A ‘throwback’ Super Bowl win enhances Patriots’ legacy (and Belichick’s)

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ATLANTA — Ten minutes left in Super Bowl LIII. (Or, as John Legend called it, the Super Bore.) Rams 3, Pats 3. New England had managed one field goal in 10 possessions. On the New England sideline, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels had seen enough. He gathered his offensive players around him and explained that, in crunch time in the NFL championship game, he was ripping up the game plan.

Patriots tight end Dwayne Allen told me the story at 2 this morning, at the Patriots’ team party in the Atlanta Hyatt Regency, trying to be heard above the Snoop Dogg concert thumping in a nearby ballroom. “One of the things Bill Belichick preaches,” Allen told me, “is he wants a smart, tough, disciplined, unselfish football team that performs well under pressure. And that’s what we did tonight.”

The Rams’ defensive coordinator, Wade Phillips, had matched McDaniels’ calls all night. Mostly, the Patriots could do nothing against the Los Angeles sub defenses. Because the Rams’ front was so formidable with pile-pushers Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh, they could afford to play one or two extra men in the back end and limit Tom Brady’s passing options with three strong corners. So McDaniels told his men they were just going jumbo, which would force Phillips out of his sub packages and put linebackers on receivers the Patriots trusted could beat them.

McDaniels would keep only one small player on the field—Julian Edelman. And on the next series, he’d play two tight ends (the lightly used Allen and Rob Gronkowski), a fullback (James Devlin), a big back (Rex Burkhead) and Edelman.

“It was a pretty amazing thing,’’ said Allen, one of the beneficiaries of McDaniels’ invention. “Hats off to the Rams. They really knew us. They played us great. But football’s about in-game adjustments. Josh told us on the sideline, ‘We did not practice this at all coming into this game, and I realize that, but this is going off in my head, and it’s something I think we need to do.’ “

The Patriots had averaged 4.9 yards per play in the first 50 minutes of the game. On this drive, they averaged 13.8. New England played what it considers its athletic big offense, and it worked. Gronkowski beat linebacker Samson Ebukam up the right flank for 18 on first down, then hit Edelman on linebacker Cory Littleton for 13, then Burkhead in the left flat for seven, then Gronkowski between Littleton and Mark Barron down the left seam for 29. Sony Michel subbed in for a two-yard touchdown run. Five plays, 69 yards, TD. Pats, 10-3.

In the lowest-scoring game in Super Bowl history, New England bested the surprisingly toothless Rams—the second-highest scoring in football this year—for their sixth title in 18 years. Pats 13, Rams 3. Afterward, Bill Belichick praised McDaniels as much as I’d heard him praise any of his coaches. Belichick called the McDaniels change a “real key breakthrough,” and said McDaniels “made a great adjustment,” and called his play-calling “outstanding, as usual.”

With this victory, Belichick and the Patriots tied the Steelers for the most Super Bowl titles—six. Brady played, for him, a mediocre game. But he was absolutely effervescent after the game, thrilled that the Patriots’ defense played a Steel Curtain kind of game (first eight Rams possessions: eight punts). People who saw him early this morning at the party—I did not—told me he was unusually thrilled and pumped because, as one teammate said, “he loves a team win and couldn’t give a s— about stats.”

“This game,” Allen said, competing with the Snoop Dogg din, “is the difference between the New England Patriots and 31 other teams in the National Football League. We figure it out, and we have no ego when we have to change things.”


This was a wonderful game for the Patriots’ legacy. They’d won (and lost) Super Bowls mostly with bludgeoning offensive performances. Never had the defense and special teams outshone the offense. Never, of course, till Sunday. “A throwback game,” Richard Seymour said. I saw the mountainous defensive tackle of the early dynasty at the party this morning. New England forced the Rams—the NFC’s highest-scoring team—to punt on their first eight series. L.A. hadn’t punted eight times in any of coach Sean McVay’s first 35 games atop the Rams.

Credit will go to Belichick, as it should, for the smart, tough, disciplined and unselfish team, as he preaches. The football world has been slapped in the face by the genius of the young McVay, who is 33, half Belichick’s age. But he was just another speedbump to the Belichick Patriots on Sunday, and McVay’s quarterback, once upon a time a strong MVP candidate this season, was pitiful for most of the Rams’ 260-total-yard day. Belichick, surely, belongs on the Mount Rushmore of all-time coaches. He might sit above the mount before he’s done—and he shows no signs of wanting out after his 19th season as Patriots coach. With 292 career regular-season and post-season victories, Belichick stands 56 victories away from becoming the winningest coach ever. He’s a young 66, and relatively stress-free. As of this morning, I’d be surprised if he doesn’t coach five more years, likely long enough to pass Don Shula’s 347 wins.

The great leader coaches his assistants, and Belichick has done that. Outgoing defensive play-caller Brian Flores orchestrated a great game against Goff, confusing him through the game and bringing pressure through more line stunts than the Rams had expected to see. Flores will be named coach of the Miami Dolphins today, so Belichick will have to break in a new defensive boss. (Smart money is on Greg Schiano, the former Bucs and Rutgers coach, and a confidant of Belichick’s.) But don’t expect the Patriots to change much of what they do. On both sides of the ball, every game, the game plans are snowflakes. Always different.

That’s one of the reasons McDaniels wasn’t concerned at halftime, when the Patriots stumbled to a 3-0 lead halfway through. In the locker room post-game, talk was that McDaniels went to the board to talk to his team and he drew the number “44.” That’s how many plays the Patriots ran in the first half—and how many plays the Rams D was on the field. “That’s got to count for something,” McDaniels told his players. “That’s gonna pay off in the second half.”

 

Maybe it did. When New England changed its offensive approach to a heavy look with 10 minutes left, the Patriots went 69 yards for a TD and 72 yards for a field goal on their next two drives. On New England’s 61st snap of the game, Sony Michel busted over right tackle for 26 yards. On the 64th, Rex Burkhead ran behind left tackle for 26. That was the ballgame.

This is the team, of course, that America loves to loathe. But I think if America hung around the locker room, it would like this edition of the Patriots. Around the Patriots last week, the coaches and players spoke of a selflessness—even among the stars like Rob Gronkowski and Edelman and Dont’a Hightower and Devin McCourty and Stephon Gilmore—that exceeded prior championship teams in Foxboro. “It’s not easy to be a Patriot,” Gilmore told me last night. “It’s a grind every day. Even when we win games, it feels like we lose sometimes because it’s hard. We want to be perfect and sometimes we’re not. But it’s worth it. Everything is worth it.”

After the game, I spent a few minutes with Robert Kraft in the out-of-the-way trainers’ room in the Patriots’ locker room. Kraft, impeccable in a three-piece blue suit, was bushed, talked out after his 10th Super Bowl appearance in his quarter-century as owner. “I want to get out of this suit,” he said.

But first, the Bostonian who had Patriots season-tickets as a kid put this team in perspective.

“Well,” he said, “this team is a different team than any of the others we’ve been with. It has a certain sense of character and maturity about it that I don’t ever remember. And I saw it the last two weeks in this locker room. There was a quiet air of confidence. They worked hard. There was a good attitude. I don’t think we had the most Pro Bowl players. Matter of fact, how many did we have? One? And what they did on defense today was unbelievable. Just going back to the start of the season, with all the turmoil and tension and then we started, what, 2-3? (It was 2-2.) And then we came to December and we lost two games in a row which we usually don’t do. And because of that, we didn’t have the home field advantage through the playoffs and we had to go on the road in the championship game to a place we got beaten badly the last time we played there. And they probably have the best young team in all of football. And our guys found a way to get the job done. And then today, the same thing.

“I just pinch myself because you know I’m still a fan. Especially when I’m sitting in my box, I’m thinking as a fan and thinking back to being in the stands and dreaming about owning the team.”

I said: “You’re a New Englander. You love the local sports teams. So how does nine Super Bowls in 18 seasons, unheard of in NFL history, rate versus the great franchises in the history of Boston?”

“I’m gonna let you rate that,” he said. “The only one that I really remember growing up was the Celtics and I was a big fan. They really sustained success. I don’t know how many teams were in the NBA. They had nowhere near the 32 teams we had.”

He was about talked out now, but he had one last thing for me:

“I honestly don’t believe what our team and Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have done will ever be replicated in the age of the salary cap.”

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Tom Brady basically even-money wager on the Super Bowl MVP odds

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The upside of having such a familiar presence as the top prop on the Super Bowl MVP odds is that there is value elsewhere that could be realized if there’s an unlikely outcome.

As one would expect, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is a near even-money +110 favorite on the Super Bowl LIII MVP odds at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com. The Los Angeles Rams’ Jared Goff, Brady’s counterpart QB in the matchup set for February 3 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, is the second favorite at +225.

Thirteen of the last 20 Super Bowl MVPs, or 65 percent, have indeed been quarterbacks – including Brady a record four times in his eight appearances –  with wide receivers winning three times, linebackers three times and a defensive back once. But that is a slightly lower percentage than the league MVP award for the regular season, which has gone to a quarterback 14 times in the last 20 seasons, including 10 of the last 11.

Brady is the clear-cut favorite, with other Patriots offensive contributors such as Sony Michel (+1500), James White (+2000), Julian Edelman (+2500) and Rob Gronkowski (+3300) dispersed over the top half of the board on those Super Bowl prop bets.

Based on recent production and the fact that wide receivers have occasionally nabbed the honor, Edelman is probably the most justifiable longshot play. Given the Patriots’ emphasis on time of possession, it’s unlikely that defenders such as linebacker Kyle Van Noy (+10000) or defensive end Trey Flowers (+10000) will get enough opportunity to wrest the spotlight from Brady and cohorts.

If there is a sleeper wearing Rams blue and gold, it is likely defensive tackle Aaron Donald (+1800), who led the NFL in sacks during the regular season and will be counted on to force some disruptions in New England’s offense.

A running back has not won the award since Terrell Davis did so 21 seasons ago. The Rams’ Todd Gurley (+1100) and C.J. Anderson (+2500) present the biggest rushing threat New England, the favorite on the Super Bowl odds, has seen in the playoffs, but a job-share might work against getting MVP buzz during the game.

The Rams’ upset chances likely also rest somewhat on getting points off turnovers. Cornerbacks Aqib Talib (+8000) and Marcus Peters (+10000) are the picks that match up with that narrative.

For more odds information, betting picks and a breakdown of this week’s top sports betting news check out the OddsShark podcast with Jon Campbell and Andrew Avery. Subscribe on iTunes or Spotify or listen to it at OddsShark.libsyn.com.

Tom Brady on why he’s better than ever in his 40s

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I sat with Tom Brady at his locker for seven minutes after the Patriots’ 37-31 AFC Championship Game victory, and I can tell you he was dazed. Slightly dazed. Three really crazy things happened in this game that he was trying to process, still, about 50 minutes after his ninth championship game victory.

“We’ll remember this one forever,” Brady said, equal parts incredulous and grateful as he sat on a wooden stool stamped with the Chiefs logo. “It’s one of the great wins in franchise history.”

• Brady converted three third-and-10 passes on the only drive of overtime: to Julian Edelman, Edelman again and Rob Gronkowski.

• The pass play to Gronkowski, which gave the Patriots a first down at the Chiefs’ 15, was not in the game plan. New England has run the Gronk slant before, but hadn’t planned to run it here, and the only play they called that wasn’t planned turned out quite possibly to be the biggest play of their day. As the 40-second play clock wound down, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels called the play they hadn’t practiced during the week because the coaches saw a coverage deficiency by Kansas City safety Eric Berry on Gronkowski.

• “We just put in eight new plays in the game plan this morning,” Brady told me. At the team hotel, the Westin Crown Center in Kansas City, the offensive players were greeted at the 11 a.m. meeting with the news that eight new plays were being installed for the game. That happens, but not every week, and not eight plays’ worth. They walked through the plays in a hotel ballroom, then ran four or five of them during the game—all for positive yards.

“Aren’t you a little shocked?” I asked. “All of it—converting three third-and-10s in overtime, making another Super Bowl in a league that pushes everyone to the middle, surviving Mahomes …”

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s hard for me to imagine. Nine Super Bowls. I know. It’s ridiculous.”

One more thing I wanted to do with Brady. I had a chart … well, I’ll show you what I showed him in the jammed Patriots’ locker room, about his staying power in this game. Comparing Brady in the 14 postseason games he played in his twenties versus Brady in the five postseason games he’s played in his forties:

Brady smiled. “When you first started your job, compared to you now, are you better?” he said. “You have a lot more experience. That’s what this is. Experience. So I don’t think it is all that surprising. We have been fighting uphill all year. This game is hard to win. The next game is harder to win. This game, you just celebrate it for what it is. Then we go to work on the Rams.

“I never imagined any of this, believe me. This is beyond. I mean, who could ever imagine this? Nine Super Bowls? I just take it for what it is and enjoy it. I love my teammates. I love my coaches. I love my family. It takes a lot of people to support you for all of us. I’m just happy for all of us.”

And, apparently, it’s never going to end.

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