PAT ‘EM ON THE BACK: RED, WHITE AND BLUE PLAYED SUPER

NEW ORLEANS — The ball rose, the officials raised their arms, the gun sounded, the confetti flew, the crowd exploded, and the underdogs, in red, white and blue, swarmed into football’s biggest pile of happiness. . . .

Just like we predicted.

It’s always so clear afterward, isn’t it? Of course the St. Louis Rams, favored by about 9 million points coming into Super Bowl XXXVI, were bound to be overconfident, a bit complacent, ripe for a fall, right? And naturally, the guys from New England, with no one picking them, on a playoff roll, had nothing to lose. They could let it hang. Wait to strike. Right? Right?

And besides, on a day that was literally dripping red, white and blue, how could anyone in his right mind pick against the, ahem . . . Patriots?

Pat ’em on the back.

“This is an example of what happens when guys believe in each other,” said quarterback Tom Brady, the unlikely MVP of this most unlikely Super Bowl victory, a 20-17 last-second miracle that happened so fast, you had to slap yourself to make sure you saw it correctly.

Let’s not mince words. Next to Joe Namath and the Jets, this was the biggest upset in Super Bowl history. One of the biggest upsets in sports. The Rams were supposed to be here; the Pats were not. The Rams were chest-deep in talent; the Pats were not.

The Rams were supposed to win; the Pats were supposed to go down — maybe — with a fight.

And yet, as the evening unfolded, quarter after quarter, you kept looking at the scoreboard, which read Rams 3, and then Rams 3, and then Rams 3, and meanwhile the Patriots were racking up points and knocking down opponents.

And finally, when the Rams got off the mat and clawed back, a furious, desperate animal, tying the score at 17 in typical quick-strike fashion, the Patriots did the only unfathomable thing left for them to do on this unfathomable night: They outdid the Rams at their own game.

They beat the clock.

Brady hit J. R. Redmond for five yards, then eight yards, then 11 yards. Then, out of the shotgun, he found Troy Brown for 23 yards. All of a sudden, they weren’t playing for overtime, they were pushing for a winning field goal. One more Brady completion and out ran kicker Adam Vinatieri, who got a strong leg into a 48-yard kick as the clock clicked toward zero.

Good.

And good night.

“What did (Bill) Belichick say to you before that final drive?” someone asked Brady about his coach.

“He said go with the game,” Brady said, “and sling it.”

Pat ’em on the back.

“They said the Rams were the best track team in football!” yelled cornerback Ty Law. “But I never saw anybody run a 100-yard dash with a man in front of him!”

Good point. And while it was nice to see the MVP go to Brady, a Michigan man
— and, at 24, the youngest winning quarterback in Super Bowl history — that might have been the only miscue of the New England night.

That award belonged to the defense. Plain and simple. The Patriots hit harder. They tackled harder. They banged with more intensity, and as the game wore on, each hit seemed to stack up, coins in a bank, until the little porcelain piggy weighed a ton, and the weight of the whole thing came crashing down on suddenly un-super St. Louis.

“We said this coming in,” Law hollered. “Anybody who catches a ball has to get hit!”

And then some. Say this about the Patriots: They were Ram tough. They held Marshall Faulk, the best running back in football, to 76 yards. And they stuffed the Greatest Show on Turf on all the plays that counted and on a few that didn’t. Law returned a Warner interception 47 yards for a touchdown, and Tebucky Jones returned a Warner fumble 97 yards for a touchdown that was called back because of a penalty.

Sacks. Hurries. Interceptions. Fumble pickups. And really hard tackles. None of it flashy. None of it psychedelic. But enough to keep them ahead in the game and make the Rams play from the most unfamiliar position — behind.

And then, when the Patriots were supposed to crack, they stood tallest. It was Brady — not Warner — leading a last-second offensive charge.

And Brady — not Warner — who was screaming with joy as the confetti showered down.

“I made some mistakes,” said Warner, following his two interceptions and only one touchdown on a 365-yard night. “It’s hard to swallow.”

But couldn’t we see this coming? It all seems so simple now. The Rams score a zillion points in their regular-season games, but not a lot of points in their biggest games. Their Super Bowl win two years ago was by a narrow margin. Their NFC championship last week was by five points.

All night long, New England kept hitting them, kept making sure that small gains did not turn into big ones. The Pats were just annoying enough, a mosquito that buzzes your ear then disappears to buzz you again just as you’re getting comfortable. They disrupted the Rams rhythm the way a stomping child disrupts a phonograph record.

The Patriots waited, waited, and when the Rams stumbled, they struck.

Couldn’t we have seen it coming?

Well, hindsight is 20-20.

Or in the case, 20-17.

Pat ’em on the back.

Now, you can’t sum up this Super Bowl without a nod to the Rams. They seemed to sleepwalk through much of the night, and when Jones returned Warner’s fumble, they seemed finished.

But a flag brought that huge play back, and the Rams, to their credit, found something inside. They scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns and seemed — to most of the crowd — to be fated to win in overtime.

But the Pats weren’t done. Brady, in what now seems like a stealth attack, orchestrated that last drive. And the field goal sent them back to the Northeast with the first championship in Patriots history.

“Everyone who doubted us, don’t talk to me,” said receiver Troy Brown.

Prepare for a year of silence, Troy.

But in fairness, the one Patriot who was given ample credit during the week was Belichick. He proved his worth Sunday night, and lived up to his reputation as a man who can come up with a one-day game plan for anybody. He was not intimidated by the Rams and their stats. He knew this: It’s not enough to have the toolbox, you have to lower the hammer.

“This team beat the No. 1 seed in the AFC last week in Pittsburgh,” Belichick said, “and it beat the No. 1 in the NFC here in St. Louis.

“And if we’re playing next week, we’ll still be the underdogs.”

Pat ’em on the back: This was one for the books. Super Bowl XXXVI, in the end, may be summed up best by a French Quarter expression and the lyrics of — of all people — a St. Louis musical legend, Chuck Berry:

C’est la vie, say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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