The Play That Actually Started The Patriots Dynasty
Jan 26, 2019, 12:00 AM
(Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
by Andrew Pasquini – Sports 1140 KHTK
The New England Patriots trailed the Oakland Raiders 13-10 in the divisional round of the 2001 playoffs. A then-24-year-old Tom Brady was in shotgun with 1:50 left in the fourth quarter inside a snowy Foxboro Stadium. Brady snapped the ball and Raider defensive back Charles Woodson got to Brady completely untouched. When Woodson hit Brady, the ball came loose and linebacker Greg Biekert jumped on the ball. I’ll spare Raiders fans the details of what happened next.
The now infamous “Tuck Rule” game gave Brady his first of now many postseason wins in his career. Three weeks later, Brady led the Patriots to their first Super Bowl championship. Many consider the tuck rule to be the play that started the Patriots dynasty. However, after they won the divisional game against the Raiders, they still had zero Super Bowl championships to their name and still had to win two more games to get that championship.
The actual play that started the Patriots dynasty happened against the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. There’s plenty of setup to the play, so let’s look at the four players who helped start the Patriots dominance.
The story of Kurt Warner is well known. From undrafted free agent with the Green Bay Packers, to working at a grocery store for $5.50 per hour, to the Iowa Barnstormers, to the Rams. In 2001, Warner was already a Super Bowl champion after a win over the Tennessee Titans two years prior. Warner had the best season of his career in 2001, leading the Rams to a 14-2 record, throwing for a league-high 36 touchdowns, and winning his second-career MVP award. Warner was prone to throwing interceptions however, throwing 22, which was tied for the third-most in the league.
With Warner, the Rams averaged 31.4 points per game which was by far the best in the league (the Indianapolis Colts were second in the league at 25.8). The Rams offense was in the third season of being considered the “Greatest Show on Turf.” The offense featured Warner, running back Marshal Faulk, and wide receivers Torry Holt, Az-Zahir Hakim, and Isaac Bruce. The Rams were the fifth-best rushing team in the league and the best passing team.
Bruce was in his seventh-season with the Rams in 2001. Up until 2001, Bruce’s average season with 68 receptions, 1,042 yards, and seven touchdowns. His 2001 season was on par for his career at that point, collected 68 receptions for 1,106 yards, and six touchdowns on 103 total targets. His 103 targets were behind both Holt and Faulk but Bruce led the Rams in yards per reception, making him the Rams most explosive option in the passing game.
When Super Bowl XXXVI was over and done with, Bruce finished the game with just five receptions for 56 yards on seven targets. The play that changed the game and the course of NFL history was a pass that was targeted for Bruce. Bruce lined up on the left but went in motion and lined up on the right side of the ball. Cornerback Ty Law followed Bruce from left to right on the Patriots side of the ball as linebacker Mike Vrabel was lined up on the right side of the line.
Vrabel was a third round pick in the 1997 NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Vrabel never really made much noise with the Steelers though, playing in thirty games, starting in zero, and making 36 total tackles in his four season in Pittsburgh. Prior to the 2001 season, Vrabel signed with the Patriots and had his breakout season. In 2001, Vrabel played in all 16 games, starting in 12, recording 63 tackles and setting a new career-high in sacks with three.
In the two games prior to the Super Bowl in the 2001 playoffs, Vrabel only had four tackles and would only collect three more against the Rams. His biggest play of the game was a quarterback hit of Warner, a stat that wasn’t tracked in 2001.
Law was a first-round pick of the Patriots in the 1995 NFL Draft. By the time the 2001 season came, Law was already a consistent part of the Patriots’ defense. In his seven seasons in New England, he played in 103 games, starting 95 of them. He made a name for himself in the 1998 season where he led the league in interceptions with nine. That 1998 season earned Law his first First Team All-Pro honors, with his second coming in 2003. In 2001, Law had the second-most interceptions on the Patriots with three.
Vrabel and Law were two of the top players on a sub-par Patriots defense who finished in the bottom half in the NFL in points allowed, passing yards allowed, and rushing yards allowed. The one thing that the Patriots were good at was forcing turnovers, specifically intercepting passes. The 2001 Patriots forced 35 total turnovers, which was the eighth-most in the league and intercepted 22 passes, sixth-best. The Patriots did lead the NFL in one defensive stat: touchdown returns. New England finished the season with seven return touchdowns, five interceptions and two punts.
All of this set up Super Bowl XXXVI. The 14-2 Rams with the high-powered offense against a 11-5 Patriots team that featured a young Brady and a below-average defense. Those factors are what made the Rams a 14 point favorite heading into it.
Warner and his high interception rate, Bruce, Vrabel, Law, and the Patriots ability for force turnovers met at this intersection of NFL history that would change the landscape of the league for the next 20 years.
With a little more than nine minutes remaining in the second quarter, the Rams were leading the Patriots 3-0. Warner took the snap from under center, Vrabel came in clean and got a hit in on Warner just after Warner was able to rush a pass towards Bruce who was being covered by Law. The pass being rushed, was thrown well behind Bruce and Law was able to jump the route and intercept the ball and return it 47 yards for a touchdown.
Up until that point, the Rams had really dominated the game. The Rams had ran 28 total plays compared to the Patriots 14 plays. St. Louis had out-gained New England 133 to 55 and were winning the time of possession battle 12:58 to 8:13. The Patriots up to that point didn’t have a drive that lasted more than six plays and punted three times. The only stat the Rams didn’t dominate in was the score at the point, holding on to just a 3-0 lead.
The Law touchdown settled the Patriots down a bit. The Patriots defense was bending at that point but hadn’t broken yet. The Rams showed the ability to move the ball against the New England defense, coming off back-to-back ten-play drives, one that led to a field goal and another that resulted in a missed field goal.
New England would score another touchdown before the half ended while the defense forced another turnover before the end of the half. The Patriots took a 14-3 lead into the half. The defense held the Rams scoreless in the third quarter but allowed 14 points in the fourth to allow St. Louis to tie the game with 1:30 remaining in the game. The Patriots took the ball in that 90 seconds and drove 53 yards to get in a position for Adam Vinatieri to make the game-winning field goal to give New England their first Super Bowl championship.
Without Vrabel rushing Warner to throw and the Law interception, maybe the Rams keep moving the ball down the field against the sub-par Patriots defense and they score. Without the interception, there might not be a 14-3 lead at halftime, there might not be a Vinatieri game-winning field goal, and there might not be a first Super Bowl Championship. Who knows, maybe without the first championship, there may not be a dynasty in New England.
In reality however, Law made the play and the Patriots will be playing against the now-Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII for a chance to win a sixth championship.