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Remembering Super Bowl XXXIX: Patriots and Eagles

By
Howard Balzer, The Sports Xchange
Super Bowl LII Twitter
Super Bowl LII Twitter

Some things never change.

At least that's the way it seems as the New England Patriots prepare to play the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII Sunday.

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It was 13 years ago that these teams played Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville at the relative beginning of the New England dynasty.

Who could have predicted then that 13 years later, Tom Brady would still be the quarterback, Bill Belichick the head coach and the Patriots once again trying for their second consecutive league championship and three in four years.

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That's exactly what New England accomplished that day and they eerily did it with the knowledge that their two coordinators - Charlie Weis on offense and Romeo Crennel on defense - would be leaving for head coaching jobs after the game. Weis was ticketed for Notre Dame and Crennel to the Cleveland Browns.

This time around, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will be with the Indianapolis Colts and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia with the Detroit Lions shortly after the confetti falls Sunday night.

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Want more? That year, the Eagles advanced to the Super Bowl with wins over the Vikings and Falcons, just in reverse order of this year's results.

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There was a certain amount of prescience from Weis after New England's 24-21 win when he said, "Dynasties are things that are talked about a decade later. When you're living it, you don't feel it. Maybe they'll talk about this team like we talk about those teams."

How right he was.

And, even though the Patriots have made a habit out of being involved in close Super Bowl wins, the reality is they simply have found a way to win five of the seven they have played.

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In the 2005 game, the Eagles jumped out to a 7-0 lead and the Patriots tied it on a 2-yard pass to linebacker Mike Vrabel, recently named head coach of the Tennessee Titans.

After three quarters, the score remained tied at 14. The Patriots forged ahead 24-14, and then held off a late Philadelphia rally.

The headlines from that game included a remarkable performance by Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens, who returned to play not totally healed from a fractured leg and torn ankle ligaments suffered 61/2 weeks earlier; the MVP performance by New England wide receiver Deion Branch; the Patriots coming out in a 4-3 defense after playing a 3-4/4-3 hybrid during the season and a strange final drive by the Eagles that was compromised by banged-up quarterback Donovan McNabb.

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--New England outside linebacker Willie McGinest played defensive end. The strategy was to set the edge on McNabb while forcing running back Brian Westbrook inside. Westbrook rushed for just 44 yards on 15 carries, and 22 yards were on a draw play that ended the first half.

Said offensive coordinator Brad Childress, who is retiring from coaching after being with the Chiefs last season, "We spent two weeks preparing for a 3-4 defense and they didn't play a 3-4 defense in the Super Bowl."

--Owens, a third-time finalist this year for the Hall of Fame, was the storyline all week with very few knowing whether he would play and if he did, how effective he would be.

Said Belichick, "He went out in the warmups and didn't do s---. I'm not really expecting too much out of this guy. Maybe he'll go out and give it a shot, he's a competitive guy. So we go out and on one of the first passes I see him explode off the line of scrimmage. Then maybe the second drive they run a crossing pattern and they pick Randall Gay and they hit Owens coming across and I see him coming to our bench and he's building speed and gaining yards (30).

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"I'm looking at him going, 'How are we going to get this damn guy down?' I don't know how he did it, but he was a beast. We had nobody that could cover him. The problem was we should have given him (Gay) more help on T.O. Gay has some speed and some quickness, but he's a thin guy. Having him on Terrell Owens was a total mismatch."

Also complicating Belichick's decision was that cornerback Ty Law, a Hall-of-Fame finalist this year, was out with an injury.

Because of injuries, wide receiver Troy Brown played defensive back, and he said of Owens, "I thought he played a phenomenal game. We figured he'd be favoring that leg or not be able to do certain things, but the speed he showed was just unbelievable. Without him, they wouldn't have had much of a chance to even make it competitive."

Owens had nine receptions for 122 yards and played 63 of 72 snaps.

--Branch, his counterpart on the other sideline, also had an injury issue that season.

He suffered a knee injury in Week 2 and didn't play again until Week 10 as Belichick opted not to place him on injured reserve.

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Because of the Super Bowl's longer-than-normal halftime break, Weis had time to script the first 10 plays of the third quarter. The Patriots employed four receivers on six consecutive plays, and the result was a nine-play, 69-yard touchdown drive.

Said Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, "Maybe it wasn't the turning point of the game, but now the momentum had switched. We felt we had momentum the first half. In that drive, we had a couple chances on third down and couldn't get off the field. I think we really had control of the game in the first half and didn't take advantage of it."

Two of the third-down conversions in the drive were to Branch: 27 yards on third-and-6 and 15 yards on third-and-10. He also had a 21-yard reception on second down to the 2-yard line when Vrabel then scored.

Said Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears, now in his 21st season with the team, "The difference in the game for us was Deion was hot. They couldn't handle him. Brady had guys hanging on him. He knew the blitz was coming but he could throw it at Deion and he was snagging s--- left and right with guys flapping at him and knocking the hell out of him. Deion isn't one of those talkers or hype guys. That boy can play."

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On a later field-goal drive that gave New England a 24-14 lead, Branch had a 19-yard reception on second-and-13. He ended up with 11 receptions for 133 yards.

A potential game-changing play occurred shortly afterward when Owens gained 36 yards to the New England 36-yard line.

Said Eagles tackle Jon Runyan, "If he's healthy, I think that he takes that to the house. I think he runs past a couple people and maybe sidesteps somebody and gets in."

McNabb was intercepted on the next play, his third interception of the game and the team's third turnover from inside the New England 40. In New England's three-season, nine-game playoff winning streak, they were plus-19 in turnover differential with 25 takeaways and six turnovers. They had just one turnover in the game against the Eagles.

Still, Philadelphia wasn't done.

With 5:40 remaining, they began a possession from the 21-yard line. Eleven of the first 12 plays had McNabb under center instead of the shotgun. There didn't appear to be much urgency.

Eagles play-by-play broadcaster Merrill Reese said at one point, "Time's a wasting. Under four minutes left."

Analyst Mike Quick added, "I think they're being a little too casual with the time and a little too cavalier."

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The Eagles finally scored with 1:48 remaining, but failed to recover an onside kick.

Recalled Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi, "I remember a clear picture of myself looking at McNabb and ... just wondering what they were doing. Why didn't they have a sense of urgency? Maybe they knew something I didn't know. But what I knew was the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl was winding down and they don't have more points than we do."

Added Brown, "They were down by a couple scores and were taking their own sweet time. We were just happy we were getting a breather."

Philadelphia center Hank Fraley later told a local television station that McNabb was sick during the drive and almost threw up. The next year, the ever-controversial Owens said, "It wasn't me that got tired at the Super Bowl."

At the start of the possession, McNabb was hit on an estimated four of the first eight plays. He supposedly later confided to a friend that he was shaken up and at times was gasping for air.

Eagles head coach Andy Reid later said, "Yeah, I probably should have done that (no-huddle) a little bit more. When your quarterback gets hit, it's hard to get the no-huddle thing going. He was hurting a little bit, but he wasn't coming out of the game. He got the wind knocked out of him. We were in a hurry-up but not a no-huddle. He was getting everybody in and out of the huddle fast."

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Added Runyan, "T.O. was banged up. (Todd) Pinkston was kind of dehydrated and cramping. It kind of handcuffed (Reid) on what could do."

The Patriots also had four sacks to Philadelphia's one. Brady completed 23-of-33 passes for 236 yards, two touchdowns and a 110.2 passer rating. McNabb was 30-for-51 for 357 yards and three touchdowns, but his three interceptions helped lower his passer rating to 75.4

Another unsung hero for New England was running back Corey Dillon, who had 75 yards on 18 rushes with a touchdown.

But it was clear to Johnson what made the Patriots tick. In another bit of prescience, the Eagles' defensive coordinator said, "I have great respect for two guys. Belichick and Brady. I mean, Belichick never leaves anything undone. People credited Charlie Weis for doing a great job and Romeo Crennel, but I always felt you see his (Belichick's) hand in everything. And, of course Tom Brady. He's such a great quarterback."

Thirteen years later, nothing has changed.

Note: Quotes and some analytical insight are from The Ultimate Super Bowl Book by Bob McGinn.

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