Vinatieri kicked a 48-yard field goal on the final play of the game to lift the Patriots to a 20-17 victory over the heavily-favored St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI.
"I was just so happy that the guys moved the ball down and gave me an opportunity," Vinatieri said. "The snap and the hold was great. Once I kicked it, I knew it was good. I looked up and it was just time to celebrate. It was unbelievable."
It was only the second game-winning field goal in Super Bowl history and the first to come on the final play of the game. Jim O'Brien kicked a 32-yard field goal with five seconds left to lift the Baltimore Colts to a 16-13 victory over Dallas in Super Bowl V.
But the clutch kick was not enough for the sixth-year kicker to capture the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player Award. That honor went to Tom Brady, capping the best story of the NFL season. Brady completed 5-of-8 passes for 53 yards, including a 23-yarder to Troy Brown, to set up the game-winning kick after the Rams tied the game on a 26-yard touchdown pass from Kurt Warner to Ricky Proehl with 1:30 left.
The Pats took over at their own 17 with no timeouts remaining when Brady went to work, throwing three short passes to running back J.R. Redmond for 24 yards. With the clock at 33 seconds, Brown caught a 14-yard slant over the middle and raced nine more yards before going out of bounds at the St. Louis 36. On the next play, Brady tossed a six-yard pass to tight end Jermaine Wiggins to the 30 and then spiked the ball with seven seconds left.
A sixth-round pick in 2000, Brady replaced injured starter Drew Bledsoe in Week Two and led the Patriots into the playoffs. Last week, Brady suffered a sprained left ankle and Bledsoe finished off a win over Pittsburgh in the AFC championship game. But Patriots coach Bill Belichick went back to Brady on Sunday and he became the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl at age 24.
"As far as I'm concerned, we have an entire team of MVPs," said Brady, who was 16-of-27 for 145 yards and a touchdown. "We've got a whole team full of underdogs, and now we're the top dogs."
Two weeks ago, Vinatieri kept New England's season alive when he kicked a game-tying 45-yard field goal through the snow with 27 seconds left in the fourth quarter and then drilled a 23-yarder in overtime in the divisional playoff against Oakland.
"He's really a clutch kicker," said Belichick, who won a Super Bowl title in just his second season as Pats' coach. "None tougher than the one against Oakland in four inches of snow. But this one, it was an easy kick. It was a chip shot."
On Sunday, Vinatieri's field goal spoiled a fourth quarter comeback by St. Louis, which rallied from a 17-3 deficit. The kick prevented the first overtime in Super Bowl history and gave the Patriots their first championship.
"The fans of New England have been waiting 42 years for this day. We are champions," Patriots owner Bob Kraft said. "The Kraft family is happy to be associated with coaches and team players who put team first, as the way they came out of the tunnel tonight."
Belichick nearly canceled the "Greatest Show on Turf," holding the Rams' high-powered offense to just a field goal through three quarters and forcing three turnovers with a masterful game plan. St. Louis had just one field goal -- a 50-yarder by Jeff Wilkins in the first quarter -- to show for their first eight possessions.
But a battered Warner fought back and engineered two fourth-quarter scoring drives of 79 and 55 yards.
By frustrating the only NFL team to score more than 500 points in three consecutive seasons and forcing three turnovers, the Patriots pulled off the second greatest upset in Super Bowl history.
"We shocked the world. We shocked the world today," said Patriots cornerback Otis Smith, who had a 30-yard interception return to set up a 37-yard field goal by Vinatieri late in the third quarter.
The New York Jets were 18-point underdogs when they rocked the football world with a 16-7 victory over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.
With Warner and Offensive Player of the Year Marshall Faulk, the Rams (16-3) were listed as 14-point favorites. But Warner threw two costly interceptions, one of which was returned 47 yards for a touchdown by cornerback Ty Law in the second quarter, giving the Patriots a 7-3 lead.
"That was the momentum right there. That started it off," Law said. "No one thought we could run with these guys, but we proved them wrong again today."
David Patten made a leaping eight-yard touchdown catch in the right corner of the end zone with 31 seconds left in the second quarter to increase the lead to 14-3 at halftime. That was also set up by the defense as safety Antwan Harris jarred the ball loose from Proehl after a 15-yard catch and Terrell Buckley returned the fumble 15 yards to the St. Louis 40.
Warner passed for 365 yards, the second-highest Super Bowl total behind his own record of 414 yards in St. Louis' 23-16 victory over Tennessee two years ago. He also scored on a two-yard run with 9:31 left in the fourth quarter.
"It was tough. The offense basically gave up the first 17 points," Warner said. "Our defense played well enough to be world champions. And that's what hurts the most -- that I let some of the guys down."
Faulk accounted for 130 yards, rushing for 76 on 17 carries and catching four passes for 54 yards.
"The slogan for this team is the only team that can beat us is us, and we turned the ball over," Faulk said. "For the most part, if we hold onto the ball and eliminate the turnovers, our chances of winning are great."
Rams coach Mike Martz snapped when asked if his team had overlooked the Patriots.
"Oh, please, that's insulting to me," Martz said. "This is the Super Bowl. I don't understand that question."
New England's Antowain Smith rushed for 92 yards on 18 carries.
The Patriots had lost in their last two Super Bowl trips here at the Superdome by a combined score of 81-31. They were pounded by Chicago, 46-10 in Super Bowl XX and fell to Green Bay, 35-21 in Super Bowl XXXI.
New England failed to score on its first three possessions, but the defense came through with the first big play, courtesy of a blitz call by Belichick. Outside linebacker Mike Vrabel stormed in on Warner as he sailed a pass behind intended receiver Isaac Bruce. Law picked the ball off and raced down the left sideline untouched.
Warner's second interception came when Holt slipped while running a patter, and Smith was there to pick it off and race 30 yards to the St. Louis 33.
It appeared the Patriots put the game away when safety Tebucky Jones recovered a fumble by Warner on a 4th-and-3 play at the New England 3 and raced 97 for an apparent score. But the touchdown was nullified on a holding call by defensive end Willie McGinest, who clearly dragged Faulk down on a pass pattern.
"He tackled me," Faulk said. "I was trying to run to the flat and he tackled me. That was going on for the most part. Every time I released, I got held, I got pushed, I got grabbed. It just so happened that we were on a part of the field where it's condensed and the line judge actually had an opportunity to see it."
Two plays later, Warner scored on a two-yard quarterback draw to pull the Rams within 17-10 with 9:31 remaining.
The Rams needed just 21 seconds to march 55 yards in three plays for the tying touchdown. Az-Zahir Hakim raced 15 yards with a short pass for an 18-yard gain and Yo Murphy ran 11 yards with a wide receiver screen to the New England 37 with 1:42 left. On the next play, Proehl caught an 11-yard pass on the left side, faked out Jones near the sideline and dove into the end zone for a 26-yard score.
But that left too much time for Brady to move into Vinatieri's range.
Hakim led St. Louis' receivers with five catches for 90 yards. Bruce caught five passes for 56 yards and Holt was held to five receptions for 49 yards.
Brown finished with six catches for 89 yards.