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Don’t judge a great NFL season by an underwhelming Super Bowl

The most disappointing Super Bowl of modern memory actually gave me hope.

Super Bowl LIII - New England Patriots v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The 2019 Super Bowl was an underwhelming game between two teams that America would rather not have watched.

Love them or hate them — across the country, it’s mostly hate — the Patriots are an emotionally exhausting team. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are not only invincible, but they’re hyper-insulated by their ultra-efficient lives. They’re so good in part because they never acknowledge the outside world, which makes them a distant and frustrating pair to invest any emotional stake in.

The Rams shouldn’t have been in the Super Bowl — full stop. That isn’t to say they weren’t any good — they played the Saints to enough of a standstill that just one blown call likely decided the game — but that didn’t dissipate the feeling that this was a Just Lucky To Be Here team. Even Rams players knew they were fortunate. And everyone acknowledging that a team that wasn’t one of the two best in the league was playing in the sport’s biggest game dimmed its shine.

This would have been a better game if it was Patriots-Saints, Chiefs-Saints, or Chiefs-Rams. Or even Patriots-Rams but under better circumstances, where the Rams make the game without the help of the referees, and a few years after they’ve established themselves in the hearts of Los Angelenos so that they wouldn’t have been so vastly outnumbered in the stands.

It would have been a better game if it was a better game. Somehow one of the most explosive seasons of offense we’ve ever seen across the NFL — in part because of the Super Bowl’s two participants — produced the lowest-scoring Super Bowl ever. Rams punter Johnny Hekker punted nine times on the night, or more than he punted through the first five games of the 2018 regular season combined. Tom Brady was mediocre, and Jared Goff was much worse. These were the teams that finished No. 2 and No. 5 in offensive DVOA this season.

And that’s really the most disappointing part about Sunday’s game. The 2018 season was worth celebrating for so many reasons — for Pat Mahomes, Andy Reid, and the Chiefs; for Drew Brees setting yet another career record; for Sean McVay and the onslaught of teams now trying to copy his smarter, more aggressive brand of offense; for budding jaw-droppers like Saquon Barkley. It felt fresh, and new, and exciting in a way that built off of the NFL’s progress last season into a looser, more player-defined league.

Then we got a stone-age Super Bowl that felt like nothing we had come to expect from this season — like the game was a dark punchline at the expense of anyone who trusted that the product was getting better. The game felt like a throwback to the not-so-long-ago era when the Super Bowl almost always sucked, and it became fashionable to say you were only tuning in for the commercials and the halftime show. (BTW, this game was pretty bad on those fronts, too.)

In football, it can be hard to put a finger on exactly why a game is bad. Someone, somewhere, is commenting on another article just like this to say, “Good defense is good football, too!” And that’s true! We should take a sec to appreciate those moments.

Here’s Aaron Donald wrecking a center:

And here’s one of the several times that the Patriots defense made Goff look like what young passers are supposed to look like:

Both defensive fronts should pat themselves on the back for what they did to two very good offensive lines.

Here’s what we missed though: Moments, or even one moment. One feat of utter improbability worth hollering about, that didn’t feel like the simple outcome of what was most likely to happen based on an equation of scheme and protection — a helmet catch, sack fumble, or Philly Special. Run this game on Madden sim and it might have looked like this, a football game by osmosis.

Those moments weren’t too far away. If Brandin Cooks hangs on to an over-the-shoulder end zone throw with 4:24 left, the Rams might have tied the game late. Instead they were lamely picked off the next play. Or, say, if Devin McCourty doesn’t fly in to break up another end zone pass to Cooks that Goff badly missed, the Rams might have taken a lead late in the third.

The Patriots defense absolutely played a great game, of course. Even if the Rams were capable of testing them, there was no indication that the result would be anything different. We’ll never know, though, because throughout the night, the Rams never seemed to be in the frame of mind to possibly produce the one amazing play they needed. That seemed to be a pervasive feeling among those players and coaches after the game, too.

I’m not even sure the game was interesting enough to meme, but if it was, the Rams are going to have a difficult time living down the last two weeks. If getting helped by a referee to get to the Super Bowl was bad, then playing limp and seemingly getting cemented as a fraud is even worse. This will be an immensely difficult offseason for a Rams team that, if it isn’t too emotionally hamstrung, returns the nucleus of what should be another contending team in 2019.

I hope the Rams bounce back, because they have undoubtedly been good for the NFL. Fast, motion- and action-heavy, RPO-laden offenses are effective — there’s a reason why so many teams are finding coaches who seem to have a vague connection to McVay — but more importantly they’re a lot of fun. They produce fewer of those osmosis-like games and more games like the 54-51 burner between the Chiefs and Rams in Week 11, which had so many breathless moments between two peaking teams that it was hailed as perhaps the greatest NFL game ever. A game that, despite what the score might lead you to believe, hinged on great defense as much as offense.

That should be the emblem of this season, not the awkward 13-3 snoozer we received Sunday night. And in a way, it’s encouraging that such a nondescript game occurred. The NFL is fundamentally broken. Teams have no fiscal incentive to be any good thanks to revenue sharing and a rich, long-term TV contract that pays them handsomely regardless whether they go 2-14 or 14-2. At their worst, bad teams play a lot of games that look like the Super Bowl did. But the fact that Sunday’s game felt especially bad is a feeling worth dissecting.

The best thing we can say about the Super Bowl is that it seemed to be a fluke, the defect that occasionally gets spat out whenever conditions are exactly right: a matchup no one wanted to watch that also wasn’t worth watching. And yet by way of contrast, it also emphasized how the NFL mostly seems to be becoming a better league to watch overall, despite its fundamental flaws.

A game like the Super Bowl isn’t normal anymore. And if that’s the case, there may be no better exception that could have proved the rule. The 2019 Super Bowl was awful, and I have never been more excited for next season.