- Knowing what we know now—that New England had all-time greats at coach and quarterback (and kicker)—the Patriots as 14-point underdogs in SB36 seems just a bit off. But it wasn’t any special magic from Belichick or Brady that determined the game and changed football history. It turned on mistakes by a vaunted Rams team.
This Patriots-Rams Super Bowl has inevitably led to talk about the last Patriots-Rams Super Bowl, in 2002, which is considered one of the greatest upsets in NFL history. It was the Patriots’ first Super Bowl win, and it marked the beginning of three consistent Pats storylines of the past 18 years: Bill Belichick is a genius, Tom Brady is clutch, and the Patriots cheat.
The cheating allegation: that the Patriots taped the Rams’ walkthrough the day before the game. The Boston Herald reported this a few years later, in the wake of Spygate, and later retracted it. The allegation has never been proven. The Pats vehemently deny it. Nonetheless, there are Rams who are privately convinced it happened, and star Marshall Faulk has said so publicly. Once it was public, it was never going to disappear, not with his franchise. That’s life for the Patriots. Allegations follow them everywhere. Even into the restroom.
The Rams’ anger over an unsubstantiated allegation may be unfair, and, as we shall see, it is beside the point. But in a strange way it is fitting. Most of what people believe about that Super Bowl is misguided or wrong.
Start with this: It was not one of the greatest upsets in NFL history.
Sure, it seemed that way at the time. The Rams were 14-point favorites. The Patriots had gone 11-5 with a team that was low on name recognition, lost its starting quarterback (Drew Bledsoe) and got lucky against the Raiders in the Tuck Rule game. The Rams were the premier team in the NFL, the Greatest Show on Turf, and they had won the Super Bowl just two years earlier.
But now … well, now we know better. Now we know that New England had the best coach and quarterback of all time. I asked Jay Kornegay, who runs the SuperBook at Westgate in Las Vegas, what the line would have been if those Patriots and the Rams had the exact same seasons they had then, but Bill Belichick and Tom Brady had the reputations they have now.
Kornegay said the spread would have been around 4.5. The reputations of Belichick and Brady would chop almost 10 points off the line.
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For context: This year, this year’s Chiefs were three-point favorites against the Patriots in the AFC title game. And that was in Kansas City. Pats-Rams was, of course, at a neutral site.
So start with that: This was not a huge upset. As great as Kurt Warner was, Brady would surpass him. As impressive as Mike Martz’s offense was, Belichick is the game’s best tactician. If you knew that going in, you would have not have been stunned by the outcome.
But this brings us to the next point: That game was not really the best testament to the greatness of Belichick and Brady. Yes, they won the Super Bowl. But if we listed all their playoff triumphs by how well they performed, that win over the Rams would not be near the top of the list—especially for Brady.
Brady led the Pats down the field for the winning field goal in the final minute, but he only threw for 145 yards the whole day. That’s a good quarter for him now. As for Belichick, he got a ton of credit for outfoxing Martz. Analysts have praised Belichick for having his defensive players hammer Faulk on every play, and they have ripped Martz for abandoning the run.
But that is not why the Patriots won. First of all: In 2019, who gets ripped for abandoning the run? Offenses have become more pass-dependent every year. Most advanced-stat aficionados agree that, if anything, teams should pass more than they do.
Martz’s Rams had the best passing game in the league, with the most accurate quarterback, on artificial turf, and they fell behind 17-3. Of course they kept passing.
That is not why the Rams lost. They lost for the same reason great teams have lost a thousand football games over the years: They committed too many turnovers.
The Rams gave the ball away three times. The Patriots did not have any turnovers. If your turnover margin is minus-three against the Patriots, or really against almost anybody, then guess what? You’re probably going to lose.
It is tempting to ascribe those three turnovers to Belichick’s wizardry—or, if you are particularly suspicious, to secrets he gleaned from videotaping that walkthrough. The small problem with that theory is that it doesn’t make any sense.
These were the Rams’ three turnovers:
1. Warner, feeling pressure, threw a bad pass off his back foot. Ty Law, one of the best cornerbacks of his era, picked it off and returned it for a touchdown.
2. The Rams’ Ricky Proehl caught a pass over the middle, was hit as he went down, and fumbled. There was not one bit of strategy that caused that turnover, unless you consider “tackle guys who catch the ball” a coaching maneuver.
3. Warner tried to throw a slant to Torry Holt, who slowed down, slipped, or both. Otis Smith intercepted it and returned it 30 yards.
If the Patriots had some secret formula, legal or illegal, to win that game, where was it the rest of the day? The Rams had 26 first downs to New England’s 15. They averaged 8.5 yards per play to New England’s 6.5. And after they tied the score 17-17 with 1:21 left, they had an excellent chance to go to overtime and win. The Patriots did not have any timeouts. On the telecast, Fox’s John Madden said the Patriots should play for overtime.
Instead, the Pats managed to move 53 yards, most of it in the last 41 seconds, largely because the Rams failed to tackle receivers before they ran out of bounds. Adam Vinatieri—the greatest clutch kicker in NFL history, though we didn’t know that at the time either—nailed the winning field goal. The Rams had only themselves to blame for losing that Super Bowl. The only video proof they need is the game tape.
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