The Patriots’ 45-10 throttling of Tim Tebow and the Broncos last January was rewarding for the home team. Yet by our accounting here, it doesn’t rank among the top 10 playoff victories in franchise history (Super Bowls aren’t included in this countdown). If you think about it, that tells you just how good Patriots fans have had it, at least in the Bill Belichick.
Take a scroll through our countdown to refresh some great memories.
1. Patriots 16, Raiders 13 (OT), AFC Divisional, January 19, 2002
Because it was a beautiful sendoff for Foxboro Stadium. Because it was a football game played in a snow globe. Because the Tuck Rule was the correct interpretation of a silly rule. Because East Boston’s Jermaine Wiggins caught 10 passes in the snow, as if he’d played in the stuff his entire childhood. Because J.R. Redmond was everything Kevin Faulk would eventually be, Tom Brady earned his first postseason pelt, and Adam Vinatieri was good, so good, from 45 to tie and 23 to win. Because it’s when a decade of greatness officially began.
2. Patriots 24, Steelers 17, AFC Championship, January 27, 2002
The Steelers were so confident that they’d overcome the Cinderella Patriots that they openly talked about their hotel reservations and their plans in New Orleans, the site of Super Bowl XXXVI. The Patriots were having none of it, even with Brady suffering an ankle injury in the second quarter. Drew Bledsoe got his moment of redemption, replacing the man who had replaced him and throwing a laser of a TD pass to David Patten as the Patriots took a 14-3 lead into halftime. But it was Troy Brown who truly silenced the Steelers, returning a punt 55 yards for a touchdown and lateraling a blocked field goal to speedy Antwan Harris for another score.
3. Patriots 31, Dolphins 14, AFC Championship, January 12, 1986
The Patriots exorcised a few ghosts en route to the first Super Bowl appearance in franchise history, most notably during their AFC title game victory at Miami. The win, in which Tony Eason threw touchdown passes to three different receivers, Craig James ran for 105 yards, and the beloved Mosi Tatupu scored from a yard out, ended a streak of 18 consecutive losses at the Orange Bowl dating to 1966.
4. Patriots 20, Jaguars 6, AFC Championship, January 12, 1997
Perhaps the memory of this victory has faded some in these heady days of the Brady/Belichick Era, but winning the AFC title in the fourth season of the Bledsoe/Parcells Era was extremely fulfilling. Old Foxboro Stadium lost power near the end of the first half, and the Patriots’ defense, led by Willie McGinest, took the power away from an upstart Jaguars team that had stunned the top-seeded Broncos the previous week. Otis Smith returned a fumble for a touchdown, Willie Clay picked off a pass in the end zone to clinch the win, and the Patriots were headed to their second Super Bowl.
5. Patriots 20, Colts 3, AFC Divisional, January 16, 2005
Why does this game, a divisional round victory, rate higher than the AFC title game win over the Colts the previous season? Easy: It happened after the Colts’ complaints about the physical play of the Patriots’ defensive backs resulted in rule changes that benefited passing teams during the previous offseason. Did we mention that Colts GM Bill Polian was a member of the competition committee at the time? In snowy conditions, Manning failed to throw a touchdown pass, while the Patriots used a ball-control offense and the legs of Corey Dillon (144 yards) to end Indianapolis’s season again. No truth to the rumor the Colts tried to ban running the football, weather, and New England after this one.
6. Patriots 24, Colts 14, AFC Championship, January 18, 2004
On a frosty day in Foxborough, the Patriots tormented Manning and the Colts’ vaunted offense, which had scored 41 points against the Broncos the previous week in the comfort of their dome home. Manning has joked that he will make Ty Law’s Hall of Fame introduction should the time come, since he’d have helped him get there, and this game stands as evidence. Law had three of the Patriots’ four interceptions, while the Patriots’ defensive backs frustrated the Colts’ receivers with their physical play. Manning was also sacked four times – three by Jarvis Green – and Adam Vinatieri booted five field goals.
7. Patriots 41, Steelers 27, AFC Championship, January 23, 2005
Take solace, Packers fans. The 2011 version of your team isn’t the only one in league history to go 15-1 in the regular season but not reach the Super Bowl. The 2004 Steelers became the second to do so, with the Patriots taking advantage of four Pittsburgh turnovers. A Tom Brady-to-Deion Branch 60-yard TD pass gave the Patriots an early 10-3 lead. Brady found David Givens for another scoring pass in the second quarter, and Rodney Harrison’s 87-yard return for a touchdown gave the No. 2 seed in the conference a 24-3 halftime lead that would not be relinquished.
8. Patriots 28, Steelers 3, AFC Divisional, January 5, 1997
If you’re a Patriots fan of a certain vintage, you surely can close your eyes and still envision the Patriots’ first play from scrimmage, a bomb through the thick fog from Drew Bledsoe to sensational rookie receiver Terry Glenn down the right sideline. Curtis Martin scored the first of his three rushing touchdowns a few moments later – he finished with 166 yards on the ground – and the tone was set for a Patriots blowout against the brash Steelers. It wouldn’t be Pittsburgh’s last lesson that games aren’t won verbally.
9. Patriots 27, Raiders 20, AFC Divisional, January 5, 1986
The Patriots, who entered the postseason as the fifth and final seed in the AFC, began their improbable journey to Super Bowl XX with a 26-14 victory over the Jets in the wild-card round, their first of three straight victories on the road. The Patriots built an early lead behind the passing of Tony Eason (no, really) and the running of Craig James (a much more admirable ballcarrier than broadcaster). The Raiders fought back to lead 20-17 at halftime, but the Patriots scored the winning touchdown and final points in the third quarter on special teams ace Jim Bowman’s recovery of a fumbled punt in the end zone. The detail fans probably remember best from this game, however, is Raiders linebacker Matt Millen slugging Pat Sullivan on the field when the Patriots executive talked trash to him and Howie Long.
10. Patriots 17, Titans 14, AFC Divisional, January 10, 2004
In limb-numbing weather – the game-time temperature was 4 degrees – the Patriots held off a resolute Tennessee team led by quarterback Steve McNair. Receiver Bethel Johnson, regarded as a bust in Patriots lore, had a big game, with a 41-yard touchdown catch and a crucial late first down on a reverse, and Adam Vinatieri booted the winning field goal from 46 yards with 4:02 left in regulation. Given the circumstances, that field goal under such adverse conditions could rank as a career highlight. For Vinatieri, it’s at the back end of his top five.