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Super Bowl XXXVI: St. Louis Rams Vs. New England Patriots Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

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20 years ago, the Patriots dynasty was born

Nobody knew it at the time, but Super Bowl XXXVI kicked off the greatest run in NFL history. Well, almost nobody.

After his team was introduced to the audience for Super Bowl XXXVI on February 3, 2002, St. Louis Rams wide receiver Ricky Proehl turned to one of the television cameras on site to show off his abilities as a fortuneteller.

“Tonight, a dynasty is born, baby.”

Proehl did have every reason to feel confident. The Rams, who were still based in St. Louis back then, had won a championship just two years earlier. They had the reigning NFL MVP in its ranks and seven total Pro Bowlers. Plus, they had won a regular season matchup versus its opponent just two months earlier.

Add it all up and you can see why Proehl and his team were favored by 14 points heading into the title game. And why he would proclaim the birth of a dynasty.

Proehl was right. The only problem — at least from his perspective — was that he was not talking about the team that eventually would launch a dynasty that night.

The New England Patriots had started 2001 on the wrong foot. They lost their season opener to the Cincinnati Bengals and saw their starting quarterback stay on the ground the next game after taking a hard hit.

When second-year man Tom Brady, who had completed a grand total of one regular season pass up until that point in his career, entered the game he was unable to manufacture an upset versus the New York Jets. At 0-2 and a combined 5-13 since Bill Belichick had taken over as head coach the previous year, the team appeared to be miles away from contention let alone a Super Bowl.

It was no surprise to see Sports Illustrated writer Paul Zimmerman rank the Patriots dead last in the league his power rankings after the Jets game:

31. New England Patriots (0-2). This is sad. Drew Bledsoe took a big hit and is out indefinitely. Honestly, I don’t know what weapons they have with which to win a game.

Zimmerman was right to be skeptical. The Patriots’ starting quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, would miss multiple weeks after being hospitalized following that collision against the Jets. Brady had went just 5-for-10 for 46 yards while entering the game.

And yet, the Patriots found a way to get their season back on track.

The week after dropping to 0-2, they blew out the visiting Indianapolis Colts with a final score of 44-13. They lost a game in Miami one week later but the arrow was starting to point in the right direction. A playoff spot still appeared to be far away when they hosted the 7-1 Rams at Foxboro Stadium in mid-November, but the team finally looked like it had some promise.

That game against the Rams ended in defeat; St. Louis won 24-17, gaining almost 500 yards of offense despite turning the football over three times. With the Patriots also suffering three giveaways — including two interceptions thrown by their young quarterback — the victory was never really in question.

Nonetheless, Belichick made a bold decision after the loss. He would keep Tom Brady as his team’s starter, despite Bledsoe being able to return to the lineup again.

“This is strictly about the team,” Belichick said at the time. “It is about getting the team ready and obviously the quarterback position is a very important part of the team. I don’t think you can really get two quarterbacks ready. I think you can get one ready and that is what we have to do. We have to get one guy ready to play and that is my responsibility to the football team.”

With Brady entrenched as the Patriots’ starter, they ended the regular season winning six straight games. They won the AFC East with an 11-5 record and entered the playoffs as the second seed in the conference.

New England went on to beat the Oakland Raiders in the divisional round in what would be the final game played at Foxboro Stadium, to set up a meeting with the top-seeded Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game. Despite Brady going down with an ankle injury during the game, the Patriots held on to advance to Super Bowl XXXVI.

Drew Bledsoe even threw a touchdown pass in that one. It was not enough for him to take back the starting gig, however.

The Rams of the late 1990s and early 2000s were a powerhouse. The nickname “Greatest Show on Turf” did not come by accident. Their offense was as explosive as any the league had ever seen.

In 1999, they led the league in scoring and won a Super Bowl. In 2000, they led the league in scoring but lost in the wild card playoff round. In 2001, they led the league in scoring and returned to the big dance.

Led by two-time league MVP Kurt Warner as well as an arsenal of weapons featuring the likes of Marshall Faulk, Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, they averaged 31.4 points per game. The reason why they returned to the Super Bowl, however, was not just their scoring ability but rather the defense in its first year under coordinator Lovie Smith.

After ranking 31st out of 31 teams in 2000, the unit bounced back mightily the following season. It finished as the seventh-ranked scoring defense in the NFL and played a massive role in St. Louis losing just two of its 16 regular season games while giving up a mere 17.1 points per contest. While not as impressive as the team’s offense, Smith and his group certainly were championship-caliber.

They proved it again in the playoffs. In the divisional round, the top-seeded Rams were able to defeat the Green Bay Packers. While the offense was its usual impressive self, scoring 45 points, the defense surrendered only 17. One week later, 24 points were given up but it was still enough to beat the Philadelphia Eagles and earn the NFC title for the second time in three years with a final score of 29-24.

Head coach Mike Martz and his club appeared to be well on their way to indeed establish a dynasty. All they needed to do was beat those pesky Patriots a second time.

How hard could it be?

Back in 2002, the NFL looked a lot different than it does today. Sure, Bill Belichick is still around, but a lot of the league’s traditions have changed quite a bit over these last two decades.

One of them are introductions. For the first 35 years worth of Super Bowls, only one unit per team was introduced. If you picked the offense, for example, every starter from quarterback to offensive lineman would get his moment in the spotlight. The same on defense. Nobody every chose special teams.

The 2001 Rams, unsurprisingly, went with their offense. With the defense collectively waiting on the field already, the first player was introduced by in-stadium voice Pat Summerall.

“At wide receiver, from North Carolina State: No. 88, Torry Holt.”

The crowd cheered and Holt took the field. He was followed by 10 of his teammates, the last of whom “running back, from San Diego State: No. 28, Marshall Faulk.”

The Patriots could have picked either their offense or their defense to be introduced. The two units had both ranked sixth in the league in scoring during the regular season, and made big plays during the postseason run versus the Raiders and Steelers. Neither choice would have been much of a surprise.

The Patriots, however, chose neither. They wanted to be introduced as a team.

According to the late David Halberstram in his biography of Bill Belichick, The Education of a Coach, the NFL was not particularly pleased about that:

The League had asked him, according to tradition, whether he wanted to introduce his offensive or defensive team to both the crowd and the nation at the start of the game, and he had said, neither — he wanted to introduce the entire team. League officials argued against it, because that’s not the way it was done, and told him he had to choose. … He refused to budge, so, finally, the League caved.

Thing is, the Patriots had been introduced as a team for most of the season. They had started their own tradition, so when Summerall took the microphone to announce them he did so as one.

“And now, ladies and gentlemen, choosing to be introduced as a team, here are the American Football Conference Champions: the New England Patriots.”

Nowadays, every Super Bowl team is introduced as a whole. Back in February 2002, the Patriots were the first to do it on this stage. And if linebacker Tedy Bruschi is to be believed, the game was already decided right there and then.

“The way we came out as a team for pregame introductions. That moment was special,” Bruschi said in 2019. “It’ll never be forgotten by players on the New England Patriots on that team, and players throughout the league. A lot of players have come up to me and said, ‘Man, I wish we thought of that.’ ...

“Coming out, and feeling the crowd. I can remember them looking at us, like, ‘Wow, they mean business.’ That type of feeling of shock, that we would do that on the grandest stage. It was supposed to be the defense introduced that game ... to have that feeling, and that moment ... we might have had the game won right there.”

It did not take long for the Patriots to introduce themselves to the Rams as well.

After taking the opening kickoff of Super Bowl XXXVI out all the way to their own 39-yard line, the Rams’ high-octane offense took the field. It took the unit only three plays to reach the New England side of the field and set up shop at the 41.

On a 2nd-and-8, however, linebacker Willie McGinest and defensive lineman Bobby Hamilton burst through the line to flush Kurt Warner from the pocket. Warner escaped the pressure to his left and lofted a ball down the field intended for Torry Holt that fell incomplete.

The play did come back due to an offensive pass interference penalty against tight end Ernie Conwell, and it is probably pretty far down the list of memorable moments from that game. However, at that point, the Patriots defense first made its presence felt.

Safety Tebucky Jones clobbered Holt on the incompletion. Yes, that team came to play.

The Rams ended up punting the ball away on their first possession. New England’s did not go any better, with the Patriots gaining two first downs before stalling near midfield. It was the closest they would come to St. Louis territory for quite some time.

The 14-point favorites would eventually take the lead on their next drive. A 10-play, 48-yard series was capped off by a Jeff Wilkins field goal from 50 yards away. Up 3-0, the Rams’ were one small step closer to establishing that dynasty Ricky Proehl had fantasized about.

They nearly took another step early in the second quarter, following a Patriots three-and-out. While the Rams offense was still not playing on its usual productive levels, it did convert a 3rd-and-15 via a 29-yard pass-and-run to reach field goal range for a second time in three possessions.

This time, however, Wilkins missed the mark. He sent his kick wide to the left from 52 yards out. Instead of taking a 6-0 lead, the Rams had just spotted the Patriots the ball in promising field position. They ended up gaining a net total of five yards before Ken Walter’s third punt of the night.

Early in the second quarter the game was a story of two defenses slowing down its opponents. But while New England’s did enough to keep the game close, St. Louis’ dominated its opponent: Tom Brady and company had a rough outing, gaining only 55 total yards on three drives — 45 of them coming on the first series.

And when the next Rams possession started Marshall Faulk gaining 20 yards on just two plays, the dam finally started to show some cracks. Or so it seemed.

After Faulk had picked up 15 on the previous play, the Rams had a 1st-and-10 at their own 39-yard line. Warner dropped back to pass, was pressured by Mike Vrabel, and threw the football straight to cornerback Ty Law. 47 yards later the Patriots had their first lead of the day.

“The unfortunate thing, and obviously nothing against Ty, he didn’t do a whole lot on the play because I basically hit him in the numbers,” Warner told ESPN back in 2019. “It was one of those plays where we had a protection called, and we were supposed to block it differently than we did.

“What happened, it was Mike Vrabel off the edge, the right side, and we were supposed to block him. It caught me off guard that, all of a sudden, the defensive end came free. So I tried to anticipate where Isaac was going to come out on his route, and I anticipated wrong. I threw it way behind Isaac and hit Ty in the numbers. He didn’t have to do anything but run it in the end zone.”

Law’s interception was the first turnover and, up until that point, biggest play of Super Bowl XXXVI. It also was the result of New England’s aggressive game plan that focused on playing physical and messing up the Rams’ timing-based offensive approach.

“You just want to make sure you don’t drop it, because you almost can’t believe it’s coming,” Law said in 2019. “We had been playing physical and waiting for a big play to result from it.”

The interception would not be the last Patriots’ takeaway of the second quarter, though. After the two teams had exchanged punts once again, defensive back Antwan Harris forced a fumble by knocking the ball out of the hands of Nostradamus himself.

Ricky Proehl had caught a quick 15-yard pass from Warner but was met quickly by Harris. The ball came free, and New England’s Terrell Buckley recovered it at the New England 45. Buckley spun through a bunch of Rams before finally being brought down at the Rams 40-yard line.

With 1:20 left in the half, the Patriots were in prime position to add to their four-point lead. It took them just five plays to do that.

Tom Brady connected with Troy Brown and Jermaine Wiggins before an incompletion stopped the clock. A Kevin Faulk run on 3rd-and-2 moved the chains to set up New England with a goal-to-goal situation from the St. Louis 8-yard line. On the very next play, Brady found David Patten in the corner of the end zone to give his team it second touchdown:

The Rams were supposed to be 14-point favorites. They were down 14-3 when U2 took the stage for the halftime show.

The third quarter looked a lot like the first two, especially early on. New England started with a punt. St. Louis answered with a punt. New England then punted again. The Rams, however, had found some success moving the ball; they reached the Patriots’ side of the field on their first series of the half, and they did so again on the next.

On a 3rd-and-5 from the New England 45, however, the Patriots defense came up big once again. This time, it was Otis Smith, who capitalized on another Kurt Warner misfire.

Catching the ball at the 37-yard line, Smith returned it 33 yards into Rams territory. Five plays later, Adam Vinatieri split the uprights from 37 yards out to add three more points to the Patriots’ total and give them a 17-3 lead.

Back in 2002, no team had ever come back from 14 points down in the Super Bowl. That said, few teams to reach the NFL’s title game have ever had the same offensive firepower as the Kurt Warner-led Rams. Erasing a two-touchdown deficit with over 16 minutes left in the game was child’s play for the unit.

The Patriots found out on the very next drive after the Otis Smith interception. Warner and company marched right down the field to reach the New England red zone for the first time all game.

On 1st-and-goal from the 9-yard line, they gained six yards. On 2nd-and-goal from the 3, they gained nothing. The result on 3rd-and-goal was the same. Facing a fourth down to keep their season alive, the Rams called another pass play. And once again, disaster struck.

Warner had to escape the pocket once more and was trying to reach the goal line on a scramble. Before doing so, he dropped the football with Tebucky Jones picking it up and returning it 97 yards for a decisive touchdown.

Or so it seemed.

Instead, the Patriots’ Willie McGinest was flagged for holding Marshall Faulk as he released on his route. The Rams were given a new set of downs from the 1-yard line and were in the end zone two plays later to cut New England’s lead to seven points.

New England’s offense had not done much throughout the entire game, scoring all 10 of its points off of turnovers. With 9:31 left in the fourth quarter, it needed to drain some clock and ideally score another touchdown or at least field goal.

It couldn’t do it, and instead punted the ball away after another three-and-out. Luckily, the Rams were unable to capitalize: they did reach New England’s half of the field once again, but on 4th-and-20 had to send their punt unit out as well.

With 3:44 left, the Patriots offense were in the same position as on its previous drive. Bleed clock, maybe score points. It again did neither, going three-and-out and punting back to St. Louis just inside the two-minute warning.

The Rams set up shop at the New England 45. It took them three plays to tie the game. 1:30 was left on the clock.

Two weeks before Super Bowl XXXVI, Adam Vinatieri made the best kick of his career. Facing the Raiders in the divisional round, he kicked a 45-yard field goal through the Foxborough snow to keep New England’s season alive.

The Patriots knew that Vinatieri had plenty of leg. They knew he had the nerves. What they did not know, if whether or not their own offense would be able to put him in a position to attempt the game-winner.

When Tom Brady and the New England offense took the field, the unit stood at its own 17-yard line with 81 seconds left on the game clock. The Patriots had burned their third and last timeout earlier in the quarter, so they had only three ways of stopping the clock available: running out of bounds, throwing incomplete or spiking the ball.

Given the circumstances and how the unit had performed all game long, the odds appeared to be very much in St. Louis’ favor. It was no surprise to see Fox Sports color commentator John Madden argue for running out the clock and playing for overtime.

“I think the Patriots, with this field position, you have to just run the clock out,” Madden said. “You have to play for overtime now. I don’t think you don’t want to force anything here. You don’t want to do anything stupid because you have no timeouts and you’re backed up.”

The Patriots didn’t do anything stupid. What they did was put their trust in Tom Brady.

A sixth-round draft pick out of Michigan the previous season, Brady was pushed into the spotlight when Drew Bledsoe went down earlier during the season. While he did not have any big-game experience in the NFL, Brady had a lot of football on his résumé. Just two years earlier, he led the Wolverines to an Orange Bowl victory.

The Super Bowl is obviously something completely different. You wouldn’t have known watching Brady lead the Patriots down the field, though.

Brady started with a short pass to J.R. Redmond for eight yards. The pair connected for an additional eight on the next play. A Brady spike stopped the clock with 41 ticks left. Brady and Redmond then hooked up for 11 yards, with the running back getting out of bounds with 33 seconds to go.

A Rams blitz forced Brady into a throwaway on the next play to set up a 2nd-and-10 that turned into the biggest play of the series: Brady hitting Troy Brown for a 23-yard catch-and-run that saw the receiver get out of bounds at the Rams 36 with 21 seconds left.

“We called a play where they expected us to throw to the outside and we had a play called to the inside,” offensive coordinator Charlie Weis said after the game. “We wanted to attack their Cover 2, figuring they wouldn’t blitz twice and they went back to their bread and butter. Fortunately for us, Troy cleared the linebacker and Tom made a great throw.”

That throw set up New England on the edge of Vinatieri’s range, 54 yards away from the goal posts. His career long field goal up until that point had come from 55 yards, out coincidentally kicked versus the Rams three years earlier. He had made a 54-yarder two months earlier against the Cleveland Browns, but had missed from 50 in the AFC Championship Game.

A few more yards would make the kick an easier one, and increase New England’s odds of winning significantly. Luckily, Brady found six of them on a quick pass to Wiggins.

Another spike later with seven seconds remaining the Patriots’ field goal operation took the field. We’ll let legendary New England radio voice Gil Santos take it from there.

“Ken Walter will hold, Lonie Paxton will snap from the far hash mark, angle to the left for Adam Vinatieri. 48-yard field goal attempt. Set to go. Snap. Ball down. Kick up. Kick is on the way. And. It. Is... Good! It’s good! It’s good! Adam Vinatieri booms a 48-yard field goal, and the game is over! And the Patriots are Super Bowl champions! The Patriots are Super Bowl champions! The best team in the National Football League!”

Led by Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, the Patriots would return to the NFL mountaintop five more times over the next two decades to establish themselves as the greatest dynasty the league has ever seen. On that February night in New Orleans, however, none of that mattered. Nobody knew what would come.

Well, nobody except Ricky Proehl.

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