A lot had happened since the last time the Patriots played in a Super Bowl. Head coach Bill Parcells left the franchise due to disputes with the ownership and was succeeded by Pete Carroll. While Carroll went 27-21 in his three years in New England, he was unable to reach another title game, and was fired one day after the Patriots' 1999 season ended.
The very same day, 170 miles southwest of Foxboro, Bill Parcells retired after three years as head coach of the New York Jets. His successor was already found – or so everyone thought. Bill Belichick, however, had other plans and, instead of giving an introductory press conference, resigned as "HC of the NYJ". Three weeks later he held another press conference; his first as the new head coach of the New England Patriots.
Belichick's Patriots were unable to reach the playoffs in 2000 and did not inspire much confidence in early 2001 either. The team was on the cusp of going 0-2 when it lost starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe to injury. Enter Tom Brady. The Patriots finished the 2001 season 11-5 before beating the Oakland Raiders and Pittsburgh Steelers to reach the first of thus far seven Super Bowls of the Brady-Belichick era.
Super Bowl XXXVI: St. Louis Rams vs. New England Patriots
Date: February 3, 2002
Stadium: Louisiana Superdome, New Orleans LA
Final Score: St. Louis Rams 17, New England Patriots 20
Choosing to be introduced as a team. Those were the seven words with which a New England Patriots team was announced, that entered the Louisiana Superdome turf looking for the franchise's first Lombardi Trophy. However, prior to Super Bowl XXXVI, the Patriots were seen as 14-point underdogs.
After all, they have already been beaten by the St. Louis Rams' "Greatest Show on Turf" during the regular season. From the Rams' first offensive snap onward, though, it became clear that the underdog was intent to not let history repeat itself. New England came out playing physical defensive football with the goal of disrupting the timing of the NFL's highest scoring offense. And the plan worked.
In the first quarter, the team allowed only one field goal, while not giving up a play of more than 18 yards. While the defense executed its game plan to near perfection, the offense struggled and did not run a single play in Rams' territory. Still, at the beginning of the second quarter, the Patriots were only down 3-0.
Early in the second period, the Rams had a chance to expand their lead, but missed a 52-yard field goal attempt. Instead of being up by six points, the NFC Champion would soon find itself down 7-3: With nine minutes to go in the first half, league MVP Kurt Warner threw a pass intended for wide receiver Isaac Bruce. Patriots cornerback Ty Law, however, undercut the round, intercepted the throw and returned it 47-yards for a Patriots touchdown.
The interception would not be the last Patriots' takeaway of the second quarter. Inside the two minute warning, defensive back Antwan Harris forced a Ricky Proehl fumble, which was recovered by New England's Terrell Buckley at the Rams' 40-yard line. Five plays later, Tom Brady found wide receiver David Patten in the corner of the endzone to give his team a 14-3 halftime lead.
The second half of Super Bowl XXXVI also started well for the Patriots, as cornerback Otis Smith intercepted Warner for a second time late in the third quarter. Smith's interception set up a 37-yard Adam Vinatieri field goal, which expanded New England's lead to 17-3.
The game was far from over, though. The Rams' offense started to find success against the opposing defense and drove all the way down to the Patriots' 3-yard line, before facing 4th-and-goal. Rams coach Mike Martz decided to go for it – and had it not been for a holding penalty on Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest, this could have been the deciding play of Super Bowl XXXVI. However, Tebucky Jones' 97-yard fumble return touchdown was negated and the Rams scored two plays later to make it a 17-10 game.
The Patriots had a hard time finding an offensive groove in the fourth quarter, going three-and-out on their first two possessions. Three plays after the second New England punt, St. Louis tied the game.
Thus, with 1:21 to go and out of timeouts, the legend of Tom Brady – in his 17th NFL start – was born. He attempted eight passes, completing five, to drive the Patriots from their own 17-yard line to the Rams' 30 in 74 seconds; without timeouts to help him slow down the clock. On the final play of the game, Vinatieri kicked a 48-yard field goal to give the New England Patriots their first Super Bowl win.
Statistically, the Rams were the dominant team of Super Bowl XXXVI. They gained more yards (427-267), had more first downs (26-15) and held the ball longer (33:30-26:30). But as Bill Belichick once put it, "stats are for losers; the final score is for winners". And it favored his team. The Patriots outscored their opponent, thanks to playing physical, mistake-free football and a former 6th round quarterback delivering one of the most memorable performances in Super Bowl history.