We tugged on Superman’s cape. The doubters — you, me, almost every one of us at some point — should have known better.
We should have remembered that Bill Belichick is to football coaching what Stephen Hawking was to theoretical physics.
We should have known that Tom Brady is to quarterbacking what Bobby Fischer was to chess.
Heads, the Patriots win. Tails, the Patriots win.
That’s what the NFL’s most enduring dynasty looks like.
In this edition, Belichick navigated the shoals of one of his rockiest seasons without the most talented roster of his Patriots reign. No Randy Moss. No Ty Law, Vince Wilfork, or Tedy Bruschi. Not even Josh Gordon when it mattered most.
The doubters said these Patriots weren’t good enough. They were over the hill. They had lost their mojo. They could win a playoff game. Maybe two. But the Super Bowl? Not this year.
What they — we? — failed to recognize was that by January the Patriots had developed a unifying faith in Belichick’s system — a bond that would sustain them in a season when the dynasty’s aging stars were aligned with a less than spectacular supporting cast.
This crew of pugnacious Patriots proved the disbelievers wrong last Sunday on the sport’s biggest stage. By inflicting one of the most devastating defensive beatdowns in Super Bowl history, they overcame their own inefficient offense — one of the feeblest ever in a title game — and defeated the Los Angeles Rams, 13-3, at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium to become six-time champions of the football world.
The game was ugly. It was Picasso trying to paint a museum piece without his best brushes, Beethoven composing the Moonlight Sonata on a hand-me-down piano. It was two NFL powers rendered all but impotent by marauding defenses and their own ineptitude, with one team frantically finding a way to remain the last standing.
It was hard to watch. But it was historic. Brady became the first player to win six Super Bowls. Belichick joined George Halas and Curly Lambeau as the only coaches to win six NFL titles. Rob Gronkowski, perhaps playing his last NFL game after some nine football-related surgeries, caught six passes for 87 yards, extending his postseason record for receiving yards by a tight end to 1,163. And emerging star Sony Michel scored the game’s only touchdown, his sixth in the postseason, a record for rushing touchdowns by a rookie.
Those were some of the indelible faces of the Patriots dynasty. Another was Game of Thrones clone Julian Edelman, the gladiator/slot receiver who is seemingly immune to fear. Edelman, who revolutionized himself under Belichick from a second-tier college quarterback to one of the league’s most dangerous offensive weapons, helped to galvanize the underrated Patriots by stepping up to the skeptics.
Twice before the title game, Edelman tweeted a dare: #BetAgainstUs. He then all but single-handedly saved New England’s season with his daredevil act in the Super Bowl, catching 10 balls for 141 yards, as the game’s most valuable player.
The dynasty also looked like Brian Flores, the gifted defensive coach who, with Belichick, engineered the world-class pillaging of Jared Goff and the Rams. Like a host of Belichick disciples before him, Flores found himself coveted by NFL rivals, and before the haze had cleared from Snoop Dogg’s postgame performance in Atlanta, Flores was officially named the head coach of the Dolphins.
This also is what the dynasty looked like: Jason McCourty, 10 years into his NFL career, winning his first Super Bowl, while his twin Devin captured his third ring, and their stalwart in the defensive backfield, Stephon Gilmore, won his first.
The dynasty looked like the grizzled offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia and his overachieving band of blockers. It looked like a punishing defensive front seven powered by Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, and Trey Flowers. And it looked like the bit players who became vital contributors, guys like Rex Burkhead, Cordarrelle Patterson, and J.C. Jackson, who was 7 years old at the birth of the dynasty.
The championship served as a measure of vindication for the Patriots, who can’t dispute that they gave the doubters plenty to cringe about over the previous year.
There had been dark days before in the dynasty: Brady’s four-game suspension in 2015 over deflated footballs, Belichick’s $500,000 fine and the team’s forfeited first-round draft pick in 2008 for spying on an opponent’s signals.
But a series of incidents before the 2018 season seemed to threaten the foundation of the house that Robert Kraft built.
Brady and Gronkowski seemed to have had enough of Belichick’s rigid leadership. Belichick seemed to have had enough of Gronkowski’s antics off the field. Players and fans alike seemed to have had enough of Belichick’s reluctance to explain himself, never more than when he refused to say why he left Malcolm Butler standing idly on the sideline in a crushing loss to the Eagles in last year’s Super Bowl.
Amid the tumult, Belichick’s defensive coordinator, Matt Patricia, lit out for Detroit. His offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels, was gone, too, if only for hours, before he reneged on a pledge to coach the Colts.
Brady and Gronkowski broke one of Belichick’s cardinal rules by refusing to show up for voluntary offseason workouts. Edelman got suspended for four games for cheating with performance-enhancers. And the Patriots entered training camp without an elite wideout to succeed the shipped-away Brandin Cooks.
If that weren’t enough, one of Belichick’s first-round draft picks, Isaiah Wynn, who was expected to bolster the depleted offensive line, suffered a season-ending injury before he played his first NFL game.
By late September, when the Patriots were embarrassed by Patricia’s Lions, 26-10, dropping their record to 1-2, the sun seemed to be setting on the Patriots empire.
The oddsmakers had made New England a preseason favorite to return to the Super Bowl. Now they looked a little silly.
As the situation grew more desperate, Belichick went after Gordon, a Pro Bowl-caliber receiver with a long and disturbing history of substance abuse.
Gordon had worn out his welcome in Cleveland, and Belichick, taking a risk on a deeply troubled star, gave him a home in Brady’s receiving corps.
With Gordon on board, the Patriots ran off a six-game winning streak, highlighted by hope-inspiring victories over playoff contenders: 43-40 over the Chiefs, 38-31 over the Bears, 31-17 over the Packers.
Were the Patriots back, despite concerns about injuries to Gronkowski, who sat out three games, and Michel, who missed two?
Far from it. In Week 10, they were humiliated by the Titans in Nashville, 34-10. Brady was pummeled, sacked three times, and betrayed by his own body when he caught a pass from Edelman and lost his balance, stumbling awkwardly to the turf all but untouched, short of a first down.
It was a sad image, a freeze-frame, it seemed, of a falling star. In the press box, Globe columnist Tara Sullivan typed what some feared, that for Brady this might be “the beginning of his inevitable end.’’
A bye week followed, inviting deeper analysis of Brady’s decline. The Globe’s Ben Volin noted that Brady, the NFL’s reigning MVP, had dropped to 16th in the league in passer rating (94.7), behind the likes of Mitchell Trubisky and Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Brady himself knew he needed to be better. He spent part of the bye week working with Tom House, his personal throwing coach.
“I’ve got to go out there and play my very best these next six weeks to give our team the best chance,’’ Brady said.
With their 41-year-old quarterback playing better, the Patriots won four of their final six regular-season games. All good.
But something else was amiss. Something about playing on the road that bedeviled the 2018 Patriots. It was serious enough to stir misgivings about their ability to win away from Foxborough in the postseason, and it was cast in sharp relief by two dispiriting defeats in December.
First came a stunning, 34-33 loss to the Dolphins in Miami, then a 17-10 setback against the Steelers in Pittsburgh, spurring a new spate of hand wringing.
“Who are these guys and what have they done with our beloved New England Patriots?’’ the Globe’s Chris Gasper wrote. “If your faith in the Patriots and local football gods Bill Belichick and Tom Brady isn’t shaken at this point then you’re operating on reputation, not reality.’’
Worse, Gordon was gone. Just days after the Pittsburgh loss, he was indefinitely suspended by the NFL for yet another lapse.
The only consolation for the Patriots was clinching the second seed in the conference and home-field advantage in the divisional round, thanks to their 11-5 finish (8-0 at Gillette) in the regular season.
Playing at home proved decisive in the divisional round, as Belichick’s ballers rolled over the warm-weather Chargers on a crisp winter day in Foxborough, 41-28.
The prize: a road game against the top-seeded Chiefs in Kansas City for the AFC title.
The problem: only one team in NFL history, the 2010 Packers, had won a Super Bowl after posting a losing road record during the regular season. The Patriots had gone 3-5 away from Foxborough.
Oddsmakers favored the Chiefs. In fact, ESPN picked every other team in the final four over the Patriots to win the Super Bowl, giving New England only a 15 percent chance.
This was akin to putting out a honey pot for a bear. The Patriots lapped it up, embracing the underdog role.
“Everyone thinks we suck and can’t win any games,’’ Brady said after the Chargers victory. “We’ll see.’’
So we did. With Brady and the Patriots approaching peak performance, they matched the Chiefs wunderkind quarterback Patrick Mahomes point for point in the AFC title game and capitalized on a key offsides penalty against Kansas City’s Dee Ford in the final minute to force overtime.
“Heads,’’ called Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater for the overtime coin flip.
Heads it was, and Brady took it from there, orchestrating a 75-yard touchdown drive for a 37-31 victory and a trip to Atlanta.
The empire had struck back.
“We’re still here!’’ Brady chanted to an ecstatic crowd of 35,000 that gathered at Gillette Stadium to cheer the team as it departed for the Super Bowl.
In Atlanta, Slater again called heads before the kickoff, with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter bearing witness. This time, the coin came up tails, but it turned out to matter little.
What mattered most was Edelman’s rescue effort, Michel’s touchdown, and New England’s nearly impenetrable defense.
When it was over, Belichick stood beneath a cloud burst of confetti, clutching his 2-year-old granddaughter, Blakely, the Lombardi Trophy rising behind them. Blakely’s father, Steve, now one of Belichick’s assistants, was in high school when the dynasty began.
Now, six championships later, Bill Belichick revelled in the moment. He praised his team and thanked Kraft. And he couldn’t resist taking a swipe at the detractors.
“Everyone counted us out,’’ he said.
You, me, almost all of us, at least for a moment.
The confetti fluttered, and as the little girl clutched his shoulder, Belichick smiled wryly and said, “But we’re still here.’’
We should have known better.