NEW ORLEANS - Resilient to the end of their miracle playoff run, the New England Patriots upstaged the St. Louis Rams, 20-17, last night when Adam Vinatieri kicked a 48-yard field goal as time expired to win the 36th Super Bowl before 72,922 at the Superdome.
The Patriots watched a 14-point lead dissipate in a fourth-quarter Rams' rally, then won the world championship with a nine-play, 53-yard drive to history.
In the end, it wasn't MVP quarterback Kurt Warner who seized the moment, but second-year starter Tom Brady who capped a Super Bowl extravaganza of patriotic fervor, giving New England its first Super Bowl title in three tries.
The Rams turned a 17-3 deficit into a 17-17 tie with a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns. Warner scored the first on a 2-yard run with 9:31 to play. Then wide receiver Ricky Proehl turned a pick play into a 26-yard touchdown pass with 1:30 left.
Proehl cut outside behind Isaac Bruce, who ran an in-route. Once he had the ball, Proehl cut back inside Tebucky Jones and beat Terrance Shaw to the goal line with a dive.
Troy Brown's 15-yard kickoff return gave the Patriots (14-5) the ball at their own 17 with 1:21 left. Rather than run out the clock and play for overtime, the Patriots went for the jugular.
Throwing from the shotgun formation, Brady hit J.R. Remond with three completions for a total of 24 yards. That put New England on its 41 with 33 seconds left.
Under pressure from a St. Louis blitz, Brady threw his next pass away, but came back to hit Brown for a 23-yard pass that carried to the Rams' 36.
A 6-yard toss to tight end Jermaine Wiggins got the Patriots to the 30, and Brady quickly spiked the ball with seven seconds left.
That left it up to Vinatieri, who had hit a clutch 45-yarder in the snow to help New England beat Oakland in its first playoff game.
The Patriots, who lost to the Rams in the regular season, switched their defensive philosophy for this game and it worked to near-perfection. Instead of blitzing Warner, the Patriots dropped seven and eight men into coverage, going with seven defensive backs on third down often.
"They did such a great job picking up the blitz in the first game, so we covered a little more this game." coach Bill Belichick said. "I thought we had to cover more than rush because he [Warner] gets it out there so quick."
The Rams' prolific offense produced a lot of yardage, but no touchdowns until the fourth quarter. The Rams outgained the Patriots, 427-267, and Warner passed for 365 yards, completing 28 of 44 passes.
But three Rams turnovers led to their undoing. Cornerback Ty Law intercepted Warner in the second quarter and returned the pass 47 yards for a go-ahead touchdown.
A fumble by Proehl, also in the second quarter, led to a 40-yard touchdown drive for the Patriots, ending with an 8-yard pass from Brady to David Patten.
Cornerback Otis Smith intercepted Warner in the third quar ter to set up a 37-yard Vinatieri field goal.
"If we're playing next week, we're probably [still] under dogs." Belichick siad.
"There's not a lot of people who believed in these players, but they believed in themselves."
The Patriots finished with nine straight wins and broke the Rams' eight-game win streak.
The Patriots stretched their lead to 17-3 in the third quarter when they capitalized on the Rams' third turnover.
Wide receiver Torry Holt slipped to one knee making a cut on a third-down pass play, and Smith intercepted Warner's throw. His 30-yard return carried to the St. Louis 33.
Facing third-and-14 at the 26, the Patriots called a direct snap to Kevin Faulk with Brady in the shotgun formation. Faulk gained 7 yards to the 19, where Vinatieri kicked a 37-yard field goal.
Kept out of the end zone for three-plus quarters, the Rams finally broke through on their next possession. They went 77 yards in 12 plays, but needed a critical holding penalty to erase a goal-line Warner fumble that was returned for an apparent touchdown by Law.
The apparent game-turning play came on fourth-and-goal from the 3 after Warner's third-down pass for Bruce was nearly intercepted in the corner of the end zone by Law.
On fourth down, finding his receivers covered, Warner rolled right, reluctantly at first. He was tackled by linebacker Roman Phifer at the 2 and the ball came out. Law, who earlier had re turned an interception 47 yards for a score, went untouched for what seemed a clinching touchdown.
But linebacker Willie McGinest was flagged for holding running back Marshall Faulk, running left on a pass pattern. That penalty gave the Rams an automatic first down at the 1.
After Faulk was stopped for a 1-yard loss and a New England timeout, Warner kept the ball and ran behind center Andy McCollum for a 2-yard touchdown. With 9:31 left, the Rams had pulled within 17-10.
They tied it on Proehl's catch and run with 1:30 left.
New England's opportunistic defense created two big turnovers in the first half and stunned the 14-point favorites for a 14-3 lead.
Belichick's defensive strategy allowed St. Louis' high-powered offense to get no closer than the New England 30 in the first half. The Patriots used three-, four- and five-man fronts, but didn't go after Warner with a blitz until six minutes into the second quarter.
But it was a big one when it finally came. Linebacker Mike Vrabel not only delivered a blow to Warner's head on the blitz, but forced a poor throw.
Warner badly missed wide receiver Isaac Bruce, but found cornerback Ty Law instead. Law ran 47 yards untouched with the interception to give the Patriots their first lead.
At that point, the Patriots' offense had punted on each of its first three possessions.
The Patriots stopped St. Louis on the next series when strong safety Lawyer Milloy nearly pulled in another interception along the sideline. The play went as an incompletion because Milloy didn't have control of the ball going out of bounds.
New England's offense generated a pair of first downs on its next possession before a third-down sack by Leonard Little snuffed the threat.
It took the Patriots two plays to get the ball back.
Warner found Proehl up the middle on a crossing pattern, and Proehl picked up 15 yards. But Antwan Harris jarred the ball loose on the tackle with his helmet, and Terrell Buckley returned it 15 yards to the St. Louis 40 with 1:20 left in the half.
The Patriots followed with their most productive offense of the first half. Brady hit Brown with a wide receiver screen for a 16-yard gain to the 24, then found tight end Jermaine Wiggins for 8 more yards to the 16.
After an incompletion into the end zone, Kevin Faulk took a toss around left end for an 8-yard pickup to the 8.
New England used its third timeout of the half with 36 seconds remaining. Then Patten got cornerback Dexter McCleon to bite on an outside move and beat him upfield for an 8-yard touchdown reception falling backward into the end zone.
The play was reviewed by replay assistant Howard Slavin, and the touchdown was upheld.
It was a first half of diminishing returns for the Rams, who ran off 18 plays to New England's nine and had an 89-50 edge in yards, but managed only three points.
That came on a 50-yard field goal by Jeff Wilkins on the Rams' second possession after Warner hit six of seven passes for 43 yards in a 10-play drive.
A 29-yard completion to Az-Zahir Hakim on the Rams' next series put them into New England territory again. But a third- and-five pass by Warner from the 34 was batted into the air and fell incomplete.
Wilkins attempted a 52-yard field goal this time, but missed.
The Rams also lost right tackle Rod Jones early in the second quarter when he aggravated a groin injury and had to be replaced by Ryan Tucker.
The Patriots relied on their defensive line to get a pass rush, but it produced only sporadic pressure until Vrabel's blitz.
On offense, the Patriots rediscovered a running game that had been missing in two playoff games. Antowain Smith punched out 41 yards on 10 carries.
Biggest upsets Year Favorite...Spread...Underdog...Result 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