Three things to know about Super Bowl XXXVIPosted: Sunday January 27, 2002 10:11 PM
Updated: Monday January 28, 2002 12:41 AM
By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated
Let the hype begin!
The St. Louis Rams joined the New England Patriots in the final bracket of the Super Bowl XXXVI tournament. While the Rams were expected to make a run deep into January (now early February), the Patriots certainly are a pleasant surprise.
Here are three observations leading up to Feb. 3:
1. Don't look now, but the Patriots are back in New Orleans for a Super Bowl. And you know what that means: A blowout's on the way.
It's not that we don't believe in New England. It's just that the Patriots have qualified for the Super Bowl twice before in their four-decades-plus franchise history, and each time, they've played the role of Patsies at the Superdome.
New England's hangover effect has been pronounced when it played around the corner from Bourbon Street. The Patriots have been outscored by a combined 81-31 in their two Super Bowl appearances.
In January 1986, New England had the misfortune of drawing Chicago as its Super opponent. That would be the 1985 Bears (18-1), if you're keeping score at home. New England took an early 3-0 lead. Then Chicago responded with 46 of the game's final 53 points, winning 46-10. Even more embarrassing, the Patriots gave up a touchdown to "The Fridge," that gap-toothed sometimes fullback named William Perry.
Eleven seasons later, the Bill Parcells-led Patriots made it back to the Big Game in the Big Easy. This time, things were more respectable. We didn't say close. We said respectable. Green Bay triumphed 35-21, as Packers specialist Desmond Howard ran wild with 244 total return yards. New England quarterback Drew Bledsoe (remember him?) tossed four interceptions against the Packers.
After trailing 10-0 early, the Patriots actually led 14-10 at the end of the first quarter. But Green Bay scored 25 of the game's final 32 points, earning its first Super Bowl title in 29 years.
But all the news isn't bad. The Patriots are 4-0 in New Orleans when they play the hometown Saints. That includes a 30-27 win in the Superdome as recently as 1998.
Alas, Las Vegas is forecasting more of the same for New England when it comes to Super Bowl misery. The line for the game opened with St. Louis being declared a 16-point favorite. By late Sunday night, the we-get-no-respect Patriots had whittled that to a 14-point underdog status.
2. St. Louis head coach Mike Martz is a certified offensive genius. New England head coach Bill Belichick is an acknowledged master of defensive strategy.
Yep, that means something's got to give.
All kidding aside, the Rams and Patriots played a tight, entertaining game when they met earlier this season. St. Louis won 24-17 in a Week 10 matchup at Foxboro Stadium, but Martz later praised the Patriots as the best-prepared team his Rams faced all season. He also lauded New England's defense as one that gave St. Louis the most trouble.
Those are some pretty heady bouquets to be tossed in the direction of a team the Rams rolled up 482 yards of offense against, but all but 86 yards came courtesy of St. Louis' vaunted passing game. And even though the Rams made some plays against the Patriots, New England's tough, tenacious style of defense exacted a physical toll on St. Louis' skill players.
The loss to the Rams dropped New England's record to 5-5 in mid-November. But the Patriots (13-5) must have derived some lift from their strong showing, because they haven't lost since, reeling off eight consecutive victories since that Sunday night showdown. St. Louis lost its next game -- to Tampa Bay -- after beating the Patriots, but also has won eight in a row entering the Super Bowl.
Martz and his healthy ego should provide for a decent dose of headline quotes this week, but don't look for Belichick to join in the hype and make it a war of words. In terms of entertainment value, Belichick is the NFLís version of a TV test pattern -- mind-numbingly dull and never changing.
In fact, you couldn't come up with a sharper contrast between last year's AFC champion head coach and this year's if you tried. True, Belichick and Baltimore's Brian Billick share a set of initials, but absolutely nothing else.
Whereas Billick stole the show on the Monday of Super Bowl week last year, issuing his well-publicized chiding of the media regarding the Ray Lewis murder trial story, Belichick would skip the whole media scene in a heartbeat if the league gave him half a chance. Regrettably for us reporter types, it won't.
3. If there's one head-to-head battle that should both entertaining and telling, it's the Rams receivers versus the Patriots defensive backs.
Not many teams have enough talent in the secondary to match up with St. Louis' bevy of receiving play-makers. But the Patriots probably have as good a chance as anybody.
When St. Louis runs out its top four receivers -- Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce, Az-Zahir Hakim and Ricky Proehl -- the Patriots can counter with great veteran presence in the secondary. Cornerbacks Ty Law and Otis Smith, along with safeties Tebucky Jones and Lawyer Milloy, have combined for 27 seasons of NFL experience. Patriots nickel back Terrell Buckley is himself a 10-year veteran who can still make a play or two.
The Rams receivers will get their yards against New England. They get them against everybody. But the Patriots defensive backs aren't the kind of players who will drop their heads and call it a day if they are beaten a time or two. Instead, they will keep coming back for more, punishing the St. Louis receivers for each and every catch they make and yard they gain.
As barometers go, the Rams receivers versus Patriots defensive backs should tell the story of Super Bowl XXXVI as well as anything.