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 victory over the Rams regularly threatened to send tens of millions of TV viewers to sleep will…
And so the Patriotsarchy continues. New England, seeminglyimpervious to age,controversyand 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 victory over the Rams regularly threatened to send tens of millions of TV viewers to sleep will matter little to their fans – or the fiercely competitive Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. In fact, you suspect it might make the victory sweeter for a team that seems to thrive on the antipathy of others.
Winning the coin toss was about as good as the game got for the Rams. They put the ball was in the hands of Brady, aiming for his sixthSuper Bowltitle at the age of 41. 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, tipped by the Rams’ Nickell Robey-Coleman and landed in the waiting hands of his teammate 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 awesome 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 seasoncharacterised 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 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. His aggressiveness couldn’t be faulted – he put plenty of air on a few deep balls but they appeared to come from desperation rather than part of any coherent plan. The Rams’ real offensive star this season, though, has been running back Todd Gurley. 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 now 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 off with a nasty injury as safety Patrick Chung, one of the Patriots’ longest tenured players, suffered a suspected fractured arm. He left the field under his own steam to loud applause from the New England fans. Gurley finally produced a run of significance, jagging through the Patriots defense for 16 yards a run that would have been run-of-the-mill a few months ago but 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. He 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. Many hate the Patriots, but few can deny their brilliance.