NEW ORLEANS - There was so little time left. A day, a game, a season, a lifetime compressed into seven tiny seconds and one momentous kick.
’’Thinking?’’ said Adam Vinatieri, his kicking shoe suitable for bronzing, a showcase certain to be cleared in the Sports Museum of New England. ‘’I didn’t really have much time to think.’’
It will be the kick that sails on for eternity in the minds of all Patriots fans - Vinatieri’s 48-yard boot with 0:07 on the clock Sunday night inside the Superdome that clinched Super Bowl XXXVI for the Patriots.
Up, straight, long, and true. Emphatic. Lonie Paxton provided the long snap, Ken Walter the hold, and the 29-year-old Vinatieri the right-footed oomph that mailed an instant message to millions of households throughout New England that it was time to surrender the past and live in the moment.
No more carping. For once, only carpe diem.
’’Once it left my foot,’’ said Vinatieri, the South Dakotan sensation, ‘’it was time to celebrate.’’
More than anything, more than the final 20-17 score, Vinatieri’s field goal will be remembered as the defining, clinching moment in what was an improbable outcome within a more improbable season. To the kicker go the kudos, and to the dungeon of defeat go the Rams.
’’Adam is the man,’’ said New England safety Lawyer Milloy. ‘’He makes ‘em in the wind in Foxborough. He makes ‘em in the snow in Foxborough - just ask the Raiders; he’s the man.’’
Patriots Nation also will remember that on Super Sunday in 2002 Tom Brady was the MVP, Willie McGinest was almost the goat, Ty Law ran back an interception for a touchdown, the Rams made some terribly costly turnovers, and Marshall Faulk, perhaps the greastest backfield threat the game has ever known, went from best-of-runner billing to also-ran futility.
The inimitable Faulk, pegged as the Patriots’ prey the moment they won the AFC title in Pittsburgh the previous Sunday, finished the day with mundane marks: 17 carries for 76 yards, and 4 catches for 54 more. Total: 130 yards, no touchdowns, and even less overall impact.
’’I don’t know,’’ said Faulk, when asked if he should have been used more, ‘’you tell me.’’
Did Faulk’s futility rest more in New England’s defense than in some oversight of the St. Louis offensive scheme? Hard to say. Rich in every way, especially in their near-embarrassing abundance of receivers, perhaps they got too caught up in using all their bells and whistles and lost sight of Faulk’s bread-and-butter running. Or maybe the Patriots simply made it too difficult for the mighty Faulk to find room to run or pass catch.
What the Patriots made clear from the outset was that every yard the Rams gained would bring with it a bill. They paid the price in punishing hits. Case in point: The blow linebacker Mike Vrabel put on quarterback Kurt Warner with just under nine minutes to go in the second quarter.
Forced to throw under pressure, aiming for Isaac Bruce, Warner’s toss went directly into Law’s hands at midfield. By the time he was back on his feet, Warner could only catch a glimpse of Law, streaking down the left side for a 47-yard touchdown.
’’Our defensive backs were smackin’,’’ said Vrabel.
’’You got that right,’’ exhorted free safety Tebucky Jones, within close earshot of Vrabel in what was an awkwardly subdued New England locker room. ‘’Everybody out there today was smackin’.’’
Coach Bill Belichick was still stuck on his favorite subject at yesterday’s wrap-up news conference. ‘’Offense wins games,’’ he summoned from his coaching cliche handbook. ‘’But defense wins championships.’’ In turn, the foundation of solid defense is muscle and brute force.
’’It’s emphasized quite a bit,’’ said Belichick, asked about the physical nature of his team, ‘’because it’s our style of play. When they’re running routes over the middle, we want to establish that it’s our territory.’’
It was the Vrabel hit/Law return combination that ultimately flipped the night’s momentum New England’s way. For starters, it turned an 0-3 deficit into a 7-3 lead. In that blink, the Rams - the ‘’Goliaths’’ as Tedy Bruschi later called them - went from confident gunslingers to cautious, concerned favorites.
’’No slowing me down; once I got it I knew it was all end zone,’’ said Law. He also added, ‘’No one gave us a chance - but we put it on ‘em ... we put it on ‘em!’’
None of this made square with the 14-point spread Las Vegas established during the week.
’’This,’’ said Fox play-by-play man Pat Summerall, ‘’is Shock Bowl XXXVI.’’
Indeed, the Rams were listing badly at the half, especially after the Patriots tacked on another 7 points with only 31 seconds to go before intermission. Again, it was New England’s physical play that set up the score.
Working from his own 25-yard line, the sharp-eyed Warner zipped a pass over the top that connected with Ricky Proehl at the 40. But when Antwan Harris came across, head down and shoulder cocked, the completion turned into a live, rolling ball. Terrell Buckley picked up the runaway pigskin some 5 yards into New England territory and ran it back to the Rams 40.
’’I saw Warner was throwing, and the next thing I knew I had the red dot on [Proehl], and I was going in there to knock him out,’’ recalled Harris.
’’We didn’t protect the football,’’ Proehl later lamented. ‘’I didn’t protect the football.’’
Left with but 80 seconds to work with, Brady first hooked up with Brown for a 14-yard pass play, and then, out of the shotgun, with East Boston’s Jermaine Wiggins for another 8-yarder. Later, the Brown-Wiggins 1-2 punch would be the prelude to Vinatieri’s winning kick. After a pass to David Patten missed the mark, Kevin Faulk then advanced the ball 8 more yards to give the Patriots first and goal on the 8.
Then came the call to Patten again, an alley-oop in the right corner that had Patten pulling Brady’s floater down from the heavens, falling backward, and cradling the ball to his chest as he crash-landed, both feet decidely in bounds. Patten’s goal-line dipsy doodle left Rams corner Dexter McCleon so far out of the play that it was initially believed he would have to clear customs and immigration to gain entry for the second half.
The final 30 minutes found the Rams to be more themselves, and the Patriots often playing cautiously. The hitting wasn’t as hard. The turnovers were minimized. Nonetheless, when Vinatieri booted a 37-yarder with 1:18 remaining in the third for a 17-3 lead, it looked as if the Patriots would leave the Big Easy remembered for a highly unlikely shellacking.
Not so fast. Before they folded, the Rams showed their trademark quick-attack effectiveness.
And for all of New England, repeated nightmares of decades past bubbled up hauntingly from the graveyard.
All of 9 feet from the goal line, the Rams stood ready to trim the lead to 17-10 early in the fourth quarter when Warner scrambled to the right end and was met with Roman Phifer’s crushing hit. Loose ball. Jones picked it up at the 3 and stormed down the left side for a breathtaking 97-yard TD return. Touchdown, New England.
The deal looked sealed. Until, that is, a yellow flag tainted the Technicolor fairy tale. All the way back in the fracas where Warner lost the ball, New England’s Willie McGinest had been caught for holding Faulk, all but using Mardi Gras beads and a two-armed voodoo hold to impede his progress. The touchdown was negated, the ball handed back to the Rams.
It was all too familiar to New England sports fans who had died these deaths before.
’’No doubt,’’ said Boston sports historian Dick Johnson, ‘’the possibility of a Red Soxian ending was there.’’
Two plays after getting the ball back, Warner dashed to the goal line again, this time crossing it for a 2-yard touchdown. New England’s lead, for a moment ready to be 24-3, now stood a flimsy 17-10.
’’Let’s be honest,’’ said middle linebacker Bruschi. ‘’Minus that one holding penalty, it never would have been so close.’’
But it only got closer. The New England lead, once at 14, went to zero in a 21-second fast-forward collapse that had Warner connecting with Az-Zahir Hakim for 18 yards, then with Yo Murphy for 11 more, and finally with Proehl for 26 more and pay dirt. Only 90 seconds left and it was all tied, 17-17.
’’And the thing is, we didn’t even get to practice our two-minute drill during the week,’’ said Troy Brown. ‘’We worked pretty hard on Wednesday and Thursday, and when Friday came, we just wanted to save our legs.’’
The ensuing kick left the Patriots at their own 17, and only 81 seconds on the clock. In fact, what was left was 39 seconds short of a two-minute drill.
The nine plays they ran off next will be scribbled on scrap paper and folded into wallets, the tattered and yellowed slips to be pulled out for years to settle serious barroom trivia debates.
Brady to J.R. Redmond for 5 yards.
Brady to Redmond for 8 yards.
Brady pass incomplete.
Brady to Redmond for 11 yards.
Brady pass incomplete.
Brady pass to Brown for 23 yards, putting the ball at the Rams 36 with 21 seconds to go.
Brady pass to Wiggins for 6 yards, in turn leading Brady to spike the ball, summoning the kick crew into action with seven seconds to play.
Vinateri 48-yard field goal to win it.
’’This is sweet - it’s a sweet, sweet feeling,’’ said Milloy, who had been here in January 1997 as a rookie when the Patriots lost to Green Bay in their second Super Bowl visit. ‘’Honestly, I don’t know if we know what we’ve done.’’
A day, a game, a season, a kick. For a team that for decades has known mostly hard times, the Big Easy turned into one great ending.