Big plays on special teams part of Patriots' DNA, and key to playoff push

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- In the aftermath of their best performance of the 2020 NFL season on Sunday, New England Patriots captain Devin McCourty was discussing the impact a blocked field goal he returned 44 yards for a touchdown had when he referenced the past.

"We've seen that through the history of this organization, all the way back to Troy Brown scooping and pitching it back. We know how big that is," he said.

Indeed, McCourty's play provided a link to one of the iconic moments in franchise history -- a 24-17 win in the AFC Championship Game on Jan. 27, 2002 when the Patriots shocked the host Pittsburgh Steelers in the game before their first Super Bowl win.

Brown, a Patriots Hall of Famer, scooped up a blocked field goal and pitched it back to Antwan Harris, who raced 49 yards to give the Patriots a 21-3 lead midway through the third quarter. In the first quarter of that game, Brown had returned a punt 55 yards for a touchdown.

The current Patriots pulled off the same special-teams double-play on Sunday against the overmatched Los Angeles Chargers. In addition to McCourty's scoop-and-score, Gunner Olszewski returned a punt 70 yards for a touchdown.

"That changes the game, when you can make plays like that," McCourty said.

It also changes what is possible for the Patriots when they play like that -- a dominating special-teams unit, complementing a defense that has bounced back from a blip three weeks ago against the Houston Texans, along with a Cam Newton-led offense that struggles in the passing game but can be tough to stop on the ground.

In a lot of ways, it's the 2001 model all over again.

"It's my belief that we're starting to find our identity and who we are, and how we're going to have to win," longtime special-teams captain Matthew Slater said. "I think, as a team when you understand that, then you can operate and move with purpose."

It's a long shot the Patriots can duplicate the championship run they went on in 2001. They are on the outside looking in for a playoff berth, with a crowded AFC field ahead of them. Perhaps that was on safety Adrian Phillips' mind Sunday when he said, "We've got to keep this going, because we can't lose again."

Phillips also noted how the team's Nov. 22 loss at Houston shook up the defense, igniting a spark that has manifested itself the past two weeks.

"We dropped the ball a little bit against Houston. We came back out and said, 'We're going to go back to our bread and butter. We're going to come after you and get on these receivers,'" Phillips said.

That effort pounded the Chargers into submission Sunday, but the Patriots shouldn't expect their next three opponents -- road games against the host Los Angeles Rams (8-4) and Miami Dolphins (8-4), and at home against the Buffalo Bills (8-3) -- to be as generous. It's a quick turnaround this week for a Thursday game against the Rams (8:20 p.m. ET, Fox).

So it will take airtight 2001-type complementary football -- offense, defense, special teams -- to give themselves the best chance.

And just like 19 years ago, it's special teams helping lead the way.