NEW ORLEANS — What won this game was the last thing anyone would have expected.
Paced by an old Michigan quarterback--young Tom Brady--the New England Patriots' offensive team went on a tear in the last two minutes.
And that, skeptics, is how they upset the St. Louis Rams on Sunday, 20-17--with Brady's five perfectly thrown passes to place New England for the deciding field goal.
Everyone knows that the New England coach, Bill Belichick, is a master of defense, and, for three quarters, his defensive players beat back everything that Ram quarterback Kurt Warner threw at them.
And not only that. They made the two tough, artistic defensive plays--earning an interception and then earning a fumble--that put the Patriots ahead, 17-3, entering what so unexpectedly turned out to be the greatest fourth quarter in Super Bowl history.
For when the Patriot defense finally tired--predictably, because you can't chase that fleet of fleet Ram receivers forever--Ram Coach Mike Martz and his quarterback, Warner, stepped in with two long touchdown drives to tie it, 17-17.
Now only a little over a minute remained. The first Super Bowl overtime was just around the corner. The Patriots easily could have elected to run out the clock, taking their chances on winning the toss and winning in overtime.
Brady saw it another way.
When Charlie Weis, New England's offensive coordinator, decided to test the Rams with a safe pass or two, Brady made the most of his chance with two darts that moved New England from its 17-yard line to the 30.
Now with only 41 seconds remaining, Brady could spike the ball, which encouraged the Patriots to carry on with the three passes that won it.
His last big one was dispatched to his best receiver, Troy Brown, on the 23-yard play that killed the Rams.
Brady followed that with another six-yard pass play, then spiked the ball, setting the Patriots up for a 48-yard field goal, well within Adam Vinatieri's range.
Belichick is a famous conservative who, if he weren't so conservative, seemingly could have won this game with ease--quite possibly by a rout-size score--if he hadn't kept Brady under cover so long.
You hardly saw him in the first three quarters except for the touchdown throw that opened New England's 17-3 halftime lead.
But in the fourth quarter, Belichick finally reacted as if he had no choice but to let Brady fire away. And fire the kid did, throwing one ideal pass after another with the clear-headedness and calm he used to exhibit, no doubt, on the Michigan practice field when no coach was looking.
For, now, it's hard to believe that this guy never won the Heisman Trophy.
It's even harder to believe that Warner was the NFL's MVP this season, simply because the Patriots saw no point in unveiling Brady until the last 10 minutes of a Super Bowl.
When Belichick finally let it all hang out, you saw a man who has to be--except for Warner--the most amazing young quarterback to come into the league since long before Warner.
At 6 feet 4 and 220 pounds, Brady, who is from San Mateo, clearly has everything a good quarterback needs.
A good veteran quarterback, that is.
At age 24, in only his second year of NFL football, he was as cool and skillful in the fourth quarter of high-pressure Super Bowl XXXVI as the most seasoned quarterback you ever saw in any fourth quarter.
What's more, when Brady had to throw a hard ball, he threw it very, very hard, with no loss of accuracy.
One more thing: As quarterbacks, he and Warner couldn't be more different.
Warner is a magician-type.
Brady is a typical great quarterback-type, with the quick feet, the quick arm and the rapid, smooth throwing motion of the master passer of so long ago, Joe Namath.
It's the irony of the season: When the Rams finally lose after a season as the finest passing team ever--as the only football team that ever exceeded 500 points three years running--they finally lose to a great passer.
A great one that nobody knew about.
Belichick is such an exceptional defensive coach that when the Patriots were winning eight in a row--when they were winning every game, in fact, since the Rams beat them Nov. 18 at Foxboro, 24-17--everyone understood that Belichick was doing it with defense.
For three quarters, he confirmed that.
In the fourth quarter, a Michigan man saved him.