This is the second Super Bowl to feature the Patriots vs. the Rams. The first one — in the XXXVI championship game — occurred 17 years ago. Back then, the St. Louis Rams were the reigning dynasty, and the New England Patriots were the plucky palookas of whom little was expected.
The offense for those Rams was known as the “Greatest Show on Turf.” It featured a dazzling array of offensive talent, with future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner dishing the ball off to future Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk and throwing to standout receivers Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt. The offensive wizard Mike Martz was the coach, and Lovie Smith had been lured from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to upgrade the defense, which featured future Pro Football Hall of Fame cornerback Aeneas Williams.
The Rams had won the Super Bowl in 2000 and were expected to win again against a franchise with a long history of futility. Not much was expected of the Patriots after their starting quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, went down in the second game of the season. His replacement was an unheralded sixth-round draft pick named Tom Brady. The coach was the dyspeptic Bill Belichick, who had compiled a losing record during a previous head-coaching stint with the Cleveland Browns and who had bizarrely resigned as the New York Jets head coach after only a day.
The Patriots reached the Super Bowl after a questionable call in a snowy playoff game against the Oakland Raiders. With less than two minutes left, Brady fumbled the ball and the Raiders recovered, but a referee ruled that it was an incomplete pass because his arm was supposedly moving forward. The Super Bowl was a nail-biter. It was tied 17-17 with 1:30 remaining when Brady led the team down the field to set up Adam Vinatieri for the game-winning field goal as time expired.
The rest, as they say, is history. Belichick-Brady turned out to be the greatest coach-quarterback combination in history. They have won 16 division titles in the past 18 years and played in eight straight American Football Conference title games. They’ve been in nine Super Bowls and won five. Only the Steelers have won more Super Bowls — but the Patriots can tie that storied franchise on Sunday.
The Rams, meanwhile, went the other way. Warner was injured in 2002 during a losing season and fell out of the starting lineup. The Rams went to the playoffs again in 2003 and 2004 but thereafter endured a long stretch of futility. In 2016 they moved back to Los Angeles. Not until 2017 did they return to the playoffs. Now they are slight Super Bowl underdogs with a quarterback who is 17 years younger than Brady and a coach who is 33 years younger than Belichick.
There is nothing surprising about the Rams’ regression: It’s the way of the world. “The glory that was Greece, / And the grandeur that was Rome” is but a memory now. What’s shocking is that the Patriots have stayed so dominant so long. Their achievement is all the more impressive given that it has come in the salary-cap era. Since 1994, the NFL has capped each franchise’s payroll to level the playing field. It’s no longer possible for teams to stockpile great players as the San Francisco 49ers did when they had future Pro Football Hall of Famer Steve Young backing up future Pro Football Hall of Famer Joe Montana. Only the Patriots have defied the trend toward parity, and they have done so with an obsessive attention to detail and an interchangeable cast of role players. Only 41-year-old Brady, the ageless wonder, remains from the 2002 championship squad.
In two decades the Patriots have gone from the underdog that almost everyone rooted for to the top dog whose dominance causes resentment — and mutters of foul play. They have been punished by the NFL for videotaping their opponents’ coaches (“Spygate”) and for allegedly deflating footballs to make them easier for Brady to throw (“Deflategate”).
No question, the Patriots are easy to hate — but they also deserve begrudging respect even from those of us who are not rooting for them. I grew up in Los Angeles, so I’m pulling for the Rams, but I am no Patriots basher. After all, if anyone doesn’t deserve to be in this Super Bowl, it’s the Rams, who won the NFC championship game with help from a referee who failed to call a critical pass-interference penalty on cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman.
I would be, in fact, a pigskin hypocrite if I failed to properly appreciate the Patriots. Just before the 2002 Super Bowl, I wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal celebrating the Rams as “the Superpower of the Super Bowl.” So now, in fairness, I have to hail the reigning superpower — the Patriots — given their far more impressive record of success.
Whoever wins, there is only one certainty: They won’t be on top forever. To Patriots haters, it can just seem that way.