Note: The following sort-of never happened. Tom Brady still has 4 Super Bowl rings, much to Roger Goodell’s chagrin.
Mo Lewis missed.
Lewis, a linebacker for the New York Jets, attempted a body slam of New England Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe with 5:02 left to play on Sept. 23, 2001.
He failed to connect.
Instead of suffering internal bleeding and launching the legend of Tom Brady, Bledsoe juked the move and opted to stay in bounds. He picked up the first down and led the Patriots to a 13-10 victory in overtime.
The victory evened the Patriots’ season at 1-1 and calmed the jitters of a fan base still yearning for its first AFL/NFL championship.
Bill Belichick’s defense-first Patriots methodically plodded their way to an AFC East title and 12-4 record. A blizzard neatly concealed Foxboro Stadium during the AFC divisional playoff against Oakland. Bledsoe’s hands weren’t tested as much by the Raiders’ pass coverage as they were by Charles Woodson. He spun around the edge and nailed Bledsoe for a sack with 1:47 to play.
Bledsoe miraculously held the ball, and Adam Vinatieri kicked a pair of magical snow-bowl field goals to send New England to the AFC title game.
Against Pittsburgh, Bledsoe was sturdy. The Patriots special teams and defense were brilliant in a 24-17 victory. The Patriots completed a stunning season with a 23-17 overtime victory in Super Bowl XXXVI. Bledsoe found David Patten all alone thanks to blown coverage on the first play of overtime for a 78-yard touchdown catch-and-run.
After New England’s “we are all Patriots” post-9-11 Super Bowl win, egos took hold in Foxborough.
Buoyed by a championship and a new stadium, owner Robert Kraft publicly took credit for the team’s success during a late-night rant at the NFL owners meeting. Belichick infamously told the Boston Globe “defense wins championships” and Bledsoe told ESPN “they don’t call me a ‘franchise QB’ for nothing.”
The 2002 season was doomed from the start thanks to a season-ending injuries to Deion Branch and Willie McGinest in training camp. The 8-8 Patriots missed the playoffs and the acrimony between Belichick and Kraft worsened in and around Gillette Stadium.
In a little-noticed move, the Patriots waived rarely-used former Michigan QB Tom Brady at the end of training camp in 2002. He was signed by the Bills and would lead 8-8 Buffalo to a 5-3 finish after taking over for Alex Van Pelt midway through the season.
The 2003 season would be disastrous for the Patriots and at the same time lay the path for a second Super Bowl championship just two years later.
Brady, Lawyer Milloy and Takeo Spikes mauled the Patriots in a 31-0 loss at Buffalo to open the 2003 season. Bledsoe suffered a bruised/separated shoulder injury and would never fully recover. His numbers trailed off during the season as he Patriots limped to a 10-6 finish.
Belichick’s final game as Patriots coach was a 41-10 loss to Indianapolis in the wild-card playoff round. Peyton Manning threw 5 TD passes in that game en route to the first of his three Super Bowl wins.
Less than 24 hours later, Belichick’s firing was official. Looking for a more compliant yet skillful coach, Kraft hired former Boston College head coach and Bill Parcells disciple Tom Coughlin (recently fired by Jacksonville.) Just three days after the Patriots hired Coughlin, the Bills jettisoned head coach Gregg Williams after a 7-9 season in favor of Belichick.
Desperate for a quarterback in the 2004 draft, the Patriots would deal their first-round pick and a second to Houston. They moved up to steal Miami (Ohio) University’s Ben Roethlisberger from the Steelers with the No. 10 overall pick. Bledsoe, in the meantime, was waived and signed by his former coach, Bill Parcells, in Dallas.
He would never start another NFL game.
Under Coughlin’s stern, take-no-trash tutelage, Roethlisberger thrived in New England. The core of Belichick’s defense was still intact. Meanwhile, the rugged and versatile Roethlisberger kept the offense competitive.
The Patriots and Bills – Coughlin and Belichick – Roethlisberger and Brady – would battle for supremacy in the AFC East for several years.
The Killer B’s of Belichick, Brady and Buffalo would best New England for the 2004 AFC title. AFC Championship game-time temperatures hovered around minus-10 degrees in Orchard Park, N.Y.
Two weeks later, Brady guided Buffalo to its first and last major-league championship with a 24-21 overtime win over the Philadelphia Eagles in Jacksonville. Belichick would have his soon-to-be-late father Steve at his side.
Roethlisberger and New England would exact their revenge on Brady and Buffalo a year later with a 24-3 2005 AFC championship rout inside a cold and rain-soaked Gillette Stadium.
During Super Bowl XL at Detroit on Feb. 5, 2006, Roethlisberger completed just 9 of 21 passes for 123 yards with a pair of picks, but ran for a score. Adam Vinatieri added two field goals. Troy Brown ran back the second-half kickoff for a touchdown and scored on a 2-point conversion as the Patriots beat Seattle 21-10. Roethlisberger’s 22.6 QB rating would be lowest ever by Super Bowl-winning quarterback.
Brady and Roethlisberger would meet in the playoffs five times during the next 10 years. The Patriots held a 3-2 edge. Yet neither team would win another NFL ring.
Belichick, Brady and the Bills would come the closest. In 2007, Belichick nabbed Randy Moss to add to his group of high-maintenance/high-return castoffs that already included Rodney Harrison. Brady would have his best passing season ever with 50 TDs and a 117.2 QB rating. Riding the Brady-Moss offensive tidal wave, the Bills completed a perfect regular season. Buffalo took an 18-0 record into Super Bowl XLII against the Charlie Weis-coached New York Giants.
Eli Manning – with help from a miraculous catch by David Tyree at the expense of Harrison – directed the Giants to a stunning 17-14 Super Bowl shocker.
The “18-1” season neatly bookended the “Four Falls of Buffalo” around Brady and Buffalo’s lone Super Bowl win.
With Roethlisberger’s retirement due to concussions at the end of the 2015 season, the Patriots begin the 2016 campaign with the untested Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback.
Brady and Belichick continue their hold on power in Buffalo, although the goodwill of that lone Super Bowl title and 2012 AFC title has long since faded.
It’s unlikely either will be around next season if Buffalo doesn’t win another championship.
Bill Speros is an award-winning journalist who grew up in the Bay State and has been following the Patriots since 1970. He writes the Obnoxious Boston Fan column for the Boston Herald. He Tweets @RealOBF and @BillSperos