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The actual underdogs were the Patriots defense, and they triumphed

New England’s defense absolutely shined when it mattered most.

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Everybody knows about the New England Patriots. The dynasty that just won’t quit, the Belichick-Brady braintrust, the team whose success has made it the most inevitable team in sports.

But this season showed that as much as we think we know about the NFL’s best supervillains — and, once again, Super Bowl champions — they’re still finding new ways to surprise us. En route to their third Super Bowl in as many years, the 11-5 Pats embraced the idea that they were underdogs much to the chagrin of non-New England fans. As unlikely as that trope might seem for the long-dominant team, the team’s defense was actually middling for much of the regular season, especially relative to singular forces like Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski.

“I think things weren’t clicking as well as we wanted to,” outside linebacker Dont’a Hightower told reporters of the unit’s early struggles after the game. The Patriots ranked 16th in defensive DVOA at the end of the 2018 season, and allowed 34 points each to the Dolphins and the Titans mid-season. “It’s part of growing, it’s part of football, it’s part of the season,” Hightower continued. “Obviously we wanted to get there a little sooner than we did, but we’re a relentless team — we didn’t give up.”

The unit really started clicking in the postseason, shutting out the offensive powerhouse Kansas City Chiefs in the first half of the AFC Championship Game, and then doing the same to the Rams in the Super Bowl. They held the Rams to just three points total. It was the lowest score for any Super Bowl team ever, and the lowest for any team coached by Sean McVay — widely lauded as a mastermind of offense over the three seasons that he’s coached.

It didn’t matter that for the first time in his long Super Bowl career, Tom Brady didn’t throw a touchdown and the offense only scored three points in the first half (coincidentally, the same first half score as the Patriots had in their 2017 Super Bowl win over the Atlanta Falcons). The defense was putting on a commanding performance against one of the best offenses in the league, after struggling to contain even mediocre teams during the regular season.

“I don’t think we care about what people had to say,” says cornerback Jason McCourty, who prevented Brandin Cooks from catching what would have been the first touchdown of the game. “We just knew what we were capable of, and we still had a chance to win the Super Bowl.”

It’s a credit to linebackers coach and defensive signal-caller Brian Flores, who will be the next head coach of the Miami Dolphins. Over the course of a year of holding the defensive reins in New England, Flores has transformed the unit into the unforgiving group that helped turn the Super Bowl into a defensive slugfest. One word comes up over and over among players to explain his impact: aggression.

“You watched: we were aggressive all night, baby,” says linebacker Kyle Van Noy after the game.

“One thing we all know about Flo is he’s an aggressive guy — whatever he says, that’s what he means,” Hightower adds.

That aggression had Rams quarterback Jared Goff so flustered that he got a false start. “Us getting pressure inside, no quarterback likes that,” says Hightower. “We were able to get there often. Sometimes we might have been late, but we were still kind of tapping him on his butt to let him know we were there. Some guys don’t like that.”

The quarterback pressure from both teams’ defenses meant that Super Bowl 53 was bookended by a pair of interceptions: the first from Tom Brady on his very first throw of the game, and the second by Patriots corner Stephon Gilmore to seal the Rams’ fate. “I knew he was desperate, it was down to the wire,” Gilmore says after the game. “I knew we had a blitz coming and it had to come out of his hand, so I was able to make a great play — but I couldn’t have done it without that pressure on the quarterback.”

Overall, their performance is the only believable part of the Patriots’ underdog narrative. “We might not have all the 99 guys on Madden and all that other shit, but we’re a good team,” says Hightower. “We work well together, we know what we need to do, and we play well together — and we did that tonight.”