It was in this city almost 17 years ago that the St. Louis Rams were upset by New England in the Super Bowl, a stunner that launched the Patriots dynasty and garnered Tom Brady the first of his five championship rings.
That memory springs to mind now, as the 8-0 Los Angeles Rams are the NFL’s only undefeated team and the Patriots are resuming their familiar position at or near the top of the AFC. After losing two of three, New England has won five in a row, including a 43-40 victory over the scorching Kansas City Chiefs.
Fresh off the Dodgers-Red Sox World Series, it’s entirely conceivable that this year’s Lombardi Trophy could be won in another showdown between those opposite corners of the country.
Of course, it’s midseason, and the NFL is notoriously unpredictable. Both the Rams and Patriots have huge games Sunday. The Rams play at the 6-1 Saints for control of the NFC. The 6-2 Patriots play host to Green Bay in just the second matchup ever between Brady and Aaron Rodgers, a fellow future Hall of Famer.
Oddsmakers on multiple betting sites say Rams-Patriots is the most likely Super Bowl LIII matchup. In light of that, and this snapshot in time heading into a seminal Sunday for both franchises, it’s instructive to look back at that Feb. 3, 2002 game at the Superdome, the launchpad for the legends of both Brady and Patriots Coach Bill Belichick.
Author Ian O’Connor, in his bestselling biography “Belichick,” examines that game in behind-the-scenes detail and dissects how the coach executed the plan that toppled the Rams, who were favored by two touchdowns, and turned their presumed coronation into a crushing defeat.
O’Connor interviewed 350 people in writing the definitive portrait of the coach, although Belichick wasn’t one of them and, in fact, tried to discourage people from participating. The 492-page book, released this fall, paints a picture of Belichick’s early life, going back to his father’s service in World War II. There are revelations throughout the book, even to those reporters who have followed the Patriots closely over the years.
“I think he’s the most fascinating and enigmatic figure in American sports, and I don’t think there’s a close second,” said O’Connor, an ESPN.com columnist.
A pullback of the curtain on Super Bowl XXXVI is especially interesting because it’s easy to see Belichick using that as a blueprint for attacking today’s Rams, even though Sean McVay’s team is different from the “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams.
In “Belichick,” former Patriots defensive end Anthony Pleasant recalls a team meeting on the eve of the Super Bowl when the coach said, “I’ve got a plan on how we’re going to beat them. Don’t let them throw the ball deep on us. Just play the deep ball, and let them catch everything underneath us. But no big plays on us.” Part of that plan was beating up the Rams receivers at the line of scrimmage, rerouting them, and disrupting the timing that was so critical to quarterback Kurt Warner’s success.
As Warner saw it, Belichick also intended to condition the officials to seeing rough play so they might become desensitized to it as the game wore on.
In the book, Warner says: “I really believe going into that game, that Bill told his guys, `Hey, we’re going to do whatever we can early in the game. We’re going to hold them. We’re going to grab them. We’re going to be physical with them. And we’re going to force the officials to throw a bunch of flags on us in the first half.’ Because what we know is, the NFL does not want the Super Bowl dictated by a bunch of flags thrown in the first half and the game stopping. They want the flow of the game to go.”
Perhaps most of all, the plan called for the Patriots to rough up Rams running back Marshall Faulk, the league’s most valuable player in 2000.
The book tells of a sit-down interview before the game that Belichick did with Chris Berman, after which the ESPN host asked the producer and camera operator to leave the room.
“The broadcaster and coach chatted about strategy for a few minutes before Belichick looked Berman in the eye and said, `Marshall Faulk will not beat us in this game,’” O’Connor writes.
Faulk ran for 76 yards and caught passes for 54 more, but the Patriots kept him out of the end zone in that 20-17 victory.
All that might seem like ancient history to some. But if the Rams and Patriots were to meet again in the Super Bowl, it would be a safe bet that Belichick would devise a similar plan for running back Todd Gurley, the biggest engine of the Rams offense.
With half a season to go, that’s all conjecture now. But if the teams continue on their current trajectories, those lessons from the past will become increasingly relevant.