A few final musings, observations and the occasional post-Super Bowl insight as we put the NFL’s 2018 season to bed…..
* Now that we know how it all turned out, it’s interesting to remember that on the Monday night of Week 11, the Rams won that epic 54-51 shootout against the Chiefs in the Los Angeles Coliseum, in the first game in NFL history in which both teams topped 50 points. It was rightly hailed as the game of the year in the league and sparked conversation far and wide about the new offensive juggernauts in L.A. and Kansas City, who were led by young, talented quarterbacks in Jared Goff and Patrick Mahomes.
Both teams looked unstoppable coming out of that game, which was played three days before Thanksgiving.
But skip ahead two-plus months and in the final two games of the NFL season, one team stopped them both. The Patriots had their problems at different points this season, but when it mattered, they beat the Chiefs and Rams by a combined score of 50-34 in the AFC Championship game and Super Bowl, respectively. New England won on the road in Kansas City and at a neutral site (that wasn’t so neutral) against the Rams in Atlanta, proving once again that they are indeed still here.
While the points rolled up like it was Arena Football being played that memorable night in the Coliseum, the Patriots in the postseason shut both teams out in the first half and held the Rams to a measly three points, tying for the fewest ever allowed in the Super Bowl. Back in late November, when Kansas City and Los Angeles looked so powerful, the idea that defense wins championships seemed antiquated, almost quaint. This was the year that offense would reign supreme.
But not so much, as it turns out. New England’s defense was the headline story of the Super Bowl, and really the entire postseason, with only that frantic 24-point fourth-quarter scoring burst by the Chiefs proving to be the exception to the Patriots’ dominance. New England gave up mostly garbage-time points to the Chargers in AFC Divisional round, then held Kansas City and Los Angeles to a combined 10 points in seven of the eight quarters it played the Chiefs and Rams, not including the overtime in K.C., when the Patriots defense never took the field.
Come the playoffs, the Chiefs and Rams largely couldn’t find their previous explosive form when they most needed it. But the Patriots had plenty to do with that, and that’s why in the end the 2018 season was a rather novel and unexpected way to measure their uncanny ability to sustain success.
* If I owned a vote, I would have gone with receiver Julian Edelman as the Super Bowl MVP, even though as many argue it was a defensive masterpiece of a game that should have resulted in honoring a Patriots defender. But the problem was, which one? You could have made a strong case for cornerback Stephon Gilmore or either linebacker Dont’a Hightower or Kyle Van Noy.
Singling only one of them out seems unfair, and if you could vote the entire New England defense as MVP, I would have gone along with that idea. They were that dominant as a unit. But the NFL was never going to let that happen, so Edelman was the choice who made the most sense to me. He was Tom Brady’s lifeline all game long and as his eight catches for first downs proved, he was the only Patriots weapon who consistently moved the chains.
* The Patriots now own six Super Bowl titles from 2001 on, their dynasty spanning 18 seasons. To measure that another way, consider that the rest of the AFC has combined to only five Super Bowls in that same stretch. Pittsburgh owns two of those rings, with Indianapolis, Baltimore and Denver winning one each.
For the record, there have been seven NFC Super Bowl champs from 2001 on, narrowly beating out New England’s half dozen. The Giants lead the way with two Super Bowl wins, and then come the Bucs, Saints, Packers, Seahawks and Eagles with one each. Three of those NFC winners went through the Patriots to earn their hardware, and the Steelers and Giants are the league’s only multiple-ring winners other than New England from 2001 on.
* Here’s another indication of New England’s record-breaking success: Bill Belichick’s six Super Bowl rings as the Patriots head coach now equals the haul of every other active NFL coach combined. Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin, Seattle’s Pete Carroll, Oakland’s Jon Gruden, New Orleans’ Sean Payton, Baltimore’s John Harbaugh, and Philadelphia’s Doug Pederson have won one ring each. (I’m guessing they don’t own boats named “One Ring.’’)
* What dynastic accomplishments are on the horizon for the Patriots in the 2019 season? There are several within reach. With another Super Bowl victory, the Patriots would tie the Steelers’ feat of earning four rings in a six-year span, which Pittsburgh did from 1974-79.
New England would also become the first team to ever make five Super Bowls in a six-season span, with a berth in Super Bowl LIV in Miami. It would also mark a fourth consecutive Super Bowl trip, something only Buffalo has done, with the Bills losing each from 1990-93.
Lastly, if New England wins again next season, it would then in 2020 at least be in position to try to equal the five league titles in seven years that Vince Lombardi’s Packers earned from 1961-67, including the first two Super Bowls. I would think eight rings in 20 years might even suffice for Brady and Belichick.
* The Patriots went 11-5 in the regular season, then became the first Super Bowl champion with at least that many losses since Baltimore went all the way in 2012 despite its 10-6 mark.
But New England was at its best against the best, going 7-0 against teams that made the playoffs, including its three-game postseason run. The Patriots beat Kansas City twice, and also prevailed against Houston, Indianapolis, the Chargers, Chicago, and the Rams. Conversely the Patriots struggled some what against non-playoff clubs, going 7-5 and falling to three losing clubs (Jacksonville, Miami and Detroit).
It really was a different kind of year in Foxboro.
* The Patriots’ rare feat of winning the Super Bowl the year after losing a Super Bowl isn’t getting enough attention in my opinion. There have been only two other teams who have managed that trick in the Super Bowl era, and both occurred consecutively in the early ‘70s. Dallas lost Super Bowl V to Baltimore in the 1970 season, then came back to beat Miami in 1971 in Super Bowl VI. The Dolphins responded to that defeat by executing their perfect season of 1972, finishing 17-0 and downing Washington in Super Bowl VII.
So it’s been 46 years since a franchise bounced back like the 2018 Patriots, who unlike those Don Shula-coached Dolphins were not a young, ascending team. New England has already arrived, obviously, and staying near the top is harder than getting to the top.
All told, only six teams have ever lost a Super Bowl and then returned to the game the following year. Other than Dallas, Miami and New England, the Vikings went in both the 1973 and 1974 seasons, losing twice. Denver did the same thing in 1986 and 1987. And, of course, Buffalo executed the return maneuver three times, losing four consecutive Super Bowls from 1990-93.
* The Rams’ mystifying light use of an apparently healthy Todd Gurley — first in the NFC title game and then in the Super Bowl — is this year’s Malcolm Butler saga. We may never fully understand why Los Angeles coach Sean McVay didn’t see fit to lean more on a proven weapon who has rushed for more yards and scored more touchdowns than anyone else in the NFL over the course of the past two seasons. But when you lose a Super Bowl, every decision gets endlessly dissected.
In some ways it’s remarkable the Rams were as close to winning the Super Bowl as they were despite getting little production from Gurley and a brutal game at times from quarterback Jared Goff.
* I’ve said it before but it bears repeating at season’s end: Remember the weeks and weeks of angst about Brady staying away from the Patriots’ OTAs in order to do his own thing last spring? What a nothing burger that storyline wound up being. It wasn’t all that significant then when it was being over-emphasized, and it clearly didn’t matter in the end, because New England won it all despite No. 12’s absence in April, May and June.
Will we get the same breathless coverage this year again if Brady decides to skip OTAs? Probably. I hope I’m wrong on this one, and that we’ve learned not to over-react, but I’m not optimistic.