ATLANTA — Julian Edelman made play after play this postseason. The slippery slot receiver dominated the middle of the field, gaining separation, making big catches, and avoiding defenders to squeeze out every extra yard.
He was a third-down machine — he was responsible for all three of New England’s conversions Sunday night, and made a slew of clutch grabs throughout the three-game postseason run.
Edelman made 26 catches for 388 yards in the playoffs, culminating in his MVP performance of 10 catches for 141 yards in New England’s 13-3 victory over the Rams.
So, what was his favorite play of Super Bowl LIII?
“The last play when we took a knee,’’ Edelman said with a bright smile in the early Monday morning moments after collecting his hardware from commissioner Roger Goodell. “That was my favorite play.’’
Edelman was New England’s only consistent offensive threat throughout most of Sunday’s game until Rob Gronkowski and Sony Michel broke out in the fourth quarter.
The 32-year-old receiver always is at his best in the biggest moments. He’s thrown touchdown passes (in the 2014 comeback playoff win vs. the Ravens), made incredible catches (who could forget his still-unbelievable fingertip grab in the historic comeback win over the Falcons in Super Bowl LI?), and put up big numbers (151 yards vs. the Chargers in the divisional round).
On Sunday night, he wrote the latest chapter in what Bill Belichick called “an incredible story.”
He started as a tiny quarterback with a big heart at Kent State and came onto Belichick’s radar screen when Rick Gosselin, a former columnist at the Dallas Morning News and a draft guru, told the coach about him.
When Belichick started digging, he saw film of Edelman’s game against national power Ohio State and was wowed.
“He didn’t have a lot of blocking, and they were getting killed by Ohio State, but what you saw in that game was how competitive he was, how hard he was to tackle, how tough he was,’’ Belichick said. “Even though it was three or four touchdowns they were behind, he played the game with an intensity that, honestly, was hard for them to handle.’’
The Patriots went to Kent State and worked out Edelman twice, and though they didn’t know where he’d fit in their system, they knew they could find a spot for him, and grabbed him in the seventh round.
Special teams was where he made his original impact and Belichick recalled some individual punt return tutorials he conducted with Edelman, who has developed into one of the best in NFL history.
Looking over at Edelman, Belichick smiled and said, “I had to go over there and show you, ‘Here’s how you actually do it.’ As far as the ball spinning and which way it breaks and so forth.’’
Edelman quickly proved versatile and valuable as a punt returner, receiver, and even a cornerback.
“No one has worked harder in my career to develop his skills and his craft at a position he’d never played,’’ said Belichick.
The coach said Edelman’s initial playoff game brought back a memory and proved to be a harbinger.
“I go back to his first playoff game against the Ravens [in the 2009 season], and he was probably our best player on the field,’’ said the coach. “We didn’t play well that day. We got hammered. But he played that game the way he played the Ohio State game at Kent State — catching a slip screen on fourth and 10 and breaking five tackles to get down.’’
As Belichick told the story, Edelman, sitting next to Goodell, sported a huge “cat that swallowed the canary” grin.
Belichick said Edelman’s work ethic has never faltered, even through rehabbing a torn ACL in the 2017 preseason.
“Coming back from the injury last year, you just see him every day competing against himself, trying to get better, trying to rehab and regain the excellence at his position,’’ the coach said.
Edelman, who acknowledged he had trouble getting up to speed during training camp, faced another delay on the way back when he was suspended for the first four games of this season for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs.
The extra four weeks actually ended up being a blessing in disguise as Edelman returned in Week 5 as strong as ever, recording a seven-catch performance. He kept building on that week after week, peaking in the playoffs.
Edelman joined Belichick in his walk down Memory Lane, telling a story from his rookie season. Edelman was leaving the facility late one night when he coincidentally ran into his coach on the way out. Edelman had observed Belichick watching film while doing a treadmill workout. The two had spoken “maybe three words” during his first six months on the team but the rookie felt compelled to speak up this time.
“Coach, you sure like football, huh?’’ he quipped.
According to Edelman, Belichick’s response was, “Beats being a plumber.’’
The coach had a rebuttal, however. He said Edelman heard him wrong and that his real response was something like it beats working.
“I have a lot of respect for plumbers,’’ Belichick said with a championship grin.