NEW ORLEANS - A question mark for most of the week, Tom Brady provided the biggest answer of the season last night.
The second-year New England quarterback completed five of eight passes and accounted for all 53 yards in the game-winning drive as the Patriots responded to a 14-point, fourth-quarter run, upsetting the St. Louis Rams, 20-17, in Super Bowl XXXVI.
Brady, who wasn't named the starter until Wednesday because of a sprained left ankle, marched the Patriots into field-goal range 1 1/2 minutes after the Rams tied the contest at 17 and watched Adam Vinatieri hit a game-ending 48-yarder. A former sixth-round pick who had completed just one pass all of last season, Brady completed the most surprising story of the season by being named the Super Bowl MVP.
"Whenever we had our backs up against the wall, we responded," said Brady, 24, who became the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl and finished 16 of 27 for 145 yards passing and one touchdown. "It's awesome."
The Rams scored two touchdowns to tie the game at 17 with 1:30 remaining and handed the ball back to a New England offense that hadn't driven more than 45 yards. While the Patriots could have easily run out the clock to force overtime, they took a chance in a series that began at their 17-yard line with no timeouts.
"I never thought to take a knee," Brady said. "I had it in my mind that we were going to win the game."
Starting the drive with only 92 yards passing, Brady dropped in three short passes to running back J.R. Redmond to move to the Patriots' 41. After throwing the ball away to avoid a sack, Brady connected with receiver Troy Brown for a 23-yard pass for New England's biggest gain of the night.
The play, which is called "64 Max All In," keeps seven men in to block for maximum protection and sends all three receivers on in routes at different depths. Brady found Brown 14 yards downfield, and Brown ran another 9 yards to put the Patriots within field-goal range.
"The way the Rams read the quarterback's eyes, I looked hard right, and they lost track of him," said Brady, who went to Brown six times last night. "I hit him, and he did the rest."
After the catch by Brown, Brady threw to tight end Jermaine Wiggins for 6 yards to move to the St. Louis 30. He spiked the ball to stop the clock with seven seconds left and set up Vinatieri's 48-yarder.
"That last drive was tremendous for Tom," Brown said.
It marked the ninth straight win for Brady, who was 13-3 as a first-time starter.
"It was a pretty well-executed two-minute drill," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "Tom's been pretty familiar with pressure all year."
The fourth-string quarterback a year ago, Brady entered the season as the backup and was rushed into the starting role when Drew Bledsoe suffered a serious chest injury on Sept. 23. Taking over an 0-2 team, Brady led the Patriots to a charmed playoff run with quick decisions and an efficient arm.
He was on such a hot streak that Belichick decided to stick with Brady as starter despite Bledsoe being healthy enough to play in late November. But Brady went down with an ankle injury a week ago, and Bledsoe came in to help New England to the AFC championship, sparking a quarterback controversy never seen at Super Bowl week.
When Brady showed that he could run the offense in practice, Belichick again named him as his starter over Bledsoe, the Patriots' $103 million quarterback. Brady, though, didn't fold under the pressure of the Super Bowl and even fell asleep after pre-game warm-ups.
"I woke up feeling calm and confident," Brady said.
Brady threw a critical pass to receiver David Patten in the right corner of the end zone, increasing New England's lead to 14-3 with 31 seconds left in the first half. But for most of the Super Bowl, the Patriots were carried by their defense and not Brady.
In the end, Brady had one final answer for the Rams and the skeptics.
"It's awesome," Brady said. "We've got a team full of underdogs. I guess we're the top dog now."