History Hung in the Air, and the Patriots Grabbed It

ATLANTA—Leaping above the turf, Stephon Gilmore felt more like he was playing in a backyard game of keepaway than on the biggest stage in sports. As Jared Goff’s pass hung in the air, Gilmore never lost sight of the ball. The 28-year-old was the league’s best cover cornerback this season, but in this situation, he was playing in an off zone coverage in which he was asked to read the quarterback.

“To be honest, I can’t believe he threw it,” Gilmore said, standing in front of his locker about an hour later. “I was like, I know he didn’t throw this right now. He sees me looking at him.”

The Patriots were, quite literally, backed up—as they had been many times this season. It was late in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LIII, and after already punting nine times, the Rams were putting together their best drive of the day. They’d made three first downs—more than they had in the entire first half—and had advanced to New England’s 27-yard-line. But, as has been the story so many times during the last 18 years, the Patriots were ready.

Brian Flores, New England’s defensive play-caller, had an all-out blitz call he’d been waiting to use all evening. In less than 24 hours he’d be on a plane to South Florida to be announced as the new coach of the Miami Dolphins. But on this play, and in this game, he was emptying the tank for the organization he’d been helping win for 15 years. Linebacker Elandon Roberts joked that the name of the call was “go get it,” because that’s exactly what the players were asked to do.

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At the snap of the ball, seven defenders started toward the quarterback. Safeties Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon both charged the same gap, between the right guard and the right tackle. McCourty made sure running back Todd Gurley picked him up, leaving his teammate with a free path to Goff. Harmon made a beeline for the third-year quarterback, forcing him to lob up the ball before Harmon got there. It was, Gilmore said matter-of-factly, an easy interception for him, as long as he didn’t lose his focus.

- Rob Tringali
Rob Tringali

He didn’t. Gilmore secured the ball, then instinctively curled up on the turf in a fetal position, securing the game-changing turnover. In a span of seven seconds, it was at once a display of teamwork, concentration, fortitude and triumph. Or, in other words, “that play was our season,” McCourty said.

“Give it up for No. 12,” an announcer said, and suddenly Tom Brady appeared on a balcony, overlooking a hotel ballroom packed with hundreds of people in downtown Atlanta. This was after 1 a.m., about two miles from Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where Brady and Bill Belichick had just won their sixth NFL championship with a 13-3 victory over the Los Angeles Rams.

Here at their postgame celebration, large video screens displayed a graphic of six Lombardi Trophies, and another reading “VIctory,” with the first two letters capitalized to read as the Roman numeral for 6. The quarterback beamed and waved, as the crowd chanted “Brady! Brady! Brady!” just as they had at the stadium, when he got the ball back with 9:49 to play in the fourth quarter and the score tied at three, and then proceeded to lead a go-ahead touchdown drive. “We do this sh-- every year about the same time,” boomed rapper Snoop Dogg, the night’s musical entertainment, when he took the stage.

The Patriots began this run, one unlikely to ever be matched, in 2001, when the Rams were still in St. Louis and Brady was not yet married, nor a father of three nor his own lifestyle brand. Defeating the Rams this time around, the lasting image was Brady’s 6-year-old daughter, Vivian, holding up the Lombardi Trophy, her giddy grin caught in its silver reflection. Belichick’s granddaughter, Blakely, who was born in October 2016, has attended three Super Bowls before she’s turned 3.

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These are just two ways to put into context New England’s sustained success in a league that, with the salary cap and draft order, is designed to prevent this exactly. But while the Patriots have made winning championships routine, that didn’t dampen the joy they experienced Sunday night.

Devin and Jason McCourty, the first set of twins to play together in the Super Bowl, watched as their mom, Phyllis Harrell, made snow angels in the Lombardi Trophy-shaped confetti on the field after the trophy presentation. In one corner of the locker room, a group of defensive players popped open beers and began an impromptu dance party with Post Malone’s “Congratulations” blaring out of an oversized retro boombox. In another, right tackle Marcus Cannon embraced linebacker Dont’a Hightower and whispered something in his ear. Hightower, who finished the game with two sacks, replied, “We here now, though! We here now!”

The Patriots’ underdog tack was a tough sell to anyone outside the six states in New England. “Everybody counted us out from the beginning of the season,” Belichick insisted Sunday night, but they certainly weren’t the 2017 Eagles, who sported plastic dog masks after being officially designated as home ’dogs throughout the playoffs. Nor were they the 2007 Giants, who arrived in Arizona for Super Bowl XLII wearing black suits to signal the death of the Patriots’ perfect season.

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But this also wasn’t a typical Patriots season. Brady, seeking his conviction to keep playing after last year’s Super Bowl loss to the Eagles, was in Qatar with his family riding camels and taking a boat out on the Persian Gulf when the voluntary offseason program began. Julian Edelman, after missing last season with an ACL tear, was suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Tight end Rob Gronkowski mulled retirement and was nearly traded to the Lions. They needed help in Week 16 to secure their customary first-round bye, and they lost back-to-back games on two occasions this season, something that has only happened a dozen times total since Brady became the team’s starter early in the 2001 season.

It was after one of those back-to-back losses, the defeat in Pittsburgh in December, when captain and special-teams ace Matthew Slater gave a speech in the postgame locker room. What’s left of the season could go one of two ways, he said, and it was up to them.

“We finally started getting out of our own way,” Slater says. “We just let it go and said, Let’s do this for each other.”

- John W. McDonough
John W. McDonough

Contrived as it might have been, the team adopted the underdog mindset. The night they advanced to Super Bowl LIII, beating Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium, they came charging into the visitors’ locker room using the knocks against them as a rallying cry: 3-5 on the road! Too old! Not athletic enough!

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Now, looking back: Brady is not only still playing at 41, he won a Super Bowl. Edelman, who caught 10 passes for 141 yards in Super Bowl LIII, was named the game MVP. And Gronkowski, who played through injuries all season that at times had him looking like a shell of the player who redefined the tight end position, delivered one of the Super Bowl’s most important plays: a 29-yard tumbling catch at Los Angeles’ 2-yard line, setting up the Patriots’ lone touchdown of the day, a 2-yard plunge by rookie Sony Michel.

“I'll tell you this,” Gronkowski said, “it was the most satisfying year I’ve ever been a part of. The obstacles we had to overcome, the grind from the beginning of training camp until now, is just surreal, how we stuck together. It was life. We went through life this year, and we stuck together.”

The only surprise now is not in if the Patriots win, but how they do it. The story of this NFL season was scoring, and more of it than in any other time in the history of the game. And yet it ended with the most anemic Super Bowl ever. At halftime, the teams had combined for just three points, a lone 42-yard field goal kicked by the Patriots’ Stephen Gostkowksi, who had missed another try. “Defense set the tone,” Brady said, despite the fact that this had been the year of the offense.

Brady threw an interception on his first pass of the game, and the offense struggled to gain momentum for the first three quarters. Belichick credited an in-game adjustment by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, going with a heavy personnel with two backs and two tight ends to gain favorable mismatches against the Rams’ base defense, to finally get the team in the end zone. But the game really hinged on the way the Patriots confounded Rams coach Sean McVay and the league’s second-best scoring offense, with a defensive game plan on par with Belichick’s masterpiece the last time they beat the Rams in the Super Bowl—the game that launched the dynasty.

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The Patriots had used a defensive scheme heavy on man coverage all season long, including in the AFC Championship Game. But in the two weeks leading up to Super Bowl LIII, Belichick and Flores crafted a different plan. Knowing that the Rams’ passing attack develops off their run game, with Goff throwing over routes and posts off of play-action, the Patriots devised a scheme that relied on different kinds of zone coverage, with three to four players playing deep. Up front, they used walk-up linebackers who would sometimes come on pressure and sometimes drop into coverage.

“He’s a young quarterback,” defensive end Adrian Clayborn said of Goff. “That was our goal, to try to rattle him a bit and mix up coverages.”

The plan worked. Goff was hit 12 times, and he completed only 50 percent of his passes. The Rams’ lone points came on a 53-yard field goal in the third quarter. Goff had a chance at a touchdown just three plays earlier, a deep shot to Brandin Cooks, who had been wide open in the back of the end zone. The Patriots busted the coverage, allowing Cooks to run wide open up the left seam—but because Goff’s throw was a bit late, Jason McCourty was able to close from his position covering the deep third on the right side to knock the ball away. Not bad for player brought in through a March transaction that involved an exchange of sixth- and seventh-round picks.

- John W. McDonough
John W. McDonough

“Jason, we made a good trade,” team owner Robert Kraft told McCourty in the locker room.

“You won’t hear me complaining,” replied Jason, who was getting dressed next to his twin brother.

Devin McCourty’s message for the defensive backs the morning of the game had been the one he’s lived his whole life as a twin: help each other, because two is better than one. That came into play on Cooks’ almost touchdown, and also earlier that half, when safety Patrick Chung’s right arm got sandwiched as he tackled Todd Gurley. Chung was down on the field, in tears, as the athletic trainers prepared an air cast for his wounded arm, as well as a cart, which he refused. That’s when his teammates approached with a message: “They said stop crying, bro, we got you. I heard it, and I felt it, and I had no doubt in my mind we were going to be good,” Chung said.

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One year after surrendering 500 yards and 41 points in the Super Bowl LII loss to the Eagles, this was some kind of atonement. “We wanted to make sure that it didn’t end the way it did last year,” Harmon said. “Winning the Super Bowl is great, but losing the Super Bowl is one of the worst feelings you ever feel in the world. We made a commitment to each other that we’ll do anything and everything to make sure we didn’t have to feel that way again.”

That blitz call Flores was saving worked at exactly the right time. After the clock hit zero, McCourty told his coordinator, “What a way to go out.” And as the confetti fell at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Flores placed a FaceTime phone call back to Foxborough. His mom, Maria, who has been fighting breast and brain cancer for the past three years, is in hospice care at home and was unable to travel to the Super Bowl this year. But her second-oldest son, who coaches his players as tough as Maria raised him, wanted her to be part of this celebration.

“I can breathe!” Kyle Van Noy yelled as he ran back to the locker room. He was the first one in; Brady was one of the last, hugging and thanking his offensive linemen and receivers. Two lockers down, rookie quarterback Danny Etling, who is on the team’s practice squad, was unsure of the protocol after winning a Super Bowl.

“What do we do now?” he asked.

“Party,” replied Brian Hoyer, Brady’s backup.

Players raced to get dressed and head to the victory celebration. Gilmore helped Chung, whose right arm was now in a black sling, button his pants. The last two players remaining in the locker room at Mercedes-Benz Stadium were, perhaps fittingly, Edelman and Slater.

The two had started their careers living together in a house they rented in Foxborough, trying to save every last penny because they were late-round picks from California who didn’t know how long their careers would last. Slater wasn’t yet a special-teams ace who earns extra yards of field position by downing punts inside the 5-yard line; Edelman was a work in progress as a receiver, a converted college quarterback with a stance that was far from textbook. But they are the kinds of players who have been representative of why the Patriots keep winning—undervalued by other teams but imagined into roles that help the Patriots win.

- Simon Bruty
Simon Bruty

When Edelman emerged from the shower area, Slater began chanting, “MVP! MVP! MVP!”

“You going to Disneyland, Edelman?” he asked. “Or Disneyworld?”

Edelman got dressed, in a T-shirt and sweatpants, and stuck into his mouth one of the limited-edition cigars Kraft was passing out. He thanked the equipment managers, for their hard work and for “putting up with me.” Then he slung his bag over his shoulder and headed out of the stadium, trailed by cameras.

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“It was nice, Atlanta!” he shouted. “Nice doing business with you. Have a good one.”

One last bus was waiting to take the Super Bowl MVP back to the team hotel. Leaving the stadium in Minneapolis last season after the loss to the Eagles, there were plenty of questions swirling for the Patriots: What were the futures of Brady, and Belichick, and this dynasty? On a warm night in Atlanta, though, things seemed much peachier. Gronkowski will again mull his future, and Flores will be leading another team in the division. But the main question circulating in New England is the one asked by a fan in a Brady jersey, as Snoop Dogg serenaded a crowd of hundreds: Seven? Eight? Nine?

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

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