Third time's a charm
New England shocks St. Louis to win Super Bowl XXXVIPosted: Sunday February 03, 2002 7:25 PM
NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- This Super Bowl was one to remember -- for all the right reasons.
It had heroes, a last-second finish and the kind of drama America always yearns for from its biggest game. And it went off without a hitch, proving the experts right when they guaranteed the Superdome would be the safest place in the country Sunday.
The result was a New England 20-17 victory against St. Louis, which had been a two-touchdown favorite and was seeking its second NFL title in three seasons.
Adam Vinatieri's 48-yard field goal as time expired won it after 53-yard, nine-play drive engineered by Tom Brady, who was voted the game's MVP. If he was, Vinatieri was the MVP of the playoffs -- he kicked a 45-yarder through the snow two weeks ago to tie Oakland in a playoff game, then a 23-yarder than won it in overtime.
The Patriots won on a day filled with patriotic themes inside the Superdome and high security outside. Fans were urged to show up five hours before kickoff to get through a perimeter that looked more like a military compound than a football stadium, with soldiers on the ground and sharpshooters on the roof.
Brady, who sprained an ankle in the AFC title game against Pittsburgh a week ago, only found out Wednesday that he was starting instead of Drew Bledsoe, who helped win the Steelers game in relief and who had been the starter for nine years until he was injured in the second game of the year.
"This is the perfect example of what happens when guys believe in each other," said Brady, who led a team that was 5-11 a year ago to a title. At the start of the season, they were 50-1 shots to win what was their first title ever -- twice before have lost Super Bowls, both in this same dome.
"The fans of New England have been waiting 42 years for this day," owner Robert Kraft said. More than that, actually -- the last team from the region to win a title were the 1928 Providence Steamrollers.
The game began with most experts believing only the Rams themselves could beat the Rams. And that they did, with three turnovers that led directly to or set up New England's first 17 points.
"That's the slogan for this team," Rams running back Marshall Faulk said. "The only team that can beat us is us, and we turned the ball over. Obviously, we're playing someone that is causing the turnovers at times, but for the most part if we hold on to the ball and eliminate the turnovers, the chances of winning are great."
That showed up in the stats.
Brady was just 16-for-27 for 145 yards, compared to 28-of-46 for Warner.
But Brady was mistake-proof while Warner threw two interceptions and the Rams also lost a fumble that set up a score.
The key play in the final drive was a 23-yard pass from Brady to Troy Brown to the St. Louis 36.
Then it came time for Vinatieri, a distant cousin of daredevil Evel Knievel, who proved that maybe cool really does run in the family.
His 48-yard game winner flew straight through the upright with plenty of room to spare. The clock turned to :00 and his teammates mobbed him.
"Adam Vinatieri's not just a kicker, he's a football player," Pats offensive coordinator Charlie Weis said. "He's a clutch player, a money player. Just like there are quarterbacks who are money players, he's a money player."
Three plays later came the kick by Vinatieri.
But the game was won by the defense, which held the NFL's best offense without a touchdown until less than 10 minutes was left in the game. And even as the Patriots played with five, six and seven defensive backs, they got pressure on Warner from Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel, Richard Seymour, Roman Phifer and other of the bigger guys.
"They say it's the best track team in the National Football League, but I never saw anybody win a 100-yard dash with someone standing in front of them," said New England cornerback Ty Law, whose 47-yard interception return gave New England its first touchdown.
Defense was the answer all year for the Patriots, who started 0-2 and lost Bledsoe to a chest injury.
Brady, a fourth-stringer as a rookie a year ago, took over and led them to the AFC East title with an 11-5 record. But few expected them to beat the Rams, who at 14-2 had the league's best record and best offense.
The Patriots had twice lost in the Super Bowl, both times in New Orleans. And it was the first championship as a head coach for Bill Belichick, who as defensive coordinator of the New York Giants, 11 years ago won a ring when Buffalo's Scott Norwood missed a 47-yard attempt in the final seconds.
There was plenty of drama in this one, too, especially at the end. No Super Bowl has ever gone to overtime, though this game seemed headed that way when the Rams rallied in the fourth quarter.
Warner's 2-yard sneak with 9:31 left -- his first rushing TD this season -- pulled St. Louis within 17-10. After holding the Patriots, the Rams got the ball back at their own 45 and needed only 21 seconds to tie it on a 26-yard pass from Warner to Ricky Proehl with 1:30 left.
"I thought we were back in the ball game and we're going to win this thing," Proehl said. "Momentum had changed."
But not for long. And not for most of the game.
Favored by 14 points, the Rams were billed as the "Greatest Show on Turf." But if they expected to breeze, they discovered early that the Patriots wouldn't let them. Warner was sacked only three times but pounded on almost every play even as New England used five, six or even seven defensive backs to shut down the St. Louis offense.
The Patriots showed their tenacity early, giving up yards grudgingly and moving from their own 3 to near midfield after being pinned deep on their first possession.
New England stiffened on St. Louis' second possession, limiting the Rams to Jeff Wilkins' 50-yard field goal after they had moved from their own 20.
The Patriots let the Rams reach their 34 early in the second quarter, but this time Wilkins' 52-yard attempt was short.
New England had trouble moving, but it was still the Patriots' pace at this stage of the game. Everything was slow as the Patriots' varying defenses -- as many as seven defensive backs on some plays -- made Warner and the Rams work for everything.
With 8:49 left in the half, New England got the break it was playing for.
On a first-and-10 from the St. Louis 39, New England linebacker Mike Vrabel broke clear on a blitz. As he was about to hit Warner, the St. Louis quarterback unloaded -- right to Law, who raced untouched 47 yards down the sideline to give New England a 7-3 lead.
The second TD came after the Rams got the ball on their own 15 with 1:52 left in the half.
On the third play, Warner found Proehl over the middle. He was hit by Antwan Harris, who scored in the AFC Championship Game last week on a blocked field-goal return. This time, Harris knocked the ball loose and Terrell Buckley picked it up and returned it 15 yards to the St. Louis 40.
New England continued to stalemate the Rams through the third quarter -- Seymour's sack of Warner ended a drive that reached the Patriots' 41 on the first drive.
The Rams turned to the run to try to get New England out of its nickel and dime defenses as Faulk ran four times for 30 yards. But on third down came what seemed to be the inevitable turnover -- Warner missed Torry Holt and Otis Smith picked it off, returning it 30 yards to the St. Louis 32.
Three plays later, Vinatieiri's 37-yard field goal made it 17-3.
The Rams then put together their first sustained drive, getting inside the New England 32 for the first time. On a fourth-and-goal from the 3, Warner fumbled and Tebucky Jones took it all the way back for what appeared to be the clinching touchdown.
But Willie McGinest was called for holding Faulk -- replays showed it was obvious -- and the Rams got the ball back at the 1. On the second play, Warner went in for the touchdown to cut it to 17-10 with 9:31 left to cap a 73-yard, 12-play drive.
Then came the tying TD and the winning drive.
"We beat all the odds," Milloy said. "No one can ever take that away from us."
No one is likely to try. At least until next season.