When was the last time a pro football game actually made you feel good? Not anxious, as you feel when your team is in a tough game, or relieved when they win. Not excited, as you might feel when you have a big bet down. I mean good for having watched it and good because of the outcome. The New England Patriots have been way over their heads for the last two months -- you know it, I know it, and Sunday, with 83 seconds left to play, they knew it, too. The Patriots had no business even being in the AFC championship game against Pittsburgh, let alone in the Super Bowl against the St. Louis Rams, a team they had already lost to in the regular season.
There are only two ways a team can react to a referee call as ghastly as the one that let the Patriots survive against the Raiders -- the first is to get timid and apologetic and defensive and agree with all your critics that you didn't deserve to win. The second one, a much wiser choice if you're planning on winning a championship, is to go into denial and simply insist that such an amazing fluke could only happen to a team of destiny. The Patriots chose No. 2, and by God, in doing so really made themselves into a team of destiny.
I can't now remember whether I was a big fan of the Vince Lombardi-era Packers or whether I became one retrospectively after the 1967 NFC championship "Ice Bowl" with Dallas. In that game Bart Starr, the greatest clutch quarterback in NFL history, came over to the sidelines to confer with the greatest coach in NFL history. There were 13 seconds on the clock and the Packers were losing 17-14. If they ran a play and failed to score, it's doubtful they could have recovered in time to kick a field goal, which meant that the option was: Kick a field goal and try to win it in overtime or go for the win -- or the loss -- right then and there. As it turned out, the field goal was never considered. What Lombardi understood and what Starr understood that Lombardi understood was that when you want to be great there are times when you have to think great, i.e., abandon the safest and wisest of game plans and take the big risk. The Packers did -- Bart Starr scored from the one-yard line -- and the Packers became immortal.
Last Sunday, with 83 seconds to play and no timeouts, the Patriots were losing 17-17. They had been outgained 427 yards to 207, were behind in time of possession (33 minutes and 30 seconds to 25/00), and had been out-first-downed 26-11. These are the statistics of a slaughter. And yet the Patriots, due to some extraordinary brinkmanship and three turnovers by the Rams, found themselves tied with the best team in professional football. All of a sudden, in the fourth quarter, the Rams remembered that they didn't have to win by 14 or 17 or any number of points but one, and they roared back from a 17-3 deficit to tie the game with two swift touchdowns. We'd all like to think that if the game had gone into overtime and the Rams had won, that everybody would have happily slapped the Patriots on the back and said, "Geez, what a terrific effort! You guys really beat the spread!" But we all know that the real truth of the matter is: No one remembers anything but who won.
So for New England it wasn't just gut-check time, it was reality-check time. What would most teams have done in that situation? Exactly what former coach John Madden was telling them to do from the booth: "Don't do anything stupid. Run the clock down and regroup for overtime!" But what Patriot coach Bill Belichick understood at that moment was more important than all of the strategies and innovations his defense had thrown at the Rams that day. What Belichick understood -- what he had to admit to himself -- is that the Rams were the better team, that even though it had taken them nearly four quarters, they had finally remembered that fact, and that his team still had a chance to win the game anyway. The odds didn't look particularly good. To choose to send the game into overtime would be tantamount to letting the outcome ride on a coin flip, namely the 50-50 possibility of giving a suddenly rejuvenated Rams offense a single possession to erase the mistakes of an entire afternoon.
What Belichick saw at that moment was what Lombardi saw 35 years ago -- namely that the time had come to take a calculated gamble. It was time to depend not on the Rams to lose, but on his Patriots to go out and win. And they did. Starting from inside their own 20, the Patriots, led by the youngest winning quarterback in Super Bowl history, made their only sustained scoring drive in the game.
I really don't think the New England Patriots will ever be immortal; the team is as natural a candidate to belly-flop in 2002 as the Baltimore Ravens were in 2001, and perhaps even more so. But right now they certainly must feel immortal, and right now that's really all that matters. For one memorable Sunday, they proved all the experts -- including yours truly -- wrong. And they made football fun again.
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I'd always kind of liked Pat Summerall as an announcer, but I never really thought he was trying quite as hard as he might have. On the Rams' final touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, quarterback Kurt Warner took a vicious hit, and Summerall, coming closer to sheer enthusiasm than he had all day, ejaculated, "Boy, he is one tough ..." Did I hear an "s" before Pat checked himself? I sat in front of my TV set, fist clenched, saying, "Go on, Pat! Dammit! It's your last game, what are they going to do -- fire you? You're entitled! Say it!" But Pat Summerall was silent -- and thus missed his chance at immortality.