For the third consecutive season the Super Bowl matchup comes complete with a cinderella story. The New England Patriots are riding a hot streak into New Orleans on the strength of solid defensive game planning by defensive coordinator and head coach Bill Belichick and a guy named Brady. The Rams make it back to the big game for the second time in three years with explosive, record-breaking offense and a revamped defense.
In '99 the Rams were the surprise of the league when unknown quarterback Kurt Warner came out from the shadow of obscurity into the Super Bowl XXXIV spotlight. The Rams defeated the Tennessee Titans 23-16 to complete one of the greatest ‘rags-to-riches' stories of all time. That year Warner won the NFL Most Valuable Player and the Super Bowl MVP awards. Last season the NFL found itself engulfed in another surprise story in a different light. The 2000 Baltimore Ravens took the title on the heels of a swarming, dominating style of defense and an offense that did just enough to win.
This seasons' cultivating tale derives from a combination of the two previous stories, hard work, a "come from nowhere" quarterback and defensive scheming. The New England Patriots have won their last eight games and ten of their previous eleven. Tom Brady is the story of the season, the 6th round draft pick out of the University of Michigan has lead the Patriots all season. Brady was injured in the first half of the AFC Championship game versus the Steelers on Sunday and original starter Drew Bledsoe stepped in admirably, completing 10-of-21 passes for 103 yards and a big 11 yard scoring strike to David Patten in the game. There is no doubt if Brady is healthy enough to play the Super Bowl he will do just that.
The Pats went into Heinz Field in Pittsburgh and took it to the #1 seed in the AFC, winning the game by a 24-17 tally. Troy Brown was instrumental in the victory striking the Steelers in all facets. Brown started off the scoring in the game with a 55-yard punt return for a touchdown. Later in the game, after Brandon Mitchell blocked field goal attempt, Brown scooped up the ball and raced downfield with it only to lateral it to a streaking Antwan Harris who rumbled in for the score. Brown was also heavily involved in the Pats aerial attack with eight receptions for 121 yards.
The Rams got by a tough battle at the newly named Edward Jones Dome over the Philadelphia Eagles, 29-24. The Eagles took a 17-14 lead into halftime only to be stymied by the Rams in the second half. Marshall Faulk was the focus of the Rams offensive game plan and he didn't back down from the challenge. The 2001 Offensive Player of the Year managed 159 yards and two touchdowns in his best playoff performance of his career. A banged up NFL MVP Kurt Warner managed to complete 22-of-33 passes for 212 yards and a 5-yard scoring strike to Isaac Bruce. Bruce turned in another big playoff performance, catching eight passes for 84 yards and that big touchdown on the opening drive.
For just the 11th time in Super Bowl history two teams that met in the regular season will play for the right to hold the Vince Lombardi trophy as World Champions. On November 18th in New England, the Rams defeated the Patriots 24-17 on Sunday Night Football. The Rams started off the scoring as Kurt Warner found Torry Holt from 16-yards out to give the Rams a 7-0 advantage. New England evened the score as Terrell Buckley turned a Warner mistake into six points for the Patriots as he returned an interception 52 yards. The Patriots actually held a short lead in the game after an Adam Vinatieri 33-yard field goal put the Patriots on top 10-7. The Rams took a lead into halftime after a 9-yard scoring strike from Warner to Marshall Faulk with just :31 left in the half. The third quarter was quiet as the only scoring came from a Jeff Wilkins 35 yard field goal that gave the Rams a 17-10 lead. The Rams looked to pull away after a Warner to fullback James Hodgins 11-yard strike to put the Rams in command 24-10. Again the Patriots battled back after Tom Brady hit David Patten from ten yards to close the gap to 24-17. That would be as close as the Patriots would get as the Rams handed the ball to Faulk who ran down the field on the last possession to preserve the hard earned victory for the Rams. Faulk was involved in eight plays on that final drive of the game, amassing 37 yards and draining the final 7:37 off the clock.
Looking closer at the game that ended up being a Super Bowl preview, the score was close, seven points, but it could've been worse. While Bill Belichick did come up with a decent approach to stop the Rams from scoring too many points, they still managed 482 total yards and kneeled on the Patriots 15 yard line to end the game. The Rams were also stung by the injury bug as Damione Lewis broke a bone in his right foot, ending his season. Safety Adam Archuleta suffered a concussion in the second quarter. Later in the game the Rams lost linebacker Mark Fields, defensive lineman Leornard Little and wide receiver Az-Zahir Hakim to injuries, none could return to the game. In contrast to that view, the Pats were once stopped on the Ram three yard line as Antowain Smith was stripped of the ball by Ram defensive back Aeneas Williams. That score would've put the Pats up 17-7. New England managed only 230 yards of total offense. Warner had 401 yards and three touchdowns in the game, while Marshall Faulk ran 20 times for 83 yards and caught seven passes for 70 yards and a score. Isaac Bruce was another impact player with seven receptions for 130 yards. Tom Brady was quiet, completing 19-of-27 passes for 185 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. The Patriots running game was non-existent as Antowain Smith managed only 30 yards on 15 carries.
Another advantage for the Rams is playing on the familiar turf surface in the Louisiana Superdome. The Rams are a quicker team and have so many weapons that will stymie even the best defensive game plans.
Should be fun to once again see the Defensive guru (Belichick) take on the Offensive expert (Martz) in what looks to be a great Super Bowl matchup.