Pat Ending

Patriots simply superior at doing it the hard way

Super Bowl

Patriots 24 - Eagles 21

February 07, 2005|By David Steele

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - They did it again. The Patriots got away with another one, made it look hard, made you want to say, "This is the dominant team of our time?"

Hey, dominate somebody if you're so great. Or, not.

They hadn't done it that way in the previous two Super Bowls. Adam Vinatieri's late field goals helped the Patriots win their previous two Super Bowls, and that fact is practically an afterthought with this team. Almost without exception, the Patriots do just enough to win, especially the last game.

With less than two minutes left last night, it was, again, a one-possession Super Bowl. You could count the games like that in the first 35 Super Bowls on one hand, but this bunch is redefining "dynasty" game by white-knuckle game. Three championships by a total of nine points. If you're a Patriots fan, you've got a commemorative ulcer to go with each of the three trophy ceremonies.

Everybody in New England will enjoy the latest ulcer as much as the other two. The Eagles will walk away asking the same questions the Rams and the Panthers have asked before: What if?

If Terrell Owens had played on two healthy legs?

If Donovan McNabb had thrown one or two fewer inexplicably bad passes?

If Andy Reid had brought a greater sense of urgency to the fourth-quarter drive that cut a 10-point lead to three?

If Deion Branch could have just been Deion Branch instead of Swann and Stallworth and Rice and Taylor all rolled into one unsung package?

Every year, the Patriots watch the questions pile up, along with the confetti.

They have never dominated any Super Bowl from start to finish the way the Packers, Steelers, 49ers or Cowboys did. This might have been the shakiest win of all, which is saying something. Tom Brady botched a handoff in the red zone. The line false-started twice anticipating the Eagles' blitz. The defense committed two penalties on one drive to take the Eagles to the shadow of the goal line.

And that was just in the first half.

Yet at game's end, the Eagles had no trophy but plenty of ifs. Turnovers, dropped balls, little mistakes "killed us today," said Brian Westbrook. The Patriots are winless the last four years; the other team always beats itself. Ask the Rams and Panthers; a break for them here and there, and "Dynasty" would be just another old prime-time soap.

Compared to the first two, last night's finish was a walkover. After Rodney Harrison's game-clinching interception, the Patriots had all of nine seconds to absorb the magnitude of their achievement. Tedy Bruschi joked that at least this time they had a chance to give Bill Belichick a Gatorade bath. Rodney Harrison had time for one last gleeful exaggeration of Owens' reception celebration.

Too bad the focus of that reaction was Owens, who deserves all the respect he was denied for two weeks after the way he left his heart and soul and a couple of screws and plates on the field last night.

Still, Harrison and the Patriots had earned it, as usual, the hard way. After three seasons of rationalizations, it might be time for frustrated opponents to give credit where credit is due, and not just to Brady, who keeps running from that face-of-the-Patriots label the more others try to pin it on him.

So give it to Harrison; and to Richard Seymour, who played through pain at least as great as T.O.'s; and to the young secondary, which lost another brother to injury in Eugene Wilson; and to Bruschi, always a magnet for the ball; and Mike Vrabel, a new-millennium two-way star.

To Vinatieri, who was the margin of victory for the third time, albeit a little earlier in the game and with a little less pressure on his foot. To Belichick, dismissing the comparisons to Lombardi even as he put his name next to his in the record books. To the coordinators who deserve MVP trophies as much as any coordinators ever have, if only as nice parting gifts.

To Brady, of course, who was on target just enough to make his receivers look brilliant and to achieve the ultimate goal.

And, last but hardly least, to Branch, who earned the MVP award that Brady had owned twice in three years. Branch separated himself from the pack in every sense of the phrase - from the pack of otherwise anonymous Patriots wide-outs, from the aggressive Eagles secondary and, because of his 11 catches, from all but two receivers in Super Bowl history.

In true team tradition, Branch acted as if the spotlight found him despite every effort to avoid it. "It doesn't make a difference who gets what," he said, "our plans were just to come in and win the game."

Those are the Patriots. Great players at every position. Champions by the skin of their teeth. Dynasty by any definition.

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