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February 3, 2002. The Superdome, New Orleans, Louisiana.
Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, and Isaac Bruce are in the tunnel, waiting for the PA announcer to introduce their St. Louis Rams before Super Bowl XXXVI. As 14-point favorites against a clearly overmatched New England Patriots team, the Rams are simply awaiting their coronation as one of the best teams in NFL history. They are the so-called "Greatest Show on Turf", a team that had already used their high-powered offense to capture a Super Bowl title two years earlier. In the tunnel, the Rams' Big Three huddle up, sharing a quiet moment of leadership and focus before joining their team on the field -- and surely defeating the Patriots, a team that needed help from one of the most arcane rules in the book just to get here. It is a mismatch of epic proportions, and just before the kickoff, WR Ricky Proehl turns to a TV camera and announces that, "tonight, a dynasty is born!" The game, of course, is a mere formality.
February 3, 2008. University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Arizona.
As "Crazy Train" blares over the loudspeakers, Tom Brady, Randy Moss, and Bill Belichick run out onto the field to meet their destiny. 12-point favorites riding an 18-game win streak, the Pats are eager to claim what they feel is rightfully theirs: a fourth Super Bowl title in seven years, as well as the mantle of "greatest team ever". Certainly the lowly Giants aren't going to stop them -- the same Giants whose coach almost got fired 3 weeks into the season, whose quarterback is fated to always remain in the shadow of his older brother, who were quite a mediocre football team until about six weeks ago... No, there is nothing that can stop the Patriots from finally consummating their five-month journey into NFL immortality. The game, of course, is a mere formality.
New Orleans. The Rams come out the gate sluggish, and the upstart Patriots make the game's first big play when Ty Law returns a Warner interception for a touchdown midway through the second quarter. St. Louis would turn the ball over again late in the frame, and spot the Pats an 11-point halftime lead. But it could never last, right? Even as the Patriots take a 14-point lead late in the third quarter, Rams coach Mike Martz isn't worried. After all, this is the "Greatest Show on Turf," the only team in NFL history to score 500 points in three straight seasons... If anyone can make a 14-point deficit disappear, it is Warner, Faulk, and company.
Sure enough, the Rams finally wake up from their slumber in the fourth quarter. First, Warner slips into the end zone on a QB sneak, cutting the lead to seven. Then, after another stop by one of the league's top defenses, Warner finally starts hitting his fleet receivers in stride: An 18-yard pass to Az-Zahir Hakim. An 11-yard completion to Yo Murphy. And, finally, a 26-yard touchdown completion to Proehl, tying the game at 17 with 1:30 left to play.
With overtime approaching, running back Justin Watson screams, "I like our chances!" And what's not to like? The Patriots, led by untested QB Tom Brady, aren't going to score before regulation ends, that much is for sure. And the longer the game goes on, the more it favors the Rams, a team that is clearly better and deeper than the underdog Patriots. In other words, you had better get that coronation ready...
Glendale. The Pats come out the gate sluggish, as the upstart Giants are able to put pressure on Brady like no other team has all season long. Eli Manning's offense moves the ball on the Pats with more consistency than any team New England has played, and with 11 minutes left in the game, Manning connects with David Tyree to give New York a 10-7 lead. Still, Belichick isn't worried -- after all, these Patriots had set numerous offensive records during the season, and are regarded by many to be the best offense ever assembled. They have too many weapons to not mount a comeback, especially here in Glendale's dome, where the conditions are ripe for a passing show. If anyone can make a 4th-quarter deficit disappear, it is Brady, Moss, and company.
Sure enough, Brady and the Patriots respond with a tremendous drive. Throwing underneath frequently to receiver Wes Welker, the Pats beat 3rd down multiple times and eventually cap the 12-play, 80-yard drive with a Brady pass to a wide-open Moss in the end zone. 14-10, Patriots.
With a 4-point lead, the Pats feel relatively safe. After all, the Giants, led by much-maligned QB Eli Manning, aren't going to drive 83 yards in 2:42 for a touchdown on one of the league's best defenses, that much is for sure. In other words, you had better get that coronation ready...
New Orleans. As Brady takes the field with 1:30 to play, backup Drew Bledsoe tells him to "go out and win it." Despite John Madden's suggestions that New England should run out the clock and play for overtime, Belichick and OC Charlie Weis know that the longer the game is extended, the worse the odds get that their Pats will pull off this huge upset. So they send Brady onto the field with every intention of driving down the field for the winning score.
Three completions to J.R. Redmond put the ball at the Pats' 41-yard line with 33 seconds left. Then, Brady finds Troy Brown on 23-yard slant, and the slippery Brown gets out of bounds to stop the clock. Needing one more completion for a realistic shot at the game-winning FG, Brady passes to Jermaine Wiggins at the Rams' 30 yard line. Spiking the ball, Brady leaves the Patriots' fate in the hands (or, rather, foot) of kicker Adam Vinatieri. The snap is good, as is the hold. The kick is up...
Glendale. Manning takes the field with 2:42 to play in the game, needing a touchdown to win the Super Bowl and thwart the Patriots' plans for a perfect season. He had not played well in 2007 until facing New England in Week 17; now, with the season on the line, he needed to put together the biggest drive of his life, against the Patriots, on the game's biggest stage.
He completes his first pass to Amani Toomer, 11 yards. Then another completion, 9 yards to Toomer, followed by a Brandon Jacobs conversion on 4th down. And after a scramble and an incompletion, Manning eludes what seems like the entire Patriots defense before heaving a 32-yard prayer downfield to Tyree. Then another 3rd down completion, this time to Steve Smith. And now, Manning faces 1st-and-10 from the New England 13, with 39 seconds left in the game. Surely the Patriots are going to stop them here, right? Manning takes the shotgun snap, looks left, throws to the end zone...
The Aftermath. The Rams have never recovered from their devastating loss in Super Bowl XXXVI. Warner and Faulk each were injured the following season, and Martz was fired after several disappointing campaigns. None of them will ever get back to the mountaintop they were on that Sunday in January 2002, just moments before kickoff. That moment was filled with possibilities, dreams of what might be. Just hours later, though, those dreams were shattered. And an opportunity to make history was lost forever.
So what will become of the 18-1 Patriots? Moss is a free agent. As are Asante Samuel and Tedy Bruschi. The league is going to take a long, hard look at Bill Belichick regarding "spygate" throughout the offseason. The odds are great that none of these Patriots will ever return to the place they were just moments before kickoff. Even more so than those infamous Rams, the 2007 Patriots had a chance to make history, to become a no-brainer answer to the "greatest team of all-time" question. 19-0 was theirs for the taking.
And they let it slip away, never to be seen again. They let the Giants play Patriots to their mighty Rams. And so it is that, as the Giants (and '72 Dolphins) pop the corks on their victory champagne, New England is left wondering what might have been -- had things not truly come full circle for the franchise.