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Ten Observations From the Last Rams-Patriots Super Bowl

Seventeen years ago, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick matched up against the Greatest Show on Turf in the hunt for their first title. As the two teams get ready to clash again in Super Bowl LIII, many of the players have changed, but the Patriots’ tendencies have stayed the same.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

As soon as Rex Burkhead plunged into the end zone last Sunday to topple the Chiefs in overtime, the memories started flooding back. Earlier in the day, the Rams had beaten the Saints 26-23 to earn a Super Bowl berth, and with New England’s 37-31 win, the stage was set for a rematch of sorts: Tom Brady and Bill Belichick’s ninth Super Bowl together will feature the same teams as their first. Seventeen years ago, Belichick’s defense locked down Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, and the Greatest Show on Turf en route to a 20-17 win. The Patriots’ legend was born that night, and it’s only been fueled in the years since.

To prepare for the likely onslaught of retrospectives we’ll see next Sunday, I rewatched that game and noted 10 observations that can serve as a refresher of what we might have forgotten about Super Bowl XXXVI, and provide a tiny bit of insight into this year’s version.

1. Man, do I miss Pat Summerall and John Madden. That isn’t a knock on the current network announcing teams. Al Michaels is the play-by-play GOAT, Joe Buck and Troy Aikman are perfectly pleasant, and I’m actually a little jealous of everyone who’ll get to hear Tony Romo call his first Super Bowl next Sunday while I’m in the press box listening to sportswriters swill Diet Coke. But there was just something different about Summerall and Madden calling a game. Maybe it’s because I’m a child of the ’90s.

Madden started doing play-by-play six years before I was born, but I was 4 years old when the first John Madden Football video game was released on Super Nintendo. I can’t even imagine how many hours I’ve spent listening to his voice—and that’s before you count the games he called on Sundays. Pat started off the Super Bowl broadcast by making introductions, then Madden joked that the two had eaten three meals at the Superdome (where the game was being played) that day. Summerall, in all his folksy glory, responded, “Next comes the shave, and then dinner.” The two of them together were perfect.

My favorite back-and-forth of the day, though, came late in the second quarter when the Patriots handed the ball to fullback Marc Edwards on two consecutive plays. Even in 2002, two straight FB dives was a curious strategy, and it prompted Summerall to wonder aloud, “What’s goin’ on?” Always a believer in the big guys, Madden responded as only he could: “Well, when you’re gonna throw a guy a bone, why not throw him two bones in a row?” God bless those two.

2. Beyond the announcing team, there are plenty of other things that date this game. Let’s start with the player introductions. At the time, Fox didn’t go with the standard “Tom Brady, Michigan” style of intros. Instead, images of five players were put on screen at once. They looked like creepy, silent, floating heads, and all sported one amazing similarity: white visors. That might be the most 2002 fashion statement possible.

On the field, the equipment differences are obvious, especially in the size of the shoulder pads. Ty Law was a cornerback, and his shoulder pads in that game were about as wide as the ridiculous XXXXL coat Brady wears on the sideline now. These days, Michael Bennett—a 275-pound defensive end—wears what look like hockey pads under his jersey. Look at this:

Indianapolis Colts v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Otto Greule Jr /Getty Images
Fox

The other aspect of this game that’s just plain baffling now is the artificial turf. The Superdome didn’t install field turf until 2003, which means that these guys were playing on the same carpet-like surface teams used in the 1970s. Players didn’t even wear cleats; they used “turf shoes,” which had about as much traction as a golf shoe. That’s unfathomable today.

3. The legend of Super Bowl XXXVI goes that Belichick asked his defenders to pop Marshall Faulk every chance they got. But going back through the tape, it’s clear that strategy didn’t apply just to Faulk. The Patriots defensive backs came out swinging from the game’s opening snap. Both Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt were whacked on their first targets, and that physicality immediately established the tone of the game. There are plenty of hits from previous eras that would be illegal under today’s rules, but a lot of the Patriots’ physical play in this game wouldn’t look out of place if it happened next Sunday. On the Rams’ second drive, Warner floated a ball down the left sideline to Bruce, who was crushed by Ty Law on a totally legal (by 2018 standards) hit with his shoulder.

The Pats’ style of play in the first half sent a message, but it also had a more practical effect. With 1:33 left in the second quarter, Warner completed a pass to Ricky Proehl up the seam for a 15-yard gain. But just as Proehl was going to the ground, he was absolutely drilled by safety Antwan Harris. Proehl coughed up the ball, and the fumble recovery by cornerback Terrell Buckley gave New England a first-and-10 at the Rams’ 40-yard line. Which leads me to my next point …

4. Turnovers played a massive role in this game. Law’s second-quarter pick-six is one of the classic early memories of the Patriots dynasty, but before rewatching this game, I didn’t remember just how pivotal it was in shaping the first half. Through a quarter and a half, New England’s offense couldn’t generate any consistent yardage. The 2001 Rams famously featured one of the greatest offenses in NFL history (averaging 31.4 points per game in that era is just stupid), but their defense that season was also fantastic. St. Louis finished the year fifth in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA and seventh in points allowed (17.1 per game) despite playing in blowouts week after week. That’s not easy to pull off. Lovie Smith’s unit had remarkable collective speed and used a ton of defensive line stunts to give the Pats problems up front. The game was a stalemate until Law’s interception, which came on a scheme that looked eerily similar to what Belichick used against Patrick Mahomes II last Sunday.

The five-man line New England used against the Rams is unlike any alignment teams would deploy today, but by putting linebackers in both A gaps, Belichick created enough confusion that Mike Vrabel could come unblocked off the left side. That caused a panicked Warner to loft the ball up for grabs, and Law snatched it out of the air and ran it back for the score. Belichick was a master at manufacturing a pass rush—and still is two decades later.

Harris’s forced fumble may not have been returned for a touchdown, but it did give New England a short field and led to the first glimpse of the Brady we know today. The Patriots sent wide receiver David Patten in motion, which forced the cornerback to respect both the in- and out-breaking routes. Then Brady delivered a perfect touch throw in the back of the end zone to give the Pats a 14-3 lead. New England still uses that kind of motion to its advantage. Time is a flat circle, and the Patriots will be here forever.

5. Outside of New England, Patten is largely a forgotten entity among Patriots pass catchers—but his skill set was unlike most of the receivers Brady’s had since. Many of the prominent pass catchers from Brady’s career have been the death-by-1,000-cuts type. Troy Brown, Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, and Julian Edelman are the sort of players who can toast a defensive back in the middle of the field to pick up 11 yards on a crucial third-and-10. (Just ask the Chiefs.) Patten’s game was different. He was a burner whose speed jumped off the screen. Along with his leaping touchdown catch, he also took an end around 22 yards midway through the third quarter. After Randy Moss and Josh Gordon, Patten may be the most explosive receiver Brady’s ever played with, and he played a pivotal role in the Pats’ first Super Bowl win.

6. While we’re on the topic of blazing speed, my goodness were the 2000s Rams ridiculous. Belichick did a legendary job slowing down the Greatest Show on Turf, but it wasn’t easy. In a mythmaking coaching maneuver, Belichick started his scout team receivers 3 yards in front of the line of scrimmage during Super Bowl week practices to simulate how fast the Rams’ receivers would gain ground on New England’s defensive backs. Watching Holt and Bruce run, it’s easy to see why. More than once, the receivers broke open down the field for what would have been long gains, but the Patriots pass rush forced Warner into errant throws.

New England did all it could schematically to counteract the Rams’ speed. With 6:09 left in the fourth quarter, the Fox broadcast showed a graphic that said Belichick’s defense had used five or six defensive backs on 25 of the Rams’ 40 offensive plays (a fascinating number, considering the Patriots ran more than 90 plays against the Chiefs last week). Nickel defense may be the standard now, but in 2001, that ratio was virtually unheard of. The strategy worked for most of the game, but every once in a while, Bruce and Holt were just too much to handle.

Faulk was even more terrifying to face during those years. There’s a reason that holding him to 130 yards in the Super Bowl is regarded as a stroke of coaching mastery by Belichick. It felt like the guy could bolt for 60 yards anytime he touched the ball. Faulk was a dual-threat back before that was the norm; he was a smooth route runner who glided around the field. But what I discounted all this time later is how shifty he was. He could stop and start in a way that was reminiscent of Barry Sanders and served as a precursor to LeSean McCoy. Every yard Faulk gained against the Pats was a struggle, but he was still able to create a few big plays because he was untouchable in the open field.

7. Guys like Faulk and Patten were faster than I remembered, but Brady was slower. Brady may be a better athlete now than he was 17 years ago. I know that sounds strange, but watching him move around the pocket, I honestly believe it’s true. Look at this run from the first quarter:

There’s no way he’s less mobile than that now. Brady’s never been a burner, but he looks way more comfortable in his body at 41 than he did at 24.

8. The Patriots’ final drive showed a glimpse of the late-game Brady heroics that have tormented the league over the past 17 years. What’s striking—and almost unsettling—about Brady and the Pats offense late in games is how at ease they seem. It’s beyond “poise,” which is the most overused word in the history of quarterback evaluation. It’s the sort of calm that seems barely human. After the Rams scored two straight touchdowns to tie the game 17-17, New England started a drive at its own 17-yard line with 1:21 left and no timeouts. No one had ever seen Brady in that type of scenario before, but the series of plays that unfolded resembles nearly every late-game performance we’ve seen from him since.

Earlier this week, Pro Football Focus writer Mike Renner called Brady the best checkdown passer of all time, and the game-winning drive against the Rams is a perfect example. Rather than panic without any timeouts, Brady was content to slowly move the ball downfield, completing three short passes to running back J.R. Redmond. At that point, the Pats had the ball at their own 41 with just enough time to get into field goal range. Brady completed a dagger over the middle of the field to Brown that set up the game-winning kick. It’s creepy how similar that drive feels to all the ones that have come after it. There’s a reason that Patriots wins seem so inevitable in those moments.

9. No matter what this year’s Patriots try to say, it’s been a long time since they were underdogs. But against the Rams, they were undeniably David squaring off with Goliath. The incredulity in Summerall’s and Madden’s voices when the first half ended and New England was up 14-3 sounds misplaced now, but at the time, it truly was shocking. The same goes for Madden’s tone on the game’s final drive. As Adam Vinatieri and the Pats’ field goal team took their positions for the last-second attempt, a bewildered Madden responded how any of us would having just watched an unproven second-year quarterback march down the field in the Super Bowl: “What Tom Brady just did,” Madden said, “gives me goose bumps.” When Vinatieri lined up for his 48-yarder, the tone of Madden and Summerall’s conversation made it clear they thought the kick was going in. And they weren’t wrong.

10. In some ways, it’s hard to believe that nearly two decades have passed since that game happened. Sure, Belichick looks 30 years older now, but Brady almost looks younger. The players have changed, but it’s incredible how many elements of the Patriots’ plan that day resemble the tactics they use now. In that moment, there was no way to know the dynasty that would follow. But maybe we should have.