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Six Plays That Explain How Bill Belichick Outdueled Sean McVay

The Patriots made one of the league’s best offenses look like a high school squad by stopping the run, dialing up pressure, and playing tight coverage. With just enough help from Tom Brady and the offense, New England won their sixth Super Bowl.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Patriots are Super Bowl champions for the sixth time this century. New England outlasted the Rams in Super Bowl LIII on Sunday, winning 13-3 in an unexpected and bizarre defensive slugfest. The game provided an incongruous end to a season defined by an offensive explosion—together, the two teams punted 14 times, went 6-for-25 on third downs, and combined for a Super Bowl–record-low 16 points. It also underscored the importance of a few long-established football clichés: The Patriots beat the Rams because of better coaching, better situational football, and better execution—the pillars of Bill Belichick’s Patriots teams over the past two decades.

The NFL’s title game was packed with action (and at times, what felt like an excruciating lack of action), but a few moments stood out as more critical or illuminating than the rest. Here are the plays that explain Super Bowl LIII.

Julian Edelman’s 25-Yard Second-Quarter Reception

With the game scoreless early in the second quarter, the Patriots faced a third-and-1 from their own 46-yard line. As he often does in big moments, Tom Brady looked to his trusty wideout to move the chains and keep the drive alive. Lined up in the right slot, Edelman ran an arcing out route, skillfully selling his route to the inside before breaking toward the sideline to shed the man coverage of Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman.

As Tony Romo said on the CBS broadcast, it was almost laughable just how open Edelman was able to get against a quality corner like Robey-Coleman. That play was emblematic of Edelman’s Super Bowl MVP performance: The veteran pass catcher was damn near unguardable from start to finish, racking up 10 catches for 141 yards as he regularly roasted both man and zone coverages. Edelman was Brady’s only reliable first-half playmaker, breathing small signs of life into an otherwise listless unit.

Of course, it certainly helped that Brady had time to sit in the pocket on that play and let the longer-developing route open up. To keep Brady clean, the Patriots dialed up a seven-man protection scheme that chipped with tight end Rob Gronkowski on the left and running back James White on the right, slowing down Los Angeles’s edge rushers while making it easier for New England to double-team superstar pass rusher Aaron Donald. It worked like a charm, and the 25-yard gain helped set up the first score of the game. Four plays later, kicker Stephen Gostkowski booted a 42-yard field goal to give the Patriots their first lead of the game.

Danny Shelton’s Second-Quarter Tackle for Loss

The Rams struggled to stay on schedule in this game, all too frequently finding themselves in very tough third-and-long situations. The Patriots’ stout defensive line deserves much of the credit, and this play midway through the second quarter tells the story of why: On a second-and-7 from the Patriots’ 46-yard line, the Rams tried to run up the gut with running back C.J. Anderson, but were rebuffed. Rotational lineman Danny Shelton—on the field on Sunday after being deactivated in the championship-round win over the Chiefs—sliced through the line and tackled Anderson for a 3-yard loss.

That pushed the Rams back into a third-and-10—and that’s exactly where the Patriots wanted them to be. Knowing L.A. would be forced to throw, New England’s pass rushers pinned their ears back and got pressure on quarterback Jared Goff just before he heaved a deep pass up to Josh Reynolds. With defenders coming from his right, Goff drifted to his left, threw off his back foot, and short-armed the throw, allowing Patriots cornerback Jason McCourty to recover and close ground on Reynolds, who appeared to have a step early in the route. The big receiver had to slow up, and couldn’t come down with the contested pass.

That two-play sequence was a microcosm for how the Patriots defense dismantled the high-scoring Rams unit, and it also answered a question many had coming into the game: Who or what from that group would Belichick focus on neutralizing first? The Patriots loaded up to stop the Rams’ rushing attack, regularly placing five or more defenders up at the line of scrimmage to disrupt the L.A. blocking schemes and take both Todd Gurley and Anderson out of the game. In effect, Belichick said: “Let’s make Goff beat us.”

That was quite the gamble: Goff had, after all, finished the season with 32 touchdown passes, averaged 8.4 yards per attempt, and in Sean McVay’s innovative scheme, benefited from a regular supply of wide-open receivers downfield. But Belichick’s plan worked beautifully: Neutralizing the Rams’ ground game forced Goff into those dreaded third-and-longs, where he couldn’t lean on the play-action passing attack that he’d thrived in during the year. When asked to simply drop back and make a pass, Goff crumbled: The Rams failed to convert on their first eight third-down situations and finished the game 3-of-13 on that critical down.

Dont’a Hightower’s Third-Quarter Sack

Of course, the Patriots defense had to do more than just stop the run. Once New England got the Rams into those obvious passing situations, they needed the pass-rush group to capitalize. With a combination of smart scheming and an aggressive, blitz-heavy game plan, New England’s front seven did just that, creating near-constant pressure to force Goff into bad decisions, rushed throws, and missed receivers. Take this third-and-7 late in the third quarter: New England sent linebacker Hightower on a blitz up the middle, stunting Kyle Van Noy underneath him. Hightower beat Van Noy to the punch, but both broke through L.A.’s typically disciplined offensive line to sack Goff and force the Rams to settle for a field goal.

The Patriots used these defensive line stunts all game—looping linemen or linebackers around each other to slice through the line—and L.A. struggled to adjust. With pressure consistently coming up the middle, Goff was jittery behind the line and, as we saw on the play above (Anderson was open underneath), never saw receivers as they were coming open. The interior pressure also unlocked the outside rush, because Goff couldn’t step up into the pocket to avoid defenders coming off the edge. The Patriots’ plan was devastatingly effective: New England, which blitzed on 50 percent of its plays, pressured Goff 14 times, per NFL Next Gen Stats, tied for the second most the Rams quarterback had seen all year.

Stephon Gilmore’s Fourth-Quarter Interception

The Patriots’ defensive game plan started with taking away the run. The next step was to create pressure up front. From there, it was up to the team’s playmaking secondary to do the rest, and that group came through when it counted most. All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore produced the biggest play of the game, picking Goff off late in the fourth quarter to set up an ensuing Patriots drive that all but sealed L.A.’s fate. Trailing 10-3 with 4:24 to go in the game, the Rams were finally threatening deep in New England territory, facing a second-and-10 from the Patriots’ 27-yard line. But the Patriots stayed true to their game plan, stayed aggressive, and dialed up a six-man, Cover Zero blitz. In other words, the team’s corners had no help over the top. It didn’t matter.

In the face of pressure, Goff panicked and tossed a wounded duck in the direction of receiver Brandin Cooks. It fell well short of its intended target, and Gilmore, who had eyes on the ball the entire play, jumped up to pluck it out of the air.

That was emblematic of the group’s sticky coverage all game. The Patriots mixed one- and two-high defensive looks with a variety of man and zone schemes, sticking to L.A.’s receivers like glue while making it tough for Goff to know what he was seeing. The foundation of defensive play-caller Brian Flores’s game plan on Sunday started up front, but the team needed every play it got from a playmaking secondary. Even when that group failed, letting Brandin Cooks get wide open in the end zone late in the third quarter, cornerback Jason McCourty was able to close on Cooks and knock the ball out of his hands. That’s just the type of complete team performance the Patriots needed to hold the Rams to three points—the lowest total for that group since Sean McVay became the head coach.

Rob Gronkowski’s 29-Yard Fourth-Quarter Reception

The Patriots offense was anything but the story of the Super Bowl: Brady threw a pick on his first pass and as a unit, New England went 3-of-12 on third downs and produced just 13 points—the lowest points output for a Super Bowl–winning team in history. But the offense did come up big in the clutch, mounting a pivotal five-play, 69-yard touchdown drive midway through the fourth quarter that ended up being the difference in the game.

On the drive, the Patriots changed things up, leaning on heavy two-back, two-tight-end sets to move the ball down the field.

On three straight plays, New England trotted out a run-heavy set, only to line up in an empty formation, spreading the Rams defense thin. On the first play, Brady hit Edelman over the middle for a gain of 13, then quickly found Rex Burkhead on the left for another 7 yards:

On the third, Brady looked to Gronkowski, who beat coverage downfield to reel in the 29-yard gain.

That play set up an easy 2-yard touchdown run by Sony Michel on the next play, giving the Patriots a 10-3 lead at the 7:03 mark. The drive was a perfect microcosm for New England’s offense all year: Lacking elite playmaking receivers on the outside, the Patriots were forced instead to lean on a core group of versatile skill players at tight end, running back, and fullback—all of whom can line up anywhere on the field and play a variety of roles.

Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead Drain the Clock

When the Patriots got the ball back at the 4:14 mark holding a 10-3 lead, they turned to their ground game. On a second-and-9 from the 5-yard line, New England ran power to the right, opening up a hole for Michel to break away for 26 yards.

That big run got New England out of its own end and gave the team a new set of downs, forcing the Rams to start burning timeouts. This 26-yard run by Rex Burkhead three plays later, a wide-zone play led by fullback James Develin, was another dagger, and it put New England in scoring distance.

Both big gains came out of the Patriots’ heavy two-tight-end looks and were representative of the old-school smashmouth identity that the team has embraced this offseason. New England capped the drive with a Stephen Gostkowski field goal and, more importantly, ate up over three minutes of late-fourth-quarter clock, leaving the Rams with just over a minute to make up a 10-point deficit.

It wasn’t pretty, but it was a complete team win for the Patriots, who got an unbelievable performance from their defense, a few big plays from the passing game when they needed them most, and a pair of soul-crushing runs from the ground game to seal a record-tying sixth Super Bowl for the franchise.