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8 Upper

Bowled Over

By Tom Scocca | Posted 2/6/2002

Kurt Warner took a knee. The St. Louis quarterback, the MVP of the National Football League, took the snap with 31 seconds left in the first half, genuflected, and trailed off to the locker room with his teammates, letting the clock expire. And with that, Super Bowl 36 belonged to the New England Patriots.

They still had to win it, the Pats--to weather the Rams' late rally; to mount the final drive; to drill the winning kick--but the game was theirs to win. The Warner circus, the famed Greatest Show on Turf, had folded its tents and gone home.

Strategically, the kneel-down made sense. The Rams were backed up on their own 6, trailing 14-3, rattled by the shifting and swarming New England defense. But the Rams were not supposed to be sensible. The Rams were supposed to be brilliant.

Thirty-one seconds? On Dec. 30, I was watching off and on as the Rams played the Colts. I checked in with 35 seconds left till halftime, the Rams just past midfield. Would Warner go on to engineer a scoring drive, snapping off three or four more plays to get a crack at the end zone? Not exactly: He stepped back, cocked, and fired 46 yards down the middle to Torry Holt. One play, seven seconds, touchdown. The fourth touchdown of that quarter. Those were the Rams.

And those Rams died by halftime of the Super Bowl. I don't care about the St. Louis Rams as a franchise--there are 10 or a dozen teams I'd sooner root for, including the Patriots--but I was dismayed, on principle, to see this team fail. The Rams had scored more than 500 points for three years running, with Warner and Marshall Faulk running neck and neck for MVP. The St. Louis offense stood for the notion that there's more to football than simply beating people up. They were the Showtime Lakers of the NFL, showing the rest of the league that with enough speed, finesse, and ambition, football could be thrilling beyond anything that had been imagined before.

That was why the gambling industry installed the Rams as a 14-point favorite. The Pats were plucky and lucky and resourceful, but they had not even a glimmer of the superhuman about them. The Rams had already won one title, in 2000, on pure offense; after slipping last year, they had built up the defense till it was almost the league's best. They had no appreciable weaknesses. If you believed in the Rams, you believed in the Rams to win big, like the epochal '85 Bears.

But the Patriots were in a debunking mood. The defense took its tone from the '90 Giants, who faced the incandescent no-huddle offense of the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl 25: Hassle the quarterback, deck the receivers when they catch the ball, and don't let them even start to have any fun. Against the Rams' jailbreak offense, with its four- and five-receiver sets, the Pats sent out a jailbreak defense, with five, six, or seven defensive backs clogging the pass routes. By halftime, Warner's lip was bloody, the Patriots' Ty Law had run an interception back for a touchdown, and the most daring attack in NFL history was content to slink off the field trailing by 11.

So much for flash and star power. All year, the Patriots had made a point of skipping individual player introductions before games, to take the field as a team. They had good reason: No one among them was much more worth introducing than anyone else. Except for Troy Brown, who does his most spectacular work on special teams, they did not have a player who was in the habit of making highlight-reel plays. Law probably had the best game of any of them in the Super Bowl, but the Pats' performance was defined by their other corner, Otis Smith.

Smith--nicknamed "Slowtis," and not kindly--is neither tall nor fast, and he has a history of getting burned up the sideline by fleet receivers. But he has survived 12 seasons on stubbornness and guile, and there he was, in the middle of the Rams' speedsters, scuffling and grabbing and playing tight. Eventually, in the third quarter, Holt tried to angle upfield on him and fell down (with maybe a little help), and there was no one to catch Warner's throw but Smith, who ran the ball back nearly 30 yards, setting up a field goal.

At that point the Patriots had 17 points, all set up by their defense. And the game seemed grimly like the Ravens' triumph of the year before. The heroic football of the Rams had been undone by studious nonheroism. The Pats were winning with the Billick formula: defense first, then special teams, and only then, if you really must, a sprinkle of offense. Obey the game plan, play for field position, and turn it over to the kicker. Creativity must yield to control.

But in the fourth quarter the Rams started stirring. Warner marched them downfield and cut the score to 17-10. The Patriots stopped them on their next possession and got the ball back with 3:44 left. Three conservative, clock-killing plays later, just inside the two-minute warning, New England punted. And 21 seconds later, the game was tied. Three passes, three completions, and Ricky Proehl was diving into the end zone for St. Louis.

The Rams, kicked it back to the Patriots, pinning them at their own 15, out of time-outs. Up in the TV booth, John Madden was yelling for New England's Tom Brady to kneel down and wait for overtime. Play it cautious.

But who ever won a football game on their knees? After 58 minutes and 39 seconds of risk management, New England coach Bill Belichick let go. Brady came out throwing: three straight passes to J.R. Redmond, then a 23-yarder to Brown, crossing midfield, into field-goal range. The Rams had lost. But football, in the end, had won.

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