There’s really no debate that it was New England’s defense that won the Patriots their sixth Super Bowl on Sunday night in Atlanta.
The high-flying Los Angeles Rams couldn’t get off the ground, and a lot of praise needs to go to newly named Miami Dolphins Head Coach Brian Flores for his scheme all night long and then perfectly timing that all-out blitz to force an interception by Stephon Gilmore late in the fourth quarter that essentially won the game.
I also would add that Sunday concludes maybe Bill Belichick’s finest coaching job since the team’s first Super Bowl win 17 years ago. Almost all of the credit goes to those two guys, because they severely out-coached Sean McVay and the Rams’ offensive staff.
That being said, the players had to do the work on the field to get the job done, as both mentioned in their postgame comments.
There’s an old saying that big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games. That’s what we saw Sunday night. I mentioned the interception. Gilmore was named first team All-Pro. He was matched up with Brandin Cooks, a player Belichick traded away in the offseason, and made the play knowing the defense Flores had called. He said he anticipated the early throw and took advantage of it. But give credit to the rest of the defense.
Dont’a Hightower, who I’ll get back to in just a minute, takes the right tackle out of the play with his rush to the outside. Devin McCourty times his blitz and goes right at running back Todd Gurley, opening up the lane for Duron Harmon to get to quarterback Jared Goff in a full sprint and force the bad throw. The players that this team relies on most to do their jobs did exactly that, and it led to a pivotal play in the game.
Hightower, who for much of the year had been criticized by many for being too slow, not the same player, etc. looked revitalized this postseason, and he was a player who may have deserved MVP considerations. Hightower finished with two sacks, two tackles for loss, three quarterback hits and a pass breakup (that should have been an interception). He was a force all night long, as was his linebacker partner Kyle Van Noy. There’s a guy who has flown into the role as a big-time player in this defense. He added a sack of his own on a play in which Goff was trying to extend the play outside the pocket. Van Noy closed and didn’t allow it to happen.
Any time Goff dropped back, it was as if Hightower or Van Noy were right in his face. It was a great game plan by Belichick and Flores, but the players had to execute, and they did that almost the entire 60 minutes. On one of the plays that the Patriots didn’t execute, it was a Super Bowl newcomer who stepped up and made one of the plays of the game. Cooks got behind the zone defense and was WIDE OPEN in the back of the end zone. Jason McCourty notices it, and thanks to one of many poorly executed throws by Goff, he gets there and knocks it away from Cooks at the last minute to save the touchdown. What a huge play that was from another guy who took some heat throughout the season in New England.
On the offensive end, there were a lot of potential points left out on the field. Give a lot of credit to Wade Phillips and that L.A. Rams defense. They confused Pats QB Tom Brady. The Rams’ early interception was a great disguise, and it fooled Brady. He seemed uncomfortable for a lot of the game.
But he is the G.O.A.T., and he showed it once again on the only touchdown drive of the night. He connected on all four of his passes to set up Sony Michel’s touchdown run to give New England a 10-3 lead. The first three completions were nice reads against L.A.’s defense, but it was the throw to Rob Gronkowski of 29 yards to set up the touchdown that everyone in New England will remember, an absolute dime of a pass right to Gronk over two defenders with a third bearing down. It was a G.O.A.T. play on both ends.
Like Hightower, Gronkowski has had to hear all season that he’s not the same player, and it’s clear he isn’t. The old Gronk probably scores on that play I just mentioned, but the 2018 Gronk wasn’t making those plays until now. He made two critical catches against Kansas City two weeks ago to help New England get back to the Super Bowl, and then he came back and made a crucial catch Sunday night to set up the game-winning score in what could be his final catch of his NFL career if in fact he does announce his retirement this offseason. If that happens, that’s quite the walk-off for No. 87.
How can we talk about big-time players making big-time plays without talking about the Super Bowl MVP? Even in the worst of times Sunday night, Julian Edelman found a way to make a play. He caught 10 passes on 12 targets for 141 yards. Eight of his 10 catches went for first downs. That’s unbelievable. Maybe more unbelievable is that Los Angeles allowed him to be open that many times. There were times he was covered, but he made the move to get open and give Brady an alley to throw it.
It wasn’t the Patriots’ best performance, not even close, but in the game’s biggest moments, it was their best players who made the biggest plays.
That’s what champions do. As New England radio broadcaster Bob Socci said at the end of the game, “Yes, it’s still a dynasty!”