Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 4, 2019

Still Here, And Once Again The Last Team Standing

Okay, so it wasn’t pretty. Perhaps the ghost of Woody Hayes, the longtime Ohio State head coach who popularized the “three yards and a cloud of dust” style of offense, was entertained by the lowest scoring Super Bowl ever. But by any measure, from the reduced (though still massive) overnight TV ratings to the thousands of scornful comments on social media, it’s abundantly clear that most fans found little to love in the defensive struggle that finally (some would say mercifully) ended with the New England Patriots claiming a sixth title, 13-3 over the Los Angeles Rams.

As eyes glazed over all around the country given the dearth of action on the field, the national ennui colored judgments about more than just the game. Most of the extraordinarily expensive commercials were dismissed as utterly forgettable. The halftime show led by Maroon 5 was almost universally mocked as insipid, although since lead singer Adam Levine saw fit to remove his shirt fifteen years after Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction,” it did give rise to some tongue-in-cheek debate about whether the NFL has a double standard on exposed nipples.

But if Super Bowl LIII will never be high on anyone’s list of the most exciting editions of the Big Game, few fans in New England seemed to mind. And given the sharply divergent attitudes toward the Foxborough dynasty between this corner of the country and the other forty-four states, one can’t help but wonder if opinions on the game would be quite so caustic if the final score had been exactly the same, but with the Rams on top. Fans everywhere know that football isn’t figure skating – no style points factor into the outcome. So perhaps what really galls the faithful of thirty-one other franchises is that the one team for which they all share an antipathy is once more the team that gets to hold a parade.

For here we are, again, and this time it is not enough to say that for Patriots fans this never gets old. In fact, for many local diehards this year’s sometimes sloppy slog of a title game seems especially worthy of celebration because its imperfections were reminders of the flaws of a team that found a way to still come out on top at the end of a season that could easily have gone awry.

One year ago there was controversy in the defeat at the hands of the Eagles in the last Super Bowl, when cornerback Malcolm Butler was limited to a single appearance on special teams. Before training camp began there were rumors of disaffection among the three most important individuals in the Patriots universe – owner Bob Kraft, head coach Bill Belichick, and quarterback Tom Brady. There was doubt about the return of tight end Rob Gronkowski, and a four game suspension of wide receiver Julian Edelman.

Then after a home win over Houston to start the season, New England lost back-to-back road games at Jacksonville and Detroit, falling to 1-2 for the first time since 2012. The losses were both by double-digits to franchises that would finish below .500 for the season, and suddenly the offseason departure of defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to become head coach of the Lions loomed large.

Problems on defense were mitigated by the Brady-led offense getting on track, as the Patriots ran off six straight wins, scoring more than thirty points in all but one of those games. Still doubts were renewed when the team went a middling 4-3 over its last seven contests, including another set of back-to-back losses. The first of those was in Miami and featured a complete defensive collapse on the game’s final play, with the Dolphins stealing a victory on a multiple lateral play worthy of a schoolyard.

The Pats final record of 11-5 was good enough to win the AFC East for the tenth straight year, but the five losses were the most by New England in a decade and meant the team would be seeded second in the AFC for the playoffs. If the seedings held the Patriots would need to win a playoff game on the road to reach the Super Bowl, something the team had not done since 2007. That hurdle was overcome with a 37-31 overtime victory at Kansas City in the AFC Conference Championship. But with a defense that ranked in the middle of the pack during the regular season, and after surrendering four TD’s to San Diego and the thirty-one points to K.C. in the postseason, no one foresaw the New England defense that showed up at Mercedes-Benz Stadium Sunday evening.

Perhaps fans had forgotten that before he was a head coach Belichick won a pair of Super Bowl rings as the defensive coordinator for the New York Giants. With two weeks to prepare, he devised a masterful defensive scheme that completely shut down the second most prolific offense in the league. After playing more man-to-man pass coverage than any team in the league during the regular season, the Patriots switched to zone coverage almost half the time Sunday. They blitzed repeatedly, and Rams quarterback Jared Goff was pressured on almost forty percent of his dropbacks. The young QB completed just a quarter of his throws in those situations, tied for the worst completion percentage under pressure in Super Bowl history.

It may not have been aesthetically pleasing, but a game plan that held Los Angeles scoreless in the first half and limited the Rams to just three points all night propelled New England to yet another championship. For all that the win still didn’t come easy. Brady’s first pass was picked off and Stephen Gostkowski’s first field goal attempt was a low hook that never came close to splitting the uprights. In the end two big plays made the difference.

The first of those came midway through the fourth quarter, when New England’s offense finally started to move the ball. The Patriots ran the exact same play three times in a row, with Brady having his choice of receivers. The first time he hit Edelman for 13 yards. The second time he connected with Rex Burkhead for 7 more. Then on the third iteration of the play called Hoss Y-Juke in the Pats’ playbook, Brady found Gronkowski on a seam route for a 29-yard pickup down to the 3-yard line. After that dramatic completion Sony Michel scored on the next snap from scrimmage.

The second big play came a few minutes later, when the Rams were mounting their own drive. But Goff underthrew a long toss intended for Brandin Cooks and Stephen Gilmore leapt in front of the receiver to intercept the pass and effectively seal New England’s win.

Throughout the Belichick and Brady era, the work ethic and team approach of the Patriots has always been described, by players and coaches alike, in simple sentences. Next man up. Do your job. This season, when there were so many reasons to doubt, the rallying cry was we’re still here. To the joy of New Englanders and the dismay of many others, the Patriots reminded everyone of that one more time on Sunday.

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Responses

  1. Nice summary, Mike. I liked the game because of the defensive struggle on both teams. High-scoring blowout games don’t appeal to me. I like to see people work together to achieve their goal and New England certainly did just that.
    Ω

    • Thanks Allan. No question that Belichick is the master of instilling players with an ethic of team first, individual second. No doubt that’s what fans of other franchises envy the most.

      M-

      • He’s a hard act to follow.
        Ω


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