For 3-1/2 quarters, it was a Super Bowl in name only. Two of the NFL’s finer offenses – and this was supposed to be the Year of the Offense, was it not? – combined to score no touchdowns through 50 minutes, which you wouldn’t have believed if you hadn’t seen it, and if you’d seen it you can be excused for changing the channel.
If you did flip away from this game, here’s what you missed – a closing touch of class from the most remarkable football of this or any era. You missed Tom Brady winning his sixth Super Bowl with four consecutive completions on what was, by his exalted standards, a C-minus day. (He wasn’t named MVP, which tells us something.) You missed Bill Belichick celebrating his sixth Super Bowl by shoving a cameraman. You missed the New England Patriots doing what they’ve done for 17 years, meaning outsmarting and outscoring a more talented opponent.
You missed, of all things, the biggest margin of victory of the Patriots’ six Super Bowl titles. Given how hard scoring points proved to be, 13-3 felt like a mandate, which it probably was. The young Rams acted their age and – let’s be honest – stunk out the joint. The team that beat Kansas City 54-51 in the November Monday night game that was supposed to have marked the dawning of a new era was a no-show Sunday. And if the Patriots weren’t their smooth-running selves, there never was a time when you felt, “They’re going to lose.”
(Two years ago in Houston, you absolutely felt the Patriots, down 28-3, were done. But they’re the Patriots, which means they’re never really done.)
Said Brady: “We grinded it out. It was tough; (the Rams) made every play tough tonight ... They played really well on defense. Fortunately, our defense really played the best game they have all season. It was just an incredible win.”
Belichick built his dynasty on the strength of the defensive scheme he threw at the Rams, then based in St. Louis, 17 years ago to the day. Back then, the underdog Pats built a 17-3 lead, saw the Greatest Show on Turf finally right itself to tie and then watched Brady, then 24, drive them to Adam Vinatieri’s winning field goal. That was a much better game than this, but it did include the same Belichickian touches.
The Rams’ first 10 possessions ended with kicks – eight punts, then a 53-yard field goal, then another punt. Todd Gurley was no factor. Jared Goff completed only half his passes, was sacked four times and threw the interception that quashed his team’s best drive. On a day when his offense left at least 10 points on the field, Belichick’s defense never let the raging Rams get started. Another decade, another set of Rams, another master class by the game’s shrewdest tactician.
You were never sure the Rams would get going. You always knew Brady would conjure up something. It began with 9:49 remaining and the score tied at 3-3. He faked a handoff and found Rob Gronkowski behind a linebacker for 19 yards. Then a throw over the middle for 13 to Julian Edelman, he who cannot be covered. Then a sideline shot to Rex Burkhead. Then the big one, even deeper to Gronk, the gigantic tight end with the softest of hands. His catch between three defenders brought the Pats to the Rams’ 2, whereupon Sony Michel scored the game’s lone touchdown.
The rest was the Patriots doing Patriots stuff. Under pressure from safety Duron Harmon – the Patriots had loosed an all-out blitz – Goff threw long for Brandin Cooks at the goal line. The pass fluttered. Stephon Gilmore jumped in front of Cooks to intercept. Eight consecutive runs, seven by Michel, brought the Pats from their 4 to the to Rams’ 24. On fourth-and-inches, Belichick summoned kicker Stephen Gostkowski to kick the clincher, which he did.
This won’t be recalled as the most memorable of the Patriots’ six Super Bowl wins. It might struggle to finish fifth. For much of the season, this appeared a substandard New England team. It went 3-5 on the road, three of the losses by double figures, none to a team that would qualify for the playoffs. When postseason arrived, so did the Pats. They routed San Diego, which some fancied as the AFC’s best team, and outlasted the Chiefs in overtime in Kansas City. Then they stonewalled the Rams in a manner befitting the Steel Curtain, which led Pittsburgh to four Super Bowl triumphs in six years in the ’70s.
The difference is, the Patriots play in a time where defense is seen as a relic. But they held the Rams to three points, and no Super Bowl loser has ever had fewer. They took Sean McVay’s sleek offense and tossed it in yonder trash can, and Brady, even on a so-so night, still threw for 262 yards.
As much as this Super Bowl was about Brady and Belichick, it was also about those around them. Like Michel, who finished with 94 yards rushing. Like Gilmore, who shadowed the Rams’ receivers like Deion Sanders in his prime. Like punter Ryan Allen, who had a splendid game. Like Gronk, the irresistible force. Mostly, though, this was about a guy like Edelman, the former college quarterback who ran through the Rams’ big-ticket secondary to snag 10 passes for 141 yards.
“I was just trying to have a good week of practice and do my job,” Edelman said, and that modest statement reflects the only thing close to a catch-phrase Belichick has ever espoused: “Do your job.”
Edelman is among those many unheralded Pats who, over the years, Belichick has found to keep his mighty engine chugging. Julian Edelman isn’t Julio Jones, but he’s a Super Bowl MVP. He’s also the one who had T-shirts printed bearing the legend, “Bet Against Us.” Really, though, why would you? Why, six Super Bowls in the bank, would you ever bet against this bunch?