JUST OVER two minutes left in the Super Bowl. The score is tied. You are the quarterback. The ball is yours. What swirls inside your brain? Nerves? Hesitation? Does the inner voice say, “Be careful”? Does the inner voice say,
“No mistakes”? Does the inner voice say, “The whole world is watching. Take it easy. Small steps”?

Or does it say, “Aw, heck, go for the whole thing”?

If you are Kurt Warner, playing at a dizzying height all season, you don’t even blink. You take the snap, you fire away. You throw the ball 40 yards in the air, it lands like a coin in the hands of your favorite target, Isaac Bruce, who loses one defender, cuts back through two others, and sprints 33 yards to the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown. You race into the pile. You shake a fist. You celebrate the moment.

You hold your breath . . .

Just under two minutes left in the Super Bowl. Your team trails by seven. You are the other quarterback. The ball is yours. What swirls inside your brain? Nerves? Insecurity? Does the inner voice say, “This is impossible”? Does the inner voice say, “Don’t make mistakes”? Does the inner voice say, “How can I get us 88 yards with so little time left?”

Or does it say, “Dang it. I’m gonna win this game”?

If you are Steve McNair, who came back from mid-season back surgery, who defied the odds most of his career, who is as big as a linebacker and tougher than most of them, you don’t even blink. You take matters in your hands. You scramble. You improvise. You throw on the run. You command the clock. You run one way, turn the other, spin backward, escape the grasp of two defenders, you stay upright with the desperation of a man about to fall off a tightrope, until you find an open receiver for a first down with six seconds left.

And then you throw the last pass of the game, a zip over the middle to a speedy receiver, who catches it, leans toward the end zone, and, in the grasp of a defender, falls to the turf, his arm outstretched for the final yard between him and glory….

This is how close Super Bowl XXXIV was, how spectacularly it finished, and how marvelous were the performances of the two leaders, Warner and McNair. In the end, the difference between agony and ecstasy was literally a matter of inches.

The biggest game. The best finish.

The longest yard.

Unbelievable? Not really

“HOW ABOUT THE RAMS!” yelled Warner, waving his MVP trophy when it was all over, and St. Louis had completed the most improbable of seasons, going from 4-12 last year to Super Bowl champions, beating Tennessee by a yard, 23-16.

How about the Rams? Well, it was an exclamation that could be used many different ways in this game. How about the Titans? They scored 16 points in the last 15 minutes, and died on their swords at the end.

How about Rams linebacker Mike Jones, who wrapped up Kevin Dyson on that last play and would not let him advance?

How about Eddie George, the Tennessee running back who seemed to take the team on his shoulders down the stretch, scoring twice in eight minutes, nearly winning the game by himself?

You could “How about . . .” from now until next season in this game and never run out of candidates. But no two stand out more than Warner and McNair, who, for once, delivered even more than the week’s worth of hype.

Warner, the winner — who set a Super Bowl record with 414 passing yards — finishes the most incredible single season ever played by an NFL quarterback. Had he been a grizzled veteran, his achievements would be remarkable. Highest-rated passer. MVP of the league. MVP of the Super Bowl.

But to do it as a 28-year-old rookie, well, it’s almost too much to believe.

“Kurt Warner,” said Dick Vermeil, the Rams coach, “is not a fairy tale.”

Right. He just reads like one.

If you don’t know Warner’s story yet, you will before the week is over. He’ll be the darling of every morning show, every late-night talk show, and, no doubt, the movie-of-the-week people. How can he miss? A big, earnest guy, with a passion for God, goes to Division I-AA school, gets overlooked most of his time there, keeps telling people he’s going to play in the NFL until even his friends roll their eyes. He gets cut quickly by Green Bay, goes to work in a supermarket, stocking shelves at night. He plays several years of arena football. Goes to Europe and plays in Amsterdam. Finally, he gets a crack in St. Louis, strictly as a backup to high-priced Trent Green.

Then Green suffers a serious knee injury during preseason. Warner, making NFL minimum wage, steps in.

Cue the music. Cue the glory.

“I don’t think of it as a Hollywood story,” Warner said, his hair still soaked beneath a Ram Super Bowl Champions hat, “it’s just my life.”

And welcome to it. On Sunday, Warner showed the world what Rams fans watched all year. He yanked down the passing game and made it chest high. His throws were horizontal lasers. When you try to describe what he did to the Tennessee defense, the verb that comes to mind is “sliced.” He was an explorer swinging a machete through the brush, clearing the way with another pass, moving ahead, another swipe, another opening. Most quarterbacks prefer to avoid crowds, throwing to the sidelines, finding open areas.

Not Warner. He seems to thrive in traffic. He throws between people, he connects with the precision of a video game. Twenty-four completions? No interceptions? Two touchdowns? MVP?

“I believe in the Lord,” said Warner, “and I believe in myself.”

Hard to argue either one this morning.

What a finishing touch

But let’s be fair, McNair believes in himself as well. And his performance in the final 16 minutes was as riveting — and as much fun to watch — as anything seen in a Super Bowl before. As the Titans closed the gap from 16-0 to 16-6, to 16-13, to 16-16, McNair seemed to turn into every big kid you ever played against in the schoolyard. It didn’t matter what play was called, McNair made it work. He improvised. He threw back over his shoulder. He turned left and right, backward and forward, he ran around defenders and through defenders, until the only playbook he seemed to be following was the one that says, “Don’t go down.”

His final drive, 87 yards, will stand as the best effort to lose a Super Bowl.

“I can’t even remember what was going on during that last drive,” McNair said afterward. “I just knew I was running my a– off.

“I thought (Dyson) was going in. We just came up a little short.”

Only in yardage. Not in heart.

Thus ends the most topsy-turvy season in recent NFL memory. Think about this game. The most unlikely teams — Tennessee and St. Louis — the most unlikely MVP, and a nerve-jangling end to a game that is traditionally over by halftime.

Two great quarterbacks. Two heroic efforts. And a final snapshot of a symbolic stretch, a receiver down, reaching for the goal line, 36 inches short.

The biggest game. The best finish.

The longest yard.

If this is how Super Bowls are going to look in the new century, sign me up for the next 100.

MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Listen to Mitch’s radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM
(760).

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