ATLANTA – This wasn’t Tom Brady’s best season, but it definitely was one of his most gratifying.
He finished 12th in passing, 13th in yards per attempt, 16th in touchdown percentage and 18th in completion percentage during the regular season, yet led the Patriots to their sixth Super Bowl title in the last 18 years with a 13-3 win over the Los Angeles Rams.
“This feels a lot better than last year," Brady said, referring to the Patriots’ 41-33 loss to the Eagles in Super Bowl LII.
“We grinded it out. It was tough. They made every play tough tonight. I give them a lot of credit. They played really well on defense.
“Fortunately, our defense really played the best game they have all season. It was just an incredible win."
For the second time in three playoff games, Brady failed to throw a touchdown pass Sunday night, completing 21 of 35 passes for 262 yards and an interception.
But he made some big throws on the Patriots’ only touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, including a 29-yard completion to tight end Rob Gronkowski that set up Sony Michel‘s 2-yard touchdown run.
“I just felt we needed to grind it out all night," Brady said. “We couldn’t take our foot off the gas pedal. We were playing a great football team.
"They’re explosive in all areas. They got the one turnover. They were doing a pretty good job of getting pressure.
"We were moving the ball. We just couldn’t convert enough. We couldn’t put the points on the board for one reason or another. They’re a great football team. They made it here for a reason."
In their first two playoff wins over the Chargers and Chiefs, the Patriots racked up 78 points and 66 first downs. They converted 60.6 percent of their third-down opportunities. Against the Rams, they converted just three of 12 third-down situations.
But Brady got the job done when he had to. With the score tied 3-3 five minutes into the fourth quarter, he engineered a critical five-play, 69-yard touchdown drive.
He completed all four of his passes on the drive, including 18- and 29-yard throws to Gronkowski, a 13-yarder to Julian Edelman and a 7-yard completion to running back Rex Burkhead.
Brady was sacked just 21 times this season, the third-fewest sacks allowed in the NFL. Part of that was his line and part of it was Brady, who gets the ball out as quick as any quarterback in the league.
He averaged just 2.45 seconds this season from snap to release. Only the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger, the Raiders’ Derek Carr and the Colts’ Andrew Luck got the ball out quicker.
He wasn’t sacked in either of the Patriots’ first two playoff wins. After the Patriots’ 37-31 overtime victory over the Chiefs in the AFC championship game, Brady posted a picture on Instagram of his clean game jersey and tagged all of his offensive linemen.
The message to them was pretty obvious: thanks for the great protection, fellas.
He was hit just once and hurried only six times in 46 dropbacks against the Chiefs.
"I think they’ve performed incredibly all year," Brady said. “We really haven’t had many sacks this year. They’ve done such a great job protecting and [blocking in] the run game."
The Rams came in with a excellent pass rush, led by defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who led the league with 20½ sacks and picked up his second NFL Defensive Player of the Year award Saturday night.
Brady was sacked for the first time in the postseason late in the first quarter. But for the most part, his line did a good job of keeping him clean, and he was able to frustrate Donald and the Rams’ rush by throwing quick passes to Gronkowski and Edelman.
Edelman had 10 catches for 141 yards in earning Super Bowl MVP honors.
“He played the best game he has all year," Brady said. “I’m so proud of him and what he’s accomplished, coming back from his ACL. He just fought it out, grinded it out like everyone else."
Donald was double-teamed much of the night. But on Brady’s throw to Gronkowski, he was singled up on left guard Joe Thuney.
That’s a matchup he should win, but Thuney neutralized him and gave Brady enough time to make the critical throw.
“I let my team down," said Donald, who said he also was to blame for a 26-yard second-and-9 run by Michel with 3½ minutes left that led to a game-clinching Stephen Gostkowski field goal.
“This is a big stage. This is what you’re working for. And I feel I wasn’t there when we needed a big play."