Saturday, March 13, 2004

Patriots 20, Rams 17

The New England Patriots have won the Super Bowl. In a related story, pigs are now soaring above Foxboro Stadium, and a brand-new ice arena is opening in Hades.

The Patriots capped the most wonderful, improbable season in their 42-year history last night, beating the heavily favored St. Louis Rams, 20-17, on Adam Vinatieri's game-winning 48-yard field goal as time expired.

The Patriots. Champions. Amazing.

Just when we didn't think it could get any better, it did. After storybook victories over the Oakland Raiders and Pittsburgh Steelers to get to the Super Bowl, they topped 'em in the biggest game of all.

It wasn't supposed to happen. The fairy tale wasn't supposed to come true. People who wager on such things didn't like the Patriots' odds. As Troy Brown, the great Troy Brown, said over and over again after the game: "Nobody gave us a chance in hell. Nobody gave us a chance in hell."

Our guy Troy had a point, which is why history will remember this as the greatest Super Bowl upset since Joe Namath made his famous guarantee 33 seasons ago - even if it is not.

Sure, there was lots of talk about destiny and fate. We might have been onto something. But there was also more to the story than upsets and underdogs. Turns out the Patriots were not only were lucky and blessed. They were legitimately the best.

The Patriots won their final nine games of this season. And virtually every last one of the 45 players on their roster had something to do with it.

Such as Adam Vinatieri. Can we now make it official? Can we call him the greatest clutch kicker in NFL history? First, the 45-yarder in the snow against Oakland, then the 23-yarder to win it. And now this: a 48-yarder with just seven ticks left on the clock. To win the Super Bowl.

And Tom Brady. Anyone who doesn't see a little Joe Montana in this cool kid QB has not been watching through clear eyes. Drafted in the sixth-round a year ago, behind such legendary passers as Spergon Wynn and Giovanni Carmazzi, he will wake up this morning (in the unlikely event that he slept at all) as the Most Valuable Player of the Super Bowl.

Or Otis Smith. He was among the goats in the Patriots' last Super Bowl appearance, five long years ago. He was 31 then. The Patriots released him after that season, thinking the long touchdown he allowed to the Packers' Andre Rison was one more sign he was washed up.

He's now on his second tour of duty with the Patriots. His interception in the third quarter last night led to a crucial Vinatieri field goal and a 17-3 lead. Otis Smith is 36. He is not washed up.

What he is is someone typical of this incredible team. They were introduced not as individuals, but as a team. It could not have been a more appropriate metaphor. They were a tribute to teamwork and selflessness all season long. They were a picture of unity, one long-gone wide receiver being the exception. They deserve this.

And Bill Belichick deserves this. He left the Jets so he wouldn't have to live in Bill Parcells's shadow. Now it is Belichick who is casting all shadows. I am certain he will someday join his mentor in the Hall of Fame.

The scheming devil did it again last night, coming up with a defense that caused the electric Rams' offense to blow a fuse. He outwitted his fellow member of Football Mensa, smug Rams Coach Mike Martz.

The Patriots held the Rams without a touchdown for the first three quarters, the first time that happened to St. Louis since Week 5 against the Giants. The three points was their lowest first-half point total of the season. They didn't get inside the 20 until there were 11 minutes left in the game.

The rest of the game plan? Well, it went according to plan. Antowain Smith (18 carries, 92 yards) ran the ball with his leg-churning determination. Patriots were tackling with malicious intent, particularly Tebucky Jones, who banged heads all night.

We figured they'd need to score on defense. Consider it done, said Ty Law. At the 8:49 mark of the second period, Mike Vrabel drilled Rams' quarterback Kurt Warner on a blitz as he released the ball. Law picked it off and strutted in to give the Patriots a 7-3 lead.

The Patriots, to the gasps of all their doubters, increased the lead to 14-3 when David Patten ran an absolutely beautiful route and caught an even prettier Brady throw with 31 seconds left in the first half.

The Rams came to life in the fourth quarter. What, you thought they'd go quietly? Warner scored a rushing touchdown with 9:31 left, and Patriots' fans from New Orleans to the northernmost reaches of New England were gnawing their fingernails.

We knew what was coming. We had seen it before, back in the Rams' 24-17 win in Foxboro on Nov. 18, when Warner drove the Rams 98 yards with less than two minutes left in the first half for a go-ahead touchdown. They can score in the blink of a defensive back's eye.

Our fears were well-founded. The Rams got the ball back with 1:51 left at their own 45, and Warner went to work. He hit Az-Zahir Hakim for 18 yards. He hit Yo Murphy for another 11, to the Patriots' 27. Hit Ricky Proehl in the end zone with a minute left, floating a pass after the Patriots' defenders got criss-crossed in coverage.

The game was tied at 17. Our hearts were in our stomachs.

Little did we know that Brady was preparing to rip the heart out of the Rams.
The Patriots got the ball back with 1:21 left at the 18-yard line. Fox announcers John Madden and Pat Summerall were calling for the Patriots to take a knee and take their chances in overtime. We begged them not to - that would have been a Pete Carroll thing to do. Thank heavens Bill Belichick is not Pete Carroll.

And so Brady began building the foundation of a legend, hitting J.R. Redmond on three consecutive passes to move the ball to the Rams' 40. A 20-yarder to Troy Brown and an 8-yarder to Jermaine Wiggins followed.

Vinatieri - ol' Never-Nervous Vinny - did his clutch thing, drilling his kick down the middle and securing his own place in NFL lore.

When the kick cleared the crossbar, a 42-year burden was lifted. The Patriots avenged so many past defeats last night, so much of their checkered, ill-fated history. The first-round playoff victory over the Raiders was comeuppance for the Ben Dreith Blunder from 1976. The AFC title game victory over the Steelers will be remembered as Drew Bledsoe's redemption, and in all likelihood, his farewell to New England.

This team redeemed its forefathers who were beaten down in the franchise's two previous Super Bowl appearances. This one was for Grogan and Nellie and Hog Hannah, the embarrassed warriors of the '86 team. This was for Lawyer and Ty and Drew, the remaining warriors from the '97 team.

This one was for us, too. Finally, a team we fell in love with didn't break our hearts in the end.

So please, enjoy this, savor it - yeah, as if you need to be told, right? - because we will never see a team quite like this again. The 2001-02 Patriots are the Impossible Dream '67 Red Sox, with one catch - in the end , they won.

They won.

The World Champion New England Patriots.

Has a sweet sound to it, no?

(Chad Finn can be reached at cfinn@cmonitor.com.)

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