BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — The New England Patriots were just another team, an ordinary franchise seeking its first Super Bowl title. Bill Belichick was still the guy needing to prove he wasn’t the coach who had failed so miserably in Cleveland. Tom Brady wasn’t far removed from being the skinny sixth-round draft pick from Michigan. The future label of “greatest quarterback ever” didn’t seem remotely within the realm of possibilities.
Yes, there was a time when the Patriots were underdogs, decidedly and endearingly so. That was 16 years, five Super Bowl triumphs and two legacy-affecting “-gates” ago. They were the team with the stirringly American name taking the field in New Orleans to conclude a 2001 NFL season marred by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 in New York and Washington.
When the Patriots faced the St. Louis Rams and their “Greatest Show on Turf” offense on Feb. 3, 2002, in Super Bowl XXXVI, there was no hint of the glorious years that would follow.
Patriots 20, Rams 17. That final score was the first Super Bowl building block of the NFL’s most remarkable dynasty.
“It’s ironic,” former Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest said this week. “I’m looking at this Super Bowl and the Philadelphia Eagles are running around with the whole underdog thing and, ‘We’re the dogs.’ And that was us.”
Few point to that Super Bowl as the day the Patriots’ dynasty was born. Many more identify their improbable triumph over the Oakland Raiders during that season’s AFC playoffs in the infamous “Tuck Rule” game as the moment everything started. Even after that, it took touchdowns on a punt return and a blocked field goal for the Patriots to prevail at Pittsburgh in the AFC championship game. But if the Rams of Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt had rolled over the Patriots in the Super Bowl as expected, there’s no telling whether the now-legendary careers of Belichick and Brady might have turned out differently.
“You do have moments where you wonder if you can do it,” former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. “Way back then when you’re an underdog like we were and so many things that happened for us to get there — the AFC championship with two special teams touchdowns to win. I mean, how often does that happen? Things like that — the snow and the Raiders and how we won that game. I understand the perspective of where the Philadelphia Eagles are coming from. Back in that 2001 season, it’ll always be my favorite moment. It’s almost like you have a secret. You have a secret when you’re the underdog: ‘We have a secret and no one knows. And they’ll find out about our secret come Super Bowl Sunday.’ ”
It was a Super Bowl that began with the Patriots choosing to be introduced as a team, rather than having individual players on their offense or defense announced to the crowd.
“Our voyage, the way we came together after 9/11, we took on that team personality or identity versus individualism, especially when we decided to get introduced as a team,” McGinest said. “They actually fined us for that because we messed up programming.”
It was a tight and tense game. Brady, playing with an ankle injury he’d suffered during the AFC championship game, had a modest 145 passing yards. But the Patriots built a 17-3 lead by being rugged with the Rams’ powerful offense and keeping it relatively in check.
A potential outcome-sealing touchdown in the fourth quarter by the Patriots’ Tebucky Jones on a 97-yard return of a fumble by Warner was negated by a penalty called on McGinest for holding Faulk. The Rams scored then and tied the game in the final two minutes on a touchdown pass by Warner.
“When Tebucky Jones took that ball all the way back, in that moment, ‘Wow.’ I was so excited,” Patriots owner Robert Kraft said. “And then Willie was called for the holding on Faulk, and I sort of saw Bill Buckner’s ball going through his legs. As a Boston sports fan — oh my God, what’s gonna happen? And then they scored.”
But with the game tied at 17 and TV analyst John Madden urging the Patriots to be cautious and play for overtime, Brady led a final drive that resulted in kicker Adam Vinatieri’s winning 48-yard field goal as time expired.
“All those years we’d been waiting for that,” Kraft said. “And to have the privilege of owning the team, being the custodian of this asset for the people of New England, it was just such a moment of elation.”
As Kraft sat in a makeshift office in the Patriots’ hotel at the Mall of America this week, he recalled a pledge he’d once made to wife Myra, who died of cancer in 2011 soon after the couple’s 48th wedding anniversary.
“I sort of made a point to my wife, bless her memory, she thought I was nuts when I bought the team,” Kraft said. “But I promised her if we did a good job managing the team, it would be more impactful than giving away a half a million dollars a week. We would be doing something for our community. And having been right after 9/11 and we were red, white and blue — I remember getting goose bumps going up to get the trophy and saying, ‘We are all Patriots after 9/11, and tonight the Patriots are world champions.’
“Probably after the birth of your children and your marriage, that was one of the greatest moments to be able to have.”
Said McGinest: “It’s the happiest feeling in the world. It’s that ‘I shocked the world’ mentality. It’s the, ‘Nobody gave us a chance.’ We had a saying, ‘Don’t try to be my friend now. Don’t try to jump on the [band]wagon now,’ because we listened to that all week. We listened to everybody talk about how it wouldn’t be close at halftime. We listened to pretty much all the different analysts and so-called gurus talk about how we would get dismantled by this offense. We just felt disrespected.”
The first Super Bowl victory came years before the Spygate and Deflategate scandals emerged to complicate the Patriots’ winning legacy. In 2008, the Boston Herald reported that a member of the Patriots’ video staff had taped the Rams’ walk-through the day before Super Bowl XXXVI. The Herald later retracted the report, calling it “false,” and issued an apology.
For some, that apparently is not enough. Rams left tackle Orlando Pace, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, told Profootballtalk Live this week: “There’s a little bit of suspicion there. I think guys all feel that way. They had a pretty solid game plan for us, so I don’t know. … They knew exactly what we were going to do down there.”
Warner said Thursday he harbors no such suspicions, although he recognizes why they exist for Pace.
“It’s not based on anything but the speculation and the reports that are out there,” Warner said. “But if you do stuff in the past, that’s what happens. There’s always that room for a guy like Orlando and other people to wonder.”
Warner — like McGinest, an analyst for the NFL Network — pointed out that the Rams amassed 427 yards of total offense in the game. That casts doubt on any notion that the Patriots knew everything the Rams were going to do. The Rams were done in, in part, by three turnovers.
“I don’t look at that game and say that,” Warner said. “There were plenty of opportunities for us to win that game. We shot ourselves in the foot. They had a great game plan. They outphysical-ed us. They made the officials be involved in the game by the way they played. I don’t really care. It is what it is. … I could have played better. I mean, we had 450 yards of offense in that game. We made mistakes at the end. They didn’t.”
The Patriots weren’t the Patriots then. But they were on their way.
“It’s one game,” Warner said. “It’s not the best of seven. It’s not the best of five. Anybody can beat anybody. They played better than us that day. If we play them 10 times, we might beat them nine times. But they beat us that day. Brady wasn’t Tom Brady yet. But maybe you saw a glimpse of it those last two minutes.”
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