Last Eagles game was when Patriots rounded into form
PITTSBURGH -- Bill Belichick often says that history should not be used as a guide when it comes to projecting the course of the next game. But it's hard not to.
In Super Bowl XXXIX, the Patriots will play a Philadelphia Eagles team that they ripped up, 31-10, in Game 2 of the 2003 season, right after New England lost a 31-0 opener to the Buffalo Bills.
The Eagles, at the time, were like chicken soup for their soul.
Though Rosevelt Colvin suffered a season-ending hip injury in the second quarter, that game seemed to launch the Patriots into the dominating mode that persists today, 36 games later -- 33 of which they've won.
That victory brought back together a team that had been divided by the sudden release of popular safety Lawyer Milloy in the week leading up to the Buffalo loss.
The team was also coming off a 9-7 season in which it failed to make the playoffs.
"To this day, I don't think what happened to Lawyer was right," said injured cornerback Ty Law, a close friend of Milloy's, "but we decided that week that we were going to put that aside and not allow it to ruin our season.
"As a team, we wanted to have a big year because we could feel the sting of not making the playoffs. That was unacceptable to all of us. Even though we all loved Lawyer and we wanted him to be a part of winning another championship, I think that whole situation tested our team and we wanted to make sure that it wasn't going to ruin us. It made us even stronger."
Leading up to that game, ESPN commentator Tom Jackson made his bold declaration that the Patriots players "hate their coach."
But Belichick got his players' attention and put together a very good game plan.
"We moved on," said Belichick after the game. "I thought it was a normal week of preparation. There were some things we screwed up in practice, but that happens every week. I just thought we played better today."
Indeed, Tom Brady rebounded from a four-interception performance against Buffalo with these numbers: 33 of 44 for 255 yards, 3 touchdowns, and no interceptions. Deion Branch caught six passes for 89 yards and Christian Fauria caught a pair of touchdown passes.
The Patriots also stifled Donovan McNabb, which may bode well for this Super Bowl. McNabb went 18 of 46 for 186 yards, was sacked eight times, and the Eagles committed six turnovers (it was later reported that McNabb had a thumb injury). Philadelphia fans were chanting, "A.J., A.J.," for popular backup A.J. Feeley.
About the only thing Eagles fans had to cheer about was David Akers's 57-yard field goal.
Another pivotal aspect of the game was that it marked the debut of Eugene Wilson at free safety, replacing Milloy for good after Antwan Harris failed to make an impression in the Buffalo loss.
Other than Law, nobody took Milloy's departure harder than Brady, a close friend, and Tedy Bruschi, who was taken in the 1996 draft along with Milloy. But Brady and Bruschi put aside their disappointment and had big games in Philadelphia. Bruschi ran back an interception 18 yards for a touchdown.
Bruschi said of his attitude that day, "I wasn't going to compromise who I am just because we're 0-1. I practice hard and I play hard. You bounce back, you get back on track, and say, `We're going to get out of Philly 1-1.' Put blinders on, that's all you want to do, and we did it."
The Patriots mixed up their defensive line and used some 4-3 formations to confuse McNabb. Big Ted Washington got a great rush up the middle and the linebackers did a great job in containing McNabb. While Washington is gone, rookie Vince Wilfork and veteran Keith Traylor have filled in ably.
"I think that's the game we all remember as being important to our team," said Law, "because we had to rebound from the first game, and Philadelphia was one of the best teams in the NFL. Beating them just got us back on the track we needed to be on where we take each week and just focus on one game. There was nothing we could do about being 0-1 then, but we knew we didn't want to be 0-2."
Perhaps you can't use history as a guide to what will happen in the biggest game of all. The Eagles have become the NFC's top team, with 14 regular-season wins and domination of the Vikings and Falcons in the playoffs. This was the fourth straight year they made it to the NFC Championship game.
Said an NFL scout, "The team now compared to the team they were early last season is far different. I agree with Belichick on that one -- don't go by that game. Both teams have come a long way since then."
But that is also true for Wilson and Colvin. Wilson's two interceptions in Sunday's AFC Championship game showed what kind of big-play guy he can be. Colvin is steadily returning to the player he was with the Chicago Bears.
"I went through a lot to get back to this point," said Colvin. "I just want to keep getting better."
Maybe you can't project, but in retrospect, that victory Sept. 14, 2003, at Lincoln Financial Field might go down as one of the most important in Patriots history.