The Super Bowl is just 16 days away. Let’s look at the Super Bowl from 16 years ago to honor this not-so-significant occasion!
New Orleans hosted Super Bowl XXXVI on February 3, 2002. The game pitted the NFC Champion St. Louis Rams against the New England Patriots of the American Football Conference. The game was played less than five months after the horrendous terrorist attacks of September 11th. So, there was an air of patriotism on Super Bowl Sunday. Low and behold, a team named the Patriots made it to the Super Bowl and made American football history.
St. Louis Rams 16 Years Ago
The greatest show on turf was back and in many ways, they were even better than their 1999 World Championship team. After a lousy defensive campaign in 2000, the Rams hired Lovie Smith and acquired Aeneas Williams. They went from last place in points allowed to seventh and from 23rd in yards allowed to third! Williams’ impact was especially apparent. He finished the regular and postseason with 4 interception returns for touchdowns including two off Brett Favre.
The Rams’ offense was the Rams’ offense. They led the league in points for a third consecutive season. They had the best quarterback and best running back in football in Kirt Warner and Marshall Faulk. In fact, Faulk edged Warner for NFL MVP of 2001. Faulk finished with the incredible total of 2100 yards from scrimmage and 21 touchdowns. The Rams also had two legends at wide receiver with Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt posting obscene numbers. Mike Martz’ team was a well-oiled machine.
They rolled to a 14-2 regular season record. Then, they embarrassed the Packers in the Divisional round 45-17. However, the Rams faced a formidable opponent in the NFC Championship game. The youthful Philadelphia Eagles, who would be playing in the first of 4 straight NFC Championship games, battled until the end. Philadelphia was an 11-point underdog, but led 17-13 at the half. The Rams scored the next 16 points as they switched from their “greatest show on turf” style to pounding Faulk into the line. Faulk scored twice putting the Rams ahead 29-17. Philly responded with a late tally, but their last effort ended in another Williams’ INT. And, the Rams were on to their second Super Bowl in three years.
New England Patriots 16 Years Ago
While the Rams were preseason favorites heading into 2001, the Patriots aimed to get back to the playoffs. The 2000 Pats finished 5-11 under first-year coach Bill Belichick with the 22nd-ranked offense and 20th-ranked defense. Headed into his seventh season as an NFL head coach, Belichick made the playoffs just once. However, he had achieved great success as Bill Parcells’s assistant and defensive coordinator. Thus, Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft still had confidence that Belichick was the right man for the job.
Belichick’s most important move was to keep a fourth quarterback on the 2000 roster named Tom Brady. Brady was a sixth round draft pick out of Michigan and was not projected to be anything special. One position that was not a major concern heading into 2001 was quarterback. The Patriots had nine-year man Drew Bledsoe who had shredded team passing records in the ’90’s. That all changed in week two when Bledsoe got wrecked near the sideline by Jets’ defender Mo Lewis. Brady stepped onto the field launching one of the greatest careers in the history of team sports.
Brady was not great 16 years ago. But, he was dependable and mistake-free. Even when Bledsoe got healthy, Brady remained the starter.
A competitive loss to the Rams left them at 5-5. At this crossroads in the season, Belichick called upon his defense to turn up the intensity. His guys responded emphatically led by Ty Law and Lawyer Milloy. New England won their final six games including two tough, low-scoring games on the road against the Jets and Bills. At 11-5, the Patriots grabbed the #2 seed in the AFC when the Jets stunned Oakland in the season finale.
The Divisional Round playoff game between the Raiders and Patriots became an all-time classic. First, it was the last game at old Foxboro Stadium. Second, it was played on a Saturday night in a steady falling accumulating snow. Third, it was decided on a call so controversial, the game is known to this day as “The Tuck Rule Game.” As far as game action is concerned, it did not get exciting until the Patriots finally scored a late touchdown to cut the lead to 13-10 on a Brady run.
When the Pats got the ball back, they drove into Raiders’ territory when it happened. On the play, Raiders’ cornerback Charles Woodson and Brady’s former teammate at Michigan sacked Patriots’ Brady. He fumbled and it was recovered by Raiders’ linebacker Greg Biekert. Officials reviewed the play, and eventually determined that even though Brady had seemingly halted his passing motion and was attempting to “tuck” the ball back into his body, it was an incomplete pass and not a fumble under the then-effective NFL rules. Subsequently, the Patriots moved the ball into field goal range.
With under a minute remaining in regulation, Patriots’ kicker Adam Vinatieri booted an unbelievable 45-yard field goal to tie the game at 13, which sent the game into overtime. In OT, Vinatieri kicked a 23-yard field goal to win the game for the Patriots. New England rejoiced. In effect, a dynasty that has known no equal in NFL history, was born.
In the AFC Championship game at Pittsburgh, Brady hurt his ankle. Bledsoe came in and led the Patriots to a touchdown drive. Two special teams’ scores had New England up 21-3 before the Steelers rallied. However, they intercepted Kordell Stewart twice in the last few minutes to close out a 24-17 victory improbably sending the Patriots to Super Bowl XXXVI.
The Rams were 14-point favorites heading into the big game. The Patriots were not intimidated. They came out introduced as a team, ready to go to work.
St. Louis could not get on track offensively. The Patriots’ strategy to knock people around on every play was working. In the second quarter, Mike Vrabel made an uncontested rush toward Warner. Warner’s pass floated toward Bruce when Law jumped the play and darted to the end zone putting the Pats up 7-3. Another turnover led to a Brady to David Patten touchdown just before the half. Yet, another turnover by the Rams led to a second half field goal. Therefore, New England led St. Louis 17-3 heading to the fourth quarter.
The never-say-die Rams responded with two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Ricky Proehl scored the latter with less than two minutes remaining. Brady now had his turn. For the first time on the international stage, he worked his magic. He calmly led the Pats from their own 17 to the Rams’ 30 in just over a minute. Vinatieri knocked home the game-winner and the Patriots won their first Super Bowl championship! It would not be their last!
Brandon Fazzolari is a Super Bowl expert…@spot_Bills