It certainly wasn't pretty but it was undoubtedly clever. The New England Patriots out-thought and out-schemed the Los Angeles Rams to seal the sixth Super Bowl win of the Bill Belichick and Tom Brady era, the old-timer pair dismissing the challenge of the Rams' upstart head coach, 33-year-old Sean McVay, and 24-year-old Jared Goff at quarterback, who looked utterly lost on the biggest stage.
Brady, in winning a record-breaking Lombardi trophy, smashed his own mark for the oldest-ever winner as well a host of other records. He boasts the most touchdowns, the most passing yards, the most completions, the most appearances and the most wins in Super Bowl history. He is a one-man history machine who, at 41, is not done rewriting those books.
On previous occasions it has been won in thrilling style, edging high-scoring match-ups that engrossed the nation. This Super Bowl was so low-scoring that the much-maligned headline performers of this year’s half-time show outscored both teams after two quarters and it wasn't even close: Maroon Five, the New England Patriots 3, Los Angeles Rams 0. None of them impressed.
With the game on the line and just minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, this game still hung in the balance not because we had enjoyed the spiralling offensive battle predicted but because the lowest-scoring Super Bowl in recent history had seen just three points apiece. Then Tom Brady went back to basics, the Patriots ran a hurry-up offense with an identical formation three times in a row but Brady picking a different target each time. A lofted pass to Rob Gronkowski, caught on the two-yard line, was ultimately the crucial play.
Sony Michel ran in the first touchdown of the 53rd Super Bowl in the fourth quarter, but Gronkowski’s play was the one that dragged the wolves to the door. Michel just blew a straw house down and the Pats never looked back.
Three full hours after it started, the Super Bowl had its first touchdown but scoring wasn’t really the story of this game. It was an unexpected tale of disguised coverages and outright frustration, the Rams baffled by what was thrown at them and the Patriots smart enough to keep throwing it while they did just about enough on offense.
Amazingly, the Pats didn’t concede a single point in the first half against high-powered Rams team excited to be playing on the biggest stage in sport, just as they didn’t against the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship game a fortnight ago. To deny two offenses of such outrageous levels of creativity and talent for an hour of football is an astonishing example of brilliant coaching making scheme and execution more important than the obvious advantage the Rams had in ability. Those two shutouts, more than any other statistic you might hear, sum up why the Patriots continue to come back to this game year on year. Eight punts in a row from the Rams, the second-best offense in the league, shows how well Bill Belichick and Brian Flores had this defensive unit playing.
As much as the Pats spooked the Rams, it is impossible to escape the feeling that the incredible coaching job McVay has done in Los Angeles has papered over the cracks when it comes to quarterback Jared Goff. The University of California product came into the NFL as the first overall pick in the 2016 draft but then endured the worst rookie season of virtually any QB in history.
His turnaround under McVay’s guidance has been notable but his regression in this game was too. Goff came up short again and again on big plays in the Super Bowl, struggling to work out the Patriots’ complex coverage schemes, failing to make reads on receivers and occasionally finding himself surprised by pressure breaking through the inside of the Rams’ offensive line.
Where we saw Brady getting the ball out of his hands quickly and hitting receivers, Goff was dawdling. The 24-year-old passer was 0/6 on third-down passes after three quarters, failing to make a single completion when it mattered and the game was on the line. He couldn’t extend drives, he couldn’t stay clean and he couldn’t hurt New England deep.
The Patriots had the best of the opening exchanges but failed to capitalise on their territorial gains after an interception and field goal killed their first two drives. Nearly eight minutes of possession, a 69-2 mismatch in yardage and two timeouts were burned with nothing to show for them in the first quarter. Unusual amounts of sloppiness kept them from extending their lead over the Rams but Brady found repeated joy in his trusted connection with Julian Edelman early on where Goff found nothing.
A slow start and trundling middle section gave way to the Rams heating up though. Goff started hitting those third downs he’d failed on earlier. He missed Brandin Cooks in the end zone after the Patriots’ back end suffered a miscommunication but the Rams pulled level with a field goal and there was more rhythm around the west coast team in this Atlantic vs Pacific clash. It didn't last long.
As much as Goff struggled and Brady really showed up, Todd Gurley simply wasn’t a factor.
Forget the mid-season talk of an MVP award for Gurley, this game he was simply MIA. The Rams had insisted he was fit in the wake of a quiet NFC Championship game performance against the New Orleans Saints, and yet the first-rounder only had three first-half touches in the biggest game of their season.
Punter Jonny Hekker had had the ball in his hands more. That isn’t what McVay would have had in mind, but unlike their previous playoff outings where C.J. Anderson had come up big, rampaging through the interior, the 2016 Super Bowl winner couldn’t recreate that form. The Rams needed Gurley but they didn’t get him. They needed Goff even more but he missed throws when it mattered.
With Goff misfiring, the Rams embarked on a final drive where they absolutely needed to score more in hope than expectation. As hope disappeared, Goff had clearly been consumed by expectation, a season in which he had starred descending into an evening as bad as he could have feared. For Brady, the winner, it was another day of grinding out wins on the biggest stage. For his opposite number, a reminder and close-up look at what it takes to get to the top.
With McVay in place and the playing talent available to him, it is hard to think that the Rams won't be back in the Super Bowl some time soon. With Brady and Belichick still going, it's impossible to think that the Patriots won't be.
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