ATLANTA — They were coming, the Rams, like kids running down a hill, giddy with their speed, going faster in the fourth quarter than they had all night. Jared Goff, who’d been terribly out of sync, was momentarily sharp, Clark Kent in a phone booth, and he moved his young bucks half a football field in less than three minutes.
But one play after just missing a game-tying touchdown pass, Goff, all of 24, was pressured by a relentless New England pass rush, and he lofted a pass that was too high, too quick, and maybe, in the end, too young. The Patriots Stephon Gilmore leapt in the air and stole the ball, the win, and the championship rings that come with it.
Not yet, kids. The old folks get one more hurrah. Tom Brady, 41, and Bill Belichick, 66, and MVP of the game Julian Edelman, 32, and the rest of the creaking, title-heavy Patriots outlasted the upstart Rams in a defensive tussle, and earned a sixth Super Bowl title, tying the Steelers for most ever by a franchise.
“Everybody counted us out from the beginning of the season,” Belichick said on the podium, in a rare admittance that he even listens to the outside world. “But we’re still here.”
The final was, ahem, 13-3.
No, that’s not a partial score.
Youth will be served, but sometimes, it gets served a lesson. And sometimes the service is slow. Really slow. In a year of high-flying NFL offenses, this was a stick-in-the-mud championship. Judged against other Super Bowls, it was sleep-inducing. You wanted to scream at it to get off the couch and get to work!
After three quarters, the score was 3-3, the lowest total in Super Bowl history. Believe it or not — and I can’t believe I’m writing this sentence in the year of the Rams, Chiefs, Saints and other intergalactic offenses — the only play in the red zone all night was a 2-yard touchdown run by Sony Michel.
“We couldn’t take our foot off the gas against these guys,” Brady said afterwards. Although much of the night, it looked like they were riding the brakes.
Edelman the savior
Truth is, this was a boring game to many viewers, because great defense in the NFL is appreciated mostly by people who watch tape for a living. But what the Patriots did in shutting down the Rams, holding them without a touchdown, and to 62 rushing yards (the Rams were the third-best rushing team in the league this year) well, that’s amazing stuff. It just isn’t the typical New England amazing stuff.
“We could have played better offensively,” Brady admitted. “… But we played well in the end and that’s what we needed.”
Nobody played better that Edelman, the seventh-round draft pick who has seemingly done everything for the Pats over the years except put the white lines on the field. Although he looks, in a helmet, with his thick unruly beard pushing out the sides, like Gimli from Lord of the Rings, he is the quintessential utility man, a college quarterback turned receiver, kick returner even occasional defensive back. On Sunday, he was something more critical.
He was reliable when nobody else was.
Play after play, drive after drive, he was there to convert a third down, to push field position, to deflate the Rams defense and help keep Goff and his skill brigade off the field. I’m not sure a receiver has ever won an Super Bowl MVP award without catching a single touchdown, but on this night, what you kept the other team from doing was as important as what you did yourselves, and Edelman’s 10 catches on 12 targets for 141 yards was precious.
“He played his best game of the year,” Brady gushed.
“Sometimes the cookie crumbles that way,” Edelman said.
How sweet for Edelman, who had to sit out last year’s Super Bowl loss to Philadelphia with an injury. But if you want to see why the Patriots are the Patriots, look at a guy like Edelman, a seventh-round draft pick, or Brady, a sixth-round draft pick, or Kyle Van Noy, who was a bust with the Lions but was all over the field Sunday for the Pats. Or Michel, who had 94 yards in his first Super Bowl, a rookie, the 31st player taken in the draft, yet so much more impactful than other teams’ first-rounders.
The Patriots just do things smarter, they evaluate talent better, they game-plan better, and from the looks of it, they pull together better. All through the Patriots post-game celebration, there were compliments for other players, the offense thanking the defense, Rob Gronkowski crediting Edelman, Edelman crediting Brady, Belichick crediting his players, shifting it from himself.
Let’s be blunt. Six Super Bowls wins in 17 years? This is a pro football dynasty that will never be seen again. And Brady and Belichick, with their six rings together, are the most titled coach and quarterback in NFL history, and will hold that mark for a very long time.
And yes, we still wish it was a better game.
Great story lines, but average play
Funny thing is, the historical table setting made you think it would be. Exactly 17 years ago — to the day! — the Patriots and Rams first met for the Lombardi trophy, a game which launched the post-season legend of a second-year quarterback named Brady. And here were the same two franchises, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, with a third-year quarterback named Goff behind center for the Rams, and Brady, at 41, the only player left from that 2002 game.
Belichick was being challenged by Sean McVay, a coach half his age. The New England roster had 38 players with Super Bowl experience; L.A. had four. The two teams had combined for 134 points in their previous two wins.
So this should have been a good one, right?
Maybe even high flying?
Where’s the O?
As a work of art, Sunday was a finger painting. Neither team reached the red zone in the first half. For a while, you had to check to see if they were actually playing.
On the Patriots side, the first 30 minutes featured an interception on Brady’s first pass of the game (only time in his career that’s ever happened), a missed field goal, two timeouts due to confusion, a failed fourth-and-1, several dropped or tipped passes, and three points.
But at least New England had the ball. In fact, they had it twice as long as the Rams, who had six drives, six punts, two first downs, and no points.
Wade Phillips’ defensive schemes were making Brady look mortal, unable to really connect with anyone besides Edelman. But as discombobulated as New England looked, the Rams were, well, how can we say it? If this were roll call, their offense would have been marked “absent.”
These are real stats from halftime: L.A. had as many first downs as sacks allowed (two), they had 57 total yards of offense, and nearly as many yards in penalties as passing.
It didn’t just look like the moment was too big for Goff, it looked like it was too big for any Ram who didn’t tackle for a living. Todd Gurley, an amazing rusher all regular season, was absent for most of the half with an injury, three carries for 10 yards. At halftime, he was just another car that didn’t start in the L.A. parking lot.
Patriots of old come alive
Ah, but that’s why halftime feels like an eternity in Super Bowls. It gives teams time to regroup. Or, in this case, burn the playbook and try something different, right?
Except that the third quarter wasn’t much different than the first two, and heading down the home stretch, it was a field goal tie.
And then, with 9:49 left, the Pats took over at their own 31. And for one critical drive, Brady lived up to his usual billing.
He lofted a pass to Gronkowski, over the shoulder, for 18 yards.
He found Edelman over the middle, just standing there, his 10th catch of the night, for a big first down.
He hit Rex Burkhead for 7 yards.
And then, the crusher, another long pass to Gronkowski between three L.A. defenders, for 29 yards, down to the 2-yard line.
One play later, Michel was in the end zone, the only touchdown of the night. The Patriots were the Patriots one more time.
“God is good,” Michel later said.
The Patriots ain’t bad either.
Better with age
“You know it was an unbelievable year,” Brady told CBS on the field during the post-game celebration. “We fought through it more than anything. It’s unbelievable to win this game. They played so well, the Rams’ defense, what a great defense. They had a great plan. They made it tough on every play.”
But not as tough as the Patriots. Although most of America can’t name the players who did it, the New England defense kept Goff at 50 percent passing (19-for-38), sacked him four times, and picked him off once, at the most critical time.
They also took away Robert Woods, whom many thought was Goff’s favorite weapon (he had just five catches) and neither Gurley nor C.J. Anderson were effective running against a wall of Patriot defenders.
“Our D played their butt off,” Brady said.
“Julian (Edelman) played his ass off,” Gronkowski said.
You sense a theme here?
Patriots win. It was slow, it was plodding, it was ugly, it was nothing like their previous championships, but the old guys had at least one more in them – and the young bucks like Goff are left to explain the interception that ended any real hope, just when things seemed to be turning around.
“That was my fault,” Goff said. “I can’t put us in that situation. (It was a) bad decision by me. I gotta do better.”
He will. His time will come. It might take Brady walking away, but it will come, and likely in a game with more explosives than this one.
Not yet, kids.
Wake up, kids!
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his latest best-selling book, “The Next Person You Meet in Heaven,” available online and in bookstores nationwide. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Friday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.