Commentary

Most compelling teams: 2007 Patriots

New England fell just short of perfection. Did they need to lose more?

Originally Published: June 28, 2013
By Seth Wickersham | ESPN.com

It's almost as if an asterisk exists: 18-1*. The 2007 Patriots were not only the most entertaining team of the 21st century, not only the most dominant, not only the luckiest and unluckiest, but also the most epically conflicted. They won with selfless class and with a bloodthirsty resolve for running up the score. They won with a historic offense and with an unappreciated defense, the opposite of how they had won Super Bowls. They won as a unified team, yet became a divisive force. They won without cheating, as far as we know, but Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft were fined a combined $750,000 for years of cheating, and so their overall record and the records they set seem tainted in the eyes of some fans, like a home run mark. They won games when Tom Brady threw six touchdown passes and they won games when he threw three interceptions. They won despite -- and under the weight of -- their own winning. They won all of their games in September and October and November and December and January. They won so much that you had to appreciate them, even if you hated them, because you can't discuss the greatest teams in NFL history without mentioning them. In fact, they won so much that some players think that they damn well could have won it all -- if only they had lost.

May 2007, minicamp

Brady's 2006 season was one of the hardest, and one of the best, of his career. He was angry that star wide receiver Deion Branch had been traded to the Seahawks after a contract dispute. But with a grab bag of receivers -- Reche Caldwell, Jabar Gaffney -- he nearly led the Patriots to the Super Bowl before losing to the eventual champion Colts in the AFC title game. So Belichick, for the first time in Brady's career, set out to acquire bona fide weapons. He traded for Randy Moss and Wes Welker and signed free agent Donte Stallworth. Fans had always wondered: What could Brady do with an all-star cast? Now they would find out.

Stallworth: First meeting of the year, right after the draft, Belichick said, "We're all losers. None of you were on the Colts." And then the first play he shows is Brady throwing an incomplete pass. He says, "Johnny from Foxborough High could hit that pass." I was sitting next to Randy, kind of slouched over. We both sat up straight.

Brady: That's where all this "Humble Pie" started. We'd have these meetings where Belichick was serving us humble pie. That's his coaching style. It's everything that you do wrong. He's just constantly on you.

Rosevelt Colvin (linebacker): When I first got to the Patriots, I thought Brady was cocky, thought he was a little overrated. I found out he was a competitor. The quarterbacks do a drill where they have a net and four squares, and they throw to different spots. He's in there throwing, and he's pretty close. I say, "If you're supposed to be as good as you say ..." He laughed and said, "If you think you can do it, let's make a bet. Step up." It's a 35-yard throw, and I sunk it. We bet $100, and he paid me in all $1 bills."

Brady: When I lose, I make it a little difficult.

Week 1: Patriots 38, Jets 14

Russ Hochstein (guard): We always wanted to be an explosive offense. And that culminated in 2007.

Ben Watson (tight end): I was a Moss fan. "We just got Moss," we'd say that to each other. In camp, he caught a pass one-handed and it was so effortless. And then, on a go route, he pulled up. Everyone said, "Oh crap." He walked off kind slow. So against the Jets, we weren't sure, and he wasn't sure either, how his hamstring was going to hold up.

Stallworth: I was wondering, are we going to be clicking?

Randy MossRon Antonelli/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images

Brady: [Moss] ran a route and I threw it and I got hit as I threw it so I didn't see it. I was like, Oh s---, I overthrew it. And then I hear, Ohhhh. And he caught it! I was like, Holy s--- that was nice!

Stallworth: It was pretty early in the game. I was the second or third read. The route was for me to go 10 yards, go to the post, then curl at 22 yards. As I curl Brady is just coming back to me. He's holding the ball, and I see him do this [sticks his thumb out, telling him to go to the sideline]. So I went out, and I caught the ball. Tom comes over and says, "Good job seeing my thumb." I thought about it -- this dude is in the pocket and he's thumbing me to go out that way. Who does that?"

Brady threw for 297 yards and three touchdowns. Moss caught nine passes for 183 yards and a touchdown. And then …

Ellis Hobbs (cornerback): Against the Jets, I broke the return record [a 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown]. … That following Monday, I was at my locker. Reporters come over, and I thought they were going to talk about the kickoff return. First question was, "What is this about you guys cheating?"

Watson: Bill called a meeting.

[+] EnlargeBill Belichick
AP Photo/Lynne SladkyRight after the Week 1 victory over the Jets, Bill Belichick called a meeting to explain Spygate to the team. Many veteran players were furious.

Stallworth: Bill said, and this is all he said about it, "There were some things that happened." … He basically said that we stretched rules, but didn't break any rules. Did we do anything that anyone else hasn't done? No. But we never went against the rules. … We're gonna prepare you the best we can. I don't want anyone talking about it in the media. A lot of the veterans were pissed. Tedy Bruschi was pissed. Mike Vrabel was pissed, visibly. Rodney -- he said something to the papers, because he could say whatever he wanted. Tommy [Brady] was upset but he never showed it. Other NFL players and media were saying that they didn't earn those championships.

Watson: [Belichick] asked if anyone had questions. Nobody said anything.

Brady: As players, we're like, what are you talking about? We're not even privy to what goes on.

Hobbs: It kind of came out, then it disappeared. It was elephant in the room but the elephant was invisible. Bill did such a good job of keeping us focused, or keeping us distracted. One day, Bill said, "A lot of you guys have paid your debts. Your family is suffering. Parents are suffering. Bodies are suffering. Wanna know what cures it? Winning. Winning cures everything."

Dan Koppen (center): It really was kind of a pain in the ass. You gotta deal with that whole situation, but as players, it was bulls---. None of the players knew what was going on. We played the game. We just wanted to say "F--- you" to everyone.

Week 2: Patriots 38, Chargers 14

Week 3: Patriots 38, Bills 7

Week 4: Patriots 34, Bengals 13

Week 5: Patriots 34, Browns 17

Week 6: Patriots 48, Cowboys 27

Fueled by Spygate, the Patriots were rolling. Brady threw 30 touchdown passes in the first eight games, eclipsing his previous career high for an entire season.

Stallworth: There was a play that we put in before the Cowboys game. I wasn't 100 percent on it. We weren't 100 percent on it that week. We were 90 percent on it, but that's not good enough. I remember holding back -- should I ask Tom about it? The play wasn't designed for me; it was designed for Randy. Well, I figured, it's going to go to Randy. So I never asked him. We're in the fourth quarter of the Dallas game. They call that play and they call it to me. Oh, s---! I could tell that Tom wasn't 100 percent, because I stopped out of the huddle and looked at him and he grabbed me. We're both like, we're not on the same page. The play was designed for me to do three different routes against three different coverages. And so I asked him, "What do you want me to do?" And I'll never forget: He looks at me, he looks back at the defense, and he says, "Go deep." We scored a touchdown. After that play, I came to sidelines, we looked at each other and started laughing.

Tom BradyRonald Martinez/Getty ImagesThe team developed a reputation for running up the score. "There is no sportsmanship," said cornerback Ellis Hobbs. "We're going to keep putting points on the board. We didn't care. With Spygate, we had to over-satisfy."

With the game beyond the Cowboys' reach, the Patriots scored an in-your-face touchdown with 19 seconds left. Brady was as pumped-up on the sideline as if it were a comeback win. Not everybody liked New England's bloodthirsty ethic. Belichick began to take heat for running up points on teams.

Hobbs: Bill just said, "Every time we step on the field, prove you're the best." We weren't showing any weakness. There is no sportsmanship. We're going to keep putting points on the board. We didn't care. With Spygate, we had to over-satisfy.

Colvin: People thought Bill was giving Tom all the answers. So it was a matter of, we're not just going to stick it to you, we're going to stick it to you a little more than we usually have. We're going to prove a point, and prove it hard.

Brady: When we won Super Bowls, we were a defensive football team. Our offense was average most of the time. … In that situation in 2007, for the first time our offense could support our defense. And it was a nice feeling.

Tom Brady Sr.: There was a little bit of a rage in there. … Whether it was high school or college or the pros, you're always Pick No. 199.

Week 7: Patriots 49, Dolphins 28

Stallworth: Thursday before the Dolphins, we didn't practice because a few of the guys were hurt. Bill said to us, "The most important thing is the health of our team." On Friday, we had the worst practice, worst I've ever been around. Bill brings us up and says, "I'm sick of this s---. Brady, Rodney, this is your team. I'm not looking at this anymore. I'm going in."

Rodney comes in and says, "Hey, y'all know what we need to do. OK, we had a bad practice. This happens. Let's finish this practice."

The next day, Saturday, Bill cussed us out so bad. He said, "If you go out there and bulls---, Miami can beat us." So we get to the game and first half, we dominated.

Brad Seely (special-teams coach): Against the Dolphins, (offensive coordinator) Josh McDaniels called a deep pass to Moss. He split double coverage and scored a touchdown. Two Dolphins were down on the play. I turned to Josh and said, "That's some coaching."

Stallworth: After the game, we're in the locker room and Ellis Hobbs said, "Hey Bill, you said we'd come out and get our ass beat. You saw what happened. Maybe we should get every Thursday off?" Bill started laughing. "Yeah, don't press your luck, Hobbs."

Koppen: Bill coached us extremely hard.

Week 8: Patriots 52, Redskins 7

Stallworth: We beat [Washington] 52-7. Game was over from the first snap. [In the next meeting] Bill was talking to us about a fourth and inches [that the Patriots didn't get]. He's going off on us like that's the reason we lost the game. That's how he was coaching. He showed it over and over again. … You mean to tell me we can't get fourth-and-two inches? The whole time he's rewinding the play. And he kept saying, "Fourth and inches." It reminded me of watching "JFK," where they're rewinding the Zapruder film.

Colvin: Those are the situations that Bill, when it comes to motivation and humbling, to get you to understand his point, he'll go to the extreme, and that was one of those situations where it was the extreme.

Week 9: Patriots 24, Colts 20

Week 10: Patriots 56, Bills 10

Week 11: Patriots 31, Eagles 28

Week 12: Patriots 27, Ravens 24

Week 13: Patriots 34, Steelers 13

Week 14: Patriots 20, Jets 10

Week 15: Patriots 28, Dolphins 7

As the Patriots got closer to perfection, the games got harder, each team giving New England its best. Wins were no longer a weekly high; they were a relief. Most of the pure fun for the players was on Friday afternoons in practice, when Belichick would let the first-team offense go against the first-team defense, and the trash talking -- especially by Harrison, Hobbs, Vrabel, and Asante Samuel -- would fly.

Colvin: You had Asante, who was overly confident. You had Ellis, little man complex. Rodney, never backing down. And Bill would set up a lot of those incidents, calling bogus penalties to get us pissed and make us go harder, to force the offense to go harder. Tom and I would always get into it. As a rusher, I'm always trying to anticipate his snap count. I'd come off the edge and try to pull his shorts down while he's throwing the ball.

[+] EnlargeAsante Samuel
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaAsante Samuel never missed a chance to celebrate when he gained the upper hand on Tom Brady in practice.

Lonie Paxton (special teams): The defense would mock Bill. "Third-and-20, Bill. What's your third-and-20 play going to be?" And when Tom gets heated he doesn't say something really smart. He'd drop an f-bomb. The other guys won. Tom didn't have a comeback.

Samuel: It's a one-on-one with Moss. He runs a slant and go. I don't bite on the slant. Tom launches the ball as far as he can. I can feel Moss. I went up and got it and I slammed it in his face. After that practice, I pulled the nameplate out of Tom's locker and put my name in there.

Heath Evans (fullback): Vrabel would play safety on scout team for extra conditioning. He always knew what the play was that was coming. Tommy would shake his head under center. Vrabel would jump a route. Brady couldn't stand someone being ahead of the count.

Stallworth: [Before the Pittsburgh game] Anthony Smith, their safety, went off, talking about Spygate, running his mouth like he was a Hall of Famer. Bill read it off to us. Bill says, "This is the way he feels about you guys." That week, I'm in my locker, and Bill came over to me and said, "Hey, do you plan on playing this week?"

"Yeah."

"It's not going to matter anyway, according to Smith."

After I got the game plan, I said, "We're going after this kid." Not just targeting him. Trying to embarrass him. And we threw like three touchdowns over his head. And I remember Brady talking all kinds of s-- that game. I was like, this is my dude. I love this dude.

Tom Brady Sr.: One night that year, Tommy's leg was in an air cast, hanging in his bedroom. I entered and said, "Looks like we're not going to dinner." His leg was blood red from hip to ankle. Tommy said, "We're going to dinner."

Watson: The Ravens and the Giants were the only teams that weren't scared of us.

In Week 12, Baltimore led New England 24-20 with 1:53 left. On fourth-and-one, the Ravens stopped Brady on a quarterback sneak and probably would have won the game -- but defensive coordinator Rex Ryan had panicked and called timeout before the snap, earning him a ruthless glare from Ray Lewis.

Seely: We called that Rex's "Wanna get away?" moment.

Hobbs: We beat the Ravens, and you would have thought we lost. Bill just said, "This performance isn't going to be good enough." We thought that was bulls----. … You saw our cockiness come out. We were angry at Bill. We were trying to prove to him, this s--- is hard.

Stallworth: As the games went on, fueled by Spygate and the only team to go undefeated in 16 games, guys wanted that. We never talked about it publicly. But once we got rolling, we started talking about it amongst each other.

If the Patriots beat the Dolphins in Week 15, they would move to 15-0, besting the 1972 Dolphins' 14-0 record.

Izzo: Bill was saying, "I don't want to hear anything about [the 1972 Dolphins]." I did a radio interview and the whole talk was about the 1972 Dolphins. … So I'm doing this interview, Wes [Welker] is with me in the car. I said something that I shouldn't have about the 1972 Dolphins. I hang up and say to Wes, "Dude, should I have said that?" Wes said, "No big deal." So after practice Bill brings this up. "I told you earlier I didn't want to hear anything about this. I don't want to hear about the Dolphins." He's looking right at me with these cold eyes. How did he know? I'm freaking out. I was so mentally f---ed up. You don't want to be the guy who brought something up and that's the reason you lose. I'm rattled. Tom finally noticed that it was affecting me and said, "Buddy, relax. He's just f---ing with you." Wes had gone with Tom and told [Belichick] to f--- with me. It was all a big hoax.

Brady: You have to know Larry, how easy it is to get under his skin.

Week 16: Patriots 38, Giants 35

The Patriots played the Giants the last week of the season. With the Giants up 28-23 in the fourth quarter, Brady dropped back and threw deep to Moss.

Randy MossJim O'Connor/USA TODAY SportsRandy Moss' touchdown reception gave the Patriots a 38-35 win over the Giants and preserved their perfect regular season. Later, some New England players would wish they had lost that day.

Watson: Randy dropped it. … We called the same play on the next play, and Randy ran past the guy again.

Moss caught the pass for a touchdown. It was Brady's 50th touchdown pass of the year, breaking Peyton Manning's record, and Moss' 23rd touchdown catch of the year, breaking Jerry Rice's record. The Patriots never trailed again and won to go 16-0.

Hobbs: It was kind of a Jordan moment. You knew it would happen, just not when. You knew he was going to Moss. Randy missed it. Then he did it again. Like it was meant to be. It looked so easy. They knew it was coming, and they couldn't stop it. Everybody knew what we were going to do. We knew that you knew. Go stop it.

Brady Sr.: Tommy always knew he could perform at the highest level, and that year he performed at a level that had never been attained before. That provided him a stepping board to believe that there are really no boundaries on what he can accomplish.

Stallworth: In hindsight, I wish we would have lost that game.

Divisional playoffs: Patriots 31, Jaguars 20

AFC Championship: Patriots 21, Chargers 12

Against the Jaguars, Brady set an NFL record by hitting 92.9 percent of his passes, 26 of 28. Against the Chargers, Brady injured his leg and threw three interceptions. But New England's defense kept the Chargers out of the end zone to lead the Patriots to their fourth Super Bowl in six years. Some on the team worried that the team was barely hanging on, and in the two-week break between the title game and the Super Bowl, Belichick practiced the team hard.

Super Bowl XLII: Giants 17, Patriots 14

Koppen: The bye week was tough. We had three practices back-to-back in full pads.

Kyle Brady (tight end): The only practices that we had that we went backwards. We didn't perform the way we were capable. Was it possible that that team was tired? We had to put out so much energy to get to that point maybe we had peaked and maybe we were physically and emotionally drained. The crispness and the sharpness were lacking. Wednesday and Thursday practices are the most critical. [Belichick] brought us up and said, "Fellas, today the Giants got ahead of you." It wasn't just lip service. The standard that was set wasn't matched.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
Harry How/Getty ImagesEven as they expressed confidence in public, many New England players believed the team wasn't sharp going into Super Bowl XLII.

Hobbs: I remember [Brady] talking a lot more than he usually did [during media sessions]. He was going out there talking about what he was going to do before he did it. He wasn't that humble guy. It was like [the Giants] threw him out of his game. Giants were talking trash. Tom said something like, "Yeah, we'll see." Kind of a rebuttal. Tom never did that. He always brought it back to the Patriots and what we needed to do. Did that throw him off his game?

Evans: On Saturday, we opted to change hotels. Our hotel was a dump. Way out there. The food was terrible. The beds were awful. The beds stunk.

The Giants used an array of defensive fronts that the Patriots had never seen before. The offensive line didn't hold up; Brady was sacked five times.

Brady: The first play of the game should have been a touchdown. We ran a screen. I turned and threw the ball and didn't see where our running back was and didn't complete the pass. We ended up scoring on that drive anyway, but it took longer than I would have hoped.

Koppen: Us as a line, we played our worst game of the year. We played like s--- that game.

Still, late in the fourth quarter Brady hit Moss on a short touchdown to give New England a 14-10 lead. The game was in Eli Manning's hands. On second-and-5 from midfield with 1:20 left, Manning overthrew an out-route to receiver David Tyree -- right into Samuel's hands.

Samuel: I dropped an interception. I think I mistimed the jump. I didn't jump high enough. Maybe if I'd jumped a little higher …

On the next play, Manning spun away from the Patriots rush and fired his famous, miraculous pass to Tyree. The Giants scored the game-winning touchdown four plays later, not only pulling off the biggest Super Bowl upset since the Jets beat the Colts but ending the quest for a perfect season.

Stallworth: After the Super Bowl, Belichick said, "We were outcoached. I'm sorry we couldn't win the game for you guys."

Evans: I was looking at a man who was truly broken.

Stallworth: Guys forgot what it was like to lose a game.

Seth Wickersham

ESPN The Magazine senior writer
Seth Wickersham joined ESPN The Magazine after graduating from the University of Missouri. Although he primarily covers the NFL, his assignments also have taken him to the Athens Olympics, the World Series, the NCAA tournament and the NHL and NBA playoffs. Email him and follow him on Twitter at @sethwickersham.

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