Yeah, you read that right. Super Bowl XXXVI took place on February 3, 2002. It was the first-ever Super Bowl played in February as the league pushed the season back as a result of the attacks on September 11, 2001. Before our very eyes, the New England Patriots modern dynasty was born, but the run of success that blossomed over the next two decades all started with an asterisk.
Is New England the model of what a “dynasty” is all about? Duh. Is future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady the greatest to ever lace up cleats and step on a football field? It’s impossible to argue against it. Should we just recognize all five of their Super Bowl titles as spectacular, dynastic triumphs? Not at all, and here’s why:
The Patriots were 5-5 after losing to the St. Louis Rams at home, 24-17, midway through the 2001 NFL season. Head coach Bill Belichick’s team won every game the rest of the year on their way to an 11-5 record and a first-round bye in the AFC Playoffs. Those six teams that Belichick, Brady, and the Patriots’ elite defense beat to get there? They had a combined record of 39-57 during the 2001 season.
After a cozy bye week, the Patriots hosted the Oakland Raiders at Gillette Stadium for the AFC Divisional Round game. You might not remember that game right away, but two words should jog your memory: Tuck Rule. The now-outdated law gave Tom Brady’s massive late-game fumble back to New England, who won the game thanks to kicker Adam Vinatieri’s golden toe in the snow.
Just another break for the Greatest of All Time.
During the AFC Championship game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, whose defense allowed the fewest yards per game during the 2001 season, Brady was knocked out of the game in the second quarter with an injury. The Patriots would only score one offensive touchdown with Drew Bledsoe at the helm, which was the first time he’d seen game action since he was hurt early in the year and replaced by Brady. A Troy Brown punt return, a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown, and two late interceptions sent New England to the Super Bowl with a 24-17 win.
Again, the G.O.A.T. caught a break, and he didn’t even have to play this time.
Now, here we are. It’s Super Bowl time in New Orleans.
Led by quarterback Kurt Warner — the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 2001 — plus Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce, and Torry Holt, the “Greatest Show on Turf” had its hands full with New England’s sixth-ranked scoring defense. Defensive superstars like Richard Seymour, Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi, Ty Law, and Lawyer Milloy allowed 427 yards of offense, which was the most-ever in a Super Bowl win at the time, but only gave up 17 points.
Still, Tom Brady earned the credit as the game’s MVP despite throwing for only 145 yards and one touchdown. Oh, and the final game-winning drive that he “orchestrated”? It involved three check-down passes to running back J.R. Redmond, one 23-yard completion to a wide open Troy Brown, and another five-yard dump to Jermaine Wiggins that set up Vinatieri’s game-winning 48-yard field goal.
One of the greatest drives in Super Bowl history by a quarterback? Eh.
In 2008, the Boston Herald published a story citing an anonymous source that New England had videotaped the Rams’ walkthrough practice leading up to that Super Bowl. The paper was forced to retract the story and apologize to the organization because a tape of that practice was never found. Later, Patriots assistant coach Matt Walsh turned over multiple tapes from 2000 to 2002 of the Patriots recording practices of opposing teams, which included that 2001 AFC title game — you know this as Spygate.
Do with this information what you will. Criticize me for being a Steelers fan just hating on New England, even though I know that Ben Roethlisberger did absolutely nothing at all to earn his first Super Bowl title, either. The facts are that the Patriots caught a ton of breaks in 2001, and the stars aligned for the dynasty to begin.
History was written, but it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
Expect to see this Super Bowl replayed over and over in the build up to Super Bowl LIII between the Pats and Los Angeles Rams at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia. Just remember that New England wasn’t always the dominant dynasty they are now.
If anything, that first title was actually a fluke.