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Mystery play
There simply is no making sense of the defending Super Bowl champs
BY SEAN GLENNON

FOXBOROUGH ó There never were 68,000 fans in Gillette Stadium this afternoon. There have been empty seats in patches and chunks throughout the stadium since kickoff. And there are far fewer of us here now than there were half an hour ago.

Those of us who remain are loud, though. Weíre excited. And weíre happy.

We are the fortunate, the wise, and the faithful. Some of us are probably plain old gluttons for punishment. Others had been too drunk or too stunned to walk away when all seemed lost. And many of us are simply too stubborn not to stick things out to the bitter end.

Whatever our individual reasons, weíre all still here, watching and cheering as the Patriots once again stand positioned to accomplish the improbable (one might have said inconceivable, really): an overtime win against a Miami Dolphins team that dominated the Pats for most of this regular-season-ending game and led by 11 points with five minutes left to play.

Itís as hard as it ever has been to gage depth from my seat here in the far end zone at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots, who tied the game playing toward me, now are moving in the opposite direction. Theyíre marching toward the Miami end zone, I know that, but itís hard to get a grip on exactly how close they are without help from the scoreboard.

Itís not just me. Depth-perception issues are a well-established drawback of end-zone seats. Football is a game best viewed laterally. You just canít see a yard (or five, or even 10 sometimes) when youíre looking straight at it. And the closer you get to the field sitting in the end zone, the more difficult it becomes to assess distance.

Iím low. Row 15 of section 122. Itís about as close to the field as Iíve ever been for a professional football game. And Iíve been hearing expressions of puzzlement over depth issues throughout this game.

Early in the first quarter, as the Pats began a drive from the Miami 39 (moving toward my end zone), Tom Brady completed a pass to David Patten. "Three yards," a woman two rows in front of me exclaimed excitedly. More like five, it seemed to me. "Itís eight," a cry came up from behind. I thought, hey, he might be right. Then the scoreboard told us it was second down and four. The gain on the reception, then, was six. No one in section 122 was about to argue.

Later in the same quarter, the Pats began a drive from their own 32. The fans around me cheered mightily as Brady hit Kevin Faulk for what looked like a nice little pick-up. Then the scoreboard informed us it was second and nine. "One yard?" came a lone voice from behind me. By then, most of us had realized it was hopeless to try to figure it out from our point of view.

Now all we can do is check the scoreboard between plays. The Pats started this overtime drive at their own 40 after Miamiís Olindo Mare kicked off out of bounds. After a trick play got them nowhere on first down, they started moving the ball fairly quickly. A 15-yard completion to Faulk got them into Miami territory. Another long pass to Faulk, 20 yards, brought them into field-goal range. Three plays later, theyíre facing fourth down at the Miami 17. Adam Vinatieri is trotting onto the field. And we all know what happens when the super-accurate Pats kicker attempts to score three points from this close.

One of the young guys who had filed into the empty row in front of me after having abandoned his push to leave the stadium early turns around and looks at me. Heís wearing a giant grin. "This is insane," he says. Thereís no question about that.

There isnít a seat in the stadium that would have afforded anyone any perspective on what has happened here today ó or what has happened with the Patriots this year. Sixteen games into the Patsí postĖSuper Bowl season, itís become clear that there simply is no making sense of the defending champs.

This is the team that silenced those who claimed its victory over the heavily favored St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI was a fluke, a lucky break, by starting its season with a crushing victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, the team most experts had tagged as the favorites to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XXXVII. This is the team that followed that opening Monday-night victory with impressive wins over the New York Jets on the road and the Kansas City Chiefs at home, convincing skeptics at home and across America in the process. Itís also the team that then lost four straight before bouncing back with a big road win at Buffalo. Itís the team that staggered to 8-5 heading into the stretch, then dropped big games at Tennessee and at home against the Jets (the latter loss would ultimately make a huge difference in the Patriotsí fate).

And this is the team that came out today with its playoff hopes on the line. Itís the team that entered this game looking fired up, that started with two strong defensive stands and a respectable drive on offense, that appeared to be poised to win a field-position battle. Itís the team that then gave up a key fumble and subsequently fell apart, allowing the Dolphins to make their three first-half touchdowns look easy while struggling to find the end zone themselves. Itís the team that went into halftime looking like its season was over, down 21-10 and apparently outclassed by Miami.

And for most of the second half, things went about the same. Miami didnít score until late in the fourth quarter, but it didnít need to. It was moving the ball effectively on virtually every drive, keeping the clock running and protecting its lead. And the Pats were sputtering.

The fans in section 122 werenít shy about expressing their disdain.

When the Pats started the third quarter with a three-play drive that produced all of two yards, the goateed guy to my right hollered out through his mouthful of sunflower seeds, "Way to come out strong in the third, boys. Whoo-hoo!" The 20-ish looking kid to my left just buried his face in his hands, muttering, "Way to go, champs."

And it got worse from there.

With 10 minutes to go in the third, as Dolphins running back Ricky Williams moved the ball successfully on play after play, the middle-aged guys with the Rhode Island accents sitting just behind me started talking about what was wrong with the Pats. One of them, the one with the gray-brown beard and the collection of lift tickets dangling from his green ski parka, sussed it out this way: "Their defensive line sucks. Their offensive line sucks. Their running backs suck." He paused for a few seconds, then, "They could use another cornerback, too." Except for the fact that one of the Patsí running backs, Faulk, was having a half-decent day, there was little in what he said with which one could have argued.

Things started looking a bit better when Vinatieri hit from 36 yards out late in the third to make it 21-13, but even then there didnít seem to be much hope for a Pats comeback. They just didnít have the stuff.

As Miami lined up to start a drive with 9:45 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Pats defense signaled for the fans, whoíd fallen quiet, to get into the game. We did, rising to our feet and cheering loudly.

"Theyíd better earn it," one of the Rhode Island guys offered.

They did earn it, forcing a punt after just three plays. But then Brady threw an interception, setting up a Mare field goal that put Miami ahead 24-13 with 4:59 remaining in the game.

"It would have been a hell of a comeback," said one of the young guys to my left as he turned to head for the gates. "See you all next year," a woman in a Troy Brown game jersey offered as she filed out.

Throughout the stadium, lines formed on the stairways. It was over.

Only, it wasnít over. With everything apparently lost, the Pats came back to life, scoring a touchdown and pulling off a two-point conversion, faking an on-side kick to pin the Dolphins back deep, then stopping them on defense, and following up with a drive to a tying field goal to force overtime.

Those of us remaining in the stands grew more excited, and increasingly louder, as the team continued to hold on desperately to its post-season hopes.

Then they won the overtime coin toss, started with great field position thanks to Mareís errant kickoff, and moved quickly into scoring position.

And now, weíre standing, trying hard to be quiet, as Vinatieri lines up for a 35-yarder that will win the game. The ball is snapped, the kick goes up, it hooks dangerously toward the right upright, but it stays just inside the goal posts. Adam Vinatieri has yet again lifted the Pats to dramatic victory.

The fans high-five and hug. We watch the celebration on the field and the replay on the scoreboard. Then we start to really celebrate. Fans are dancing. Fans are jumping and screaming. The high-fives and hugs continue. And me, Iím laughing. Just laughing uncontrollably. I canít believe what Iíve just seen.

The young newcomer in front of me turns around and looks at me again. "Insane," I say with a nod and a giant grin of my own.

We continue dancing in the stands for maybe 10 minutes, then head for the exits. The giddy energy that runs through the crowd continues as we leave the stadium and head down Route 1 to our cars. Itís almost as if the Pats have won the Super Bowl again.

They havenít, of course. And they wonít. Not this year.

We all know the Pats canít make the playoffs unless the Jets lose to Green Bay (later in the day, the Jets end up winning, ending the Patsí season), but in a lot of ways that doesnít matter. And itís not just the fact that theyíve eliminated the hated Dolphins that has us buzzing.

The Patriots have finished their season with a winning record. Theyíve remained in contention for a division in which they were projected to finish third. Theyíve completed an up-and-down season on the up side.

And best of all, theyíve proven that this team can have a future. If they make some improvements in the off-season ó a pair of first-round-draft picks should help ó theyíll be right back in the thick of things next year. Thatís not something New England sports fans have often been able to say with confidence. It is now. And right now, for this moment, thatís enough.

Sean Glennon can be reached at sean@thispatsyear.com

Issue Date: January 2 - 9, 2003
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