Defense earns credit for Patriots’ sixth title
ATLANTA — Instant Analysis from the Patriots’ 13-3 win over the Rams in Super Bowl LIII:
■ All of the pre-game analysis centered around the offenses, but the Patriots reminded us that they have played like a championship-caliber defense over the second half of the season. The Patriots allowed the third-fewest points in the NFL over their final eight games, then had a playoff run for the ages — dominating the Chargers, holding the Chiefs scoreless in the first half, then holding the Rams to just 3 points in the Super Bowl.
This was the Patriots’ best defensive performance in any of their nine Super Bowls. And they certainly atoned for their loss to the Eagles last year. The Patriots are worthy Super Bowl champions, and can thank their defense for leading the team to victory.
■ Defensive playcaller Brian Flores called an incredible game in his final game before taking over as the Dolphins’ head coach. The Patriots had all the answers for the Rams’ high-powered offense, and didn’t miss a beat when Patrick Chung broke his arm in the third quarter. The Patriots played zone defense on first and second downs, then switched to man defense on third downs, and didn’t get burned by the Rams’ bunch packages and play-action. The Patriots also blitzed Jared Goff relentlessly on third down, and it was Duron Harmon’s pressure that led to the interception late in the fourth quarter.
The Rams averaged 32.9 points and 421 yards of offense per game, and had 3 points and 260 yards, and went 3 of 13 on third down. This has to be one of the most impressive defensive performances in Super Bowl history, especially given the era of offense.
■ The list of defensive standouts is lengthy. Dont’a Hightower had two huge sacks. Kyle Van Noy had a big third-down sack and three quarterback hits. Stephon Gilmore had the game-changing interception late in the fourth quarter, and defended three passes. Trey Flowers hit the quarterback twice. Jonathan Jones led the team with eight tackles, and added a sack. And the Patriots’ defensive line helped limit the Rams to just 62 rushing yards on 3.4 yards per carry.
■ It usually doesn’t take us this long to mention Tom Brady and the offense, but they were secondary figures in Sunday’s win. It took them more than three quarters to figure out Wade Phillips’s defense, and they struggled with the Rams’ fearsome defensive line for most of the game.
But when the Patriots needed to have it, they delivered in crunch time. They went 69 yards for a touchdown in just five plays midway through the fourth quarter, then Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead each ripped off 26-yard runs to put the Patriots in field goal range for the game-clinching score.
■ Julian Edelman played the game of his life, and, as strange as it may sound, bolstered his eventual case for the Hall of Fame. He led all players with 10 catches for 141 yards, and was the only Patriots player who could consistently make plays on Sunday. Whether the Rams were in man or zone, single team or double team, Edelman was able to get open and convert. He is now the second-leading postseason receiver in NFL history, and once again showed a knack for coming up big in his team’s biggest games. His MVP trophy was well-deserved.
■ And the same goes for Rob Gronkowski, as well. Gronk had a tough year, dealing with back and ankle injuries for much of the second half of the season. But Gronkowski came up with a huge performance in the Super Bowl, catching six passes for 87 yards. Gronk put the Patriots on his back when they needed him the most, coming up with catches of 18 and 29 yards to put his team in range for the game-winning touchdown. That 29-yard catch down to the 2-yard line was one of the great catches in Super Bowl history.
■ Brady wasn’t quite himself on Sunday, completing just 60 percent of passes and throwing for 262 yards, no touchdowns, and one interception. Brady was only hit four times and sacked once, but Brady looked uncomfortable in the pocket for much of the day, as the Rams’ defensive front got the better of the Patriots’ offensive line and got a hand in Brady’s face. But when the game was on the line, Brady and the Patriots’ offense got it done.
■ The Patriots struggled to run the ball for much of the game, but they came through in the fourth quarter. Sony Michel finished with 18 carries for 94 yards and a touchdown, sealing the victory with two big runs down the stretch. The Patriots’ offensive line had a tough time with the Rams’ defensive front, but still got the job done in the fourth quarter.
■ Two other unsung performances: Jason McCourty saved the day by knocking the ball away from a wide-open Brandin Cooks in the end zone. And Ryan Allen dropped three punts inside the 10-yard line, and was a crucial weapon in the field position game. The Patriots wouldn’t have won without a huge day from their punter.