ATLANTA – It seems more than appropriate that this game should be played on February 3. After all, it was 17 years ago to the day that New England, led by a fresh-faced QB named Tom Brady, won its first Super Bowl over the Rams, then based in St. Louis.
Who could have predicted that less than 20 years later, the Patriots would have a chance to tie the NFL record for most Super Bowl victories with six (Pittsburgh was the first and only club to reach the mark entering Super Bowl LIII).
So much has changed over the past 17 season, but two aspects remain constant for New England: Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. The QB wasn't at his best this Sunday night, but the player who entered the league as a sixth-round pick captured his sixth championship with considerable help from his teammates in all three phases.
"I'm just extremely proud of everybody," Belichick said in his post-game comments to reporters.
"That was the best team win," TE Rob Gronkowski declared later. "Everyone played together, we stuck to our plan, and we came out victorious – unbelievable."
"It wasn't pretty," WR Julian Edelman told reporters, "but I'll take an ugly win over a pretty loss any day."
Just as the Chiefs did two weeks ago, the Rams won the coin toss, but elected to defer, giving New England the ball first. Return man Cordarrelle Patterson nearly took the opening kickoff the distance, but was shoved out of bounds at the last moment by Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein. Nonetheless, the Patriots started with great field position.
Los Angeles' tried to free up its Defensive Player of the Year, DT Aaron Donald, by moving him around at the line of scrimmage from snap to snap. The Patriots' o-line seemed prepared for this, however, and blocked him sufficiently.
It looked as if the Patriots were heading for a score when a Brady pass was deflected by a Rams defensive back and intercepted deep in Rams territory by linebacker Cory Littleton.
New England's defense held the Rams to a three-and-out punt, though.
The Patriots' second drive was another sustained one, but ended with kicker Stephen Gostkowski pulling a 46-yard field goal attempt wide left. Again, though, the defense contained the Rams and forced another punt.
L.A. couldn't get anything going offensively when it started the 2nd quarter in the shadow of its own goal line. A John Simon deflection of a 3rd-down pass by QB Jared Goff gave the Patriots the ball back on the ensuing 4th-down punt.
Gostkowski finally put New England on the scoreboard with a 42-yard field goal in the 2nd quarter. They had an opportunity later to add to that total, but on 4th-and-1 from the L.A. 32 with less than two minutes to play, Brady fired an ill-advised pass to Gronkowski in double-coverage that wobbled too far out in front of the target.
The story of the 1st half was two-fold: 1) New England moved the ball fairly efficiently, but left points on the field because mistakes on the Rams side of the 50 prevented them from scoring each time. 2) The Patriots' defense, though, shut the Rams out with play after big play in crucial situations. Belichick's squad thoroughly dominated the first two quarters of play on both sides of the ball.
How dominant were the Patriots on D? They helped set a record, as the Rams became the first team in NFL history to punt on eight consecutive possessions. What's more, it was thoroughly a team effort. Defensive line, linebackers, and defensive backs – you could take your pick of almost an individual player and chances are they made huge plays at one time or another.
"The past month, we've been on task," LB Dont'a Hightower observed afterward.
"Eleven guys, man," safety/co-captain Devin McCourty emphasized. "It was eleven guys. It was eleven guys, all day."
"Our defense played the best game they have all season," Brady stated.
Meanwhile, on offense, Edelman came to a shaky Brady's aid more often than not, as the Patriots' rushing attack, so effective in the previous two playoff contests, couldn't quite get going against L.A.
Late in the 3rd quarter, the Rams finally mounted a scoring drive, although it took a 53-yard field goal by Zuerlein to knot up the score after Hightower dropped Goff for a 9-yard loss on 3rd-and-7.
"We just played fast," CB Stephon Gilmore explained. "We knew it wasn't going to be perfect. We believe in each other and we stuck with each other. We've been doing that all year."
For most of this remarkable season, Gronkowski had become an afterthought in the New England offense. In these playoffs, he'd re-emerged, but mostly as a blocking force for the rushing attack.
The New England Patriots take on the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia on Sunday, February 3, 2019.
However, with time ticking in the fourth quarter – and rumors swirling that this might be his last go-round in the NFL – Gronkowski looked like he dug deep to give it everything he had. The first TD drive of the night got going thanks to a wonderful play-action pass from Brady to Gronk that gained 18 yards, and later, the big man hauled in a diving 29-yard reception at the Los Angeles 2-yard line.
That set up rookie Sony Michel's easy plunge into the Rams' end zone. Gostkowski drilled the PAT to make it 10-3 with exactly seven minutes to play.
"When it comes to crunch time," Gronkowski asserted, "I always find a way to make a play."
L.A. got the ball back, and Goff suddenly started to click with his receivers… until a badly underthrown pass intended for former Patriot Brandin Cooks was ready beautifully by Gilmore. He timed his leap precisely to snag the ball out of the air and fall down at the Patriots' 4-yard line.
"It was clutch," Gilmore recalled. "I mean, I knew he was going to throw it up and I knew I had to make a play. I knew he was going to force it up there. Our defensive line put a lot of pressure on him and he chucked it up and I was able to make a play."
On 2nd down on the ensuing possession, Michel burst through a huge hole in his o-line and rambled 26 yards to give the offense breathing room. A few plays later, fellow ball carrier Rex Burkhead matched Michel with a 26-yard gain of his own, to get the Patriots into Rams territory with 2:30 to go.
Facing a 4th-and-inches at the L.A. 24, the Patriots chose to trust Gostkowski rather than go for it. The veteran kicker rewarded his team's confidence in him by drilling the three-pointer. When Zuerlein hooked a 48-yarder with eight seconds left, New England was assured of its sixth NFL crown.
The age-old football axiom is that defense wins championships. Tonight, New England's defense certainly did, along with a tremendous effort by Edelman (10 catches, 141 yards), who took home game MVP honors, Gronkowski (an apropos 87 yards on six receptions), and the offensive line, which limited Donald to just five tackles and no big plays and owned the line of scrimmage.
Credit can also be given to punter Ryan Allen, who – with help from his coverage guys like co-captain Matthew Slater – continually pinned the Rams deep.
"All around, we played really well," said Slater.
It was a collective effort by all three phases to accomplish something most people outside the Patriots' locker room likely thought improbable just six weeks ago – a sixth Vince Lombardi Trohpy.
"Look at this! How could this not motivate you?" a jubilant Brady exclaimed as he watched the confetti fall from the ceiling of Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
"It was like a home game here. We love you guys!" Edelman told the loud crowd of partisan Patriots supporters who hung around to watch the post-game celebration on the field.
This season, a team that couldn't win on the road, couldn't find a consistent passing game, and couldn't make enough plays on defense suddenly, over the past month-plus, managed to do all those things. In so doing, they were once again atop the NFL world.
Seventeen years. Looking back at the first and now the sixth Patriots Super Bowl win, it's difficult to decide which was more unexpected.
"The feeling tonight," added McCourty, "I just can't explain."
"This is unbelievable. This is amazing. This is surreal," a stunned Gronkowski remarked. "Everything we've been through this season… just unreal."
But it is real. And the celebration, of course, will continue when the Patriots get back to Foxborough this week. A likely parade through the streets of Boston is next on the schedule.
"I love you guys," Gronkowski said to the fans. "See you on the duck boats."
As he eventually walked off the confetti-strewn field, Edelman, who'd conducted an otherwise restrained post-game interview circuit, could no longer contain his emotions.
"I want record numbers at the parade. We just got six. LET'S GO!!!"