The New England Patriots' pure dominance over the last two decades – six Super Bowls, nine conference titles, 16 division crowns – is most commonly attributed to coach Bill Belichick's wise, structured on- and off-the-field strategy, and quarterback Tom Brady's brilliance as a leader and clutch performer.
While that's certainly all accurate, countless incredible plays have, too, contributed to the team's success and misfortune. Preparedness and talent can only get you so far. Sometimes, it comes down to sheer luck, and there's no telling who or what will benefit from the outcome. The true beauty of sports.
The NFL, celebrating its 100th season, has compiled a definitive list of the 100 greatest plays in league history for NFL Films' "NFL 100 Greatest" series.
Among the top 100, the Patriots are a part of 12.
Six are good, six are bad.
All six of the "good" plays, perhaps unsurprising, come from the Belichick-Brady era. Two of the six "bad" plays are from the 20th century, pre-2001.
Here are the Patriots' 12 plays on the list:
No. 99: 'Butt-Fumble' Return
(Nov. 22, 2012)
It's Thanksgiving Day in a Week 12 divisional matchup against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium on Thursday Night Football.
Midway through the second quarter, quarterback Mark Sanchez, in his final of four seasons with the Jets, hikes the ball on first-and-10, and appears to try and hand or toss the ball off to running back Shonn Greene or fullback Lex Hilliard.
Neither Greene nor Hilliard are expecting the ball, continuing on with their assumed routes. Sanchez is left with really one option: running it himself.
Already destined for failure, the play somehow worsens. Sanchez runs forward and is suddenly met at the line of scrimmage by the back end of his own guard Brandon Moore, pushed backward by defensive tackle Vince Wilfork.
Sanchez collapses like a cartoon character and fumbles the ball, to which NBC Sports' color commentator Cris Collinsworth reacts by saying, "oh no."
Defensive back Steve Gregory recovers the ball and returns it 32 yards for a touchdown, putting New England up by an eventual 21-0 lead.
"I have never seen this before in my life," Collinsworth says during a slow-motion replay of the moment, comparing Wilfork's effort to Reggie White.
Gregory had the game of his career, also tallying an interception, another fumble recovery, five tackles and a pass deflection. He, Brady and Wilfork were honored by NBC with the annual Thanksgiving Day game awards.
The play was later coined the "butt fumble." It has its own Wikipedia page.
The Patriots went on to win by 30, beating the Jets 49-19.
No. 85: Ben Watson Stops TD
(Jan. 14, 2006)
It's an AFC Divisional Round playoff matchup against the Denver Broncos at Invesco Field at Mile High on a Saturday night.
Late in the third quarter, down by just four points and in Denver's red zone, Brady attempts a pass to the near corner of the end zone on third-and-goal. But it's under pressure, as Denver blitzes defensive back Nick Ferguson. Brady's forced to quickly roll right and throw off his back foot from the 15-yard line.
Intended for wide receiver Troy Brown, the pass falls short and is intercepted by Broncos All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey, who has a lane and blockers ahead.
Bailey, running most of the way with one hand palming the ball, avoids a diving tackle attempt from Patriots running back Kevin Faulk around the 40-yard line, and seemingly has no one to stop him for the remaining half of the field.
Little does he know, someone's still got a shot. Tight end Ben Watson's full-field path isn't captured on the play-by-play camera, but he has been sprinting from the field's other corner in an attempt to catch Bailey before the end zone.
Then, from out of nowhere, the second-year player delivers a leveling blow to an unexpecting Bailey, forcing an out-of-bounds fumble at the 1-yard line.
"I tell yeah, it almost looked like Bailey was pulling up like he had no idea Watson was closing in on him," says CBS sports play-by-play commentator Jim Nantz.
Belichick challenges that the ball was forced out of Bailey's hands, not out of bounds but into the end zone, resulting in a touchback. His appeal is lost.
Denver scores the very next play. Running back Mike Anderson strolls in from the left, untouched, to put the Broncos up by an eventual 17-6.
The Patriots would go on to lose the game, 27-13, turning over the ball five times. It was Brady's first loss in the NFL playoffs and Belichick's first since 2000, having prior to the game combined for 10 straight postseason wins.
No. 84: Randy Moss One-Hander
(Sept. 19, 2010)
It's an early, Week 2 divisional matchup against the New York Jets at New Meadowlands Stadium on a Sunday afternoon.
Patriots star wide receiver Randy Moss, now a Pro Football Hall of Famer, is up against All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis, one of the toughest opponents he faced on a regular basis, and perhaps in his entire career.
A minute before halftime with a 7-7 tie score, utilizing a quick offense, Brady drops back with plenty of time and hurls a pass from the Jets' 40-yard line. His throw is a bullet and hits Moss in stride in the end zone.
It's the way Moss catches the pass that makes the play so remarkable. The single-season touchdown reception record-holder palms the pass with his right hand and never pulls it into his body, keeping it one-handed the whole way.
Replay shows a spectacular juke on Revis at the line of scrimmage, and Moss throwing his right hand up just five yards later, signaling for Brady's target.
Shortly after, Revis leaves the game with an apparent hamstring tweak.
The catch was Moss' 150th career touchdown, putting him among the top four non-quarterback career touchdown leaders in league history.
Over seven matchups as respective members of the Patriots and Jets, Moss had 30 catches for 406 yards and four touchdowns while Revis had 29 tackles, seven pass deflections, one fumble recovery and two interceptions. A ferocious battle.
It would later become public that just prior to the Week 2 game, Moss had requested a trade. He was dealt to Minnesota after Week 4.
No. 22: Julian Edelman Catch
(Feb. 5, 2017 - SB LI)
It's Super Bowl LI against the Atlanta Falcons in Houston.
Down 28-3 just a quarter prior, the Patriots are brewing a comeback for the ages. But tying the game remains a pipe dream, even with the most clutch quarterback in league history calling plays. To win will require something magical.
New England ended the third with its first touchdown of the game, albeit no extra point, and began the fourth with a field goal from Stephen Gostkowski, and a touchdown pass from Brady to wide receiver Danny Amendola, making it 20-28.
Now, with less than 3 minutes, 30 seconds to go, they need a touchdown and a successful two-point conversion just to force overtime. Nearly impossible.
After forcing a Falcons punt, the Patriots start their drive at their own 9-yard line. On third-and-10, Brady connects with wide receiver Chris Hogan for 16, and on second-and-10, hits wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell for 11 – two first downs.
Yet to cross midfield, Brady prepares for a big play on first-and-10 with five wideouts in the shotgun formation from New England's own 36-yard line.
But Atlanta's pass coverage is phenomenal, and Brady gambles, forcing a throw toward wide receiver Julian Edelman who's surrounded by defenders.
Falcons cornerback Robert Alford leaps and deflects the pass, sending it up in the air. The play suddenly turns to slow-motion as the ball falls toward the turf.
Three players dive to catch it, piling on top of Alford: Edelman, and Falcons safeties Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal. In extraordinary fashion, Edelman gets it.
"Aw, that's a catch!" says Fox play-by-play commentator Joe Buck.
"Oh my God!" interjects his counterpart Troy Aikman.
"That's incredible!" Buck says.
Slow-motion replay narrates what took place, too quick for the naked eye to fully comprehend. As the ball falls and the three players dive for it, it's Alford's right leg that keeps it off the turf, bouncing it back up for Edelman to grasp with both hands. Allen's right arm swoops underneath, again, keeping it off the ground.
The Patriots would score with 57 seconds to spare on a 1-yard touchdown from running back James White, convert for two points, and finish it off with another White touchdown in overtime to win 34-28, completing the wildest game ever.
No. 18: Vinatieri Ties 'Tuck Rule' Game
(Jan. 19, 2002)
It's an AFC Divisional Round playoff matchup against the Oakland Raiders at home in Foxborough on a Saturday night.
Gillette Stadium's a snow globe. Overall, it's a field goal battle in some of the worse conditions possible between two of the greatest kickers the NFL's ever seen: Patriots' Adam Vinatieri against Oakland Raiders' Sebastian Janikowski.
The Raiders score early in the second quarter, with a sweet touchdown pass from quarterback Rich Gannon to James Jett for 13 yards. After Brady misses two receivers in the end zone, the Patriots finally get on the board with a Vinatieri field goal in the third. But Oakland adds two itself before the end of the quarter.
Midway through the fourth on second-and-goal, Brady puts the team on his back and accomplishes a feat only a young GOAT could do — a 6-yard rush between multiple defenders, pump faking three times before diving into a snowy end zone.
Foxborough goes wild, and Brady delivers a pre-Gronk spike.
It's enough to put the Patriots in contention, but they still need 3 to tie.
The drive to force overtime goes down as one of the greatest ever.
New England's defense forces a three-and-out, using all three timeouts. Wide receiver Troy Brown's punt return has early promise, as the stalwart brings it back 27 yards. But at the very end, he fumbles. Fortunately, the Patriots recover.
First crisis averted.
After two positives from Brady, a 7-yard pass to running back Kevin Faulk and a 5-yard run himself for the first down, he faces a fresh set of downs.
The next play will go down as history, and become the game's namesake.
Raiders cornerback Charles Woodson blitzes from the left, unblocked, and hits Brady from the front, seemingly forcing a fumble that's recovered by Oakland. "And (Greg) Biekert picks himself up, falls on the football, and has pretty much sealed an Oakland Raider victory her in New England," says CBS play-by-play commentator Greg Gumbel.
Suddenly, it's announced the booth will review the play.
"I don't think there's much doubt, Greg," says Gumbel's counterpart, CBS color commentator Phil Simms.
Then, head referee Walt Coleman's decision: "After reviewing the play, the quarterback's arm was going forward. It is an incomplete pass. Second-and-10 on the 42." Gillette goes nuts.
Second crisis averted.
Four plays and a first down later, the Patriots find themselves on the Oakland 28. It's up to Vinatieri to send the game into overtime, and it'll take a 45-yard field goal in the snow. Simms notes that the wind in Foxboro is blowing in his favor.
"That's Vinatieri's luck from this distance as of late," Gumble says, as a graphic shows he's missed four of his last five from 40-49 yards. "This is the Patriots' season on the line. The kick is away, it is… GOOD!"
In overtime, Vinatieri nails another from 23 to win the game. Patriots win 16-13.
No. 5: Malcolm Butler Interception
(Feb. 1, 2015 - SB XLIX)
It's Super Bowl XLIX against the Seattle Seahawks in Glendale, Arizona.
The Patriots score on a Brady-Edelman touchdown to go up by 4 points with just over two minutes remaining in the game. A defensive stop away from clinching.
That stop would come… but not exactly how, where or when they'd expect it.
With 1 minutes, 14 seconds to go, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson chucks up a sky missile to wide receiver Jermaine Kearse 33 yards away. To New Englands utter disbelief, despite phenomenal coverage from cornerback Malcolm Butler, Kearse brings it in circus-style, hauling it in while on the ground.
New England was about to lose a Super Bowl to a freak play for the third time.
Then, the stop came.
With a minute to go, Seattle first tries to run it in with former All-Pro running back Marshawn Lynch and gets stopped short of the goal line. The next play, though, on second-and-goal, they attempt to mix it up. Instead of run, they pass.
And the Patriots are ready; especially Butler.
"Play clock at 5. Pass is… INTERCEPTED AT THE GOAL LINE BY MALCOLM BUTLER," says NBC play-by-play commentator Al Michaels. "UN-REAL."
The unimaginable happened. A rookie free agent from West Alabama picked off a Pro Bowl and defending Super Bowl champ quarterback's pass at the goal line.
One of the greatest plays in NFL history.
Brady would kneel twice to seal the game and New England's fourth title.
No. 79: 'Refrigerator' TD
(Jan. 26, 1986 - SB XX)
It's Super Bowl XX against the Chicago Bears in New Orleans.
The heavy favorites Chicago Bears are already up by 34 points in one of the most lopsided Super Bowls in history. So what's another seven?
First-and-goal at the 1-yard line with 3 minutes, 48 seconds to go in the third quarter, Bears quarterback Jim McMahon elects to run. But the person who lines up behind him isn't future Pro Football Hall of Famer running back Walter Payton — it's 6-foot-2, 335-pound, rookie defensive tackle William Perry, who earlier in the game was sacked when the team called on him to attempt a pass.
Bulldoze would be an understatement to explain what happened next. Perry, known as the "Refrigerator," crushes New England on his way into the end zone.
The Bears' lead is extended to 41.
They would go on to win 46-10, capping off a near perfect 15-1 season.
Chicago's margin of victory in Super Bowl XX of 36 points is as of 2019 the second widest after the 49ers-Broncos' 45 in Super Bowl XXIV in 1990.
No. 59: Barry Sanders Juke TD
(Sept. 25, 1994)
It's a Week 4 matchup against the Detroit Lions at Pontiac Silverdome on a Sunday afternoon.
Down 20-7 in the third quarter, Lions quarterback Scott Mitchell hands it off to legendary running back Barry Sanders. A common sight in Detroit.
Sanders, a future Pro Football Hall of Famer — who would go on to lead the league that year in rushing yards, make his sixth out of 10 Pro Bowls and be honored as All-Pro for the fourth of six times — had already found the end zone earlier in the game with a 35-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
This run, though, is particularly marvelous.
Five simple yet exquisite juke moves from the 40- to 15-yard lines get Sanders past at least four Patriots defenders en route to the end zone.
Patriots strong safety Harlon Barnett, in particular, is fooled by Sanders' elusiveness and agility, getting spun a full 360 degrees around on three jukes.
Despite the sweet play, Detroit would lose to New England 23-17.
No. 42: 'Miami Miracle' 2018
(Dec. 9, 2018)
It's a late, Week 14 divisional matchup against the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium on a Sunday afternoon, the final game between the two teams for 2018.
The game had been back-and-forth since the opening kickoff, and kept to within a one possession margin until the very end.
Miami went up late in the third quarter by one, 28-27, but New England's defense was able to clamp down in the fourth and Gostkowski added two field goals to put the Patriots up by five, 33-28. What's more, the offense ate up the clock for the final field goal, leaving Miami with seconds. All seemed great, until it wasn't.
Needing a touchdown, the Dolphins were left with seven seconds and the ball at their own 31-yard line after a no-gain kickoff return. It was essentially over.
Then, a miracle.
"With seven seconds, maybe have time for a quick out and a hail mary for (Dolphins quarterback Ryan) Tannehill," says CBS play-by-play commentator Ian Eagle. His counterpart, Dan Fouts, notes Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski's presence on defense, backed up all the way to the 15-yard line.
Tannehill hits wide receiver Kenny Stills in the middle of the field for about a 15-yard gain, and the game appears to be finished. "And this will end it… after the shovel (to wide receiver DeVante Parker)," Eagle says. "Or will it?"
Parker, who got the ball from Stills, then laterals to running back Kenyan Drake who's running up the sideline. He immediately avoids a diving tackle from linebacker Kyle Van Noy, and cuts back inside. Out of nowhere, and open field.
"Miami running around, circling, oh, look out!" Eagle says. "Gronkowski! Didn't have the angle, touchdown! Oh hah, Kenyan Drake, a miracle!"
The Dolpins beat the Patriots by 1 in the walkoff, 34-33, splitting the teams' divisional games on the year. Overall, it wouldn't influence much. Miami finished second in the conference at 7-9 while the Patriots won their sixth Super Bowl.
End-of-game lateral conversions for touchdowns are rarity in the NFL, making the play of the most miraculous the league's ever seen.
The play went on to win play of the year at the 2018 NFL Honors awards.
No. 31: Manningham Catch
(Feb. 5, 2012 - SB XLVI)
It's Super Bowl XLVI against the New York Giants in Indianapolis.
In a rematch of Super Bowl XLII, in which a Giants freak catch spoiled the Patriots' perfect season, New England is hoping it won't happen again.
Down by 2 points with less than 4 minutes remaining in the game, the Giants are backed up against their own end zone. They've got one last shot.
A Brady touchdown pass to tight end Aaron Hernandez early in the third had put the Patriots up by 8, making it a near two-possession contest, but Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes added two field goals from 30-plus before the quarter's end.
On first-and-10, the Giants had little to lose. So they went big.
Quarterback Eli Manning drops back, and amidst a four-man rush, unleashes a 40-yard bomb to the left sideline into double coverage. No way it's a catch.
"Eeeeeeli… throwing into traffic on the sideline, AND RULE A CATCH BY MANNINGHAM," says NBC play-by-play commentator Al Michaels.
Wide receiver Mario Manningham, with cornerback Sterling Moore on his back, safety Patrick Chung on his right and the sideline to his left, makes a remarkable catch — not just a huge, 38-yard play for the first down, but a momentum shifter.
A challenge is upheld.
Running back Ahmad Bradshaw would later run it in from 6 yards out to put the Giants up by 4 points, eliminating the Patriots' chance to tie with a field goal.
Brady tries his best, but 57 seconds leaves too little time for a comeback. New York gets its second Super Bowl victory against New England, winning 21-17.
No. 10: 'Philly Special'
(Feb. 4, 2018 - SB LII)
It's Super Bowl LII against the Philadelphia Eagles in Minneapolis.
The Patriots and Eagles are evenly matched about 30 minutes in, and it's clear this game will come down to not only time of possession but also momentum.
New England scores its first touchdown with about 2 minutes to go till halftime, which along with two field goals puts it down by just 3 points, 12-15.
But 2 minutes is more than enough time for the Eagles to attack.
Starting from their own 30-yard line, quarterback Nick Foles and company aided by a massive 55-yard pass drive 69 yards downfield to the Patriots' 1.
Facing a fourth-and-goal, they elect not to take the guaranteed 3 points and go to the playbook for a trick play later to be revealed as "Philly Special."
Prior to the snap, Foles from the shotgun walks up to his lineman to seemingly audible or remind them of an action, then stops behind tackle Lane Johnson.
The ball's directly snapped to running back Corey Clement, who runs left and hands off to tight end Trey Burton running the opposite direction on the end-around. Meanwhile, Foles had initially stalled then floated into the end zone.
Wide open, Burton hits Foles for the Eagle's third touchdown of the game. Philadelphia would enter the locker room up 22-12. Game changer.
Brady would throw three touchdowns in the second half, but it wasn't enough for a game that favored those who had the ball longer — the Eagles won the possession battle by about eight minutes.
No. 3: Tyree Helmet Catch
(Feb. 3, 2008 - SB XLII)
It's Super Bowl XLII against the New York Giants in Glendale, Arizona.
Down by 4 points with 1 minute, 15 seconds remaining, the Giants face a third-and-5 from their own 44-yard line. The game has been back and forth, with four alternating lead changes. New York scored first with a field goal in the first, then three touchdowns followed: Pats in second, and Giants then Pats in fourth.
Quarterback Eli Manning hikes the ball from the shotgun with running back Brandon Jacobs to his right, who embarks on a passing route, leaving just five blockers for the Patriots' formidable four-man rush.
The pocket quickly collapses, and linebacker Adalius Thomas from the right end position is the first to get to Manning, brushing the name on his jersey with his outstretched right hand. Manning steps up and is met by both defensive ends Jarvis Green and Richard Seymour, who began the play in the tackle positions.
Manning somehow escapes, breaks free to the right, and steps up to hurl a massive pass toward the opposite 25-yard line. His target: 6-foot wide receiver David Tyree, covered by former All-Pro safety Rodney Harrison. Tyree had just 10 minutes prior caught Manning's first Super Bowl touchdown pass.
The pass is too high, and Harrison is on him like a shadow, but Tyree miraculously elevates, grabs the ball and pins it against his own helmet.
He holds onto it for a 32-yard catch.
"Oh my God," says Fox color commentator Troy Aikman. "This ball is thrown and Tyree just goes up for it like a basketball player, Harrison trying to knock it down. And Eli Mann- I don't know how he got out of there, I thought he was on the ground, and then he came out of the pile and just slings it."
The Giants would score four plays and two timeouts later with 39 seconds left: a 13-yard Manning touchdown pass to wide receiver Plaxico Burress.
Despite having all three timeouts, too little time remained for Brady to stage a comeback. A 10-yard sack contributed to an eventual turnover on loss of downs.
The Giants won 17-14, ending the Patriots' quest for a truly perfect season.
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