NEW ORLEANS — Against all odds, the New England Patriots are Super Bowl champions.

The team of destiny completed its incredible run to the NFL title with a stunning 20-17 victory over the heavily favored St. Louis Rams at the Superdome on Sunday when Adam Vinatieri kicked a 48-yard field goal as time expired in Super Bowl XXXVI.

The kick marked the first time in the 36-year history of the Super Bowl that the contest was decided by a score on the final play of the game. New England lined up for the field goal with 7 seconds remaining on the clock and Vinatieri’s boot sailed right through the middle of the uprights.

The third time was the charm for New England, which had lost in its two previous appearances in the Super Bowl by a combined total of 50 points. Capitalizing on three costly turnovers by the Rams, the Patriots took a 17-3 lead into the fourth quarter then pulled out the victory after St. Louis tied the score with 1:37 left.

The Pats also scored on a 47-yard interception return for a touchdown by cornerback Ty Law, an 8-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Tom Brady to wide receiver David Patten and a 37-yard field goal by Vinatieri.

Brady, who was named the game’s Most Valuable Player, was 16-27 for 145 yards. It was his leadership in the final minute, not his stats, which garnered him the honor.

“We rallied around each other the entire season,” said Brady, who, at 24, became the youngest quarterback to ever win the Super Bowl. “The belief in one another is what made the difference for us this season.”

New England coach Bill Belichick told Brady to “just drop back and sling it . . . go out and win the game,” before he took the field for the decisive drive.

Both teams entered the contest on eight-game winning streaks.

The Rams, who had the best record in the NFL during the regular season (14-2), were prohibitive 14-point favorites going into the game.

The Patriots staggered out of the gate at 5-6 before rallying to win the AFC East at 11-5 behind Brady, who took over after Drew Bledsoe was injured during the second week of the season.

St. Louis became the first team in NFL history to score 500-plus points in three straight seasons and seemed to possess too many offensive weapons for the Pats to deal with. But despite what the matchup looks like on paper, you still have to play the game, and for the better part of the evening the Rams just didn’t show up.

They turned on the juice late in the game, but it was too little, too late.

“Adam has been a clutch player for us all year,” said Belichick of his placekicker. “He won three games for us in overtime this season and had the winning kick today.”

Vinatieri refused to take credit for the victory.

“So many guys have stepped up for us this season. This game proved that.”

The final drive was a testament to the poise of Brady and the organization of Belichick’s staff, as the Pats moved 63 yards with 1:21 left to set up Vinatieri’s kick with no timeouts remaining.

New England took over at its own 17 with 1:21 left and with Brady completing five passes for 63 yards, moved the ball to the St. Louis 30.

Troy Brown made the key play, catching a pass from Brady and scooting 23 yards and out of bounds to set up Vinatieri’s winning kick.

“We executed the 2-minute drill pretty well. This is what every player and coach works a lifetime for,” said Belichick.

Brown led the Pats with 89 yards on six receptions.

The Rams outgained the Pats 427-267 in total yards, but one key stat showed Antowain Smith (92) rushing for more yards than Marshall Faulk (76). Even though the Pats were outgained in the first half in total yards (184-117), two turnovers by the Rams resulted in 14 precious points for New England.

NFL Most Valuable Player Kurt Warner threw two interceptions and tried to force the ball throughout the game, often to the detriment of the Rams.

Yo Murphy returned the opening kickoff 38 yards for the Rams and it appeared the St. Louis scoring machine might be off and running.

After throwing an incompletion on first down, Warner found Torry Holt for an 18-yard gain on the next play which moved the ball into New England territory.

An offensive pass interference call moved the ball back to the St. Louis 48 and then Warner threw deep down field looking for Holt but the pass was incomplete. The Rams tried a shovel pass to Faulk on third and 18, but couldn’t get the first down and were forced to punt.

John Baker launched a superb kick that pinned New England back at its own 3-yard line.

Brady found Brown for a 21-yard gain on first down, before Smith picked up 9 more running off left tackle. Brady hit Brown again for 10 yards and another first down on the next play.

The St. Louis defense then pulled its act together and forced the Pats to punt near midfield. Ken Walter’s punt then went for a touchback.

The Rams picked up a key first down on the ensuing series when Warner had the pocket collapse around him, but hung in to find Isaac Bruce for 11 yards and a first down near midfield.

The New England defense held the Rams on third down and with fourth and 3 at the Pats’ 32, the Rams elected to go for a field goal. Jeff Wilkins came on and booted a 50-yarder through the uprights to put St. Louis up 3-0 with 3:15 remaining in the first quarter.

St. Louis forced the Pats to go three and out after the kickoff, with Walter coming on to punt again and uncorking a 53-yarder that put the Rams back on their own 22.

After the Rams converted a third and 1 for a first down, defensive end Bobby Hamilton sacked Warner on the final play of the first quarter.

On third and 15 from the Rams’ 32, Warner escaped the New England rush again and hit Az-Zahir Hakim for a 29-yard gain. St. Louis could not capitalize on the play, failing to convert on the subsequent third down and Wilkins came on to attempt a 52-yard field goal that was wide left with 13:12 remaining in the second quarter.

Hakim led the Rams with 90 yards receiving on five catches.

The Pats went three and out again, with Walter punting and the Rams taking over on their own 22.

Faulk gained 15 yards on a swing pass to get a first down for St. Louis, but on the next play Warner was pressured by linebacker Mike Vrabel on a blitz and overthrew Bruce on a square out. Law intercepted the ball and romped 47 yards for a touchdown to give the Pats the lead with 8:49 left in the second quarter.

Vinatieri converted the extra point to make it 7-3 New England.

With third and 1 at midfield, the Rams tried to pass and Warner was nearly intercepted again, but got lucky when strong safety Lawyer Milloy juggled the ball and couldn’t get both feet in bounds.

Baker punted for St. Louis and outkicked his coverage, but Brown made a mental mistake and called for a fair catch at the 15 with nobody within 10 yards of him.

With a third and 8 on their own 32 and 2:13 left in the first half, Brady was sacked by Leonard Little for an 8-yard loss.

Walter punted 53 yards and St. Louis took over at its own 15 with 1:52 left in the half.

After gaining a first down, the Rams had a first and 10 on the 25, when Warner hit Ricky Proehl for a 15-yard gain over the middle, but Proehl coughed up the ball when he was tackled by free safety Antwan Harris. Terrell Buckley recovered for the Pats and returned the ball 15 yards to the St. Louis 40.

The Pats advanced to the St. Louis 8-yard line where they had the ball first and goal when Brady threw to wide receiver David Patten on an out pattern in the corner for a touchdown with 31 second left in the half. Patten made a circus catch after losing cornerback Dexter McCleon with a nice fake.

Vinatieri’s extra point put New England up 14-3 and that’s the way it stood at the half.

The second half was uneventful until 3:25 remained in the third quarter, when Otis Smith intercepted Warner after Holt stumbled and fell on a slant pattern. Smith returned the ball 30 yards to the St. Louis 33 and it looked like the Pats might be moving in for the kill.

The defense of the Rams then stepped up, however, and the Pats settled for a 37-yard field goal by Vinatieri with 1:12 left in the third quarter to lead 17-3.

The Rams finally awakened from their slumber in the fourth quarter. Warner hooked up with Faulk for a key 22-yard gain that gave the Rams a first and goal at the 9 with just over 11 minutes left.

New England held, forcing fourth down and, after a St. Louis timeout, Warner tried to pass but couldn’t find anybody open and was tackled trying to run for the touchdown. Warner fumbled when he was hit and free safety Tebucky Jones motored 97 yards for an apparent touchdown.

But it wasn’t to be, as a holding call on New England linebacker Willie McGinest nullified the play.

The Rams capitalized two plays later, when Warner scored from two yards out on a quarterback sneak with 9:33 left. The extra point by Wilkins made it 17-10.

New England went three and out on the next series with St. Louis taking over at its own 7 following Walter’s punt.

The Rams moved the ball to the New England 38 on the next drive but were forced to punt again.

The Pats went three and out again, and got a poor punt from Walter. The Rams took over on the New England 45 and on first down Warner hit Hakim for 18 yards.

Murphy then caught a Warner pass for 11 yards before the QB found Proehl all alone along the left sideline and the nifty wideout weaved his way for a 26-yard touchdown with 1:30 left. Wilkins tied the game 17-17 with the extra point.

The drive went 55 yards on three plays in just 21 seconds.

Faulk said the turnovers were the killer for the Rams.

“The only team that can beat us is us, and today we turned the ball over.”

“It hurts,” Warner said of the loss. “Any time you don’t win your last game, it hurts. We had a chance to win this football game and I just didn’t do it. I made some mistakes.”

The official attendance was announced as 72,922.

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