SportsPulse: NFL insider Jarrett Bell puts into perspective Tom Brady winning his sixth ring and how this decades Patriots dynasty might be more impressive than the one in the 2000s.
ATLANTA — It was winning ugly in the prettiest way.
The New England Patriots carved another marker in the record book with the franchise’s sixth Super Bowl triumph, but if you were looking for shootout or a Tom Brady clinic, Mercedes-Benz Stadium was not the place for that on Sunday night.
Bill Belichick & Co. are back on top of the NFL mountain because as well as high-profile Rams defense played in Super Bowl LIII, the Patriots’ D — bet you can’t name five starters — was even better.
This wasn’t the Steel Curtain Defense or Ray-Ray’s Crew.
But it was classic enough. The Patriots just won the lowest-scoring Super Bowl in history.
“What a game!” Kyle Van Noy, one of the low-profiled cogs of the understated unit, exclaimed as the rap music blared in the festive locker room after the 13-3 triumph.
Told of the historical distinction that the 16 total points in the game represented, the fifth-year linebacker broke into a wide grin.
“It was? That’s what I like to see and here,” Van Noy said.
People will call it the most boring Super Bowl in Patriots history. Two weeks after a thriller in the AFC title game at Kansas City, when the teams combined for 44 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, this was the dud that reminded everybody that, well, defense wins championships.
Never mind that during the regular season there was an NFL record set for most touchdowns (1,371), coinciding with the second-most points (11,952) in a campaign. When the rubber hit the road with a Lombardi Trophy at stake, it came down to big-time defense.
Sure, it’s a team game. The Patriots needed for Rob Gronkowski to lay out for that 29-yard catch in the fourth quarter that set up the game’s only touchdown. They would not have won without the 10 catches for 141 yards that earned Julian Edelman the Super Bowl MVP honors.
But the “real” MVP was the Patriots defense. Torched by the Philadelphia Eagles in last year’s Super Bowl loss, the unit pretty much took a fire extinguisher to the flaming Rams offense that Sean McVay created.
Chalk up a win for Old School, with Belichick, 66, becoming the oldest coach ever to win a crown in Super Bowl history by getting the best of the NFL’s young genius.
Or, as McVay put it, “There is no other way to say it, but I got outcoached.”
The Rams, who averaged 32.9 points per game, scored the fewest points yet in McVay’s two seasons. At halftime, the prolific L.A. offense had just 57 yards — second-fewest in Super Bowl history, en route to a grand total of 260 yards and 0 touchdowns. They punted nine times, went three-and-out five times.
No, not the type of numbers that the NFL banks on for a TV ratings bonanza.
Yet they were the type of numbers that reflected a deeper purpose: Whenever New England needed a big defensive play, it was delivered in the nick of time.
Take the interception by Stephon Gilmore late in the fourth quarter that essentially sealed the game.
On the previous play, with the Rams in striking range from the Patriots’ 27, Goff threw deep for Brandin Cooks, running a go route. Cooks beat Gilmore’s press coverage and Goff delivered maybe his best throw of the night, arching the football just beyond the cornerback and into the receiver’s chest. But Duron Harmon came over and broke the pass up.
So, Goff went for Cooks again. But Gilmore had tighter coverage, while defensive play-caller Brian Flores dialed up a blitz. The pressure forced Goff to heave it off his back foot, and Gilmore stopped chasing Cooks to snag the football and preserve a 10-3 lead.
“It was an easy pick for me,” Gilmore told USA TODAY Sports. “It was like playing ‘throw ‘em up,’ in the backyard.
“To be honest,” he added, “I can’t believe he threw it. He saw me looking at him.”
Gilmore never took his eyes off Goff because it was one of the few times that Flores called for blitzes against the Rams. Devin McCourty estimated that New England blitzed just three or four times, which is quite the departure from the pattern that Flores demonstrated for much of the season, when the Patriots, lacking a premier edge rusher, typically blitzed at least a dozen times in any given game.
Then again, morphing into a new identity is pretty much The Patriot Way.
“We adjust,” McCourty told USA TODAY Sports. “When we played Kansas City, we knew that was a team with a lot of speed. We didn’t want to just sit there, blitz-happy, because that would hurt us. It was the same thing this game.”
The Patriots blistered Goff with consistent pressure throughout the game, collecting four sacks and 12 additional hits, often creating heat with stunts and loops along the front. They didn’t need to bring so many extra rushers. Still, Flores was saving a special blitz, with McCourty coming, for the right time.
“Flo talked about when he wanted to call it,” McCourty said. “There was a time earlier in the game when I think he thought about it, but he didn’t. This time, I don’t think there was any hesitation. We kind of looked at each other like, ‘Here it is.’
“That play was our season.”
Maybe so. But another big defensive play may have best symbolized the Patriots’ challenging season — which had the look of anything but a championship a few weeks ago.
Again, Cooks was involved — standing alone in the middle of the end zone in the third quarter, pretty much a touchdown waiting to happen as the result of busted coverage. When Jason McCourty saw him from the far corner of the end zone, he thought for an instant that it was a lost cause.
“I just put my head down and took off,” the Patriots safety told USA TODAY Sports. “As I’m running, the whole time I’m like, ‘I’m not going to make it.’ But the ball hanging in the air gave me a little chance. I didn’t even look back. Just ran.”
McCourty arrived to break up Jared Goff’s pass attempt.
Not pretty. But pretty enough.
And a fitting finish for Flores, poised to be named the Dolphins new coach as early as Monday.
“It feels good,” Flores told USA TODAY Sports as he left the locker room. “Really good. But more than anything, it’s about the players and how well they executed.”
Flores reflected on a few of the game plan keys — such as taking away the play-action passes by stuffing the run, disguising coverages, limiting big plays — then provided the ultimate assessment.
“You can talk about things all you want,” he said. “Sometimes, when the lights come on, it’s a different ballgame.”
And sometimes, you win pretty championship trophies with ugly defensive grit.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.
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