Take a knee, Bill Belichick thought. Play it safe, kill the clock and don't put your young quarterback in a position to blow the Super Bowl. This was one option that Belichick, the cerebral coach of the New England Patriots, considered on Sunday night as the Louisiana Superdome shook with energy and the roof seemed ready to cave in on his team.
Then, with 81 seconds left and the Patriots locked in a 17-17 tie with the resurgent St. Louis Rams, Belichick's head deferred to his heart. Although his tired team had squandered a 14-point, fourth-quarter lead, Belichick decided that kneeling was for wimps. Instead his underdog Patriots and their undaunted 24-year-old quarterback, Tom Brady, would deliver one of the most thrilling finishes the sport has known.
As New England prepared to take over at its 17-yard line with no timeouts, Belichick conferred with his offensive coordinator, Charlie Weis, who agreed that an aggressive approach was the right one. "O.K., let's go for it," Belichick said. When Weis relayed the decision to Brady, he could see the surprise in the second-year passer's eyes. There was no fear, however. Brady is so cool that he caught a locker room catnap that ended a mere half hour before kickoff. "With a quarterback like Brady, going for the win is not that dangerous," Belichick explained later, "because he's not going to make a mistake."
What Brady did as those seconds ticked off sent chills through the spines of fans from Cape Cod to Kandahar. Aside from a pair of clock-killing spikes, he completed 5 of 6 passes for 53 yards to set up Adam Vinatieri's 48-yard field goal, which sailed through the uprights for a 20-17 victory as time expired. Brady, whose statistics had been unimpressive until that final drive, was voted the MVP of what will go down as one of the greatest Super Bowls. Yet this was hardly a one-man show. "A game like this makes you trust in all those corny-sounding clich�s," Pats linebacker Mike Vrabel said. "On paper you may not look as talented or as fast or as strong as your opponent, but if you get guys to buy into a system and fight to the bitter end, you can accomplish incredible things."
For patriots and Patriots, this Sunday was as super as it gets: One hundred forty-five days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that stunned a country and stalled an NFL season, the ultimate game provided the ultimate diversion. In beating the vaunted Rams, who were two-touchdown favorites to win their second championship in three seasons, New England completed an amazing journey no reasonable forecaster could have predicted. With chants of U-S-A! filling the stadium, the Pats staged a clinic on the nation's bedrock values—teamwork, bucking the odds, overcoming adversity and refusing to wilt in the face of danger.
In a game in which they were outgained by 160 yards, the Patriots won by outhitting and outhustling the Rams, who, in quarterback Kurt Warner and running back Marshall Faulk, boast the NFL's two brightest stars. It was the Pats, however, who came up with the biggest plays, beginning with cornerback Ty Law's 47-yard interception return for a touchdown 8:49 before halftime and ending with Vinatieri's bodacious boot. Though most fans don't know the majority of New England's players from Adam, it's not hard to discern the Pats' approach. Consider the pregame introductions: After Warner, Faulk and the rest of St. Louis's offensive starters were called out one by one, the Patriots, as they have for most of the season, simply charged onto the field in a single burst.
"We play together," Law said. "All year we've had a lot of stuff go down that will either cause you to fold or to come together. We've been faced with things that can tear up a team."
The Pats hung tough when quarterbacks coach Dick Rehbein died of a heart attack in training camp, when star wideout Terry Glenn's disruptive antics provoked multiple suspensions and when they lost their first two games and three of their first four. By then the team's $103 million quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, had been hospitalized with a sheared blood vessel in his chest, suffered when he was hammered by the New York Jets.
Brady, a sixth-round draft pick in 2000 who threw only three passes as a rookie, turned out to be a revelation, earning a Pro Bowl spot while leading New England to an 11-5 record and its first AFC East title since 1997. Brady then won over a nation with his gritty performance in the Snow Bowl—New England's 16-13 overtime win over the Oakland Raiders in the divisional playoffs. (Though it should be noted that the Pats' tying field goal drive at the end of regulation was kept alive only after a controversial replay reversal of what appeared to be Brady's game-ending fumble.)
Because of that unlikely escape, some termed New England a team of destiny, but that ignores the hard work and trust that made this triumph possible. After Brady went down with a sprained left ankle late in the first half of the AFC Championship Game, Bledsoe directed the team to a 24-17 upset of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Yet after watching Brady move effectively during practice on the Wednesday before the Super Bowl, Belichick did not hesitate in naming him the starter.