ATLANTA — Tom Brady wins championships, and did so again for a sixth time Sunday, but so do defenses.
And while Bill Belichick has been there sharing those six Super Bowl titles with his quarterback, and has authored some great defensive game plans in those victories, the Patriots' 13-3 win over the Los Angeles Rams was the 66-year-old coach’s baby as much as anyone’s.
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“It was all about the players," Belichick said. “These guys worked so hard all year, they just competed every week and they competed today like champions. They played like champions.”
You can’t win without players and stars, and Belichick has benefited from having arguably the greatest quarterback in NFL history. But the Patriots' sustained period of success — 18 years that may never be equaled — is a testament to the coach.
Matched up against the new breed of offensive-minded geniuses, Belichick outmatched the Rams' 33-year-old leader, Sean McVay, nearly every step of the way. He confounded quarterback Jared Goff with a variety of defensive looks, and won behind a ball-control offense and a blistering defense in what was the lowest-scoring Super Bowl ever.
“I got outcoached,” McVay said.
Belichick is the greatest coach in modern NFL history. He’s probably the greatest ever, considering the obstacles teams face in maintaining success since free agency began over 25 years ago. Belichick and Brady won their sixth Lombardi Trophy in nine tries, and the Patriots are now even with the Steelers for most Super Bowl wins.
It wasn’t always pretty, but Brady was good enough. He completed 21 of 35 passes for 262 yards. But he was held without a touchdown pass for the first time in a Super Bowl and tossed an interception.
He couldn’t have rebounded from that pick without receiver and Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman (10 catches for 141 yards), or tight end Rob Gronkowski (six catches for 87 yards), or an offensive line that kept him clean against two-time defensive player of the year Aaron Donald.
But it was cornerback Stephen Gilmore, linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy, the McCourty brothers — safety Devin and cornerback Jason — and the Patriots defenders who were the real most valuable players.
“It’s a team game,” Brady said. “We needed everybody out there. The defense played so well.”
With NFL offenses lighting up scoreboards like a pinball machine, Sunday’s defensive slugfest was a purist’s dream. There were sacks, big hits, and turnovers, but scheme had a lot to do with why the Patriots and Rams played to a 3-3 stalemate into the fourth quarter.
Belichick has long been considered a defensive mastermind, since winning Super Bowls for the New York Giants as their coordinator. And while he didn’t call the plays -- Patriots assistant and future Dolphins coach Brian Flores did -- New England’s game plan was his brainchild.
He kept Goff off balance almost all game. The Rams' offensive line couldn’t handle the Patriots' stunting rush, and the 24-year-old quarterback had trouble reading zone coverages.
“We were completely guessing,” Goff said.
He completed just 19 of 38 passes for 229 yards, was sacked four times, and threw a costly fourth-quarter interception.
The 41-year-old Brady wasn’t at his best, far from it, but he leaned heavily on his two longtime sidekicks, Edelman and Gronkowski.
Edelman was virtually unstoppable. He beat man coverage and found holes against zone. And Gronkowski, despite his various injuries and the specter of retirement, played as he has in so many big games. His 29-yard catch on a fade down to the 2-yard line midway in the fourth quarter was vintage Gronk.
“He knows to trust me and throw that ball and I’m going to grab it,” Gronkowski said of Brady.
On the next play, running back Sony Michel lowered his head and rammed into the end zone to give the Patriots a 10-3 lead.
The Rams struck back — briefly. Goff completed passes of 18 yards to receiver Brandin Cooks, 11 yards to receiver Josh Reynolds, and 17 yards to receiver Robert Woods. But he went to Cooks well one time too many, and short-armed a fade that Gilmore intercepted at the 4-yard line with 4 minutes, 24 seconds left.
“I knew he was going to force it up there," Gilmore said. “Our defensive line put a lot of great pressure on him and he chucked it up.”
The Patriots milked the clock on the ground, and a 41-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal iced the Rams.
The first half was dominated by defense, which few had expected with the Rams having the highest-scoring offense over the last two seasons and the Patriots scoring more points than any team this postseason. It was the second lowest-scoring first 30 minutes in Super Bowl history, behind the ninth edition, when the Steelers led the Vikings, 2-0, at the break.
The Patriots had more success on offense. They drove inside the Rams 35 four times but managed only three points.
Brady tossed an interception on the first possession when he threw to receiver Chris Hogan and cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman deflected the ball to linebacker Cory Littleton.
Gostkowski hooked a 46-yard field goal attempt on the next series. And after the kicker redeemed himself with a 42-yarder, the Patriots turned the ball over when Brady failed to hook up with Gronkowski on fourth-and-1.
While Brady was inconsistent, Goff was consistently bad. He looked rattled, or at least flummoxed, by the Patriots' defensive calls. He completed just 5 of 12 passes for 52 yards and was sacked twice.
The Rams weren’t having enough success on the ground, either, and for the second straight game, running back Todd Gurley was conspicuously absent. He’s been playing on an injured knee, but he practiced all week and was supposed to be heavily involved in the game plan.
He didn’t play for a long stretch, as C.J. Anderson took over, and rushed only three times for 10 yards.
With not much of a ground game, the Rams weren’t able to utilize their play-action passes. On third-and-2 midway through the second quarter, New England didn’t bite on the fake and dropped into a Cover 2. Goff was forced to look off his first reads, and as he rolled right, he was sacked by Van Noy.
The third quarter looked a lot like the first half, with both teams exchanging punts on their first two possessions. Gurley finally broke loose, gaining 14 yards and then another 5 on back-to-back carries to open the half. But he was held to no gain on his next tote and Goff couldn’t hit Cooks on third down.
The Rams punted on their first eight possessions. Goff was 0-for-7 and sacked once on third downs over that span. The only offensive highlight may have been a Super Bowl-record 65-yard punt from Johnny Hekker midway through the third.
But the potent Rams offense finally strung together a series late in the third quarter and Goff at last completed a third-down pass when he roped an 18-yarder to Woods on third-and-7. He threw late to a wide-open Cooks in the end zone, however, and that allowed Jason McCourty to come across to break up the pass. And he was sacked again on third down.
“They ran some games and had some different looks where different guys were rushing," Rams tackle Andrew Whitworth said.
Greg Zuerlein, despite Goff’s 9-yard loss, booted a 53-yard field goal to knot the score, 3-3, late in the third quarter. It stood deadlocked until Michel bolted into the end zone from 2 yards out — for the first touchdown from either side — with seven minutes left in the game.
The Patriots became the first team in 46 years to win a Super Bowl a year after finishing runner-up. Only two other franchises accomplished the feat -- the Cowboys in Super Bowl VI and the Dolphins in VII. There was some doubt New England would return, especially after a two-game losing streak in December.
“Everybody counted us out from the beginning of the season, midseason," Belichick said. "We’re still here.”