ATLANTA — The New England Patriots were short on all-around brilliance on this night. The customary near-perfection of quarterback Tom Brady was missing. So the Patriots dug in and put their true grit and uncommon resourcefulness on display instead. They demonstrated their unmatched ability to do whatever is necessary to prevail.
All of that translated into yet another Lombardi Trophy on Sunday as they outlasted the Los Angeles Rams, 13-3, in a far-from-elegant Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“We could have played better offensively,” Brady said. “But the reality is you get in these games, you’ve just got to find a way to win. We played well in the end, and that was what we needed.”
A pro-Patriots crowd watched an NFL season that was all about offense conclude with the lowest-scoring Super Bowl in history. It was a 3-3 game entering the fourth quarter, with the only scoring to that point coming on field goals by kickers Stephen Gostkowski of the Patriots in the second quarter and Greg Zuerlein of the Rams in the third quarter.
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The Patriots struck for one moment of offensive excellence. Brady zipped a pass to tight end Rob Gronkowski for a 29-yard gain to the 2-yard line to set up a touchdown run by rookie tailback Sony Michel with seven minutes remaining.
“When it comes to crunchtime,” Gronkowski said, “I always find a way.”
So, too, do the rest of the Patriots. The New England defense made sure that lead held up. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore intercepted a deep pass by Rams quarterback Jared Goff intended for wide receiver Brandin Cooks with 4:17 left. Safety Duron Harmon had broken up a would-be touchdown catch by Cooks moments earlier. Gilmore’s interception led to Gostkowski’s 41-yard field goal to seal the outcome with 1:12 to play. The celebration began in earnest when Zuerlein missed a field goal try with five seconds to go.
“I’m happy it didn’t come down to the last, last play like it has so many other times,” Brady said. “But it feels great to win and celebrate. We’re going to have a good time tonight.”
The Patriots secured their sixth Super Bowl triumph in nine appearances with Brady as their quarterback and Bill Belichick as their coach. They are playing against themselves and history at this point, long ago having cemented their place as the most prosperous and lasting dynasty of the modern NFL.
But this night was not about Brady, who threw an early interception and was somewhat out of sorts all game in a 21-for-35, 262-yard passing performance. He did manage to get the ball regularly to wide receiver Julian Edelman, who had 10 catches for 141 yards and was named the game’s MVP. Michel ran for 94 yards on 18 carries.
Rather, the night was about the defensive coaching wizardry of Belichick and his de facto defensive coordinator, linebackers coach Brian Flores, who is set to become the coach of the Miami Dolphins. It was about the execution of the players on a New England defense that sacked Goff four times, harassed him all night and kept tailback Todd Gurley II from doing much of anything. Gurley ran for 35 yards on 10 carries and had only one catch.
The Patriots remained unwavering even after one of their defensive leaders, safety Patrick Chung, left the field in the second half with his right arm in an air cast.
“They did a good job defensively mixing it up on us,” said Goff, who threw for 229 yards on 19-for-38 passing. “We were having a hard time moving the ball.”
Sean McVay, the Rams’ boy-wonder coach, could not solve Belichick’s defense on the sport’s grandest stage.
“It stings right now,” Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “I just don’t believe in excuses. I don’t believe in blaming other things. We didn’t play well enough.”
The Patriots surprised the Rams by playing more zone in the secondary than usual and by using stunts up front to help their pass rushers get to Goff.
“There are a lot of guys that we have out there that are able to pass rush, a lot of ways to win one-on-ones,” Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower said. “But we can run [stunts], too. So we were able to win that matchup.”
Few expected a Super Bowl in which the teams combined for a mere three points in the first half. The Rams punted six times in the first half while managing only two first downs and 57 yards. The 33-year-old McVay didn’t look quite like a genius. Goff was shaky. Gurley was a non-contributor again following an NFC championship game in which he ran for only 10 yards.
“You’ve just got to give credit to the Patriots,” said Gurley, who maintained that the injured knee that kept him out of the final two games of the regular season was sound now. “They’ve been here three years in a row for a reason. They got the job done again.”
The Patriots dominated the first half, producing 195 yards on offense. Edelman had seven first-half catches. Even so, the Patriots were not clicking. They squandered two timeouts in the first quarter. Brady had his first pass of the night intercepted. He was sacked for the first time this postseason and absorbed hits on several other occasions. The Patriots passed up a field goal try and failed on a fourth-down gamble in Los Angeles territory shortly before halftime.
The punt-off continued into the third quarter. The Rams finally got their offense moving, even managing a third-down conversion for the first time after eight failures. But Goff could not get the ball quickly enough to an open Cooks in the end zone. The first-down pass was broken up by Patriots cornerback Jason McCourty, and the Rams were pushed back when Goff was sacked on third down. That left Zuerlein to connect on a 53-yard field goal.
“It’s disappointing,” Cooks said. “All the work that you put in — you get here. You don’t capitalize. Now it’s like all over again, you’ve got to put that work in again to be able to get back here.”
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