CNNSI.com NFL Playoffs 2001 NFL Playoffs 2001


 

What We Learned

Three things we know after the Patriots' 20-17 victory

Posted: Monday February 04, 2002 2:09 AM
Updated: Monday February 04, 2002 2:58 AM
  Willie McGinest, Kurt Warner, Richard Seymour Kurt Warner and the Rams have a bright future despite their Super Bowl XXXVI defeat. AP

By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated

NEW ORLEANS -- In a Super Bowl upset that ranks at least in the same ballpark as the New York Jets' historic defeat of the Colts in Super Bowl III, the New England Patriots completed their dramatic worst-to-first journey with a 20-17 victory against the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. Here are three observations from the game:

1. With their narrow Super Bowl loss to the Patriots, the heavily favored Rams blew any chance to have the dynasty tag applied to their successful three-year run. But don't assume that St. Louis is going to just fade away, either.

Thanks to a blend of shrewd front-office planning and a bit of luck, the Rams face the future with most of their talented nucleus intact and contractually secured for the coming two or three years. Quarterback Kurt Warner, running back Marshall Faulk and most of the team's electrifying wide receivers will be in blue and gold for some time to come.

St. Louis' only key unrestricted free agents this offseason will be middle linebacker London Fletcher, receiver Az-Zahir Hakim and reserve defensive end Leonard Little. Of that group, Hakim is as good as gone, while the team would like to re-sign both Fletcher and Little.

Getting a more experienced backup behind Warner may be a priority. Warner will turn 31 before training camp opens and the Rams were frankly lucky that he suffered no significant injuries in 2001.

On defense, the Rams' youth movement this season stands them in good stead. Strong safety Adam Archuleta, linebacker Tommy Polley, defensive tackle Damione Lewis (who missed the second half of the season with a broken foot) and defensive tackle Brian Young all saw significant playing time and took big strides in their development.

The Rams' defensive retooling this season was adept enough to get them back in the Super Bowl for the second time in three years. But failing to put away New England means St. Louis is just another very good team trying to win it all. The good news for Rams fans is that they'll be right back knocking on the door next season.

2. The matchup of the Rams' ridiculously deep receiving corps and the Patriots' ridiculously experienced secondary was one of the game's best subplots all last week. On Sunday, it also proved to be the most pivotal, as New England frustrated the Rams with defensive sets featuring between four and seven defensive backs.

In the week-long buildup to Super Bowl XXXVI, the Patriots' secondary members were unanimous in their agreement that they had been too soft in their coverages the last time they had played St. Louis, a 24-17 loss in Week 10 in which Warner threw for 401 yards. This time, they would play the Rams' wide receivers tighter and more aggressively, they said.

When reminded of the overwhelming speed and playmaking ability of St. Louis' receivers, Patriots defenders like nickelback Terrell Buckley and cornerback Ty Law cautioned against underestimating New England's secondary in both those categories. The Patriots trumpeted the fact that their top six defensive backs have combined for 46 years of NFL experience.

Against the Rams, the Patriots' defensive backs proved their mettle and earned the right to have the final word. While Warner threw for 365 yards on 28-of-44 passing, his longest completion went for just 30 yards, to Ricky Proehl. For the most part, the Pats kept the Rams' receivers in front of them for the entire game. Warner's only touchdown pass came in the final two minutes, when he hit Proehl from 26 yards out.

The Rams' big three of Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and Az-Zahir Hakim had five catches apiece, for a combined 195 yards and no touchdowns. Not shutdown numbers, but not too bad on New England's part.

As for making big plays, the Patriots' secondary came up huge. Law's 47-yard interception return for a touchdown opened the scoring for New England, and Buckley's recovery of a Proehl fumble set up the Patriots' second touchdown.

In the third quarter, Smith intercepted Warner at the New England 37, returning the pick 30 yards to set up the first of two Adam Vinatieri field goals. Even the Rams' two fourth-quarter touchdowns -- which tied the score at 17-17 before Vinatieri's 48-yard game-winner -- didn't diminish the excellent performance turned in by New England's secondary.

3. It's time to acknowledge that Patriots owner Robert Kraft made a pretty shrewd move when he traded a first-round pick to the New York Jets for the rights to hire head coach Bill Belichick two years ago.

The move was mostly panned in the media at the time, because Belichick looked like a drip for going back on his word in trying to avoid becoming Bill Parcells' successor in New York.

But Kraft's maneuver looks pretty wise these days. Belichick could coach another 40 years in the NFL and he'll never do a better job than he did in 2001, when the Patriots thrived despite being beset by obstacles and unexpected challenges.

From dealing with the loss of Drew Bledsoe and an 0-2 start, to the suspension of Terry Glenn, to the death of quarterbacks coach Dick Rehbein, Belichick was up to every test this season. His decision to stick with second-year quarterback Tom Brady -- despite Bledsoe's tremendous appeal in New England -- changed the tenor of New England's storybook season and set the Patriots on a path of unexpected success.

In the postseason, Belichick's steadying presence and always sharp gameplanning skills made the difference in New England's shocking upsets in the AFC title game and the Super Bowl.

He will never be the most likable or fun-loving head coach in the NFL, but with his career's first Super Bowl title secured, Belichick is at last getting his due in a higher profile role than defensive coordinator.

Kudos to Kraft for making that a reality.


 
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