NEW ORLEANS - Eighty-one ticks of the clock. Eighty-three yards from the end zone. No timeouts left, on either side of the ball, in a tie game.
In the Fox-TV booth, John Madden weighed the circumstances and told a nation that prudence was the only proper course for the New England Patriots, and they were wrong to believe otherwise. Sit on the ball, run out the clock on the St. Louis Rams, take your chances in overtime.
But a different consensus already had been reached on the Patriots sideline, where Tom Brady, the quarterback, and Charlie Weis, the offensive coordinator, and Bill Belichick, the head coach, huddled in the din of 72,000 fans still agog at the lightning speed (21 seconds!) in which the Rams had struck for the tying touchdown. The Patriots had come too far, stuck together through too much, prevailed in the face of peril too many other times, not to take their chances one more time.
’’Obviously,’’ Weis would say later, ‘’we could have kneeled on it and gone into overtime because neither one of us had any timeouts, but we just felt that they had too much momentum and that we should at least give our starters a chance to win. Not play to lose, but play to win.’’
Thus was born what New England football fans will forever remember as The Drive, every bit as much as Denver Broncos fans reminisce about John Elway’s 98-yard march down the field in frozen Cleveland to beat the Browns in the 1986 AFC Championship game, and as often as San Francisco 49ers fans recall Joe Montana guiding the Niners down the field for 80 yards and a game-winning strike to John Taylor with 34 seconds left to beat the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII.
’’We’d done this before,’’ guard Mike Compton said. ‘’We knew we could do this again.’’
Brady’s drive, unlike those of Elway and Montana, did not produce a touchdown, but it culminated in something even bigger: the first championship in the 42-year history of the franchise, Adam Vinatieri’s 48-yard field goal splitting the uprights as the clock read 0:00, the first Super Bowl to be decided by a kick on the final play.
It began with Drew Bledsoe, the best quarterback in franchise history but one reduced to offstage prompter by injury and Brady’s magic. He pulled Brady aside just before he strapped on his helmet and trotted back onto the field. ‘’Drop back and sling it,’’ Bledsoe told the man who would become the youngest quarterback (24) to be named Super Bowl MVP. ‘’Go win the game.’’
Sling it he did, though always under control, just as he’d been throughout a mistake-free evening in which the Patriots played 60 minutes without a turnover.
Seven times Brady passed, connecting five times, before he spiked the ball with seven seconds left at the Rams’ 30, bringing the field goal unit onto the field.
The first three completions were to running back Antowain Smith’s understudy, J.R. Redmond, the English major from Arizona State who hadn’t caught a pass all game in limited action. The phrase that comes to mind, professor, is oft overlooked but never needed more.
A little dump toss for 5 yards, and 24 ticks off the clock. Another short flick for 8 yards and a first down at the Patriots’ 30. Forty-one seconds. After Brady spikes the ball to stop the clock, he goes back again to Redmond, who is able to fight his way out of bounds for a first down after an 11-yard gain at the 41.
’’I thought that was a big play on the drive,’’ Belichick would say the next day. ‘’J.R.’s catch, and he got it out of bounds. That’s when we talked about wanting to get to the St. Louis 40 and have a shot at the field goal.’’
There were 33 seconds left, then 29 after Brady threw incomplete on first down. In the huddle, he called the play sent in from the sideline: 64-Max All End.
’’Max tells the offensive linemen that we need more time,’’ said Brady. ‘’I dropped back, the offensive line did a heck of a job protecting me, and all three receivers ran routes at different depths.
’’The way their defense plays and the way they’re successful is they’re really an attacking-style defense. They really read the quarterback really hard. The guys are focused on where I’m looking.’’
What Brady saw was Troy Brown, his favorite target all season, flashing free across the heart of the Rams’ secondary.
’’I stepped to the left and Troy, who has just got a great knack for finding the open zone, slipped behind there, and I hit him just coming out the back end,’’ said Brady. ‘’And I just kind of gave a little shoulder dip to the corner. They missed the tackle and he got out of bounds.
’’So it was just Troy making another great play. He’s been doing that all year. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen him catch that type of pass and make guys miss like he did. It just happened he did it in the biggest game of his life at a huge time.’’
There were 21 seconds left after the 23-yard gain, the longest pass play of the night for the Patriots. The line of scrimmage was the Rams’ 36. If the drive ended there, Viniateri would be faced with a 53-yard field goal attempt; he’d been kicking them 55 yards before the game, and making them.
But there was time for one more pass play, a 6-yard dumpoff to the tight end in the red shoes, Jermaine Wiggins, the kid from East Boston. It took 14 seconds off the clock, but the 6-yard gain put the ball on the Rams’ 30.
Seven seconds left. Vinatieri trotted onto the field. On the sideline, a team that had displayed its solidarity by running en masse onto the field at the start of the game now stood united once more, teammates holding hands and whispering silent prayers.
’’Shoot,’’ Smith said, ‘’I knew if he could kick it through the snow, he could kick it through the confetti.’’
Moments later, Vinatieri was in the arms of his holder, Ken Walter, and long snapper Lonie Paxton was on his back in the end zone, arms and legs scissoring in the same pattern of joy he’d cut in Foxborough two weeks before. The Drive was over, ending with snow angels and champagne.