Tom Brady and Bill Belichick to their ninth Super Bowl together, and the way it all unfolded was reminiscent of some of the best games we’ve seen over the course of their 18-year dynasty.
To determine where it stands, I decided to rank the top 10 non-Super Bowl playoff games of the Brady/Belichick era. I excluded the Super Bowls because they’re in a class of their own and will always hold precedent over the earlier rounds, so here are the most memorable Patriots wins in January since the 2001 season:
10. 2015 Divisional Round vs. Chiefs
After starting the season 1-5, the 2015 Kansas City Chiefs won 10 in a row to finish 11-5 before destroying the Texans 30-0 in the Wild Card round. They were the hottest team in the NFL by a landslide.
Then they came into Foxborough.
During pregame warm-ups, Travis Kelce made the mistake of mocking Tom Brady:
The Pats jumped out to a 21-6 lead over the red-hot Chiefs by the third quarter, which is an insurmountable deficit at Gillette in January. The final result was a 27-20 win over Alex Smith and company.
9. 2012 Divisional Round vs. Texans
The 2012 Texans were 11-1 when they met the Pats in Week 14 on Monday Night Football. The entire Houston team wore matching letterman jackets into Foxborough before getting obliterated by a score of 42-14. They went on to lose three of their last four, beat the Bengals on Wild Card Weekend, and get destroyed by the Patriots again in the divisional round. In just over a month, they went from being the best team in the NFL to having their confidence and momentum ripped away at the hands of Brady and the Pats:
8. 2006 Divisional Round at Chargers
The ‘06 San Diego Chargers were a 14-2 juggernaut led by LaDainian Tomlinson, Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates, and a roided up Shawn Merriman. The Patriots finished 12-4, which was impressive considering that their lead receiver was Reche Caldwell, who ended getting cut before the next season.
The Pats found themselves down 21-13 with six minutes left in the fourth quarter when Brady threw what should have been a game-ending pick. Instead, Troy Brown came up with the play of the game and stripped Marlon McCree to keep New England’s hopes alive:
As they often do, the Pats capitalized on the opportunity by scoring and completing a two-point conversion to tie things up 21-21. The defense came up big, Brady drove them down the field again, and rookie kicker Stephen Gostkowski nailed the eventual game-winner before the Chargers’ missed a 54-yarder as time expired.
After the win, the Pats imitated Shawn Merriman’s “Lights Out” sack dance, much to the disgust of a pompous LaDainian Tomlinson, who had to remind everyone how classy he is:
7. 2001 AFC Championship at Steelers
Not many people gave the Patriots a chance against the 13-3 Steelers at Heinz Field with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. Their 24 year-old quarterback was just lucky to be there.
Leading 7-3 late in the second quarter, Brady was undercut by Lee Flowers and hobbled over to the sideline. A scary moment, but luckily the Patriots had the best backup QB in the NFL in Drew Bledsoe. With an opportunity for one more memorable performance as a Patriot, Drew didn’t disappoint. He managed the game perfectly, including a perfect pass to David Patten in the corner of the end zone to give the Pats a 14-3 lead just before halftime.
The player of the game was Troy Brown. Eight receptions for 121 yards, a punt return for a touchdown, and this incredible scoop and lateral to Antwan Harris following a blocked field goal attempt:
The Patriots went on to win 24-17 and head to their third Super Bowl in franchise history.
6. 2014 Divisional Round vs. Ravens
It was the Patriots’ fourth playoff game against the Ravens in six years, and they were 1-2 in the first three. The temperature was 19 degrees at kickoff with a wind chill of 8. As usual with Pats-Ravens match-ups, there was a lot of physicality and pushing and shoving after whistles.
Baltimore jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first, the Pats came back to tie it, and Brady threw a crucial pick that eventually resulted in a 21-14 Ravens lead at halftime.
The Ravens scored again to go up 28-14 early in the third, but the Patriots responded right away to climb back within a touchdown.
The play of the game happened late in the third when Josh McDaniels reached into his bag of tricks and put his trust in the arm of former Kent State quarterback Julian Edelman:
The Patriots’ defense held the Ravens to a field goal in the fourth quarter, and Brady hit Brandon Lafell for the eventual game-winner:
5. 2017 AFC Championship vs. Jaguars
The 2017 Jaguars didn’t just end a 10-year playoff drought, they made it all the way to the Tom Brady Invitational (also known as the AFC Championship). Unfortunately Jalen Ramey got a little ahead of himself by guaranteeing a Super Bowl appearance before his team had to come into Foxborough.
The Jags jumped out to a 14-3 lead and were up 20-10 with nine minutes left in the fourth quarter. That’s when Danny “Playoff” Amendola came through with the best performance of his life:
The play of the game was provided by Stephon Gilmore in the closing minutes:
4. 2003 Divisional Round vs. Titans
The coldest game Tom Brady has ever played in. The temperature at kickoff was 4 degrees with a wind-chill of negative 10.
Led by Steve McNair, Eddie George, Derrick Mason, Jevon Kearse, and Keith Bullock, the ’03 Titans went 12-4 and beat the Ravens in the Wild Card round. Their Divisional Round match-up with the Pats at Gillette was a dog fight. The cold weather affected both offenses but New England was able to squeeze out a 17-14 win to advance to their second AFC Championship in three years:
3. 2011 AFC Championship vs. Ravens
Of all the great games against the Ravens, this one will always stand out the most. Baltimore had seven Pro Bowlers in 2011. Terrell Suggs was the Defensive Player Of The Year. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed were nearing the end of their careers. Ray was hungry for a second ring and Reed was still looking his first.
The Patriots were down 20-16 heading into the fourth quarter. Brady terrified all of us by nearly breaking his back on a QB sneak to make it 23-20:
Flacco and Brady traded interceptions, both teams came up with defensive stands again, and then Joe Flacco had a chance to drive his team down the field for a win or a tie with just under two minutes remaining. Here are the two biggest plays of the game, brought to you by Sterling Moore and Billy Cundiff:
2. 2018 AFC Championship at Chiefs
An instant classic. There’s no way you could process everything unless you re-watched the fourth quarter and overtime, which I’m sure you’ve all done by now.
It’s hard to believe the Pats had a 17-7 lead after three quarters. The fourth felt like a whole game by itself. The Chiefs scored 14 unanswered points to take a 21-17 lead. Brady did Brady things and drove New England down the field for a Sony Michel touchdown. Patrick Mahomes did his best Brady impression and drove his team down the field to retake the lead. Once again, TB12 responded:
You know the rest. Chiefs drive again, field goal to send it into OT, Pats win the coin toss, Brady goes to work:
Patrick Mahomes was the greatest first-year quarterback of all-time. The Chiefs had only lost one game at Arrowhead. Tom Brady is too old. He can’t win on the road in the playoffs. Gronk isn’t the same. The defense is slow. This isn’t the Pats’ year.
See you in the Super Bowl. For the ninth time.
1. 2001 Divisional Round vs. Raiders
There’s only one game that could come ahead of this year’s AFC Championship. The one that started it all. The “Snow Bowl”, otherwise known as the “Tuck Rule Game”.
The Pats trailed 13-3 with just over eight minutes left in regulation. A rare Tom Brady eight-yard rushing touchdown brought them within a field goal. The defense held Rich Gannon and the Raiders in check, setting the stage for one of the most controversial calls in NFL history.
Raiders fans are still salty but it was the right call at the time. I remember watching the game on TV and I’ll never forget the roar of the crowd after the ref announced that it was an incomplete pass. It sounded like someone had just turned the volume up about 20 notches. The best part was that we had spent the last three minutes listening to Greg Gumble and Phil Simms tell us that it was a fumble and the Raiders had likely clinched the win. What a moment:
To top it all off, Adam Vinatieri nailed two of the greatest kicks in NFL history under immense pressure and terrible conditions. The Pats offensive line had to clear out the snow beforehand so Vinatieri could at least try get some traction. One to send it to OT and one to win it. Both kicks were right down the middle:
Game-tying field goal at 2:05:30
Game-winner at 2:21:18
This was not an easy list to make. So many games to choose from and crucial plays to recall. But with all the success we’ve seen over the last 18 years it’s impossible to remember every important detail, so it’s a lot of fun to go back and reminisce. The best thing about lists like this is that they’re subjective to a certain extent. Even the biggest Patriots fans will disagree with each other over the order. Just keep in mind how lucky we are to even be having these debates.
Follow Jack Bardsley on Twitter @BostonsBigFour