ATLANTA — The New England Patriots wrecked this Super Bowl, and that’s meant as a compliment. They smashed and broke up and generally made an unsightly mess of the Los Angeles Rams, and they weren’t very pretty themselves, with the exception of that one breathtaking play from Tom Brady to Rob Gronkowski. They won it, 13-3, in the same way they have done things all year, so strangely ungreat and then suddenly great and better than anyone gave them credit for.
“I’ll take that ugly win over a pretty loss any day,” said wide receiver Julian Edelman, the game’s MVP.
They made fistfuls of history with their sixth Super Bowl title in a historically lousy offensive title game, the lowest-scoring Super Bowl ever, a stymieing, grinding, bone-shattering game that sent Patriots safety Patrick Chung to the locker room early in the second half with his arm in a cast, and made running back Rex Burkhead’s mouthpiece fly into the air along with the spit that was knocked out of him. Nothing ever flowed — until those final 10 minutes of the fourth quarter, when the 41-year-old Brady somehow pried two scoring drives worth 10 points out of the offense. “We were just chipping away,” Brady said.
A light and elegant Rams offense accustomed to having its way all season couldn’t get a single thing it wanted against the Patriots. After eight straight punts, you wondered how 24-year-old Rams quarterback Jared Goff held his head up. Time and again, the Patriots abruptly knocked him down and spectacularly batted away his passes. None were more important than the ones Jason McCourty streaked across the field to barely swat away from a wide-open Brandin Cooks in the end zone late in the third quarter and the interception that Stephon Gilmore fatally seized out of the air at the New England 4-yard line with 4:17 left in the game.
“We got completely outplayed,” Goff said.
Pressure played its part. To a certain extent, the Rams may have suffered from some stage fright. There was nothing that could prepare them for the sheer scale of the Super Bowl in the exaggerated immensity of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, as futuristic and technologically marvelous as Starkiller Base. When the ceiling slid open for the pregame ceremonies, you half-expected the glass windows to lower and for it to bristle with laser weapons. Everything seemed larger in this game — the upper decks shearing up toward those gigantic billboard screens that were blinding in their sharpness, the depth of the crowd noise a vibrating thrum that pierced the chest. It had even Brady gazing upward. “It’s a bigger game than you realize,” the Rams’ 71-year-old defensive coordinator, Wade Phillips, who was coaching in his third Super Bowl, warned this past week.
It was too big for McVay, the youngest coach to reach this game, and at times for Goff, so baby-faced that he looked as if he were on spring break from prep school — and who seemed almost tremulous during the anthem, his hand-over-heart fluttering against his chest. McVay was still a high school quarterback when Brady and Bill Belichick won their first Super Bowl in the 2001 season. Goff was 7. They were up against a Patriots outfit with 36 Super Bowl veterans on the roster, some of whom had been together for a decade or more, such as the 41-year-old Brady and 32-year-old Edelman.
The Patriots weren’t giving a thing away about how to handle it. Brady, asked early in the week whether he had any hints for the younger quarterback, said shortly, “I’m not giving him any advice.” The 17-year age gap between them was so yawning that Goff couldn’t even recall his first memories of Brady. “To be honest, I don’t,” he said.
It was far from guaranteed, however, that time and experience would actually work in the Patriots’ favor. All year they had heard that they were aging, slowing. Surely, according to the laws of math and nature, they couldn’t keep up their unfathomable run, reaching Super Bowls at a 50 percent rate, nine times over the past 18 seasons. When they started the season 1-2, then lost an uncharacteristic five regular season games, all they heard was that the dynasty was finally eroding.
It all played straight into their hands. What better way to take the pressure off a trophy-surfeited team with chronically exaggerated expectations, one that struggles to maintain its grind and motivation, than to put it in an underdog role? The outside skepticism turned the Patriots into a team of ferociously bonded and sweaty toughs whose thick stubble and beards seemed to sum them up. Edelman’s beard had grown to lumberjack proportions by game day. “I shaved two days ago. It just came back,” he joked. There was no telling how long it had been since center David Andrews had washed his matted hair. “I don’t shave or cut my hair. It’s not part of my routine,” he deadpanned.
It was a team on which “the character is built when the lights are off,” special teams captain Matthew Slater said, and the Patriots developed an implacable belief in themselves. “Too old, too slow, no skill!” they screamed at one another, repeating the criticisms of the experts.
After the AFC championship game, in which they needed overtime to beat the Kansas City Chiefs, yet another team younger and supposedly more phenomenal than them, Edelman had told rookie running back Sony Michel: “This is cute. We win that next one, that’s where the real fun is.”
They went to work every day like they were hauling heavy loads. “It’s a lot like climbing a mountain,” Brady said before the game. “You got to kind of figure out your way to the top.”
They didn’t have as much youth or speed or dazzle as the Rams, no, but they had inner fortitude and the know-how of all their years of winning. “Maybe there are things you can’t necessarily measure,” Brady had suggested before the game. “But in the end maybe they’re more important than anything you can measure.”
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