In 2002, the Patriots were a Cinderella team. Then they won Super Bowl XXXVI, and a dynasty began

    New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady celebrates with head coach Bill Belichick after their win over the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI in New Orleans on February 3, 2002.

    (CNN)The Patriots weren't supposed to be in this Super Bowl -- much less win it.

    No, in 2002, at Super Bowl XXXVI, it's probably safe to say no one expected a Patriots dynasty to begin. Not with 24-year-old Tom Brady, a sixth-round draft pick in 2000, starting the 2001 season as a backup quarterback, and Bill Belichick, who had a losing record in his first six seasons as an NFL head coach with the Cleveland Browns and New England.
    In 2019, it's still perilous to count out the Patriots -- even with Brady now 41 years old and Belichick at 66. Super Bowl LIII will be the ninth -- ninth! -- Super Bowl appearance for the duo.
      But 17 years ago, New England was not a team that NFL fans around the country envied -- or loved to hate.
      At age 24, Brady won Super Bowl MVP -- the first of four in his illustrious career.

      'The Greatest Show on Turf'

      In those days, a team with dynasty potential was the St. Louis Rams. Known as "The Greatest Show on Turf," they had won Super Bowl XXXIV in 2000 against the Tennessee Titans -- a classic finish that came down to the final play in Atlanta. Mike Martz, who was the offensive coordinator for that title, was now head coach, having replaced Dick Vermeil.
      St Louis Rams head coach Mike Martz.
      Their offense was loaded with future members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame: quarterback Kurt Warner, running back Marshall Faulk and offensive lineman Orlando Pace. Additionally, they had wide receivers Isaac Bruce and Tory Holt. They also had a future hall-of-famer on defense in cornerback Aeneas Williams.
      The Patriots, meanwhile, started their season with the established Drew Bledsoe at quarterback. But things turned quickly. In Week 2, New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis smashed into Bledsoe near the sideline. The Patriots QB had a concussion and internal bleeding from the hit, leaving the game in an ambulance.
      Rams quarterback Kurt Warner, who won Super Bowl XXXIV in 2000 against the Titans, was back in his second championship game.
      In came Brady to finish the game. No one knew it at the time, but the NFL landscape permanently was altered.
      Even after Bledsoe healed, Brady kept the starting job. The Patriots went 11-5, winning the AFC East division and earning a first-round bye as the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs. Despite Brady suffering a sprained ankle in the AFC title game -- giving Bledsoe the chance to play the hero role -- New England still upset the Steelers in Pittsburgh.
      NFL's Cinderella team was going to the Super Bowl. But how hobbled was Brady? Could the Patriots slow the Rams' offensive firepower? St. Louis was listed as a 14-point favorite for the February 3, 2002, matchup at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans.
      "Bill Belichick faces a week with one endless echoing question: Who starts Sunday?" CNN's Tom Rinaldi said at the time.
      "We'll take a look at Tom's situation and we'll make the evaluation there and we'll talk about that," Belichick said. "We'll make a decision later on in the week."
      Said Brady: "I know I'll be prepared if they tell me to start."