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What If? Key Moments from Patriots’ Past Super Bowls

January 30, 2019
New York Giants receiver David Tyree holds the ball tightly against his helmet to catch a 32-yard pass as New England Patriots safety Rodney Harrison defends during the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLII on Feb. 3, 2008, in Glendale, Ariz. AP FILE PHOTO Sentinel and Enterprise staff photos can be ordered by visiting our SmugMug site.

Just for kicks, let’s take a walk through the land of Shoulda-Coulda-Woulda. The world of What If? Let’s examine how just a few changes in reality here or there could have upset the balance of New England Patriots history.

It is the premise of this working hypotheses that the Patriots could be 8-0 in Super Bowls during the Belichick-Brady era given less fickle fates.

Or they could be 0-8.

Remember, every Super Bowl in which the Pats have played in The Era has ended up a one-possession game. Several were won and lost in the closing seconds of the fourth quarter, on the game’s final drive. One went overtime, an NFL first. One required the most unforeseeable comeback in sports history.

There was an ill-advised short pass, a catch made with the help of a helmet, a couple of bobbling receptions that took replay officials several minutes to figure out.

Let’s take it game by game. Now, of course, some of the situations discussed here are a little more far-fetched than others, but none are impossible. The law of probabilities would probably have the Pats at 5-3, which is what they are. The point is those five wins didn’t come in the most likely games.

Let’s work backward from last year’s calamity.

Super Bowl 52: Eagles 41, Patriots 33

How it could be different: The obvious answer is this one: Don’t let an untested backup quarterback torch you for 41 points. But beyond that there were some little things, the biggest being Philly’s strip-sack of Tom Brady when he had more than two minutes to piece together a winning drive. It was a rare case of Brady not pulling a game out of the fire. Too old?

And there was also the curious case of Malcolm Butler, kept out of the game by Belichick for reasons still not publicly disclosed when he could have made the difference between winning and losing.

Super Bowl 51: Patriots 34, Falcons 28, OT

How it could be different: Duh, how could it not be different? Atlanta was up 28-3 against a tone-deaf Patriots team at halftime, then got shut out in the second half while New England put 25 on the board. That’s never happened before or since.

In the fourth quarter the Falcons needed to run time off the clock but instead chose to pass, with Matt Ryan first fumbling, then getting sacked and taking them out of field position for what would have been a clinching field goal. And the Pats not only got two desperate touchdowns in the fourth quarter (remember Julian Edelman’s catch an inch off the turf?), they tacked two-point conversions onto both. Then went down the field in overtime like they were playing the Falcons JV team.

Super Bowl 49: Patriots 28, Seahawks 24

How it could be different: This one is even simpler than the previous. If Pete Carroll had elected to hand the ball off to the game’s best running back, Marshawn Lynch, from the 1-yard line with less than a minute to play, in all probability Seattle would still be celebrating. Instead Butler, a little-known nickel back whom Belichick decided could play in this game, burst onto the scene and into the path of Russell Wilson’s ridiculous pass.

Never mind that had the Seahawks scored and kicked the extra point, yours truly would have hit a “square” for $500. I’m not bitter, no. Just keep Pete Carroll the hell out of Lowell.

Super Bowl 46: Giants 21, Patriots 17

How it could be different: An Aaron Hernandez (remember him?) TD catch put the Pats up 17-9 in the third quarter, and they still led 17-15 with 3:46 to play when Eli Manning starting completing crazy passes to guys named Mario Manningham and Hakeem Nicks, converting a number of third downs on an 88-yard touchdown drive against a New England defense that had stymied him all night long.

Fifty-seven seconds wasn’t quite enough for Brady to engineer one of his game-winning marches and the Pats lost a game they really should have won.

Super Bowl 42: Giants 17, Patriots 14

How it could be different: First off, how does a team with an 18-0 record score one touchdown in the second quarter and one in the fourth, and that’s it?!

The Patriots were one play from stopping Manning’s final push on several occasions but couldn’t do it. A 12-play, 83-yard drive included a leaping catch by David Tyree, who secured the ball against his helmet while being smothered by Rodney Harrison and knocked to the ground. Manning had miraculously escaped being sacked before heaving the third-down Hail Mary with just over a minute left. The winning pass to Plaxico Burress came with 35 seconds to play, again not quite enough time for any Brady Magic.

Super Bowl 39: Patriots 24, Eagles 21

How it could be different: The Patriots won their third Super Bowl in four years in Jacksonville in 2005 -- each one by exactly three points.

But of all of them, this game was probably the one the Patriots were never really going to lose. New England took a 24-14 lead that the Eagles cut to three points on a TD pass with 1:48 to play. They did manage to get the ball back but Harrison’s second pick of the game ended matters. It was one of four Eagle turnovers in a game which was most remarkable for the fact that the MVP was not Tom Brady -- it was Deion Branch (11 catches).

Super Bowl 38: Patriots 32, Panthers 29

How it could be different: How weird was this one? No scoring for the first 27 minutes, a Super Bowl record. Then 24 points in the final 3:05 of the first half. Then a scoreless third period (after Janet Jackson’s famous wardrobe malfunction), then 37 points combined in the fourth quarter.

Carolina tied the game on a TD with 1:08 left in the game, but the ensuing kickoff squirted out of bounds, giving the Pats the ball on their 40. Oops. It was child’s play from there for Mr. Brady, who moved the team 37 yards in five plays to let Adam Vinatieri kick the winning 40-yard field goal.

Super Bowl 36: Patriots 20, Rams 17

How it could be different: Using tenacious and opportune defense, the Patriots forged a 14-3 halftime lead against “The Greatest Show on Turf” -- the warp-speed Rams. Ty Law returned an interception for a TD along the way.

But St. Louis finally woke up in the fourth quarter and scored twice to tie the game, 17-17, with 1:30 left. After the kickoff, New England got the ball on its 17 with no timeouts left. With John Madden in the TV booth famously imploring for the 14-point underdogs to take a knee and leave it to overtime, Brady began what would become his signature -- a last-minute drive -- this one nine plays and 53 yards, setting up Vinatieri’s signature -- a clutch, game-winning field goal. Let The Era begin.

So as you can see, football can be a funny game. A nip here, a tuck there and a deflated ball somewhere, and everything could be different. We could be saying today that the Patriots out-Billed the Buffalo Bills (0-4 in Super Bowls from 1991-94) or, better yet, out-Celtic’d the Boston Celtics (8-0 in NBA Finals from 1959-66).

In any case, look for another crazy chapter to be added on Sunday.

Follow Dennis Whitton on Twitter @DAWhitton.

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