Franchises haven't met since New England's upset

The Associated Press


ST. LOUIS - The last time the St. Louis Rams and New England Patriots played, everything was at stake.

In their heyday as the Greatest Show on Turf, the Rams were the oddsmakers’ two-touchdown favorite in the 2002 Super Bowl. They were one of the biggest favorites to fall, losing 20-17 on Adam Vinatieri’s 47-yard field goal as time expired.

“I still remember just turning around and watching that ball sail through the uprights and all of that confetti falling in the wrong color,” defensive tackle Tyoka Jackson said. “That’s the memory I’ll think of always.”

Not all of the Rams who were around then have that same depth of feeling. Wide receiver Isaac Bruce said there’s nothing special about facing the Patriots for the first time since then, He doesn’t even think about the game that could have solidified the Rams as one of the great offensive forces in league history.

St. Louis won its first Super Bowl after the 1999 season and was attempting to win two championships in a three-year span — something the Patriots subsequently did.

“I don’t hold any grudges,” Bruce said. “It’s spilled milk and the milk’s been cleaned up, so you just move on.”

Now, the focus is more on the Patriots’ amazing record since then. New England (6-1) had won an NFL-record 18 straight games and 21 in a row counting the postseason before collapsing under the weight of four turnovers in a 34-20 loss to the Steelers last week.

The loss was the Patriots’ first since Sept. 28, 2003 against the Redskins.

Understandably, they’re more proud of accomplishing what the Rams couldn’t: those two Super Bowls wins.

“We’ve always said that you’re defined in this league by championships, and not how many regular season games you win in a row,” linebacker Mike Vrabel said. “People always remember the champion, and that’s our goal every year.”

The Rams (4-3) had known Bill Belichick was building something special earlier in the 2001 season when they won 24-17 at New England. After that game, coach Mike Martz referred to them as a Super Bowl-caliber team, and earlier in the game week he called Belichick a “Hall of Fame coach.”

“I mean this sincerely when I tell you that he’s the standard we’re all trying to get to,” Martz said. “He may be as good as there’s ever been.”

Belichick returns the favor, admitting he’s borrowed aspects of the Rams’ offense over the years.

“Don’t get me wrong, we’re not the Rams — not even close,” Belichick said. “The things that we do, we’ve definitely studied a lot of what they’ve done, and used some of it as it applies to what we do.”

To start a new streak, the Patriots will have to control an offense that while still greatly respected isn’t as dynamic as it used to be. The Rams were held to 14 points by the previously winless Dolphins two weeks ago in their last game before a bye, and are averaging 22 points per game — although as they showed three weeks ago during a 17-point burst in the final 5½ minutes against the Seahawks, they’re still dangerous.

“It’s a very explosive offense,” Belichick said. “Mike has done a great job of developing it and utilizing the different people.”

The Patriots will be at a disadvantage because neither of their starting cornerbacks will be available. Ty Law will miss four to six weeks with a broken bone in his left foot sustained in the Steelers loss, and Tyrone Poole is out with a knee injury.

That could hurt one of their trademarks, a physical style of play at the line of scrimmage that has frustrated wide receivers over the years. Although Bruce claims to have moved on from the Super Bowl loss, he remembers being slow to adapt to such roughhouse tactics.

“I put it on myself for not realizing what type of game was going to be played in that Super Bowl,” Bruce said. “I really didn’t realize it until the third quarter that the referees were going to allow what was going on to go on.”

Another disadvantage: The Patriots will be facing a team coming off a bye for the second straight week. And the Rams are 4-0 after the bye under Martz by a combined score of 156-57.

Part of the reason is the Rams are fresh. Their bye week is extremely light: three days of weight lifting and running, but no practices.

A plus for the Patriots is that running back Corey Dillon could be back from a thigh injury that sidelined him last week. He’s still seventh in the AFC with 637 yards and a 4.9-yard average.