Brady’s first NFL championship was built on the back of his defense. Stars like Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest, and newly minted Hall of Famer Ty Law shut down the league’s top scoring offense, holding them to three points in the first three quarters in a rousing 20-17 win. On Sunday, Bill Belichick and de facto defensive coordinator/soon-to-be Dolphins head coach Brian Flores found a way to hold 2018’s No. 2 offense to three points...in the entire game.
Sunday’s Super Bowl may have lacked the drama of that first New England title. Or the grace of an entertaining football game (seriously. it was ugly). But it was a quintessential Patriots performance, the product of a team finding new avenues to success when unexpected roadblocks crop up. New England couldn’t find the end zone for three quarters in a contest against a team that averaged 32.9 points per game.
It didn’t matter, because the Patriots find a way.
The Patriot defense papered over an awful offensive performance
Tom Brady was awful in the first quarter because that’s what Super Bowl Tom Brady does. His first pass of the game was a pass so bad it should have been intercepted twice (the Rams had to settle for a single turnover). He snuffed out a scoring drive by waiting entirely too long in the pocket and taking one of the most preventable sacks possible, fumbling the ball and losing nine yards in the process.
This was not unexpected. The Patriots scored three points in the first quarters of their first eight Brady/Belichick Super Bowls. They have now scored three points in the first quarters of their first nine Brady/Belichick Super Bowls.
Josh McDaniels’ playcalling didn’t do him many favors, but he regressed back to his Hall of Fame mean thanks to the presence of old standbys Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski. But New England still struggled in the ways its typically struggled. Brady had trouble stepping into his passes and delivering accurate balls thanks to Los Angeles’ swarming pass rush.
There was a stark contrast between the average time to throw of Tom Brady & Jared Goff in the first quarter:— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) February 4, 2019
Tom Brady - 2.36 seconds
Jared Goff - 3.54 seconds#SuperBowl
There was even a throwback to the team’s AFC title game performance with an awful fourth-and-1 call that eschewed a makeable field goal for a play with little chance of success. Two weeks ago, that was a run up the gut with Rex Burkhead. On Sunday, it was a quick pass to a double-covered Rob Gronkowski.
But Belichick also got big performances from the stars he needed to step up to cover for Brady’s inefficient performance. Sony Michel’s star-making playoffs culminated in a 94-yard performance that included the game’s only touchdown. Julian Edelman lent credence to the theory he’s the best postseason receiver since Jerry Rice with a 10-catch, 141-yard showing. Rob Gronkowski terrified Pats fans by limping off the field in the second quarter, then had two massive receptions on the team’s 69-yard (of course.) touchdown drive.
That group needed a MASSIVE defensive performance to squeeze out the win
Bill Belichick came into Super Bowl 53 with an upgraded defense from last year’s title game loser, and he used a rising secondary and a crew of interchangeable veterans to baffle a quarterback 17 years younger than his own. New England’s flexible schemes and smothering coverage spent the first half of the game making Goff look like the Jeff Fisher version that swapped snaps with Case Keenum in 2016.
Goff miiiiight be a little overwhelmed tonight pic.twitter.com/bl3Y1vwVdG— Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) February 4, 2019
The first two quarters of Goff’s Super Bowl career: 12 passes, five completions, and two sacks in a zero-point first half. His Rams had 57 total yards through 30 minutes of game time. Los Angeles didn’t convert a third down until late in the third quarter. When Goff dropped back on third-and-seven at the New England 26, it was another Flores blitz that pushed Greg Zuerlein’s game-tying field goal attempt out to a more difficult 53-yard kick.
That second half pressure was what kept Goff from finding his rhythm as the Rams discovered a heartbeat late in the game. The third-year quarterback had the same struggles Brady did, short-arming passes as his pocket undulated around him. It was Flores’ second-level blitz that squashed what looked like a sure scoring opportunity late in the fourth quarter with a Stephon Gilmore interception.
It was the culmination of so many moves, both little and big. Stephon Gilmore, recipient of a rare big money contract as a free agent, was instrumental in shutting down Brandin Cooks and knocking down a pair of passes in coverage. Duron Harmon had his number called after Patrick Chung left the game in the third quarter with a broken arm and made an immediate impact, stopping Todd Gurley right after taking Chung’s spot and putting a face to his team’s “next man up” mentality.
Brian Flores followed the Matt Patricia route as a Patriots lifer, working his way up from lowest-level staffer to take over for the former DC after 14 years in the franchise. His work sustained an AFC championship-caliber unit that saved its best work for the postseason.
Can the Patriots keep this up?
New England is looking at a lot of turnover in 2019. Every important wide receiver but Julian Edelman is headed for free agency. That includes Josh Gordon who may not play another game in the league. Rob Gronkowski flirted with retirement before the 2018 season and just pushed through one of the least productive seasons of his career. Trent Brown’s first season in Foxborough could be his only one, as he’s due for a lucrative contract after a solid year of protecting Brady’s blindside.
Even if Brady comes back — and he says there’s 0% chance he’ll retire — there’s no guarantee of continuity around him. The defense will have more returning starters, but could also face some instability. Trey Flowers is facing free agency but will likely get locked in for 2019 via the franchise tag while the team works on a long-term extension. Both McCourty brothers, Devin and Jason, could retire. Flores is going to be coaching against the Pats twice a year with the Dolphins.
But New England has never had a problem reloading in the past. The club lost Patricia last season and didn’t miss a beat defensively. Brady’s play declined from his MVP peak in 2017, but the club still worked its way into another Super Bowl. There were all sorts of questions about this team’s receiving corps back in August, and the club still found a way to boast the league’s No. 6 passing offense.
Brady’s coming back. Sony Michel looks more than worthy of his selection in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Kyle Van Noy remains the glue guy of the linebacking corps, and Stephon Gilmore will be back to provide All-Pro man-to-man coverage in the secondary.
Most importantly, the three quarterbacks New England will face twice a year in the AFC East are Josh Allen, Sam Darnold, and whomever replaces Ryan Tannehill in Miami. The path to another division title isn’t exactly fraught with peril. An 80% Patriots team can win the East in 2019 and beyond. An 80% Patriots team may be the squad that won the East this fall.
That’s what’s scary about New England. Belichick’s team is a zombie horde, staggering towards its goal, seemingly unkillable, just overwhelming opponents to the soundtrack of a funeral dirge. Taking out limbs doesn’t stop the team from moving forward. You’ve got to get to the brain to kill the Pats, and as long as Brady and Belichick are around, that nerve center is going to be just fine.