NEW ORLEANS - They came through in the blustery snow of New England and in perfect conditions inside the Superdome. They went from being a 5-5 also-ran to nine straight victories and their first Super Bowl title.
On a day designed for heroes, in a site that resembled a military fortress as much as a stadium, the Patriots' charmed season brought them to the top of pro football with a 20-17 upset of the St. Louis Rams on Sunday.
"This is something to relish, sit back and soak in," said Adam Vinatieri, whose 48-yard field goal on the final play set off wild celebrations by the 14-point underdogs.
Vinatieri has never missed inside a dome - he also had a 37-yarder Sunday - but, far more impressively, he made two critical field goals at home in the snow two weeks ago against Oakland to keep New England alive.
"I think that about every close game we had a chance to win, we won," he said. "I think when we were 0-2, everybody wrote us off except for the members of this team. We got on a streak and we just kept going."
The game was as much a victory for America as for the red-white-and-blue clad New Englanders. On a day filled with patriotic themes inside the Superdome and high security outside, everything went off without a hitch.
Fans were urged to show up five hours before kickoff to get through a perimeter filled with soldiers on the ground and sharpshooters on the roof. For their cooperation, they were treated to one of the great endings in NFL history.
League MVP Kurt Warner woke up to rally the Rams, who had the NFL's best record and most powerful offense this season, from a 17-3 hole. He sneaked for a 2-yard touchdown, his first rushing score all season, two plays after a holding penalty on New England's Willie McGinest negated Tebucky Jones' 98-yard romp with Warner's fumble that would have clinched the win.
Then Warner needed only three plays and 21 seconds to take the Rams 55 yards, with Ricky Proehl's 26-yard TD reception tying it with 1:30 remaining.
"We had a lot of new life," said Warner, who was harried all game and threw two interceptions that resulted in 10 points. "We figured we'd hold them and have overtime."
Instead, second-year quarterback Tom Brady, who sprained his ankle in the AFC championship game, but was healthy enough to start the Super Bowl, earned game MVP honors with a poised 53-yard drive. It included a 23-yard completion to Troy Brown that got the Patriots in range for Vinatieri.
"I was planning to go out there and win the game," said Brady, who was so calm he took a nap in the locker room before the game. "Adam wasn't going to miss that kick."
Vinatieri, who nailed a 45-yarder in the snow to tie Oakland and then a 23-yarder to win it in overtime, wouldn't have been in such a position without the only three takeaways of the game.
Ty Law ran back an interception 47 yards for the Patriots' first points. Terrell Buckley went 15 yards with a fumble recovery to set up another touchdown, an 8-yard leaping reception by David Patten. And Otis Smith ran another interception 30 yards, leading to Vinatieri's first field goal.
The Rams led the NFL with 44 giveaways this year. Their biggest giveaway - the Super Bowl - came Sunday.
"I think we didn't help the cause," said Ricky Proehl, whose fumble was forced by Antwan Harris' helmet, leading to Patten's score. "They have capitalized on turnovers all year, and that's how they won the game."
New England got physical from the start, giving Warner a bloody lip and slamming Rams receivers to the turf with regularity. The Patriots also didn't let Offensive Player of the Year Marshall Faulk damage them much.
Credit coach Bill Belichick, who reinforced his image as a defensive mastermind. While the Rams got their yards and did make their comeback, they never were in control.
"Coach Belichick definitely had a vision," safety Lawyer Milloy said. "This organization had a vision. We all came together. That's what is so sweet about this."
The Patriots, 50-1 shots to start the season, are the first from the New England region to win a pro football title since the 1928 Providence Steamrollers. It was an improbable ride after going 5-11 in 2000 and then losing starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe to a chest injury in Game 2.
But after their 0-2 start, the Patriots found their way with Brady, an aggressive defense -and some good fortune.
A replay reversal in the playoff game with the Raiders was as pivotal as anything in getting the Patriots to their third Super Bowl - all in New Orleans, the previous two ending in defeat. Special teams scored twice in the AFC championship game victory at Pittsburgh.
But luck wasn't the operative word for these Patriots. Team was.
"We've got a whole team full of underdogs," Brady said. "And now we're the top dogs."