NEW ORLEANS - In the end, it wasn't regular-season MVP quarterback Kurt Warner who seized the moment, but second-year miracle worker Tom Brady.
In a game worthy of sports' biggest stage, the Patriots rode that tenacious defense and a kick for the ages by Adam Vinatieri to a stunning 20-17 upset of the Rams last night in the 36th Super Bowl.
Vinatieri's 48-yard field goal as time expired supplied a fitting ending to an NFL season filled with patriotic fervor - a season when the Patriots came back from a 1-3 start to win their first world championship.
The Rams had the NFL's best record (16-3) this season and were 14-point favorites, but it was the Patriots (14-5) who dictated terms at the Superdome with their opportunistic defense.
"If we're playing next week, we're probably [still] underdogs," said New England coach Bill Belichick, whose defensive strategy blunted the Rams' prolific offensive machine. "But that's OK."
Belichick's defense squeezed three crucial turnovers out of the Rams and cashed in 17 huge points, taking a 17-3 lead into the fourth quarter. After blitzing Warner in a Nov. 18 loss, the Patriots opted this time to drop six and seven backs into coverage and disrupt the Rams' passing game in the secondary.
It worked beyond their wildest dreams.
Warner threw for 365 yards, hitting 28 of 44 passes. But he also threw two interceptions, one of them returned by cornerback Ty Law for a game-turning 47-yard touchdown in the second quarter. That gave New England a 7-3 lead.
An offense that has produced more than 500 points in each of the past three seasons was held to three points through three quarters.
"I think a lot of people did not think we could match up with the Rams from a speed standpoint," said Patriots 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.
"Ultimately, it comes down to execution, though, and I think today we just played better than the Rams. This is what happens when everyone comes together."
As valiantly as the Patriots' defense played, the offense had its moments, too, including the dramatic finish. Brady hit wide receiver David Patten for an 8-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter after the second St. Louis turnover, capping a 40-yard scoring drive.
And when the Rams' fourth-quarter rally produced two touchdowns and a 17-17 tie, it was Brady's nine-play, 53-yard drive that set up Vinatieri's game-winning field goal and earned Brady the game's MVP award.
Brady completed 16 of 27 passes for 145 yards, modest figures compared to Warner's, but he once again demonstrated that leadership is bigger than statistics.
At 24, he was the third-youngest quarterback to start a Super Bowl, joining Dan Marino and David Woodley. Because Marino and Woodley both lost, Brady became the youngest to win one.
"You can't say enough about that kid," said Patten, whose touchdown reception opened a 14-3 New England lead. "He has a tremendous amount of confidence - he has led this team.
"Maybe he doesn't have the most impressive statistics, but it doesn't matter. The kid knows how to win, he knows how to motivate other players. My hat is off to the guy."
The Rams had staged a near-miraculous comeback of their own in the fourth quarter. Warner finished a 77-yard scoring drive with a 2-yard touchdown run that was aided by a costly holding penalty against Patriots linebacker Willie McGinest. That penalty negated a fourth-down Warner fumble - and seeming touchdown return by Tebucky Jones- and gave the Rams a first down at the 1.
After St. Louis stopped New England on the ensuing series, it took the Rams three plays and 21 seconds to get a 17-17 tie.
Warner hit Az-Zahir Hakim and Yo Murphy for passes covering 29 yards, then worked a pick play to get Ricky Proehl into the end zone for a 26-yard touchdown. Proehl ran an out pattern behind wide receiver Isaac Bruce.
Brady got the ball back with 1:21 left on his own 17. Instead of running out the clock and playing for overtime, the Patriots went for the win.
His first three completions went to J.R. Redmond for short gains, but the big play in the drive was a 23-yard pass to wide receiver Troy Brown. That put the Patriots barely in Vinatieri's range at the Rams' 36 with 21 seconds left.
Brady's next pass put Vinatieri in good position. It was a 6-yard toss to tight end Jermaine Wiggins, carrying to the 30.
Brady spiked the ball with seven seconds left.
"I was just so happy that the guys moved the ball down and gave me an opportunity," Vinatieri said. "It was great. The guys did such a great job all day today. They blocked great up front. The snap and the hold were great.
"Once I kicked it, I knew it was good. I looked up and it was just time to celebrate. It was unbelievable."
There was actually one second still on the clock when Vinatieri's kick sailed through, and it was allowed to tick off.
The Rams owned a huge advantage in total yards (427-267), but couldn't get closer to the end zone than the Patriots' 30 in the first half. Even at that, they had to settle for a 50-yard field goal by Jeff Wilkins, who later was wide left from 52 yards.
Instead of blitzing, the Patriots dropped into coverage and took away Warner's options. The Rams' third turnover came when wide receiver Torry Holt slipped to one knee in the third quarter, cornerback Otis Smith picked off a Warner pass and returned it 30 yards to the St. Louis 33.
Five plays later, Vinatieri hit a 37-yard field goal to make it 17-3.
"They [the Rams] did such a great job picking up the blitz in the first game [in November], so we covered a little more this game," Belichick said. "I thought we had to cover more than rush because he [Warner] gets it out there so quick."
The Patriots didn't unleash their first blitz until six minutes into the second quarter. Then, linebacker Mike Vrabel caught Warner with a blow to the head - there was no penalty - and Warner's pass, intended for Bruce, was off the mark.
Law scooted 47 yards untouched, setting the tone for the night.
The Patriots tried to be physical with the Rams' receivers, as well. "We used the slogan, if you want war, we're going to take you to war," Law said. "We went out and proved we were the more physical team."
The Patriots didn't panic when the Rams came back to get the 17-17 tie, either.
"I certainly didn't like the score at that point," Brady said. "They ran a nice wheel route on the play that tied the game. That's what great teams do.
"They are as talented as any team in the league. We beat them today. And that is what is important - to go out there and play your best football when the stakes are the highest. No one gave us a shot, and that is a dangerous thing when people don't give people a shot in this league."