Patriots a team of destiny

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 6, 2002

Sports Columnist

I’ve never been one to believe in fate, destiny, or any other such mumbo-jumbo.

But the New England Patriots’ improbable 20-17 victory over the highly-favored St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI certainly seemed to be written in the stars somewhere. Or maybe a Hollywood script.

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Think about it: Can you think of a better way for this Super Bowl, at the end of this season, to have turned out?

Given the resurgence of American spirit our country has experienced since Sept.11, the stage was perfectly set for Sunday night’s game. You have a team which is a huge underdog, with a quarterback who was pressed into action only after a serious injury to the starter, and to top it all off, they’re dressed in red, white and blue and are called the Patriots.

This should have been as predictable as a Rocky movie. It was a Frank Capra film in the making. ""Win One for the Gipper" meets It’s a Wonderful Life.

Everybody loves an underdog (even though they may not put their money on them), and the Patriots certainly filled that role. In fact, they had been saddled with that tag throughout the playoffs. They were given little chance against the Raiders two weeks ago, yet they persevered with the help of an Adam Vinatieri field goal in the snow to send it to overtime, followed by another to win it.

They weren’t expected to give the Steelers much of a workout last week either. Yet, thanks in part to two special teams scores, they advanced to the championship game.

Indeed, if you had done a position-by-position analysis of the Super Bowl matchup between the Pats and the Rams, you would have been forced to admit that the Patriots were sorely overmatched.

At quarterback, the Rams featured league MVP Kurt Warner. All week long, we had heard of his uncanny pinpoint accuracy throwing the ball. At running back, offensive player of the year Marshall Faulk, possibly the most dangerous back in the NFL with his ability to run or catch.

On defense, the Rams sported eight new starters from a year ago, allowing 198 fewer points than last year and ranked third in the league. This was no longer the team which was content just to outscore its opponents.

So what happened? It looked so lopsided on paper.

Rams’ linebacker London Fletcher afterwards said, "sometimes the better team doesn’t win".

Not that I would make a habit of correcting someone the size of Mr.Fletcher (at least to his face), but he and all the other "experts" missed the point.

The best collection of players doesn’t always win. The best TEAM usually does.

The team mentality of the Patriots was evident even before the game. Spurning the traditional practice of introducing each individual player as he ran onto the field, they insisted on being introduced as simply the New England Patriots.

In individual sports such as boxing, tennis, and golf, individual talent usually prevails, but in team sports, the team that plays like a team often overcomes the more talented one.

But even in individual sports, a superior game plan can turn the tables on superior ability.

Coach Bill Belichick, quickly becoming known as a defensive guru, devised a marvelous scheme for the Rams after playing them earlier in the year. Knocking the receivers off their rhythm at the line, dropping into coverage, and well-disguised and well-timed pressure on Warner proved most effective in defusing the most explosive offense in recent memory. Their near-flawless coverage in the secondary forced Kurt Warner to hold the ball longer than he liked to, and he eventually became impatient with his passes.

The Patriots defense also exposed the Rams’ achilles heel – their tendency to give up the ball. They led the league with 44 giveaways this season.

Pressure on QB Warner caused an errant throw into the waiting arms of Ty Law who returned it 47 yards for the Patriots’ first score. Their hard hitting when the Rams receivers did catch the ball resulted in a fumble recovered by Terrell Buckley, setting up another touchdown. And Otis Smith returned another interception 30 yard to set up an early field goal.

When the Patriots’ Tebucky Jones returned a fumble 98 yards, only to have it called back for a defensive holding penalty, I was afraid that may have been the mistake that would cost them the game. When St. Louis ran it in for a TD two plays later, the resulting 14-point swing could have proven fatal. But the Patriots were not to be denied.

A true team to the end, Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady received some final words of encouragement before leading his team on a drive to win the championship. Drew Bledsoe, the Patriots former starter who had lost his job after an injury and thereafter success of Brady, had this advice, "Go win the game. just drop back and sling it."

And so he did, taking the field with 1:21 left and no timeouts, and leading a 53-yard drive by completing five passes to setup Vinatieri for yet another game-winning field goal with seven seconds remaining.

It was the second-biggest upset in Super Bowl history. The Patriots were 14-point underdogs, second only to the Jets 18-point spread in Super Bowl III.

After the game, Belichick laughed, "if we had to play again next week, we’d probably be the underdogs again."