NEW ORLEANS - The Greatest Show on Earth crashed and burned last night in Super Bowl XXXVI.
An offense that scored 503 points during the regular season scored only two touchdowns. An offense that averaged 418.1 yards per game had 427 but only one long scoring drive. Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk, two of the best players in modern football, were beaten by a bunch of no-names who held them to 5-for-13 on third-down situations.
In one of the greatest upsets in Super Bowl history, right up there with the New York Jets' 16-7 win over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III and the Denver Broncos' 31-24 win over the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXII, the New England Patriots turned in a strong defensive effort to defeat the St. Louis Rams, 20-17, before 72,922 at the Superdome.
By the time the game ended, Patriots linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Roman Phifer, and cornerbacks Ty Law and Otis Smith had been mentioned more prominently than their famed offensive counterparts on the Rams, architects of the new millennium offense.
Yes, they shocked the world.
I certainly didn't believe the Patriots could slow the Rams, especially on carpet. But I've always been a person who loves to watch the schemes and intricacies of an offense, and then watch as it produces big numbers.
But it was just as interesting watching New England coach Bill Belichick, possibly the best defensive mind in the game, and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel dismantle it.
And those New England defensive backs were fabulous.
They did things to the Rams' receivers that no other defense had done this season. The Patriots allowed two late touchdown drives in the fourth quarter, but that's forgivable considering the overall performance.
Smith, Law and backups Terrance Shaw and Terrell Buckley simply mauled Rams receivers Issac Bruce and Torry Holt. They pressed them on the line of scrimmage, pulled on their jerseys and shoved them outside the allotted 5 yards past the line of scrimmage.
When New England was in nickel or dime coverage, especially in a zone, Patriots cornerbacks got in their faces at the line of scrimmage, then pushed them onto the second level, which gave them more rough treatment. Sometimes, it seemed like the Patriots were wearing the jerseys of Rams receivers. It was a gamble because the officials could have called it more closely, but they didn't.
This was the title game. They let the players play. And New England won.
The rough style interrupted the Rams' timing patterns and forced Warner to hold the ball longer than he wanted. The physical approach resulted in one turnover in the third quarter when Smith tied up Holt at the line of scrimmage. Holt worked through it, but he fell coming out of the move, and Smith intercepted Warner's pass and returned it to the Rams' 33 to set up a 37-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri with 2:07 remaining in the third quarter.
"I think a lot of people did not think that we could match up with the Rams from a speed standpoint," said linebacker Ted Johnson. "We hit them hard today, and I think our style of defense made them think a little more. I think that may have slowed them down."
But the Patriots weren't just physical at the line of scrimmage. They crushed Holt and Bruce after catches over the middle. In the first half alone, receiver Az-Zahir Hakim got pummeled. So did Holt and tight end Ernie Conwell. Rams receiver Ricky Proehl's fumble after a 15-yard reception was caused by a hit from free safety Antwan Harris.
Five plays later, the Patriots scored on a 8-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Tom Brady to receiver David Patten.
The Rams also dropped three passes in the first half. Could someone have heard footsteps?
This was, however, a total defensive effort. The Patriots were well-prepared, and nothing the Rams did seem to catch them off-guard. When the Rams went to an unbalanced line, the Patriots countered by overloading to the strong side, but also shut down the cutback lanes.
When Hakim took an inside reverse with 1:52 left in the first half on a play that looked like it was going to result in a long touchdown run, Harris was the spy and shot in on Hakim's legs for only a 5-yard gain.
Just about nothing made the Patriots sweat, not even Faulk, the league's premier rusher, who finished with 76 yards on 17 carries. Earlier in the week, New England defensive end Anthony Pleasant said the ends wanted to line up on the outside shoulder of the tackles, and force Faulk inside or stretch him to the sidelines on toss plays.
For the most part, the strategy worked.
The Patriots also thought they could get some penetration through St. Louis right offensive tackles Ryan Tucker and Rod Jones. The Patriots threw a lot of blitzes and games at the right side of the line, one of which resulted in linebacker Mike Vrabel getting pressure on Warner and forcing him to overthrow Bruce. Law picked it off and returned for a 47-yard touchdown in the second quarter.
"We shocked the world. We shocked the world today," said Smith. "That's a hell of a football team we just played. Great group of guys over there, but we shocked the world today. We're Number One in the world and the NFL.
"It feels great. It doesn't get any better than this for me. I wasn't getting any accolades all week or all year, all my career. But I think I'll get a few today. We pressed them man, man, man, man. And that's what we said we were going to do, and that's what we did."
Said Law: "We made a lot of bookies mad as hell tonight, but we don't give a damn. We're world champions."
1969 Balt. Colts...18...N.Y. Jets...N.Y. Jets, 16-7
2002 St. Louis...14...New England...New England, 20-17
1970 Minnesota...12 1/2...Kansas City...Kansas City, 23-7
1998 Green Bay...12...Denver...Denver, 31-24