‘We figured it out. We found our identity’: The Patriot Way is to always find a way
They always find a way in Foxborough. Finding a way is the real Patriot Way.
That was true of a season that didn’t project to end with the Patriots’ sixth Super Bowl title and of Super Bowl LIII, a tense tug of war in which the Patriots maintained their grip on the rope longer than the Los Angeles Rams and pulled off another victory for history.
The 13-3 victory on Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where both the retractable roof and the end zones only opened briefly, was an apropos way for this team to end its season. It reflected their toil, their struggle, their togetherness, and their resourcefulness.
When it looked as if it wasn’t their year — three double-digit losses and two two-game losing streaks — the Patriots found a way to win a Super Bowl that didn’t go to plan. Locked in a 3-3 struggle in the fourth quarter, the win was a microcosm of their season: Not easy, not smooth, not what we’re accustomed to, not possible without late adjustments, but ultimately a success.
Super Bowl LIII wasn’t an aesthetically pleasing game to watch, but it was a beautiful illustration of why these Patriots team ended up as champions. They lifted the Lombardi Trophy because they found their way and found a way when it mattered most.
“People counted us out, man,” wide receiver Chris Hogan said. “All year. We weren’t good enough. The defense wasn’t good enough. We didn’t have enough skill players. But that doesn’t matter. We had one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game. We got a bunch of skill players that just want to go out there and make plays for their team. We had a defense that just works tirelessly and just wants to grind out wins. We got a head coach that prepares us, we got coaches that prepare us and care about us and want us to win.
“We play for one another. We don’t care about the other stuff. Everyone can say what they want. But we’re sitting here, and we got a Super Bowl.”
Super Bowl LIII was a throwback win, an homage to 2001 and the provenance of the Patriots’ reign. The defense carried the day, and Tom Brady was asked to make key plays in the fourth quarter. On the Patriots’ only touchdown drive, he hit all four of his passes for 67 yards. Brady, who failed to throw a touchdown pass for the only time in nine Super Bowl appearances and finished with his lowest quarterback rating in a Super Bowl (71.4) after going 21 of 35 for 262 yards with an interception, was part of an ensemble cast. He was not required to be a transcendent franchise frontman to give new meaning to “The Brady 6.”
Everyone enjoys a good redemption story, and the Patriots’ title run featured redemption for the defense and for coach Bill Belichick. Last year, in Super Bowl LII, both Belichick and the defense tasted humble pie and drew the ire of a region for wasting Brady’s Super Bowl record 505 passing yards against the victorious Philadelphia Eagles.
Whatever mistake Belichick might have made in not employing Malcolm Butler last year, he atoned for it this year with a brilliant defensive game plan that kept the league’s second-highest scoring offense out of the end zone and out of their comfort zone. Class was in session for precocious Rams coach Sean McVay, and he got schooled by Professor Belichick, who deconstructed McVay’s offense with ease. The Rams were 0 for 8 on third down before they converted one with about four minutes left in the third quarter on their only scoring drive.
What a difference a year and a healthy Dont’a Hightower made. Last year, they allowed 41 points, permitted five consecutive scores to close the game, and surrendered 538 yards, the most ever by a Belichick-coached Patriots team. They never sniffed Eagles quarterback Nick Foles and got owned by a top-notch offensive line on a miserable evening in Minnesota.
This year, they harassed Jared Goff all night, sacking him four times and exposing him as an unfinished franchise quarterback product. They never let Todd Gurley get traction.
The Rams had no fans and no offense. They tied the Super Bowl record for offensive futility with just 3 points, set a Super Bowl record by punting on eight consecutive drives, and punted on nine of their 12 possessions. Stephon Gilmore, the guy who got Butler’s cornerback contract last season, basically ended the Rams’ hopes with a clutch interception at the Patriots’ 4-yard line, going anti-Asante Samuel.
“Our defense played unbelievable,” Rob Gronkowski said. “You got to give them credit. Without them we would have never won the game.”
Just as they had to during a season of offensive inconsistency, the protean Patriots adjusted on the fly. The first play of their fateful fourth-quarter touchdown drive, an 18-yard play-action pass to Rob Gronkowski on which he faked blocking and then released down the sideline, was an ad-lib by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
“We put that play in right there on the spot,” Gronk said. “It was a great job, great throw by Tom and a great call by McDaniels.”
The Patriots also trapped the Rams in their base personnel by going to two backs and two tight ends, or 22 personnel, but then employed an empty set passing formation out of it. They ran this formation three straight times for Brady completions, the last a 29-yarder to Gronkowski that set up the game’s only touchdown.
The Patriots’ entire season prepared them for the game they would have to play in Super Bowl LIII.
“It was the most satisfying year that I’ve ever been a part of,” Gronkowski said. “How we came together, the obstacles we had to overcome, the grind from the beginning of training camp to now was just surreal. The obstacles, how we stuck together, it was life. We went through life this year.
“We figured it out. We found our identity. That was our identity — wear the other team out. We were not making big flashy plays all the time, once in awhile. We stuck together, grinded, ran the ball. It was unbelievable, now we’re Super Bowl champs.”
A team that wasn’t good enough found a (Patriot) way to be the best team in football.