Next on our countdown, I take you to Week 9 of 2003. The Patriots at Denver. It was a time in America people alive today would scarcely recognize. Tom Cruise was king of the box office. The biggest music producer was Jay-Z. The gossip rags were all over the relationship between Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck. The top TV shows were CSI, Law & Order, Law & Order: SVU, American Idol, and Survivor. It was like a whole other world. Plus there was a little TV show called Monday Night Football, which featured this particular game.
At this point, no one really knew what to make of the Patriots. After starting the season 2-2, they'd rattled off five straight wins. But were coming off a butt-ugly 9-3 game at home against a below average Browns team. It looked like they had a quality defense, though two times they faced quality opponents in Buffalo and Tennessee, they gave up north of 30 points, so that was in some doubt.
What we do know is that they went into Denver as 2-point road dogs. These were the 5-3 Broncos of Mike Shanahan, featuring Clinton Portis, Shannon Sharpe, and Rod Smith. Though with Danny Kannell at quarterback. Invesco Field at Mile High hadn't established itself as the Last House on the Left it would later become for the Patriots, but it did enjoy the reputation as a tough place to play that it always had.
The world also didn't know yet what it had in Tom Brady. The stench of the 31-0 loss at Buffalo in the Lawyer Milloy Bowl was still in his hair and clothes. There was no lack of people who thought Bill Belichick was arrogant and stupid to trade Drew Bledsoe in the division the season before. We were just a couple of months removed from the Boston Herald's Patriots beat writer calling him "duplicitous pond scum" for letting Milloy go. And the fact the Red Sox had coughed up the ALCS thanks to Grady Little just a couple of weeks earlier wasn't helping anybody's mood.
It was a close game all the way, with Denver clinging to a 24-23 lead when they punted it down to the Patriots 1-yard line with 3:06 to play in the game. Three Brady incompletions took just 15 seconds off the clock and set up a 4th & 10. Then what followed went into the box score as fumble by punter Ken Walter. But that's only because they don't have a designation for Brilliant Situational Awareness. If they did, Belichick would've broken the record, probably previously held by him.
At first, no one understood what the hell just happened. Long snapper Lonie Paxton's ball clanged about 20 feet off the upright. As the Broncos and their fans celebrated the safety. A mic'd up middle linebacker Al Wilson was on the sideline asking what happened, and spoke for everyone when he said, "Boy, this has a crazy ass game, you know what I mean?":
We sure did know what he meant.
Until the events unfolded. As Walter now moved out to the 20 for the free kick in what was now a 3-point game. And we slowly started to solve the puzzle. That while Paxton's aim dead into the middle of the thin-walled steel of the upright might have been a surprise, everything else about the play was intentional. Rather than take a chance that Walter might have mishandled the snap, Belichick told Paxton to hike it into the 300-level. Put it a mile-and-a-half high. Which he did to perfection.
Walter's free kick flipped the field. He boomed it 64 yards, Denver mishandled the return, and took over at their own 15. Trying not to turn it over, they kept the ball on the ground. And Belichick responded after each down by burning two of the three timeouts he had held onto. A 3rd & long pass attempt was incomplete, and the Patriots defense had completed a 3 & out while losing just 20 seconds off the game clock.
The subsequent punt gave New England the ball at their 42 with 2:15 to play. Meaning Belichick had swung this trade:
--He gave up: 2 points, less than a minute off the game clock, and two time outs.
--He gained: 41 yards of field position.
That's when Charlie Weis' offense took over the game. More specifically, Kevin Faulk took over the game. With receptions of 5, 19, and 16 yards. The last of which gave his team a 1st & 10 at the Denver 18. One play later, Brady hit David Givens on a back shoulder throw just inside the pylon to make it a 30-26 game. Which ended with a Kannell interception and a Brady kneel down.
Not to give away the rest of the season, because we're going to be hearing from the 2003 team a lot in the blogs to come, but they never lost again. And it became increasingly clear to anyone who hadn't already figured it out by then, that Belchick was playing a different game than other coaches. Not Chess vs. Checkers. It was Mr. Spock 5-Level Chess, while the rest were playing Hungry, Hungry Hippos. He might not have invented the art of taking an intentional safety. But for sure, on that night in Denver he perfected it for the whole world to see.