ATLANTA – If you were among the growing list of fans who doubted the Patriots this season, the players heard you. If your worried were directed to the defensive side of the field, then they really heard you.
The confetti had barely stopped falling from the Mercedes-Benz Stadium roof following New England’s hard-fought 13-3 victory over the Los Angeles Rams when players started filing into the interview, mostly with the same message.
“We heard all the talk all season,” Kyle Van Noy said. “We couldn’t do anything and everyone doubted us.”
“The media might not have had faith in our defense,” added Trey Flowers. “But we believed. And we went out and showed it.”
That may have been the biggest understatement of the season. The Patriots defense, in a word, was dominant. The Rams had trouble moving the football throughout the night, and New England made Jared Goff look like a wet-behind-the-ears rookie.
Using mixes of zone and man coverages, mostly man, de facto defensive coordinator Brian Flores made a statement, and his players followed through. If this indeed turns out to be Flores’ final act as a Patriot, and had to make the Miami Dolphins feel good about their next head coach.
The Patriots took the second-ranked NFL offense and made it look like the Bills. Goff was flustered from the first drive and ultimately ended the Rams hope with a poor decision and even poorer throw.
Trailing 10-3 with a little more than four minutes left, Goff actually mounted a promising drive. He completed passes to Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods to move the ball to the Patriots 27. After Cooks failed to haul in a touchdown pass on first down, Goff went back to the former Patriot, only to see his team’s chances for victory all but disappear.
The Patriots played zero coverage, meaning there would be no safety help for Stephon Gilmore over the top against the speedy Cooks. The blitz up front meant Goff would likely go to Cooks, but the quarterback rushed his throw unnecessarily, threw off his back foot and watched Gilmore pick it off at the 4.
“I just knew I couldn’t drop it,” Gilmore said. “It was probably one of the easiest picks I’ve had all year. I knew [Goff] was desperate needing a touchdown late. I knew we had a blitz and I thought Cooks would be the hot receiver.
“We just stuck together and found our identity. I would take out defense against anybody. The coaches put us in great position to make plays and we executed.”
It all started up front, where the Patriots defensive line dominated the well-respected Rams offensive line. LA couldn’t get the running game going as Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson combined for 18 carries for 62 yards, putting all the pressure on Goff.
“We just felt if we could stop the run and put it in [Goff’s] hands we would be in great shape,” Van Noy said.
“Bill [Belichick] and Flo had a great game plan,” Dont’a Hightower said. “We had to make a couple of adjustments and we were able to slow down the run, and when we did that we were able to limit the play-action passing game that they like.”
Yet another understatement. Goff completed 19 of 38 passes for just 229 yards and the costly pick. He was also sacked four times as the inability to get the running game going put the Rams in a lot of unenviable situations. That led to just three third-down conversions in 13 attempts.
“We just got in too many third-and-longs, and you can’t do that against that team,” Cooks said. “We didn’t execute well enough. They do so many different things. We had our chances but just didn’t do anything with them. Gotta give them all the credit. They outplayed us all night.”
The first half was especially dominant. When intermission arrived the Rams had held the ball for just 10:08, managed just two first downs, went 0-for-6 on third down and totaled a paltry 57 offensive yards. And they needed to be that effective because the Patriots offense was shut down for most of the night.
But the defense never relented, keeping Goff in check throughout. Los Angeles had only 260 yards of offense and would only get as far as the Patriots 26-yard line all night, although that was an eventful sequence as well.
Trailing 3-0 midway through the third, Goff saw a wide open Cooks in the end zone, but not quickly enough. His throw was a tad late and hung in the air, allowing Jason McCourty just enough time to bother the receiver near the back line of the end zone.
The pass fell incomplete and the Rams were forced to settle for a 53-yard Greg Zuerlein field goal. Then Gilmore’s pick snuffed out the final threat, and the Patriots had their sixth title.
Thanks to the defense.