Friday, February 3, 2012
The Game That Changed It All: 10 Years Later
Rather than bore anyone to death by rehashing the same story lines that have been on repeat for the past two weeks, I figured I'd take a different route - right down memory lane and celebrate the 10 year anniversary of the Greatest Game of All Time .
February 3rd, 2002. New Orleans, Louisiana. The New England Patriots are 14 point underdogs vs. "The Greatest Show on Turf" St. Louis Rams. The Rams are the class of the NFL, while the Pats came out of nowhere after their incumbent QB went down and was replaced by a 2nd year QB who was drafted in the 6th round. New England has never won a Super Bowl - losing both of their prior appearances (both in New Orleans) - and no one is expecting an upset. After watching the Red Sox for the past 84 years, the region knows better than to get their hopes up. But they did beat the Raiders in the Snow Bowl, and went into Pittsburgh to win the AFC Championship, so you never know.
Right from the pregame introductions you could tell there was something different about this team. What is now an unoriginal cliche started on this night. The Rams went through their pregame intros coming out one by one and recognizing some of the greatest offensive players in the league - Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Issac Bruce, Torry Holt. Once they finished, something happened that had never been seen before in the Super Bowl. "Now introducing" boomed Pat Summerall in his ever distinct tone "the American Football Conference Champion New England Patriots" - followed by a swarm of blue jerseys flying out of the tunnel. This was a team, they got here together and wanted to show the world the power of their togetherness both with their introduction and with their play.
What I remember most about this game was made apparent from the first drive - the Pats were going to make St. Louis earn every yard and make their receivers pay for every catch. Each reception was met with a punishing hit into the Super Dome turf. The Rams weren't used to this type of abuse, and it eventually payed off with a forced fumble on Ricky Prohel late in the first half. The teams battled back and forth for most of the first two quarters, with the defenses having the clear advantage. St. Louis took an early 3-0 lead, and held on to it for the first quarter.
The Pats had been applying consistent pressure, but weren't getting quite close enough to Warner. Warner took a short drop and was looking to hit a quick slant when Mike Vrabel came in untouched, got his hands up and altered the throw. This allowed Ty Law to jump the route, and he was off to the races. Touchdown Pats. The Pats sideline was going crazy, the fans were going crazy, we were going crazy in my friends living room - could they actually do this? (Downer side note: Watching the replays, it's hard to imagine that nowadays that play would not have drawn some kind of roughing the passer/illegal hands to the face penalty with the modern (read: pussy) 'protect the QB at all cost' rules. Very happy the NFL was tougher back then.)
The defensive struggle continued until Prohel's aforementioned fumble. Terrell Buckley had a solid return, getting the ball past midfield with just under two minutes left in the half. This led to the only offensive TD for the Pats on the day. Brady surgically executed the two minute drill - complete with a patented NE bubble screen to Troy Brown, and a toss-sweep out of the shotgun (when was the last time a team ran that play) to Kevin Faulk. In vintage Faulk form he picked up the first down on third and short, snuck out of bounds and saved NE's final time out. The drive culminated with a picture perfect throw from Brady to David Patten in the corner of the end-zone for a TD with just over 30 seconds left. The Patriots were up 14-3 at the half and en route to the upset.
Those who follow the Pats know that Belichick's main defensive philosophy is to take away the oppositions primary offensive threat and make them play in a style they are uncomfortable with. For all the hoopla that "The Greatest Show on Turf's" passing game got, it was evident from the start that NE was focused on stopping Marshall Faulk on the ground. The Pats frequently loaded the box with defenders and were playing very disciplined, gap control D against the explosive Faulk. Marshall was able to get very little going in the first half, with St. Louis even resorting to using him in an end around to try and free him up. As much as NE was trying to contain Faulk inside, it looked like NE didn't think the Rams could set the edge against their run game and Antowain Smith. They looked like Lombardi's Packers running power sweeps for much of the game. I was never the biggest fan of Antowain, but he had a very productive game and ran hard throughout.
Another thing that stands out is the sound tackling that the Pats executed that day. There was a 2nd down and 3 play where Faulk looks like he is finally about to break contain when Bruschi scrapes across and meets Faulk in the hole and lays a textbook form tackle on him to stop him short of the first down. On the flip-side, St. Louis' TD to tie the game late in the 4th was the results of some of the most feeble attempts at tackling that I've ever witnessed.
As has been demonstrated throughout the playoffs this year, turnovers played a major role in this game. 17 of New Englands 20 points were a direct result of turnovers - Ty Law's pick 6 was one of the TD's; and Terrell Buckley's recovery and ensuing return of Prohel's fumble set up Pattens TD to close the half. O.T.I.S. Smith had an interception when Torry Holt slipped running his route to set up a field goal. Warner also threw another pick to give the Patriots a huge advantage in the turnover battle. The Rams also had another turnover resulting in a TD called back (4th & Goal from the 3 - Warner fumbles and Tebucky Jones returns it for a TD) when Lefty Mcginest tackled Faulk on the world's most blatant defensive holding penalty.
One stat I found amazing: the Rams didn't get into Red Zone until 4th quarter. As talented as the Rams offense was, nothing speaks greater volumes about Belichick's preparation than that. Also of note considering I've been preaching the importance of Red Zone efficiency all year - the Rams came into the game with the #1 Red Zone Offense in the NFL, while the Pats ranked #1 in Red Zone D.
As well as the Pats D played, the Rams quick strike offense was able to come back and tie the game with 90 seconds remaining. Just enough time for a legend to be born. We all know the story of Tom Brady by now, but on this night he was just a scrappy 24 year old kid playing in the biggest game of his life. The Patriots offense had struggled to pick up points for much of the game, but all they needed was 3 on this drive to hoist their first Lombardi Trophy. The Rams settled into their prevent defense, leaving nothing open downfield for Brady. No worries - a few of checkdowns to J.R. Redmon and the drive was under way. The Rams sloppy tackling allowed Redmon to slip out of bounds and stop the clock just past midfield. A couple of incomplete passes and the Pats were looking at 3rd down with only 29 seconds left. Then Charlie Weis called in the most famous play in Patriots history; '64-Max-All-In'. Brady dropped back, scanned the field and found Troy Brown cutting across the middle for 23 yards, and again the Rams poor tackling let Brown slip out of bounds. One more completion and the stage was set for Adam Vinatieri to kick the game winning 48 yard field goal. Holy. Shit.
Red, white and blue confetti everywhere; Antowain Smith high stepping across the field; Lonnie Paxton doing "snow" angels, Belichick hugging Lawyer Milloy. They did it. The Patriots won the effing Super Bowl. No one said it better than Vinatieri, as he turned to Bob Kraft and said "We shocked the World, but we didn't shock ourselves". Here's hoping the Pats give us a proper anniversary gift come Sunday.