February 3, 2011

2002: Patriots Stun Rams to Win Super Bowl XXXVI

Super Bowl XXXVI on February 3, 2002 looked to be a blowout in the making. The St. Louis Rams, with a 14-2 record and seeking to win two titles in three years, were up against the 11-5 New England Patriots, who had come from nowhere and were not considered to be of the same caliber.

The Rams, under Head Coach Mike Martz, entered the 2001 season expecting to contend for a title. They boasted the NFL’s most explosive offense, led by QB Kurt Warner, the league leader in passing (101.4 rating), passing yards (4830), touchdowns (36), completions (375), yards per attempt (8.8), and completion percentage (68.7) as well as league MVP choice of the Associated Press and NEA. Wide receivers Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt were both Pro Bowl performers. RB Marshall Faulk, who ran for 1382 yards and gained another 765 on 83 catches, garnered the other MVP trophies (Pro Football Writers Association and Bert Bell Award). The unheralded defense benefited from the addition of 33-year-old CB Aeneas Williams. Having won the NFC West with the league’s best record, St. Louis routed the Packers in the Divisional playoff and then got past the Eagles to win the conference title.

In 2000, the first year under Head Coach Bill Belichick, the Patriots finished at the bottom of the AFC East with a 5-11 tally, and not much more was anticipated in ’01. It certainly didn’t appear that the team was anything special when it fell to 5-5 following a loss to the Rams in November. But from that point, New England didn’t lose again, winning the last six regular season games. They barely defeated the Raiders in a snowy Divisional round contest and got past Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship. Coaching, starting with Belichick, certainly played a role, as did the coming together of a defense that didn’t allow more than 17 points in any of those eight wins. But the emergence of QB Tom Brady (pictured above), who took over for injured veteran QB Drew Bledsoe in September, paid huge dividends as he displayed outstanding game-management skills and great ability in clutch situations. Still, the Patriots came into the Super Bowl as two-touchdown underdogs.

There was a crowd of 72,922 at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans and the Patriots broke with tradition by eschewing the usual player introductions to be introduced en masse as a team, emphasizing the club’s cohesiveness. The clubs traded punts to start off the game. On their second possession, the Rams drove 48 yards in ten plays with Warner completing six of seven passes. Jeff Wilkins kicked a 50-yard field goal to give St. Louis the early lead.

After the Patriots went three-and-out, the Rams again drove into New England territory, the highlight being a 29-yard pass completion from Warner to WR Az-Zahir Hakim on the second play of the second quarter. But after penetrating to the 34 yard line, Wilkins was wide to the left on a 52-yard field goal attempt.

New England held onto the ball for seven plays but again had to punt. However, on the third play of the next St. Louis possession, CB Ty Law intercepted a Warner pass that was intended for Bruce and returned it 47 yards for a touchdown (pictured at right). In stunning fashion, the Patriots were in front at 7-3.

With under two minutes remaining in the first half, Warner threw to WR Ricky Proehl for a 15-yard gain to the New England 40, but safety Antwan Harris forced a fumble and CB Terrell Buckley recovered for the Patriots. Brady hit on passes to WR Troy Brown for 16 yards and eight yards to TE Jermaine Wiggins to get to the St. Louis 24. Following an eight-yard carry by RB Kevin Faulk, Brady threw to WR David Patten for an eight-yard TD and the Patriots went into halftime with an improbable 14-3 lead.

Coach Belichick had learned from the loss to St. Louis during the regular season, when he had tried to key on blitzing Warner. This time, he sought to keep Marshall Faulk in check and loaded up with as many as six or seven defensive backs on each play. The strategy was having the desired effect, as Warner’s rhythm was disrupted and the fleet wide receivers were kept in check.

The teams went back to trading punts in the third quarter, battling for field position. Late in the period, after the Rams had advanced to the New England 45, Warner was intercepted again, this time by CB Otis Smith, who returned the pickoff 30 yards to the St. Louis 33. Five plays later, Adam Vinatieri kicked a 37-yard field goal to make the score 17-3.

With the game moving into the fourth quarter, the Rams began to come alive as Warner hit on short passes, completing six in a row to reach the New England three. Following two incompletions and facing a fourth-and-three situation, Warner ran and fumbled when hit by LB Roman Phifer. Patriots FS Tebucky Jones picked up the ball and took off for an apparent 97-yard touchdown, but the play was nullified by a defensive holding penalty on DE Willie McGinest. Gaining a huge reprieve, Warner ran for a two-yard touchdown shortly thereafter and New England’s margin was cut to 17-10.

The teams again traded punts, and the Patriots had consecutive three-and-out possessions. After the second one, and with under two minutes remaining, the Rams took over at their 45 yard line. Warner threw to Hakim for 18 yards, WR Yo Murphy for 11, and then the slow-but-steady Proehl for a 26-yard touchdown. With the extra point, the game was tied at 17-17 and it appeared likely that the contest would go into overtime.

New England’s offense took over at its own 17 with 1:21 now on the clock and no timeouts remaining. Brady threw two passes to RB J.R. Redmond that covered 13 yards. After an incompletion, he went to Redmond again for another 11 yards to his own 41. A 23-yard pass to Brown took the ball into Rams territory at the 36 and a throw to Wiggins added another six yards. With seven seconds now remaining, Brady spiked the ball to stop the clock and Vinatieri, who was rapidly becoming recognized as an outstanding clutch kicker, booted a game-winning 48-yard field goal (pictured below). In an amazing upset, the Patriots won their first championship by a score of 20-17.

The Rams won the statistical battle, outdistancing New England in total yards (427 to 267), first downs (26 to 15), and time of possession (33:30 to 26:30). But the Patriots didn’t turn the ball over, while taking advantage of three St. Louis turnovers to score 17 points.

Tom Brady was the game’s MVP as he completed 16 of 27 passes for 145 yards and a touchdown and showed great poise in directing the game-winning drive. Troy Brown (pictured below) led New England’s receivers with 6 catches for 89 yards. RB Antowain Smith rushed for 92 yards on 18 carries.

The strategy of keying on Marshall Faulk held the Rams’ running game to 90 yards, with Faulk gaining 76 of that total on 17 attempts and catching four passes for 54 yards – ordinary by his standards. Kurt Warner was successful on 28 of 44 passes for 365 yards, but with just one TD against two interceptions. Az-Zahir Hakim, Isaac Bruce, and Torry Holt all caught five passes apiece, with Hakim gaining the most yards (90; Bruce and Holt gained 56 and 49 yards, respectively).

“When Adam hit it, it was so true,” said Bill Belichick of Vinatieri’s game-winning field goal. “It was so high and so far. If you want a guy to make a play at the end of the game, he's the one.”

Of the Rams, Ty Law said, “I don't think they looked past us, but at the same time, I don't think they were expecting this type of fight.”

“I don't think we were overconfident,” a disappointed Kurt Warner stated from the St. Louis perspective. “We played hard, but those few turnovers, those few mistakes we made, they turned them into points. Some days they don't turn into anything, but they turned them into 17 points and a world championship. That's what's so hard about this loss. It was the fact our mistakes did us in today.”

The championship for the Patriots proved to not be a fluke as the club won two more over the next three years and consistently contended beyond that. St. Louis, in the meantime, moved in the opposite direction. Warner suffered through two injury-marred seasons in 2002-03 and was let go – he would eventually revive his career in Arizona. The team dropped to 7-9 in ’02, and after rebounding to 12-4 in 2003, fell into mediocrity thereafter.