New England Patriots’ kicker Adam Vinatieri kicks the game-winning field goal in the final seconds to beat the St. Louis Rams 20-17 in Super Bowl XXXVI at the Superdome in New Orleans in February 2002. AP file photo

Editor’s note: Sun Journal staff writer Randy Whitehouse is counting down the New England Patriots’ top five playoff wins of the past 20 years — in other words, the Tom Brady Era. Topping the list is the Patriots’ 20-17 win over the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI.

New England Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri celebrates after kicking the 48-yard game-winning field goal in the final seconds of Super Bowl XXXVI against the St. Louis Rams in New Orleans in February 2002. AP file photo

The reasons Super Bowl XXXVI is the greatest game in the history of the New England Patriots have only a little to do with the game itself.

Super Bowl XXXVI is filled with moments, images, soundbytes and performances that are burned into the brain of any Patriots fan, even the ones who weren’t alive or old enough to remember it.

From Rams wide receiver Ricky Proehl proclaiming, “Tonight, a dynasty is born,” to the Patriots being introduced as a team. From Rams coach Mike Martz’s criminally under-utilizing Marshall Faulk to Grant Williams replacing an injured Matt Light at tackle for the Pats and immediately making two great blocks in one play. From U2’s halftime (honestly, I don’t know if I could watch it right now) to John Madden second-guessing the Patriots’ strategy on the final drive to, refreshingly, admitting he was wrong later in the drive and saying, “What Tom Brady did … just gave me goosebumps.”

I have pored over this game like Bill Belichick over a draft value chart. I could write a five-part series on how a defensive holding penalty on Willie McGinest may have cost Tebucky Jones millions of dollars and a statue at Gillette Stadium.

I have rewatched this game more times than I have rewatched Goodfellas, the first two Godfathers and A Christmas Story combined. The Barney VHS tape my son watched six times a day every day from May 13, 1996, to July 2, 1999, wishes it got this much attention. Instead of an eternal flame at my gravesite, this game will be played on an eternal loop.

Sorry, no commercials.

THE PATRIOTS

If you’re looking for an explanation of how terrible the Patriots were before 2001, look elsewhere. Yep, there were some really, really bad times. But it still beat being a fan of at least a half-dozen other NFL teams at the time.

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) throws a pass as St. Louis Rams’ Jeff Zgonina (90) and Adam Archuleta (31) rush during the third quarter of Super Bowl XXXVI at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans in February 2002. AP file photo

The offense was pedestrian, at best. And that was by design. Charlie Weiss, the offensive coordinator, took chances on his and Belichick’s own terms, not when the defense forced them into it. Sometimes Antowain Smith running the ball and some throws to Troy Brown, David Patten and Kevin Faulk were enough to control a game, but usually all the offense had to do was capitalize on the opportunities the defense and special teams gave it and not give the opposition those same opportunities.

The defense was the heart and soul of the team and dominated the second half of the schedule. After the Rams scored 24 on them in Foxboro in Week 10, they never gave up more than 17 points again in the final nine games. Once the playoffs arrived, it was clear the defense would give the Patriots a chance. The 2003 defense was better, and Brady is the personification of the culture at the center of the dynasty. But the credit for instilling the culture at the dynasty’s birth belongs to the likes of McGinest, Ty Law, Tedy Bruschi, Lawyer Milloy, rookie Richard Seymour, Otis Smith, Ted Johnson, Mike Vrabel, Bobby Hamilton and the underrated Roman Phifer.

On special teams, the Patriots were the best in the league, even with Ken Walter.

They had two of the biggest game-changers in the NFL, Brown and Vinatieri. Brown led the league in punt return average and, in addition to having three returns for touchdowns (playoffs included) regularly tilted field position in the Pats’ favor with his returns. Vinatieri, as we all know, was so ridiculously clutch, but also his consistency allowed the Patriots offense to take fewer risks and Brady to make fewer mistakes.

New England Patriots’ cornerback Terrell Buckley (27) scoops up a St. Louis Rams fumble in front of teammates Lawyer Milloy (36) and Tebucky Jones (34) in Super Bowl XXXVI on Feb. 3, 2002, in New Orleans. AP file photo

We didn’t realize how awful Ken Walter was at punting yet because the coverage was so good (Walter was 30th in the NFL in punting average that year, but the Patriots were 20th in net punting average).  If you’re ever in a bar with the 2001 New England Patriots and decide to buy Tom Brady, Ty Law and Adam Vinatieri a beer, buy a round for Larry Izzo, Antwan Harris and Je’Rod Cherry, too.

Don’t buy one for Matt Chatham, though. Guys like him always ruin going to a bar.

THE OPPONENT

Ricky Proehl wasn’t the only one anointing the Rams as a dynasty before the game. They already had a Super Bowl title and two MVPs on the field in Marshall Faulk and Kurt Warner. “The Greatest Show on Turf” had better years statistically, but this is when it was at the peak of its aura.

If you listen to John Madden talk about St. Louis’ defense during the game, you’d think they were the second-coming of the Steel Curtain. They were pretty good, but much like some Patriot teams we know, their greatest strength was that the offense made opponents play catch-up all of the time.

FRANCHISE/NFL IMPACT

Proehl and the NFL got a dynasty, just not the one they were expecting.

Warner and Faulk got hurt in 2002 and the Rams finished 7-9. The Rams never won another playoff game as the St. Louis Rams. Nearly two decades later, with the national media slurping all over their genius coach again, they lost another Super Bowl to the Patriots. Now, they would be irrelevant again to the NFL landscape if not for their new stadium and their classic uniforms. Wait, what?

The bookends of the Patriots dynasty, the two years that ended in Super Bowl wins over the Rams, were the most unlikely of the six they’ve won. Winning the last one seemed doubtful because they played so poorly for much of the regular season. The first one was a roller-coaster ride for the first half of the season and was fun and surreal virtually throughout. Many called it a fluke and wouldn’t even acknowledge the Pats were even a good team until they won again two years later.

They were good but they also needed a lot to go right in 2001. I bought into the 2001 Patriots being a Cinderella team when Drew Bledsoe replaced Tom Brady, took a hit similar to the one from Mo Lewis that knocked him out in Week 2, got up and threw a touchdown pass to David Patten. It was obvious by then given what had happened during the season and the week before against the Raiders.

I believed they would beat the Rams, even told friends at our Super Bowl party how they would do it, controlling field position with the defense forcing multiple turnovers and scoring at least once, and the offense converting the other turnovers into points.

That’s what they did. Yet I was still convinced they were going to blow it after Jones’ long fumble return for a touchdown was called back due to McGinest’s illegal mugging of Faulk. The overwhelming majority of Patriots fans were, too. Beaten down by the Patriots, Red Sox and Bruins over our lifetimes, there was a feeling that the torture would never stop. Speaking for myself, it vanished forever the moment Vinatieri stepped onto the field to line up his kick to launch a dynasty.

New England Patriots’ Ty Law runs for a touchdown after intercepting a pass by St. Louis Rams’ Kurt Warner in the second quarter of Super Bowl XXXVI at the Louisiana Superdome on Feb. 3, 2002, in New Orleans. Rams receiver Issac Bruce (80) is at right. AP file photo

SIGNATURE PLAY

Vinatieri’s kick and subsequent arms-raised celebration is rightfully the iconic sequence of the game. But I want a statue at Gillette Stadium of Ty Law screaming down the sideline, ball tucked in his left arm, his right hand raised high above his head and that look in his eye, like he’s seeing millions of dollar signs in front of him.

MOST UNDERRATED PLAY

Antwan Harris forced a Proehl fumble that Terrell Buckley recovered and led to the Patriots’ only offensive touchdown of the game. See Antwan, someone in New England remembers you.

Otis Smith’s interception that set up Vinatieri’s first field goal, which put the Pats up 17-3 in the third quarter, was crucial. Smith would have had a pick-six if he didn’t run into the brick wall that was Seymour’s back on the return.

Brady’s first completion of the game, to Troy Brown, of course, set the tone for the field position game that was so crucial to keeping the Patriots in the game early. His completion to Brown on the game-winning drive was a preview of so many clutch throws to come.

New England Patriots’ J.R. Redmond (21) pulls down a pass from Tom Brady (12) during the final drive against the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI on Feb. 3, 2002, in New Orleans. The completion helped set up the winning 48-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri in the final seconds. AP file photo

But the most underrated play came two plays before that and was made by another mostly-forgotten man named JR Redmond. Brady threw a dump-off pass to him out of the backfield and he somehow got out of bounds for a first down at New England’s 41-yard-line with 33 seconds left. The Patriots had no time outs left. If he gets tackled inbounds (some Rams fans still argue he was), the Patriots likely would have run out of time before getting Vinatieri in position.

Then again, weren’t there still two seconds left when his kick hit the net?

UP NEXT

Probably 4-12 and the fifth pick in the draft.


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