2-4-02, 1:35 a.m. BY GEOFF HOBSON
NEW ORLEANS _ Patriots quarterback Tom Brady's eyes lit up like Bourbon Street with 1:21 left in the game of his life Sunday night when offensive coordinator Charlie Weis gave him the play call.
"51 Go Open," he heard over the din of the SuperDome's 72,922 that had stumbled into the best Super Bowl in a decade.
The call from their own 17-yard-line meant the Patriots of New England and the region's Bill Buckner and Bucky Dent and Ken Stabler and Jim McMahon and Desmond Howard and Ken Dryden and Isiaih Thomas and all the other sports ghosts hovering over failed championship bids weren't going to take a 17-17 tie into overtime with the heavily favored Rams.
"Did you see them score. . .how long did it take them to score?" asked Weis of a St. Louis touchdown drive that took all of 21 seconds and tied the game with 1:30 left in the game.
"They had all the momentum going their way," Weis said. "Do you want to play to win or do you want to play not to lose?"
So the Patriots won when the 24-year-old Brady became the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl when he hit five of eight passes for 53 yards to set up Adam Vinatieri's 48-yard field goal with seven seconds at the gun.
Brady, who doesn't look old enough to drive, got the key to the MVP's car after fashioning the biggest upset since Joe Willie Namath shocked the Colts in Super Bowl III.
But Weis was thinking about another great Super Bowl moment a little more recent. Like 13 years ago. Hanging around the hotel Sunday, Weis watched on his TV Joe Montana tear the heart out of the Bengals with 34 seconds left in a two-minute drill that gave San Francisco Super Bowl XXIII. Weis, of Jersey, a big Boomer Esiason fan, felt sorry for the Long Islander. But he enjoyed the miking of Bengals head coach Sam Wyche on the film.
"Let's face it, men." Weis said. "This isn't Joe Montana with Jerry Rice and John Taylor out there. It's just a bunch of hard-working guys who wouldn't quit and stepped up and made the plays."
But for 81 seconds, they were good enough to be preserved on film for the Super Bowl champion 13 years from now.
A week after leaving the AFC championship game with a sprained ankle, Brady was Boomer tough and Montana cool at the end. And he got a Jerry Rice-like play from the Could-Have-Been MVP Troy Brown when Brown sliced through the Rams' secondary on an "in-cut," route for 23 yards and wriggled out of bounds at the Rams 36 to stop the clock at 21 seconds.
"The way the Rams play, they really read the quarterback's eyes," Brady said. "I was looking hard to the
right and Troy slipped behind them. They lost sight of him, I hit him, and he did the rest. He's been doing that all year. . .Unfortunately, he just never got the recognition for it. But he proved today, in the biggest game of his life, why he is a great receiver."
Brown, who began the season with a 100-yard day in Cincinnati, finished it with six catches for 89 yards. Brady, who began the season sitting behind Drew Bledsoe, finished his rocket ride from sub to car with a steel-belted 145-yard effort that was remarkable for no mistakes. He outplayed two-time NFL MVP Kurt Warner, whose two interceptions led to 10 points.
"Calm. Confident," said Brady of his thoughts in New England's most famous drive since Paul Revere rode at midnight.
"Just realizing guys are going to be open," Brady said. "I just have to drop back and hit them. Hit them in stride."
And like he was all year, Bledsoe was encouraging and supportive. Brady remembers Bledsoe saying before the final drive: "Drop back and sling it. Go win the game. Just drop back and sling it."
"He's as cool as they come," Brady said. "He sets the example for all of us. He sets the example for me. He's a huge part of the reason why we've been successful this year."
The reason Brady was able to sling it is because Rams' first-year defensive coordinator Lovie Smith opted to stay in the two-deep zone coverage that has been the staple of his unit's rise to No. 3 in the NFL rankings.
"We were playing our bread-and-butter cover two defense, and that defense got us to this point in the game," said Rams middle linebacker London Fletcher. "I just want to say that Brady did a great job managing the offense, and he made the plays he had to make when it counted. . .He also made the right decisions. .We had good coverage in the game. If we could have tackled their guys in bounds, we could have still been out there playing."
When the linebacker on his side dropped into a zone, Brown saw a dead spot on the other side of his route and busted across the middle because, "I knew I had to get over there to get a chance to get it."
Brady acted as if this was the Michigan spring game. After getting to the Super Dome very early Sunday, he said he fell asleep while killing time laying on the locker room floor
"When I woke up," Brady said, "I didn't think that I would feel as good as I felt."
Weis couldn't say enough about Brady's decision-making in the final drive. Weis said he made eight perfect decisions on a drive that would have ended if one play wasn't.
The Patriots thought the Rams might play man-to-man on the drive's first play and "51 Go Open," is designed to hit wide receiver David Patten deep in one-on-one coverage with Brown double covered. But the Rams were in zone, Patten wasn't available, and Brady hit a check-down pass to running back J.R. Redmond for five yards.
"That play might have been as big as (Brown's play) because completing that first pass is important," Weis said. "And he made a good decision on the play before the pass to Troy when he threw it away (under pressure)."
Brady had talked to former Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino about starting in the Super Bowl in only his second year like Brady did and Marino told him the only thing he knew after losing is that he woke up Monday morning wanting to play the game again.
"You never know when you're going to get back," Brady said.
Marino, who is going to the Hall of Fame, never did. Brady, who is going to Disney World, already comes back with the ring if he does return.