"We’re still here," says Tom Brady to the thousands of assembled fans gathered to wave off the New England Patriots before they head to Atlanta for Super Bowl 53. And he’s right. You’d think after ten of these raucous, rah rah send-offs over the last two decades the novelty would’ve worn off a little by now. But here they were, 35,000 of them, braving the freezing Foxborough winter for the chance at a final farewell for their heroes.
Eleven Super Bowls. More appearances in the NFL season’s showpiece game than 10 other teams combined. Nine of those have come over the last 18 years and four over the last five. Brady, now 41-years-old, has led them into all nine, all alongside legendary coach Bill Belichick. This is where they belong. And they’re still here.
There is a certain symmetry in play this week in Georgia where the two best teams in football will face off for the Vince Lombardi Trophy. The win that kick-started this Pats dynasty, way back in 2001, was over the Rams, the same Rams that stand between them and a record-equalling sixth title on Sunday.
The time. The place. The venue. The Rams’ home city. Much has changed since that famed meeting all those years ago but one constant remains, that of Brady and Belichick, the NFL standard in quarterbacking and coaching 18 years on, still in perfect sync, still united as if one.
One man knows more than most the challenge the Rams face on Sunday – the one charged with solving it. A standard-setting coach in his own right Sean McVay is rightly held up as one of the brightest minds the modern game has produced. At 33 he’ll be the youngest to ever grace this stage too but, make no mistake, he’s earned his ticket to this dance. Despite that, however, for him it remains a no contest.
"I'm certainly not even close to being mentioned in the same breath as coach Belichick with what he's done,” he said in his final press conference before the big game. "The wealth of knowledge and experience that he's pulling from is incredible. He's got an ownership and a mastery on offence, defence and special teams.
"You talk about somebody that understands the nuances of the game, the tactical approaches and how to put together a gameplan that is conducive for his players' skillsets. But it's also about playing with all three phases working in unison, not necessarily one separate from the other. He's just done such a great job.
"Those players believe in him. I think he's invested in building a real authentic rapport and caring about the guys."
“Bet against us,” has been the warcry of choice as the Pats have navigated their way through the AFC play-offs in the unfamiliar guise of an underdog. First the high-flying Los Angeles Chargers were unceremoniously sent packing on home field before Brady and his bunch marched into Kansas City and took down the number one seeded Chiefs in overtime a fortnight ago to book their place here.
They lost the last time they got this far, of course, with the defeat to the Philadelphia Eagles last February still one that stings. However, it’s the historic fightback of the Super Bowl previous - when they overturned a 28-3 deficit to triumph 34-28 against the Atlanta Falcons - that lingers in McVay’s mind.
"To play against the Patriots is a great challenge but they're one of these teams, they're consistently showing up,” he added. “You look at the amount of appearances they've had, the consistency at which they've operated, it's not a surprise.
"One of the things that you consistently hear is 'good teams don't beat themselves' and they're a great team because they never beat themselves. They handle situations. Their big-time players make plays at the most opportune moments and they handle adversity extremely well.
"To continue to compete when you're down 28-3 and find a way to get it done, there's an internal belief that that team had.
"You could feel it just watching it on TV and I think that consistent belief and expectation that 'we're going to find a way' is a really powerful thing."
So how do you beat them? Pressure Brady up the middle, they say. Stop the run. Win the time of possession battle and don’t miss your own chances to score points. You’ll need luck too and for your best to outplay their best as Nick Foles did so famously a year ago.
They’re not unbeatable, of course – five teams managed it this year – but as McVay sagely says they won’t beat themselves. No other team appears to use the regular season as a science lab, as a petri dish for the playoffs. This New England squad isn’t the same one that set out on this road five months ago, not even close. They now run the ball to set up the pass, not the other way around. They use Hall of Fame pass-catcher Rob Gronkowski almost solely as a run blocker. Fullback James Develin is no longer the 53rd man of a 52-man team.
They are a team that arrives at this stage every year the absolute best they can possibly be with absolutely nothing left to chance. And they win time and again because of it.
They’re still here. After 18 years, nine Super Bowls and five titles, they’re still here. And the Rams know it’s going to take something special to shift them.
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