ATLANTA — The last time the Rams and Patriots met in a Super Bowl, the result was unforgettable.
There have been plenty of times Kurt Warner wished it was a little less so.
“You can’t help it,” he said of being on the losing end of Super Bowl XXXVI and being constantly reminded of it. “Every time I get on TV, they show highlights of that game.”
Seventeen years have helped put salve on some of those wounds for the Hall of Famer, who was in Atlanta ahead of the Super Bowl as an NFL Network analyst. That last meeting at this level was an exciting game, the first ever decided with points scored as time expired. But it also was bigger than the 60 minutes it took to determine a victor.
The Rams were a budding dynasty, having won a Super Bowl two years earlier and looking to show that their “Greatest Show on Turf” offense could dominate the NFL. The Patriots were the nobodies, the happy-to-be-theres, the two-touchdown underdogs who had been embarrassed in their two previous Super Bowl appearances by a combined score of 81-31.
It seemed as if the Rams, who had trailed almost the entire game, were going to be in good position to win it when they scored a tying touchdown with 1:21 remaining, their second touchdown of the fourth quarter. Even when the Patriots got the ball back, Warner said he was very confident.
“No way they go for this,” he said he was thinking. With 81 seconds left, he was even wondering if the Rams might get a three-and-out and get the ball back to win it in regulation.
On television, broadcaster John Madden was thinking and saying the same thing, urging the Patriots to be conservative with a young, unproven quarterback, run time off the clock and take their chances in overtime.
But the Patriots were having none of that. They embarked on a nine-play, 53-yard drive capped by a 48-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri that gave them a 20-17 win.
“Tom Brady and the legend started there,” Warner said.
So, too, did the accusations that the Patriots don’t always play on the up-and-up. Rams running back Marshall Faulk remains insistent that New England cheated by filming his team’s walk-through leading up to the game. Although an NFL investigation later found no proof of such a tape ever existing, its presence in the folklore of the Super Bowl and the Patriots’ penchant for shenanigans remains.
With Brady and Bill Belichick heading into their ninth Super Bowl together — and their third straight — it’s hard to imagine now that the Patriots were not only underdogs but unknowns.
“We felt it was disrespectful our names weren’t even mentioned,” Willie McGinest — a linebacker on that team who now is an NFL Network analyst — said of the chatter that the Super Bowl would be a formality in the coronation of the Rams.
“People didn’t really know our roster, who we were. It was an opportunity for us as a team to not only shock the world but to show everybody that when you don’t give somebody a chance or give them respect, that’s the outcome that can happen.”
The Patriots seized the spotlight and have yet to relinquish it. And while almost every element of the organization has been overturned in the nearly two decades since they captured their first Super Bowl title, Brady and Belichick remain at the center of their success.
Warner said Brady wasn’t the same back then in his first season as a starting quarterback.
“At that point in time, he was asked to manage games, make a few plays, and they were going to win other ways,” he said. “Now they’ve asked him to do anything and everything. Sometimes you have to throw 50 times. He’s so in command now of whatever they ask him to do. Primarily he can carry you with his right arm. He was not that guy early in his career, as most guys aren’t. But now he’s as good as anybody.
“My impression of him at that time was not that he was going to be the greatest quarterback to ever play.”
Warner said he’s gotten over the loss and has been able to appreciate Super Bowl XXXVI as a great game.
“It came down to the last play, a kick to finish it with no time on the clock,” he said. “Good memories, but some you’d like to change a little bit. That game the dynasty started for the Patriots and the Rams, we kind of fell apart after that. We haven’t had a lot of success until this point.”
It took them 17 years to get back. They’ve arrived finding a familiar opponent but a different storyline. Now it’s the Patriots who are the established power against the upstart Rams, a team that rocked the NFL on its heels with a high-powered offense in 2018 and a young quarterback at the steering wheel. A team looking, perhaps, to avenge the loss that birthed the Patriots as we now know and think of them.
The Patriots’ reign of NFL domination began against the Rams. Might it end against them too?