All the Instagram filters in the world couldn’t spruce up the paint-drying, snooze-fest known as Super Bowl LIII. Even the Andre 3000-less half-time performance headlined by Maroon 5, the Raisin Bran of mid-2000s rock groups, didn’t do much to entertain the masses. But not every game can be as flavorful and thrilling as the much-celebrated Chiefs/Rams slugfest that graced our television screens just a few short months ago.
Sloppy, yawn-inducing, lethargic—whatever superlative you want to slap on it, rest assured Super Bowl LIII will not be the subject of any future 30 for 30s. Even the most nostalgic among us won’t pine for a Rams/Patriots oral history in the near or distant future. But even if the 53rd installment of the greatest spectacle in sports fell earth-shatteringly short of expectations, it still counted and for the most unflinching dynasty football has ever produced, that’s all that matters.
The 60s were all about Russell and Wilt. The Steel Curtain ruled the 70s. What would the 80s have been without Magic, Bird, Gretzky and Montana? Michael and Scottie owned the 90s. So did The Triplets and Yankees. But everything since has belonged to the New England Patriots, specifically their relentlessly competitive star quarterback Tom Brady and his eccentric coach, the perpetually unflappable Bill Belichick. In some ways, the Patriots’ win Sunday was symbolic of their rocky 2018, a challenging year flush with ugly, grind-it-out games in stark contrast to New England’s usual brand of world-conquering dominance. It wasn’t the smooth ride Pats fans have come to expect, but when it was all said and done, the 2018 NFL season ended the same way it has three of the last five years—with New England alone at the top.
Much has been made of Sean McVay’s meteoric rise through the coaching ranks, graduating from whiz kid assistant to landscape-altering mega-talent in record time. McVay’s tactical mastery has inspired a league-wide trend toward offensive-minded head coaches, most under the age of 40. The 33-year-old has been lauded for his inventiveness, a trait that helped Los Angeles steamroll its way to the Super Bowl.
But on Sunday McVay suffered a rare case of stage fright, struggling to regroup as the Patriots exposed the Rams’ weaknesses one-by-one. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips held up his end of the bargain, stymying Brady for the better part of 60 minutes before a late hiccup gave New England its lone touchdown. But on offense, the Rams looked nothing like the awe-inspiring juggernaut that ripped through the regular season. Scoreboard operators at Mercedes Benz-Stadium got a well-deserved reprieve, essentially taking the night off as Jared Goff melted at the hands of New England’s swarming pass-rush, failing to even reach the red zone as Los Angeles totaled its fewest points of the McVay Era.
Belichick would be the first to admit he was out-coached in last year’s Super Bowl LII, a game that featured a tour de force performance from overnight sensation Nick Foles. But Belichick made sure it didn’t happen again, flipping the script on Los Angeles by abandoning the team’s preferred man coverage in favor of a zone scheme that had the Rams guessing all night.
Unlike Matt Patricia, who ended his Patriots tenure with a boulder-sized clunker against the Eagles last year, outgoing defensive coordinator Brian Flores went out in style with a strong showing in Sunday’s Super Bowl triumph. After being a “bend don’t break” team during the regular season, the Pats stormed Atlanta with everything in their defensive arsenal. They dominated at all three levels with stellar linebacker play from Dont’a Hightower (a known mayhem-maker who turned the tide of Super Bowl LI with his game-altering sack of Matt Ryan) and Kyle Van Voy, a powerhouse performance by pass-rusher Trey Flowers and the usual dominance displayed by first-team All-Pro Stephon Gilmore in the secondary.
Paying up for Gilmore—who abandoned the division-rival Bills to land a five-year, $65 million jackpot in 2017—was out of character for the fiscally-conservative Pats, but so far, he’s been a wise investment. If Gilmore’s shutdown status was ever in question, the dreadlock-clad 28-year-old ended the debate once and for all with a magnificent performance in the Peach State, holding the Rams to two catches for 31 yards on six targets while icing the game with a late interception.
The Rams knew they’d have their work cut out for them against Gilmore, PFF’s No. 1 coverage corner during the regular season. But what they didn’t count on was a monster effort from Jason McCourty, a first-year Patriot who spent the previous season toiling away on one of the least successful teams in modern sports history, the football abomination known as the 2017 Cleveland Browns. McCourty isn’t as heralded as his twin, Devin, a long-time Patriots captain whose track record includes three Super Bowl rings and Pro Bowl nods at two separate positions (cornerback and safety). But on Sunday, it was Jason’s time to shine as the 31-year-old Rutgers product saved the day with a leaping pass breakup on a deep heave to Brandin Cooks. Goff’s mistimed throw to Cooks, who was streaking wide-open over the middle before McCourty swooped in to pull off his daring rescue, marked a missed opportunity for L.A.’s stagnant offense. A touchdown would have been a much-needed momentum boost for the spiraling Rams, but by failing to take advantage of a rare coverage breakdown in the Patriots secondary, Los Angeles may have squandered its chance at Super Bowl glory.
L.A.’s stunning collapse at the hands of New England’s zone scheme (a look they featured on 39 percent of their snaps) wasn’t the biggest upset of Super Bowl LIII. The real jaw-dropper was the continued disappearance of Todd Gurley, who spent yet another week in hiding. Despite assurances from McVay that Gurley would play a “big part” in the Rams’ Super Bowl proceedings, the 24-year-old pile-mover played sparingly, logging a meager 10 carries for 35 listless yards.
The mystery of Gurley’s usage has become a legitimate Hardy Boys whodunit with McVay and the running back’s balky knee emerging as prime suspects. At least they’ve kept their stories straight with McVay and Gurley both pleading ignorance on the injury front. Gurley was clocked at a blistering 19.78 mph on one of his runs Sunday, the fastest clip recorded on any carry in Super Bowl LIII. That doesn’t exactly scream bum knee, does it? If Gurley, the NFL’s leading touchdown scorer during the regular season, was as healthy as he seemed, the Rams and McVay in particular have a lot of explaining to do. L.A. experienced a trickledown effect from Gurley’s misuse, failing to establish play-action with the 24-year-old benched and C.J. Anderson (3.1 yards per carry) presenting no real threat.
While Gurley rode the pine, his college backfield-mate Sony Michel was on the war path. Returning to Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the first time since last year’s National Championship loss to Alabama, the former Georgia standout continued his postseason breakout with another sterling effort, bullying the Rams for 94 yards on the ground and the game’s lone touchdown. The Patriots, who usually assign backfield roles by drawing names from a hat, did the unthinkable last year by drafting a running back in the first round. Twelve touchdowns later including six this postseason, I’m sure the Pats are happy they took the plunge snagging Michel with the 31st pick. While not on the same plane as more well-rounded rookies like Saquon Barkley, Michel still enjoyed a highly productive debut season and, health permitting, should have a bright future in Foxboro.
What’s so impressive about the Patriots, aside from their unprecedented longevity, is their ability to change their identity on the fly. No team in recent memory is better at making lemonade out of lemons. For instance, the Rams all but eliminated receiving back and trusted safety net James White (nine yards on three touches) while releasing the hounds on deep man Chris Hogan (no catches on six targets). With those avenues blocked, the Patriots simply took what was given to them, beating the Rams by essentially throwing to a single player, eventual Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman.
The former Kent State quarterback was true to his nickname, escaping defenders like an oversized squirrel en route to a game-high 10 catches for 141 yards. Sunday penned another chapter in Edelman’s growing book of playoff accomplishments and while recent talk of his Hall of Fame credentials is overstated (let’s see him make the Pro Bowl first), Super Bowl LIII further cemented the 32-year-old’s postseason legacy. The Patriots wouldn’t have captured a sixth Lombardi trophy without Edelman and surely Los Angeles felt the loss of its own slot target, Cooper Kupp, who sat out the season’s second act with a torn ACL. The difference was night and day as Goff averaged 53.3 more yards with Kupp on the field this season. It’s not like the Rams were hurting for pass-catchers—Cooks and Robert Woods both cleared the 1,000-yard threshold this year. But on a day when New England’s pass rush forced Goff to get rid of the ball quickly, Kupp’s slot prowess was sorely missed.
Another worry for New England was how the Patriots would pour water on interior pass-rushers Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh, both proven havoc-wreakers who feast on opposing quarterbacks. The Patriots did well to silence edge-rushers Joey Bosa, Dee Ford, Chris Jones and Justin Houston in prior playoff games, but Donald and Suh posed a unique challenge working from the inside. The Donald and Suh tandem was still disruptive, but neither were able to get their paws on Brady, who was sacked just once (John Franklin-Myers was the culprit) for a loss of nine yards in the winning effort.
Bludgeoning Brady was the Giants’ blueprint to success in Super Bowls XLII and XLVI, but that wasn’t in the cards Sunday as heavy blitzing has never been the Rams’ MO. The 41-year-old’s numbers Sunday were decidedly un-Brady-like, but when the Pats needed a push to get them over the hump in the fourth quarter, Touchdown Tom dutifully abided by completing all four of his throws for 67 yards on New England’s go-ahead drive. While not vintage Brady, the future Hall of Famer pulled just enough strings to earn his sixth ring, the most of any player in NFL history.
Brady wasn’t at his best on Sunday, but he was far superior to Goff, who was swallowed up by the moment, face-planting to the tune of 229 yards on brutal 19-of-38 passing. Goff looked rattled from the onset, shrinking whenever New England brought pressure while showing little confidence in his deep ball. His interception was an absolute back-breaker, a dying quail of a pass that Gilmore gladly welcomed into his arms for the game-sealing pick. Even if you want to chock Sunday’s clunker up to being out-foxed by Belichick, Goff’s playoff run was anything but smooth sailing as the former No. 1 pick floundered to a hideous 55.7 completion percentage over three postseason appearances. Despite strong regular season metrics, the jury is still very much out on Goff’s career trajectory. Will he achieve long-lasting stardom or join Andy Dalton and others of his ilk in quarterback purgatory? With Goff’s next contract already a topic of discussion, judgment day could be coming soon for the polarizing 24-year-old.
This was the least memorable of New England’s Super Bowl victories, but Pats fans shouldn’t enjoy it any less. In fact, they should savor it even more because at some point, New England’s run of good fortune will end. With Rob Gronkowski eying retirement and Brady another year older, the Patriots are surely on the back nine of their decades-long dynasty. The world-beating Patriots we’ve come to know won’t be around forever, no matter how many kale smoothies Brady puts into his body. But they’re not at the finish line yet. They’re still here.