Pressure is only an illusion. To feel it you have to believe it, accept it. Pressure doesn't exist if you're a New England Patriot. It's simply not allowed. How else do you explain a team that accomplished more in a year than most NFL teams hope to accomplish in a half-century? You say win streak, they say "What streak?" You speak of dynasty, they speak of the Carringtons. They conquer opponent after opponent with class and mash, the reflection of a coach with more mantras than a Hindu wiseman. Football is discipline, pressure is not.
These Patriots are indeed human. It's the Super Bowls, record winning streaks, and home invincibility that make them appear superhuman. Carrying the weight of history through the regular season could have slowed them down. It didn't.
Game 1 -- Sept. 9, 2004
At New England 27, Indianapolis 24
By the time the banner celebrating the Patriots' Super Bowl XXXVIII victory reached its resting place atop Gillette Stadium, the 2003 season was an afterthought. Nothing then mattered now. Indianapolis was the same offensive force it was the previous January, albeit hungrier after being dispatched from Foxborough in the AFC title game. This time, without the cold and swirling snow, it bulled its way to 446 total yards, more than enough in most weeks. The Colts could have used 13 more.
That was yardage lost when Willie McGinest sacked Peyton Manning with the Colts driving for a potential tying field goal. Mike Vanderjagt, who hadn't missed in 42 straight attempts, was forced to try a 48-yarder with 24 seconds left. The kick was wide right.
The margin of difference rarely had been so slim at Gillette. Trailing, 17-13, at the half, Tom Brady (335 yards passing) sparked the New England offense with two third-quarter touchdown passes, 25 yards to David Patten and 8 yards to Daniel Graham (good for a 27-17 lead). Another key stop came with 3:43 remaining, when Eugene Wilson stripped Edgerrin James (142 yards rushing) at the Patriots 1. Most people considered it New England's 16th straight win. All the Patriots saw was 1-0.
Game 2 -- Sept. 19, 2004
New England 23, at Arizona 12
Without Corey Dillon, the Patriots' season could have taken on an entirely different complexion. For starters, the win streak may have never made it out of Tempe. The veteran running back, acquired in the offseason for a second-round draft pick, carried 32 times for 158 yards as New England held the ball for 35:16 and racked up 24 first downs. The problem was in the red zone. The Patriots repeatedly were poised to pull away in the second half, only to be held to three Adam Vinatieri field goals.
Brady had supplied an early 14-0 lead with two touchdown passes to Graham before the offense went stagnant. Arizona's offense clearly was overmatched, held to 167 total yards, nearly half on a third-quarter touchdown drive (Emmitt Smith 1-yard run) that closed the gap to 17-12. The main culprit was Josh McCown, who was sacked five times and intercepted twice by Wilson, who blanketed rookie receiver Larry Fitzgerald.
The first of the Patriots' significant injuries in 2004 came on the final play of the first half when receiver Deion Branch hurt his knee. Branch didn't return until Week 11, but his absence did benefit David Givens, who caught six passes for 118 yards against the Cardinals and emerged as Brady's go-to receiver.
Game 3 -- Oct. 3, 2004
New England 31, at Buffalo 17
Tying a longstanding NFL record never felt less satisfying. The Patriots' 18th consecutive win wasn't secured until Tedy Bruschi caused a bootlegging Drew Bledsoe to fumble and Richard Seymour coasted 68 yards for the clinching score with 2:44 remaining. "I know we need to play better than we played today," said Seymour, who also had a sack. "It's not going to be good enough coming down the stretch."
Many expected more against the winless Bills, with the Patriots coming off an early bye week. New England moved 77 yards on its opening possession for a 7-0 lead (Dillon 15-yard TD run) despite being whistled for three straight penalties on the drive. Following Vinatieri's 42-yard field goal for a 10-3 lead, Buffalo's Terrence McGee exposed one of the few Patriot flaws of 2004 by returning the ensuing kickoff 98 yards to tie the game.
Brady and Bledsoe traded scoring passes before the half, and the Bills had the momentum when they forced the Patriots to settle for another Vinatieri field goal early in the fourth. But a defensive offside penalty gave New England a new set of downs, and Brady finished off a 12-play, 80-yard drive with a 2-yard touchdown pass to Graham.
Game 4 -- Oct. 10, 2004
At New England 24, Miami 10
The schedule-makers had the right idea, sending the Dolphins into Gillette to protect the NFL's ultimate team record, held by their 1972-73 counterparts. These Dolphins, though, already had been rocked by repeated calamities and at 0-4 hardly were expected to put up a fight. Patrick Surtain intercepted Brady's second pass of the game, an ominous beginning to what became the quarterback's worst start of his career -- 7 of 19, 76 yards, 62.6 rating. He salvaged the day with an early 1-yard TD pass to Graham (set up by Randall Gay's first career pick) and a 5-yarder to Givens just before the half, which was greatly benefited by a failed fake punt attempt that gave New England possession at midfield.
The defense took care of the rest, battering quarterbacks Jay Fiedler (bruised ribs) and A.J. Feeley (concussion). Rodney Harrison forced a Fiedler fumble on the opening possession of the third quarter, which the Patriots converted into a 1-yard touchdown run by backup Rabih Abdullah.
When it was over, the team was feted for its record 19th straight win and took a minute to bask in the limelight. But only a minute. What's the big deal about being 4-0, the players wondered.
Game 5 -- Oct. 17, 2004
At New England 30, Seattle 20
Those who touted this one as a potential Super Bowl matchup were at least half right. There was no reason to doubt Seattle's legitimacy to the NFC throne despite the fact it had blown a fourth-quarter lead to St. Louis the previous week. The Seahawks were ready for a statement game. Unfortunately for them, that statement was "we're not ready." Matt Hasselbeck threw interceptions to end Seattle's first two series (the second gave Ty Law a franchise record-tying 36), and the Patriots turned them into a 10-0 lead, courtesy of Dillon's 1-yard run and Vinatieri's 40-yard boot. The advantage swelled to 17-0 in the second when Brady hit Patten from 6 yards out.
Brady opened the fourth quarter with consecutive turnovers (fumble and interception), enabling the Seahawks to close within 20-17 on Shaun Alexander's 9-yard rush. The quarterback certainly made amends, though. On the following possession, Brady threw for 61 of the 68-yard drive to set up another Vinatieri field goal. After Seattle tacked on 3 more, Brady found Bethel Johnson for the play of the day, a 48-yard rocket on third and 7 that paved the way for Dillon's clinching 9-yard TD run.
"Our team has a lot of confidence that when we get in these type of games we're going to make the plays to win," said Brady, who rebounded from the Miami meltdown to throw for 231 yards.
Game 6 -- Oct. 24, 2004
At New England 13, NY Jets 7
So few points, so much accomplished. How about an NFL-record 18 straight regular-season wins, 21 straight overall, and the first 6-0 start in franchise history? All while handing their AFC East rival its first defeat. On an overcast, drizzly afternoon, all the scoring came early. A couple of lengthy Patriot drives (12 and 14 plays) led to two Vinatieri field goals, and the Jets pulled ahead, 7-6, when quarterback Chad Pennington sneaked in from the 1 with two minutes left in the half.
That was just enough time for New England to change the game. Johnson returned the kickoff 27 yards to the Patriots' 38. Brady hit Kevin Faulk for 24 and 5 yards, Patten for 11, and a roughing the passer penalty set up the offense at the Jets 7. Two plays later, Brady and Patten clicked again to make it 13-7 only five seconds before the break. It was a two-minute masterpiece.
The second half belonged to the defenses, especially New England's. Taking over at his 14 with eight minutes left, Pennington drove New York across midfield, converting a fourth-and-1 keeper and hitting Justin McCareins for 16- and 20-yard pickups. On third and 5 from the Patriots 27, McGinest and Seymour stacked Curtis Martin for a 3-yard loss. The Jets' last hope, intended for Wayne Chrebet across the middle, was deflected away by Harrison with 2:19 remaining.
Game 7 -- Oct. 31, 2004
At Pittsburgh 34, New England 20
For the 15th consecutive game, the Patriots scored first. That was the good news. Bad news came from all over the field the rest of the game. The winning streak began to splinter immediately after Vinatieri's early field goal. Law injured his foot midway through the opening quarter, and on the next play his replacement, Gay, was burned for a 47-yard touchdown pass. Before the quarter was over, Pittsburgh piled on two more touchdowns off Brady turnovers, with Deshea Townsend returning an interception 39 yards.
Without Dillon to lean on (he missed his only game of the season because of a thigh injury), Brady was overwhelmed. He fumbled away the first snap of the second half, and Jerome Bettis made it 31-10 with a 2-yard run.
Losses were uncharacteristic enough, but the manner of this one was shocking. The Patriots ran for just 5 yards and held the ball for a measly 17:02. Bill Belichick and his coaching staff accepted the blame, all the while making a mental list of mistakes to avoid should the teams clash again.
Game 8 -- Nov. 7, 2004
New England 40, at St. Louis 22
Pundits predicted the pass-happy Rams would exploit a patchwork Patriots secondary until they had worn out the Edward Jones Dome turf. Perhaps they would have if they had the ball more often. With Dillon pounding his way to 112 yards and a touchdown, New England averaged 4.6 yards per carry and controlled the clock. St. Louis couldn't solve the blitz, leading to five Marc Bulger sacks and many poorly timed throws. Even with Troy Brown pressed into defensive service, the Rams repeatedly struggled on third down (2 of 9) and gave New England preferable field position all game.
Not that the Patriots really needed it. Vinatieri boomed four field goals and added the first touchdown pass of his career, a 4-yarder to Brown on a perfectly executed fake. Brady (234 yards) threw for multiple TDs for the sixth time in eight games, including a 2-yard toss to linebacker Mike Vrabel. Givens reached 100 yards receiving for the third straight game.
A delighted Belichick called it "probably as complete a victory as I've ever been around."
Game 9 -- Nov. 14, 2004
At New England 29, Buffalo 6
On Champions Night at Gillette (some of the Red Sox stopped by to show off their World Series trophy), the Patriots put on a worthy display. The margin of victory could have been double. Seriously. New England produced points on four of its first five possessions (two Brady touchdown passes and three Vinatieri field goals) to race to a 20-0 lead. The final three quarters resembled a varsity-JV scrimmage -- the Patriots had 20 first downs to Buffalo's three and had more than triple the Bills' time of possession. Buffalo's only points came on busted punt return coverage.
Symbolizing the Bills' ineptness was Brown's first career interception, courtesy of former teammate Drew Bledsoe (three picks). Dillon, who topped the century mark for the fourth straight game, outgained Buffalo by himself, 151-125.
Hard to believe these teams both closed out the regular season with identical 6-1 runs.
Game 10 -- Nov. 22, 2004
New England 27, at Kansas City 19
Unlike St. Louis, the Chiefs planned to throw on the Patriots every chance they could. And they almost did, Trent Green passing 42 times for 381 yards and two scores. Little difference that made. With Branch (six catches, 105 yards, TD) back in the lineup for the Monday night encounter, Brady kept pace through the air with 315 yards. His 26-yard scoring pass to Branch gave New England a 24-13 third-quarter lead, and came one play after he hit a streaking Patten for 46 yards.
Dillon came up 2 yards short of his fifth straight 100-yard game, a plateau he would have reached if not for a late fumble at the Chiefs' 3. Green responded with a long TD pass to Eddie Kennison to get within 24-19, but Dillon helped sustain a clinching, clock-killing drive, capped by Vinatieri's 28-yard field goal.
Not to be forgotten was a key Harrison interception just before the half, instinctively stepping in front of star tight end Tony Gonzalez in the end zone. "He is 6-foot-5 and athletic," said Harrison. "Why wouldn't they throw to him?"
Game 11 -- Nov. 28, 2004
At New England 24, Baltimore 3
A steady downpour turned the Gillette surface into a quirky quagmire, neither team able to find sufficient footing or offensive consistency. And after the Patriots mishandled their final possession of the first half, the Ravens kicked a gift field goal to enter the break tied at 3. Just when disaster knocked, New England closed the door on Baltimore. Johnson fumbled the second-half kickoff near midfield, but the Patriots recovered. Brady drove the offense to another field goal, and on their next possession tacked on 3 more points after having a touchdown pass nullified.
Dillon opened the fourth with a 1-yard scoring run -- his 123 yards rushing were 1 fewer than Baltimore's offensive output -- and the Patriots put it away on the next play. Ravens quarterback Kyle Boller, slogging through the pocket, was sacked by Bruschi and the ball squirted into the end zone, where it was recovered by Jarvis Green.
The postgame comments of Baltimore coach Brian Billick sounded familiar: "Once they got control of the game, that's an awful hard team to beat."
Game 12 -- Dec. 5, 2004
New England 42, at Cleveland 15
Even by Browns standards, this one was ugly. They needed just 14 seconds to fall behind, and only three quarters to completely fall apart. Johnson returned the opening kickoff 93 yards to set the rout in motion. Dillon had a field day with 100 yards on just 18 carries, accounting for 42 of them on a pathetically easy 92-yard drive in the first quarter that he punctutated with a 4-yard run. He had his second touchdown before the half, and joined Brady (44-yard TD pass to Patten) on the bench in the third quarter.
Harrison and Brown contributed interceptions, and Gay added a 41-yard fumble return to the highlight reel. Nearly half of Cleveland's 287 total yards came in the final 15 minutes before a half-empty Dawg Pound.
The pounding was that bad.
Game 13 -- Dec. 12, 2004
At New England 35, Cincinnati 28
The Patriots already had sewn up the division thanks to a Jets loss earlier in the day, and fittingly, Dillon's first career playoff berth came on the day he faced his former team. Even he probably didn't recognize these Bengals. Cincinnati piled up a Colts-like 478 total yards and 26 first downs. After Carson Palmer left in the third quarter with a knee injury, Jon Kitna kept the offense moving, firing a 27-yard TD pass to Kelley Washington to pull within 7 with 3:50 to go. The Bengals simply ran out of time.
They also could blame the loss on three key turnovers -- McGinest recovered an early fumble in the red zone, Asante Samuel (who had missed the previous two games) ran back an interception 34 yards for a score, and Brown picked off Kitna in the end zone.
New England scored first for an NFL-record 18th straight game and needed all the offense it could generate in the unexpected shootout. Brady's second TD pass, a 17-yarder to Christian Fauria midway through the third for a 35-14 spread, didn't seem so crucial at the time.
Game 14 -- Dec. 20, 2004
At Miami 29, New England 28
The only people who gave the 2-11 Dolphins a chance were on the sidelines. Both sidelines. The Patriots knew they would be in for a fight in one of their most haunted venues. Nothing seemed amiss that Monday night when Brady hit Faulk for a 31-yard touchdown on New England's opening possession. Even after Wes Welker broke free for a 71-yard punt return, laying the groundwork for the tying score, there was no reason to suspect a monumental Miami upset.
Dillon scored via the air and ground, and once Graham hauled in Brady's third TD pass, a 2-yarder with 3:59 to play, it was time to turn out the lights at 28-17. But Miami took just 1:52 to cover 68 yards (aided by a pass interference call on Harrison in the end zone) and Sammy Morris's 1-yard run made it a 5-point game. Instead of an onside kick, interim Miami coach Jim Bates opted to kick deep, and three plays later Brady served up a head-scratcher, lofting an easily intercepted pass into traffic.
The Patriots' secondary never looked so vulnerable on the go-ahead score. Left in single coverage on fourth down, Brown was turned around by Derrius Thompson in the end zone and the Dolphins had completed their shocking comeback. Home-field advantage in the playoffs was history.
Game 15 -- Dec. 26, 2004
New England 23, at NY Jets 7
Nobody felt worse about the Miami fiasco than Brady, who spent the week accepting more than his fair share of the blame. As is his trademark, though, the quarterback shook off the malaise like a half-hearted blitzer and was almost flawless as his team secured a first-round bye. Brady was 21 of 32 for 264 yards and directed five scoring drives, two of which he finished with a 16-yard pass to Graham and a 6-yarder to Branch. Dillon set the team's season rushing record. The offense sliced through a tough Jets defense with precision and surprising ease for 372 total yards and almost a 12-minute advantage in possession.
Martin, headed for the NFL rushing title at age 31, was bottled up for 33 yards on 13 carries and Pennington (now 1-4 against Belichick) was picked off by Bruschi and Wilson. With New York's playoff hopes on the line, "They just came down here and flat out kicked our behinds," said Jets coach Herman Edwards.
The one dark cloud over New England was the third-quarter knee injury suffered by Seymour. It sure looked serious, and it turns out it was.
Game 16 -- Jan. 2, 2005
At New England 21, San Francisco 7
This wasn't how the Patriots wanted to enter the playoffs. As much as the foundering 49ers wanted their nightmare season to end, they refused to roll over. The Patriots wouldn't let them, either. Johnson's punt return for a score was negated by an illegal block. Dillon fumbled after a midfield reception. Brady threw an interception. And that was all in the first quarter.
It took a missed Todd Peterson field goal to get New England going. Dillon (116 yards rushing) and Brady conspired for a 71-yard scoring drive, with Vrabel's 1-yard catch tying the game at 7. The deadlock finally was broken midway through the third as Brady connected with Branch for an 8-yard TD, and Dillon made it 21-7 with a 6-yard rush with 14:24 to play.
That was enough to finish the starters' day. A second consecutive 14-2 season was safe. But don't think anyone was content. "We're going to have to play a lot better than what we played today to win games in the playoffs," Vrabel said.
AFC Divisional playoff -- Jan. 16, 2005
At New England 20, Indianapolis 3
These weren't the 49ers. The Indianapolis reserves weren't even the 49ers. This was one of the most destructive offensive forces the league ever has known, and with Manning as masterful as ever, it was going to take more than freezing temperatures to cool him down. Even without Law and Seymour, the Patriots did the unthinkable, holding Indianapolis to a mere field goal and Manning to just 238 yards (a good chunk of them coming in garbage time). James, a big factor in the season opener, never found his groove and finished with 39 yards rushing. It was that kind of day for the Colts.
With Dillon carving out 144 yards on the ground, New England refused to relinquish possession. There was a 16-play, 9:07 drive for a field goal, a 15-play, 8:16 march for a touchdown (Brady to Givens), and a 14-play, 7:24 venture that Brady finished with a 1-yard dive for a 20-3 advantage. Quite simply, the Colts couldn't score if they didn't have the ball, and New England played an exquisite game of keepaway in winning a mind-boggling 20th straight home game.
"It was just the best game plan that we've had since I've been here," said Harrison. For a week at least.
AFC Championship game -- Jan. 23, 2005
New England 41, at Pittsburgh 27
Belichick and his staff didn't need a week to prep for this one. The game plan wrote itself back on Halloween. You might see the same mistakes, but not from his team. This time, the Patriots were the instant aggressors. Once-unbeatable rookie Ben Roethlisberger was intercepted on his first pass attempt, leading to Vinatieri's 48-yard kick through a stiff wind. Bettis fumbled and Brady pounced, finding Branch behind the secondary for a 60-yard score that deflated a record crowd at Heinz Field before the first quarter was over.
Leading, 10-3, New England refused to let up. Brady and Branch hooked up for a 45-yard pass, which preceded a 9-yard scoring screen to a wide-open Givens. Pittsburgh showed some life by driving into Patriots' territory before Roethlisberger underthrew his target and Harrison happily took the pass 87 yards the other way to make it 24-3 at the half.
Dillon and Branch, both of whom missed the October loss, combined for three touchdowns and 231 of the Patriots' 322 total yards. Indeed, the rematch could not have turned out any more different. What stayed the same was the AFC's Super Bowl representative.