February 4, 2019
And so the Patriotsarchy continues. New England, seemingly impervious to age, controversy and the best efforts of their opponents have won their sixth title in 18 years, an extraordinary achievement in a league built for parity. That their 13-3 victory over the Los Angeles Rams was the lowest-scoring Super Bowl in history will matter little to their fans, or the fiercely competitive Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Indeed, the fact that many watching at home did not appreciate the Patriots’ defensive masterclass will probably make victory sweeter for a team that thrives on the antipathy of others.
Winning the coin toss turned out to be the highpoint for the Rams. They put the ball into the hands of Brady, aiming to become the first player to win six Super Bowls. He looked anything but a man who had seen it all before though – on the first pass of the game he forced a throw to Chris Hogan. It was marginally off target and ended up in the hands of Rams linebacker Cory Littleton. It was the first time in his postseason career that Brady had been intercepted on the opening pass of the game.
The Rams couldn’t do anything on their ensuing possession but, in the opening stages at least, the usually ruthless Patriots looked nervous. They had called their second timeout only 10 minutes into the game, a sign that there was miscommunication between Brady and the coaches on the sidelines. The unease seemed to be spreading too – New England’s usually reliable kicker, Stephen Gostkowski, missed a 46-yard field goal shortly afterwards that would have opened the scoring.
That unease may well have been down to the pressure created by the strength of the Rams’ defensive line, led by the newly crowned NFL defensive player of the year, Aaron Donald. Before the quarter was up Brady had nearly thrown another interception – dropped by Marcus Peters – and was strip-sacked by John Franklin-Myers. In a season characterised by explosive offenses, neither team had scored and Brady and Rams quarterback Jared Goff had completed fewer than half their passes.
As Brady struggled, he turned to familiar targets: Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski. He ground out short passes here and there until he brought his team into field goal range and this time Gostkowski was successful from 42 yards. It wasn’t pretty but the Patriots at least had points on the board: it had taken them nearly 20 minutes to open the scoring.
Goff, meanwhile, was struggling to put any passes together against the Patriots’ stifling defense. He put plenty of air on a few deep balls but they appeared to come from desperation rather than part of any coherent plan. After the game, Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower joked that Brady was getting undeserved attention. “I’m tired of hearing about Brady,” he said with a laugh. “I won one today we all got one. It feels good for us to get it all. Shout out to him getting his, but this is a team game and it feels good to win.”
The Rams’ real offensive star this season, has been running back Todd Gurley but he was having similar struggles to Goff – possibly due to a lingering knee injury that he had picked up towards the end of the regular season. By the end of the first-half the entire Rams’ offense had combined for 57 yards, 36 fewer than Edelman had on his own.
Brady got the ball back with three minutes left in the first half, exactly the kind of situation in which we have seen him lead his team to a touchdown at a crucial point in the game time and time again. But his throws were off – one to a wide open James White on the sidelines was particularly painful – and at least five yards off target. Still, the Patriots made it to halftime with a lead of 3-0, the fewest points scored in the first half of a Super Bowl in 44 years. More significantly, perhaps, it was the first time they had led at halftime in their last three Super Bowls. In a game that looked like it was going to be decided by fine margins and small tactical adjustments the Patriots, coached by arguably football’s most brilliant strategist of all time, held a clear advantage.
The third quarter started with Gurley finally producing something of significance, jagging through the Patriots defense for 16 yards, a play that gave the Rams a glimmer of hope. It said a lot about the game that the Rams’ best player had been their punter, Johnny Hekker: by midway through the third quarter he had as many touches – eight – as Gurley.
Such were the Rams’ struggles that it was easy to forget they were only 3-0 down. Goff, who had been confused by the Patriots pass rush all game, finally strung some passes together and Greg Zuerlein, one of the best kickers in the league, evened the score with a 53-yard field goal with 2:11 left in the third quarter. It was another nerveless kick from the man who had taken the Rams to the Super Bowl with a 57-yard effort in overtime in the previous game.
And then, as the game wound down to its last 10 minutes Brady – perhaps inevitably – decided to win it. The 41-year-old reeled off four successive passes, the final of which was a beauty to Gronkowski – a ball threaded into the few centimeters of the field uncovered by the Rams’ defensive backs. Brady hadn’t been great for most of the game – but he was great when it mattered. Gronkowski emerged with the ball on the two-yard line and the next play Sony Michel punched the ball home from two yards. When Stephon Gilmore intercepted Goff on the next drive with four minutes left, the Patriots looked like winners. Shortly afterwards, as Gostkowski’s field goal made it 13-3, they were.
“It wasn’t pretty. I’ll take any ugly win over a pretty loss,” Edelman, who was named the game’s MVP after catching 10 passes for 141 yards, said.
Many hate the Patriots, but few can deny their brilliance.