THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Season was exciting, and perfectly unpredictable

Email|Print| Text size + By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / December 31, 2007

EAST RUTHERFORD. N.J. - The dramatic, twist-filled journey to 16-0 ended Saturday night in the Meadowlands, the flash bulbs from cameras flickering, Super Bowl-like, as the final seconds of the clock ticked down.

The moment marked the culmination of the Patriots' often unpredictable ride through the NFL world. How it ended forever will be documented in the league's history books, but where the ride truly began can be debated.

Some might say it was the immediate aftermath of the 2006 AFC Championship game in Indianapolis, a crushing 38-34 loss. That game seemed to be the catalyst for an aggressive offseason shopping spree, a reshaping of the team's roster, starting in early March, when free agency began. Then there were spring minicamps, and of course, the start of training camp in late July. Four exhibition games later, it was time for the season opener, Sept. 9, against the Jets.

The regular season started in the Meadowlands, and ended there, too. Nice symmetry. But does that truly cover the start-to-finish process of what the Patriots have strung together this year, their remarkable feat?

Probably not. So turn back the calendar to Jan. 21 and we'll start there.

Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and Co., walked off the field at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, stunned after a 21-6 halftime lead fizzled away and the Super Bowl berth that seemed a virtual lock after 30 minutes of action went with it. Crushing. For a team that prides itself on getting stronger as the season progresses, and as each game reaches its critical point, especially in the fourth quarter, it was an unfamiliar feeling coming up short in such a high-stakes contest.

Belichick said little after the game. Only whispers could be heard in the locker room. Brady, embracing his parents in the hallway, wore the hurt on his face for everyone to see.

The sting of that game ultimately became a rallying point of sorts. The Patriots retooled their roster and vowed to play 60 complete minutes of football. They played a good 30 against the Colts that day, but now they would remind themselves it takes 60 to be a champion.

The idea was to never relent. And with that in mind, here's a start-to-finish look at the journey to this point.

Welcome to new faces

When the clock struck midnight in early March, the Patriots' offseason plan officially sprung into motion. Vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli, a key figure in New England's team-building operation, made one of his first calls to Bus Cook, the agent for linebacker Adalius Thomas. The idea was to make an immediate splash.

It was a bold step, one that surprised many across the NFL. Deserved or not, the team had earned a reputation of taking more of a wait-and-see approach in free agency, seeking more values as the market settled to more reasonable levels.

So why the change?

Team officials insisted that nothing truly had changed, that they had pursued players upon the opening of free agency before, only this time they landed them. Also, it was a calculated decision to get out early, because unlike other years there was a feeling that more teams would sit back and let the market take shape before opening their checkbooks.

Thomas was the big signing, lured by a five-year, $35 million contract. Although not creating as much of a stir, tight end Kyle Brady and running back Sammy Morris also arrived on the opening weekend of free agency and turned out to be strong contributors.

A few days into free agency, the Patriots traded for receiver Wes Welker, again utilizing an aggressive approach. Other teams could have bid on Welker, who was a restricted free agent after making a career-high 67 catches, but the Patriots beat them all to the punch.

After receivers Donte' Stallworth and Kelley Washington signed on, the Patriots finished with a shocker, trading a fourth-round draft choice to Oakland for receiver Randy Moss. It was the second day of the NFL draft and Moss's voice was booming through a speaker phone in the team's press box at Gillette Stadium, at least 50 reporters gathered around in the type of scene only a player like Moss could create.

Moss promised that those watching the Patriots would see some things they never had before, and then capped off his thoughts by saying "The Moss of old is back." The Patriots strategically placed Moss next to Brady in the locker room, the start of what few could have predicted would be a record-breaking combination.

Training camp

As impressive as the Patriots' new haul of talent looked, there were some storm clouds on the horizon as training camp opened. Would cornerback Asante Samuel report?

Upset at having been designated the franchise player, which limited his ability to cash in as an unrestricted free agent, Samuel threatened to hold out for the season. He publicly ripped the team, saying he wasn't being treated fairly.

The hardball continued through the end of camp, before Samuel and the Patriots reached an agreement that led to his return. If the team won 12 games or Samuel played in 60 percent of defensive snaps, he would be free to test the market in 2008.

With one of their key pieces of the secondary returning, the Patriots seemed primed to enter the regular season with momentum before a bombshell was dropped on the club on Labor Day weekend.

Veteran safety Rodney Harrison, one of the team's inspirational leaders, had been suspended four games for violating the NFL's banned substances policy. Harrison had purchased human growth hormone, his name coming up in a probe led by the Albany district attorney's office.

At that point, the question was how the Patriots would respond as preparations began for the season opener against the Jets. In 2003, the team came out flat in its opener after the unexpected release of fiery safety Lawyer Milloy. Would it be a case of déjà vu?

There also was some question as to whether Moss would be healthy enough to make a difference after missing the bulk of camp with a hamstring injury.

Spygate

When the new-look Patriots posted a convincing 38-14 opening win over the Jets, and Moss announced his presence by outrunning triple coverage on a 51-yard touchdown catch, the first step toward 16-0 was taken.

Yet behind the scenes, underneath Giants Stadium, what would turn out to be a major story was brewing. Matt Estrella, an assistant on the Patriots' video staff, had been stopped while filming on the sideline during the game. The NFL launched an investigation and discovered Estrella's filming included signals of Jets defensive coaches.

The illegal filming, dubbed Spygate in some quarters, cost the Patriots a first-round draft choice in 2008. Belichick was fined $500,000, and the Patriots were fined $250,000.

"This episode represents a calculated and deliberate attempt to avoid longstanding rules designed to encourage fair play and promote honest competition on the playing field," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell wrote in a letter to the Patriots.

The swirl of controversy filled the air leading into the team's next game, its home opener against the Chargers, a club that had revenge on its mind after being knocked out of the playoffs by the Patriots the previous season. The Patriots stormed out of the chute by opening a 24-0 halftime lead en route to a 38-14 triumph, and after the game, linebacker Tedy Bruschi spoke passionately about defending the Patriots logo.

"We went through a lot this week," Bruschi said after Belichick had been presented a game ball. "It was one of the tougher weeks where we had to block out everything. Hearing some of the things that were said about our teams, this team, past teams, this victory was for all Patriots, past and present."

Wins over the Bills (38-7) and Bengals (34-13) followed, the latter coming in front of a hostile Monday night crowd in Cincinnati, and the early indications were that the Patriots' offense had the potential to be one of the most lethal in recent memory.

Soaring into the bye

With a 4-0 record, the Patriots faced a five-game stretch heading into their off weekend. Two contests looked especially tough, trips to Dallas (Oct. 14) and Indianapolis (Nov. 4).

The Patriots entered their much ballyhooed "Duel in Dallas" after fighting off a strong challenge from the Browns the week before (34-17). The stars came out for what some locals in Dallas called the biggest Cowboys game in more than 10 years, with Cowboys receiver Terrell Owens reminding fans to get their popcorn ready.

Despite controlling much of the early action, the Patriots found themselves in an unfamiliar position early in the third quarter - trailing, 24-21. Then, in a sign of how potent the offense had become, the attack exploded over the game's final 25 minutes, scoring 27 points and choking the life out of the Cowboys.

The theme of playing 60 minutes, perhaps born from sputtering out in the AFC Championship game in January, was alive and well. Patriots players flicked popcorn as they exited the field, mocking Owens.

A 49-28 rout over the Dolphins followed in which Moss made two remarkable touchdown grabs in tight coverage, and then came a 52-7 blowout victory over the Redskins at home. Some wondered: are they running up the score; are the starters playing too long?

With an offense churning at never-seen-before levels, the Patriots entered a Week 9 game that had been circled on the calendar of many NFL fans. It was a return trip to Indianapolis.

If the Patriots, then 8-0, were to indeed run the table, this figured to be their toughest test. The Colts entered at 7-0.

Those expecting a high-scoring game were surprised, as the defenses controlled things early. It looked like the Patriots would take a 7-6 lead into halftime, but Colts quarterback Peyton Manning hit Joseph Addai on an innocent clock-killing short pass and the play turned into a 73-yard touchdown with 13 seconds left. The Colts increased the advantage to 20-10 with 9:42 to play, and it seemed as if the Patriots once again would be leaving Indianapolis with a sour taste.

One play, however, ignited the Patriots' comeback.

A 55-yard bomb from Brady to Moss on the ensuing drive changed the course of the game. The Patriots stepped on the accelerator, scoring touchdowns on back-to-back possessions. The Colts imploded. The final score was 24-20, New England.

It was a stunning turnaround, and another reminder of the focus on playing 60 minutes. Last year, they faltered late. This year, they got stronger.

Defensive lineman Jarvis Green reinforced the message, passing out "60 minute men" T-shirts to his teammates. It was the second T-shirt that had made the rounds, following Thomas's humble pie creation.

At 9-0, the Patriots entered their off weekend firmly entrenched as the NFL's top team.

Weathering the storm

The pursuit of perfection, coupled with several unexpected plot twists, made the Patriots a national draw. Who could possibly knock them off? It was a storyline the national networks played up in the first three games after the team returned from its off weekend.

The Patriots' 56-10 romp at Buffalo Nov. 18 was moved to prime time after initially being scheduled for 1 p.m. Moss had four touchdown catches in the first half.

Then came an unexpected scare, at home against the Eagles in another Sunday night clash Nov. 25. The Eagles played fearlessly, converting an onside kick in the second quarter, and had a 4-point lead heading into the fourth quarter. But two interceptions by Samuel helped the Patriots escape, 31-28. The second pick came on an ill-advised throw by Eagles quarterback A.J. Feeley late in the final quarter.

A familiar question in the days following the game was if the Eagles had shown other teams how to attack the Patriots.

The next week brought one of the wildest, most unpredictable endings. Taking their 11-0 record into Baltimore on Monday night, the Patriots encountered a physical Ravens defense that roughed up the receiving corps. The winning streak appeared to be broken when the Patriots, trailing by 3 with less than two minutes to play, had their final drive end when Brady was stopped on a quarterback sneak.

But wait.

The Ravens had signaled for a timeout, giving the Patriots new life.

The Patriots couldn't take advantage, though, as running back Heath Evans was stopped on fourth and 1.

But wait.

Patriots right guard Russ Hochstein was penalized for a false start, so the offense had another chance. It converted and Brady ultimately found Jabar Gaffney for the winning score with 44 seconds left.

After stopping a late Hail Mary pass to secure the 27-24 win, the Patriots headed for home a tired team.

Only four games remained, and three would be at Gillette Stadium. The road to 16-0 was looking quite clear.

The finishing kick

Opponents should have learned by now. Beware of providing the Patriots any bulletin-board material.

The Steelers, next up on the schedule, apparently didn't receive the memo. When safety Anthony Smith guaranteed a victory, the words fired up players in the New England locker room. Brady later explained that over the course of a long season, players need to find ways to motivate themselves, and this one was served up to them.

When Brady hit Moss on a 4-yard touchdown strike in the first quarter, Brady jawed at Smith, who was a target throughout the game. Moss later caught a 63-yard touchdown when Smith bit on a play-action fake.

After the game, Belichick subtly shot back, saying that the Steelers' safety play was so inviting that it only made sense to attack that area of the field.

While the guarantee dominated talk leading up to the 34-13 win over Pittsburgh, the next week was Spygate revisited, with the Jets coming to town. A story resurfaced that the Patriots had asked a young Jets employee to stop filming in the 2006 playoff game between the teams. Jets coach Eric Mangini said his team had been granted permission, and the NFL agreed the Jets did nothing wrong.

The Patriots posted a 20-10 win and most everyone waited around to see the postgame handshake between Belichick and Mangini. Belichick wore a permanent smile as he crossed the field, shook Mangini's hand, and said "Great game, Eric. Great game. Awesome!"

That left just the two remaining games, a 28-7 win over the Dolphins at home and Saturday night's thriller against the Giants. With the finale scheduled to be broadcast on NFL Network, which can be seen in only about 40 percent of the country's homes, the league announced an unprecedented three-way simulcast with NFL Network, CBS, and NBC.

In Belichick's words, that made it like a State of the Union address.

The Patriots shattered a handful of records, and calling on the theme that in many ways carried them through the season, they played their best late in the game. They went the full 60 minutes.

From start to finish.

It was a ride to remember.

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com.

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