The 21st century New England Patriots have enjoyed the greatest run of success of the modern NFL. On Sunday, the Patriots will have a chance to add to the legacy even further if they can defeat the Philadelphia Eagles and earn their sixth Lombardi Trophy in 16 years. Let’s take a step back from the pre-Super Bowl hype and reflect on the clutch individual plays that have defined this dynasty.
Coming up with a list of the 10 most clutch plays in New Englands’ recent history is more difficult than one might think. How do we define clutch? For the purpose of trimming down the list of possible plays, I have decided to observe the following criteria:
-The play must have occurred during a playoff game
-The play must have occurred during the 4th quarter
-The Patriots must have gone on to win the game
The fact that I can even make a top 10 list using these strict criteria is a testament to the magnitude of the Patriots’ recent postseason success. Hopefully there will be one or two plays on Sunday that will be worthy of appearing on the next edition of this list.
10. Troy Brown’s strip of Marlon McCree
Here’s one that not many people will remember vividly. The outlook appeared grim for the 13-4 Patriots as they battled the heavily-favored 14-2 San Diego Chargers in the 2006-7 Divisional Playoff. The Chargers looked like the best team in football in 2006, with a roster anchored by ten Pro Bowlers including league MVP LaDainian Tomlinson and NFL sack leader Shawne Merriman.
With 6:30 left in the game, New England trailed 21-13 and faced a 4th and 5 from the San Diego 41. Quarterback Tom Brady fired a pass to Reche Caldwell at the 30 yard line, but it was intercepted by Chargers safety Marlon McCree. Intercepting the pass was foolish enough on McCree’s part, since the play occurred on 4th down. However, on top of that, he didn’t go down after intercepting the ball! That’s when savvy 14th year Patriots wideout Troy Brown, who spent time at cornerback during the 2004 season, recalled his defensive instincts and stripped the ball from McCree.
The Patriots recovered at the 32 yard line and would score two minutes later on a Caldwell touchdown grab, tying the game with a Kevin Faulk run for the two-point conversion. They would later drive down the field for a tie-breaking Stephen Gostkowski field goal to punch their ticket to the AFC Championship Game. Although they would lose thatt game to Indianapolis, Brown’s play remains one of the most important in recent New England history.
9. Trey Flowers’ 4th quarter sack
This is a play that tends to be forgotten, since it occurred in a game that had too many clutch plays to count. The Atlanta Falcons were in position to shut down the Patriots’ frenzied comeback bid in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LI. Following a transcendent sideline catch by Julio Jones, the Falcons had the ball on the New England 23 with four minutes remaining. With ever-reliable kicker Matt Bryant roaming the Atlanta sideline, the game appeared lost for the Patriots.
However, on second down, Matt Ryan dropped back to pass (not the last terrible playcall by an opponent on this list), and was sacked for a 12-yard loss by Flowers. This put Atlanta at the 35-yard line, which was fringe field goal range for Bryant. A holding penalty would later push the Falcons back entirely out of Bryant’s range, and we all know the rest. It’s safe to say that Flowers’ takedown had more to do with the miraculous win than most people realize.
8. Sterling Moore’s pass breakup in the end zone
Here is another play that is often overshadowed by the game’s bigger plays (or, in this case, blunders). The Patriots were leading the Baltimore Ravens 23-20 in the waning minutes of the 2011-12 AFC Championship Game, and their much-maligned defense was on the ropes. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco had driven his team deep into New England territory with half a minute remaining. The New England secondary, which had receiver Julian Edelman playing cornerback on this crucial drive (yeah, it was bad) had to make a play.
On 2nd and 1 from the 14, Flacco zipped a beautiful pass right into the bread basket of receiver Lee Evans. Amazingly, just as Evans attempted to get his second foot down, the ball was swatted from his grasp by Sterling Moore, an undrafted free agent. I don’t know what it is with obscure defensive backs coming up in huge moments for New England, but I have a feeling we’ll see more of it later. Anyway, the incompletion led to a 32-yard field goal attempt to tie the game, which Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff missed wide left to send the Patriots to Super Bowl XLVI.
7. Tom Brady’s 2-point conversion to Danny Amendola
“And now for the biggest two point conversion in the history of the Patriots franchise”, narrated Joe Buck to everyone in America. Buck wasn’t exaggerating. New England had cut Atlanta’s once-25-point lead to just two with 57 seconds remaining in Super Bowl LI. The Patriots’ entire season was riding on this single play.
Perhaps motivated by a bitter end to the 2015 season on a failed two-point attempt, the Patriots were prepared for this very situation. Tom Brady took the quickest drop I’ve ever seen and immediately threw a dart to Danny Amendola, who had Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan in front of him. Amendola burrowed behind his blockers and snuck the ball across the goal line to erase Atlanta’s lead for good. This play isn’t as flashy as some of the others; it’s simply an example of technical perfection and impeccable timing during a do-or-die scenario. Such is the Patriot Way.
6. Brady to Branch to set up Vinatieri’s second game winner
Don’t get me wrong — the kick itself was clutch, too. But an indoor 41-yarder is about as close to a chip-shot as you’ll get in the last minute of the Super Bowl. Instead, let’s recall the play that set it up. Jake Delhomme and the upstart Panthers had just raced down the field to tie Super Bowl XXXVIII at 29 apiece with 1:08 remaining.
Delhomme’s counterpart, Tom Brady, then mounted a drive of his own. Facing 3rd and 3 from the Carolina 40 with 15 ticks remaining, Brady needed a few yards to get Adam Vinatieri in range for a long field goal. Instead, he got 17. In a play that almost looked too easy, Brady identified man coverage on the outside, stood tall in the pocket, and rifled a pass to Deion Branch, who had beaten his man on a corner post. The play put the ball at the Carolina 23, setting up what I’ll refer to as a “Vinatieri chip shot”.
5. Hightower’s strip sack
This play is widely viewed as the turning point of Super Bowl LI. It was the moment when everyone watching realized, “holy crap, the Patriots actually have a chance.” Here’s how it went down, in case you have a terrible memory or were asleep on the evening of Feb. 5, 2017. The Falcons were leading 28-12 with 8:30 remaining and faced a 3rd and 1 at their own 35. A couple more first downs and either a punt to pin New England deep or a field goal would have essentially sealed a Super Bowl victory for Atlanta.
However, as league MVP Matt Ryan spotted a man running open downfield and cocked his arm to throw, he had the ball swatted from his hand by Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who had come screaming off the edge. Alan Branch recovered the fumble, setting up the Patriots with a short field. They would later pull to within 28-20 before mounting another scoring drive which featured even greater heroics…
4. Edelman’s catch
I’ll be honest, I don’t think the Patriots needed this play. It was first down, there was still plenty of time remaining, and nothing was going to stop the Patriots from driving down the field to tie the game. It doesn’t quite fit the definition of “clutch” I’ve been striving for on this list so far, but I can’t not have it on here. The sheer degree of difficulty (and luck) of this catch, coupled with the magnitude of the situation, make this a play I’ll never forget.
3. Vinatieri’s first game winner
Ah, where it all began. The Patriots weren’t supposed to even be playing in Super Bowl XXXVI. I can’t speak for the fans of this era, but I imagine the Patriots could’ve gotten smashed and it would have been considered a successful season. And New England was supposed to get smashed, too. St. Louis was in the midst of one of the most dominant three-year stretches in NFL history. As Rams wide receiver Ricky Proehl infamously put it, “tonight a dynasty is born, baby.” Proehl was right, he just had the wrong team in mind.
Instead of getting smashed, the Patriots played a near-perfect game, capitalizing on Rams turnovers and playing smart, error-free football. However, the “Greatest Show on Turf” didn’t get their nickname by accident. The Rams, led by 1999 and 2001 league MVP Kurt Warner and 2000 league MVP Marshall Faulk, stormed back to tie the game at 17 with 1:30 left on the clock. Some guy named Tom Brady then marched the Patriots 53 yards to the Rams 31-yard line, setting up Adam Vinatieri for a 48-yard field goal to win the game. Adam’s kick was perfect; it was dead-center and would’ve been good from 58. With a swing of Vinatieri’s right leg, the Patriots had slain Buffalo. Still, it wasn’t as impressive as what he had done just two weeks earlier…
2. Vinatieri’s game-tying snow kick
As if it could be any more improbable, the Patriots’ Cinderella 2001 season once depended on a 45-yard field goal in near-blizzard conditions. Luckily, New England had the greatest clutch kicker in NFL history on its sideline. After a desperate last-minute drive (which may or may not have been aided by an obscure rule) stalled at the Oakland 28-yard line, Vinatieri booted the lowest line-drive field goal I’ve ever seen from that distance, barely sneaking it over the crossbar. Vinatieri would also go on to kick the eventual game-winner, a 23-yarder, in overtime to send the Cinderella Patriots to the AFC Championship Game.
1. Malcolm Butler’s interception
What else would it be? Moments after falling victim to a fluky Jermaine Kearse catch, Malcolm Butler fired his shot and made the greatest play I’ve ever seen in a football game. Of all the plays on this list, none can match the sheer pulse-pounding, momentum swinging brilliance of Butler’s goal line theft to win Super Bowl XLIX for the Patriots.
That’s it for this list. Are there any plays that I completely missed? Which ones don’t belong? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below, and, as always, Roll Armchair.
Oh…and GO PATS!