Editor’s note: During the coming weeks, Sun Journal staff writer Randy Whitehouse count down the New England Patriots’ top five playoff wins of the past 20 years — in other words, the Tom Brady Era. But first, he takes a look at those playoff games that, while great, didn’t quite make the cut.

Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri celebrates his game-winning field goal with teammates Ken Walter (13) and Christian Fauria (88) in the final seconds of Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston in February 2004. AP file photo

Tom Brady is no longer a Patriot and the greatest 20 years in franchise history is now a memory. It’s tough to admit, I know, but the sooner we accept this fact the better we’ll all be for it.

With the book on the Tom Brady Era now closed, and with a certain pandemic giving toy department employees the opportunity to relive the glory days, it’s as a good a time as any to make a list. And what better list to make than one ranking the greatest Patriot playoff wins of the past 20 years.

Some memorable wins won’t make the list. And my list is weighted towards games that led to a Super Bowl title because the Patriots didn’t make any “Three Games to Glory” videos without raising the Lombardi Trophy at the end.

We’ll present each of the top five in individual installments as the series continues, but Brady and the Patriots gave us too many great games and memories that shouldn’t be forgotten. So we’re going to start with a quick look at the honorable mentions. This also gives us a chance to remind Jets fans that any of these honorable mentions would rank in their franchise’s top three.

In somewhat random order:

Patriots 32, Panthers 29 (Super Bowl XXXVIII, Feb. 1, 2004) — We may as well start with a game that reminds us just how spoiled we’ve been as Patriots fans. This is a Top 10 Super Bowl, and probably underrated on a lot of lists, at that. This may have been the single most exhausting game to watch as a fan. It had the frustration of multiple missed opportunities (two Adam Vinatieri field goals, Brady interception in the end zone), the breakneck pace of the second and fourth quarters, and multiple head-scratching big plays allowed by what had been a dominant defense all season. I remember just feeling spent and relieved after Vinatieri won it with a 41-yard field goal with four seconds left. And I wasn’t even aware of the infamous halftime show wardrobe malfunction until the next day.

Patriots 20, Colts 3 (Divisional round Jan. 16, 2005) — This is the “other” playoff game against the Colts (the 2006 AFC Championship never happened!). It’s understandable. Watch the game without any context and it’s a low-scoring defensive battle the Patriots never seemed in danger of losing. But the game plan is one of the greatest Bill Belichick ever devised — chew up the clock with Corey Dillon and Kevin Faulk and keep Peyton Manning off the field. They held the ball for 38 minutes, and the Colts, who averaged 33 points per game that year, only got on the scoreboard because of their “idiot kicker,” Mike Vanderjagt. The Sun Journal sent me to cover this game, and the postgame scene was as close to a post-Super Bowl win locker room as I’ll ever get. The players were jubilant because, even though they were favored by Las Vegas, they had convinced themselves everyone was against them. I left Gillette Stadium that night supremely confident they would not be beaten again that season. Ironically, that feeling of invincibility never wavered until the 2006 AFC Championship, which you will not be reading about on this list.  Nope.

Patriots 24, Steelers 17 (AFC Championship, Jan. 27, 2002) — I wrote this in a column ranking AFC Championship games before the Patriots fell to the Broncos in 2014 and it still holds true: The Tuck Rule Game played the week before is more legendary. The Super Bowl win over the Rams the week after is more revered. But this game doesn’t get near the love it deserves from Patriots fans. The Pats were 10-point underdogs against a smack-talkin’, Super-Bowl-bags-packin’ Pittsburgh team that had manhandled the defending-champion Ravens the week before. Troy Brown had one of the great games in franchise history, returning a punt for a touchdown, scooping up a blocked field goal and lateraling it to Antwan Harris for another score and catching eight passes for 127 yards. Brady went down with a sprained ankle in the second quarter. Drew Bledsoe replaced him and took a hit that was scarily similar to the one that cost him his starting job in Week 2,  threw a touchdown pass to David Patten, then spent the rest of the game reminding us why he hadn’t started since Week 2, with the exception of one of the most beautiful touch-passes of his career to Brown for a crucial first down.

Patriots 17, Titans 14 (Divisional round, Jan. 10, 2004) — This is still the coldest game in Patriot playoff history, with a minus-10 wind chill. Titans coach Jeff Fisher’s beard became progressively crustier as the game goes on, and, spoiler alert, when we do a series ranking most disturbing head coaches’ faces in playoff history, he will rank second behind Tom Coughlin in the 2008 NFC Championship. The Patriots’ dominant defense had its coming-out party the following week against Peyton Manning, but it was still the reason they won this game, although Adam Vinatieri’s 46-yard field goal that ultimately won the game gets buried by all of his other clutch kicks. On a personal note, I listened to this game on the radio after hitting a deer driving back from a basketball game in Jay. It was a bad sign for me and deer, but not the Patriots, because …

Patriots 24, Colts 14 (AFC Championship, Jan. 18, 2004) — The defining game of Ty Law’s career, and the game Patriots fans wish defined Peyton Manning’s career. Manning Face was great while it lasted, though. This is in some ways the quintessential win of the first half of the dynasty. New England puts the pressure on the other team by scoring first, frustrates the hell out of the opposing quarterback and/or offensive coordinator, makes less mistakes and ultimately holds on. Speaking of holding on, watching the Patriots mug the Colts receivers in this game now feels like watching a different game. The other great thing about watching it is knowing Bill Polian is still bitter about it 16 years later.

Patriots 41, Steelers 27 (AFC Championship, Jan. 23, 2005) — The Steelers showed they hadn’t learned anything from the first time they played the Patriots in the AFC Championship by talking smack all week leading up to this game. They had reason to be confident — they were 16-1, they had rookie sensation Ben Roethlisberger playing quarterback and they’d handed the 15-2 Patriots one of their two losses earlier in the season. But they were nowhere near ready for the 1-2 punch, delivered by the New England defense with a stop of Jerome Bettis on fourth-and-1 and, on the next play, Tom Brady with a 60-yard touchdown bomb to Deion Branch. Brady owned the Steelers the rest of his career. This is the most dominant road playoff win of the Brady Era carried out by the greatest team of the Brady Era.

And I could rank all of them. I could rank Belichick’s hoodies.

I think I will.


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