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Once Again, Belichick and Brady Bend the NFL to Their Will

The Rams were a vision of the NFL’s exciting, innovative, high-scoring future. The Patriots rendered them ineffective in the Super Bowl, a reminder, if we needed one, that the league will change only as much they will allow it to.

Bill Belichick wearing a Super Bowl champions shirt Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

There was nothing to see on Sunday night. Well, not exactly—Ed Reed wore a pretty cool hat. One year after the Eagles and Patriots produced the most yardage in Super Bowl history, the Patriots and Rams scored the fewest points in Super Bowl history. If you enjoyed this game—really, truly enjoyed it—you are either a Patriots fan, someone who likes zone defensive coverage, or a bettor who had the under. It is possible, I suppose, to have enjoyed it if you really like Maroon 5, but no one likes Maroon 5 that much.

What we learned during Super Bowl LIII reinforced what we already knew: The Patriots adapt better than any team in the history of football. If this information is new to you, then congratulations on consuming your first football game. In the past 12 months, the Patriots have played in the second-highest-scoring and lowest-scoring Super Bowls. In the NFL, parity is supposed to wreck good teams after a few years, and if that doesn’t work, injuries and age usually do. The only answer as to why New England does not suffer the same fate as every other franchise is that it’s playing a different game.

The Patriots beat the Los Angeles Rams 13-3 in Atlanta to win their sixth Super Bowl in 18 years. The game served the same general function as the Star Wars prequels: It was not good, but it explained a lot. In the decades to come, no one will care that one of the Patriots’ Super Bowl appearances during this run was hopelessly boring. My educated guess is that we’ll eventually salvage this game as a football hipsters’ paradise: two defensive coaches in Bill Belichick and Wade Phillips using unpredictable schemes to absolutely wreck the opposing team’s offense in an era when that seemed impossible. In that regard, it will probably be studied for decades to come. In every other regard, it should never be shown on television again. (Also, maybe there should be a rule that Patrick Mahomes II plays a few series in every Super Bowl from now on, regardless of whether his team is playing in it.)

This was not a good game, and I won’t attempt to convince you otherwise. The following Super Bowl records were broken: fewest points scored by both teams, fewest points scored by the winning team, fewest points through three quarters, fewest touchdowns. The Rams set a record by ending eight consecutive drives with a punt. The Patriots were the fourth-highest-scoring team in the NFL this season and won in a slugfest. They took the Rams, who had brought the sport into the future, right back to an era when defense trumped even the most innovative offenses.

This game serves as an explainer, a sort of strategy guide to the whole Patriots experience. They lost to the Lions and the Titans this season. None of that mattered because nothing ever matters with the Patriots except Belichick, Tom Brady, their roster-building philosophy, and the idea, proved over and over again, that no one is smarter than they are for longer than a few hours. Belichick started his reign as a coaching genius 18 years ago by beating the St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl, dismantling a high-powered offense that was deemed unstoppable. In the 18 years since, the Rams moved to a new city, went through four coaches, and emerged with one of the most innovative offenses in the history of the sport, and Belichick was still there to dismantle them. An offense has not made it until Bill Belichick has game-planned for it, and there’s a reason so many coaches and quarterbacks come out of that situation much worse than when they came in.

For 60 minutes on Sunday, the Patriots reversed nearly every trend in the NFL: In the season with the most touchdowns in league history, they didn’t allow the Rams to score one. Completion percentage was at an all-time high this season, and Jared Goff completed only half his throws. Sean McVay’s offense is considered so innovative that knowing him is taken as a qualification for a head-coaching job. Belichick so thoroughly contained the Rams offense that not knowing Sean McVay might be the best thing to say in a coaching interview for the next week or so.

Because so few things happened, this game will be remembered as an appreciation of Belichick and Brady. The Patriots quarterback had zero touchdowns and one interception but outplayed his overwhelmed counterpart, Goff. Brady’s 29-yard connection to Rob Gronkowski set up Sony Michel’s fourth-quarter touchdown, which gave the Patriots an insurmountable (in the context of this game) one-score lead. Brady found Julian Edelman 10 times for 141 yards, taking advantage of his receiver’s ability to average 3.9 yards of separation on his 12 targets, a massive cushion.

Earlier this week, my colleague Rodger Sherman and I had a debate about who is the best coach of all time. He argued that a coach like Bill Walsh invented things and Belichick has not. This is partly true; Belichick does not have one great invention that spread throughout the sport like Walsh’s West Coast offense or Tony Dungy’s Tampa 2. Belichick’s genius lies in how he invents a new team for each game—or half. Or play. The Patriots decided they were a zone-defense team after excelling at man coverage all year and just became the best zone defense team for 60 minutes. Some coaches go a lifetime never making that switch. The Rams just learned what the Patriots’ reinvention looks like.

It is not the time to overreact about the Rams, but there are many more questions than answers at the moment. McVay admitted he got outcoached by Belichick, but one bad game will not end the era of offensive football McVay has helped usher in. Belichick became the first coach to hold McVay’s team scoreless in the first half and the second to prevent it from scoring an offensive touchdown for the entire game. The Rams would’ve struggled even more if they hadn’t had punter Johnny Hekker. (After the game, Patriots special teams ace Matthew Slater mentioned “having to deal with Johnny Hekker” as if he were a Mahomesian weapon.)

The Patriots confused the Rams by throwing more zone looks at them than they anticipated. The Patriots wanted Goff to beat them, and he couldn’t. “They did a really good job with playing us with six on the line all day and limited the space to be able to get the runs through there,” Rams offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth said. The Patriots offensive line limited L.A.’s ferocious defensive line to its lowest pressure rate of the season, continuing a trend in the playoffs. It was one of Belichick’s coaching classics. As Geoff Schwartz pointed out, McVay had almost nothing new to offer in this game. Belichick had everything.

McVay is known for his incredible memory, but it turns out the first player he’s forgotten in his entire career is his highly paid star running back. Todd Gurley split carries with C.J. Anderson despite being fully healthy, according to the Rams injury report. Gurley was the fastest player in the game according to player tracking stats, yet he sat for large chunks of it. How the franchise navigates Gurley’s contract and playing time will be one of the focal points of the offseason. So, too, will be how Los Angeles approaches Goff’s contract since he’s eligible for an extension, likely a lucrative one, that will erase a lot of the team’s current salary cap flexibility. The reason these things are important to point out is that all of the Patriots’ opponents have had to navigate these issues and they have always done a worse job than the Patriots. New England has made the Super Bowl four times in the past five years; none of their opponents during that span have returned. It is really hard to keep winning in the NFL, and time will tell whether the Rams can sustain their success. They have some things in common with the Patriots: namely, a smart coach, a smart front office, and a lot of forward-thinking employees. The Rams made a series of aggressive moves to maximize their window to win now, and they couldn’t do it. Where they go from here will be one of the most interesting stories of 2019.

For a while after the game, the Patriots’ winning did seem old. A few Patriots coaches exhaled in the tunnel, showing little emotion. They looked like they had just left the field after a preseason game. The players were happy but lacked the pure joy I saw in past Super Bowl victories, like in Arizona after they beat the Seahawks or in Houston when they beat the Falcons—two significantly more exciting games. I briefly concluded that it had gotten old to them until I stumbled across a group of reporters interviewing Patriots center David Andrews. “Does it ever get old?” a reporter asked. “No. No, no, no,” he said, his voice shaking with emotion. “That’s the wrong word to use,” Andrews said, somewhat taken aback by the question. He’d dreamed of winning a Super Bowl his entire life and has won two and played in three. “It is the most amazing feeling in the world,” he said. I have been doing this for a few years now, and I think I am pretty good at gauging sincerity in answers. Andrews was almost shockingly sincere. No, it doesn’t get old.

This comment made me think a little more about this era of Patriots football and this era of NFL football in general. In 10 years, no one will remember that the Patriots bored us on a Sunday night and gave a sub–Maroon 5 level of entertainment for four hours. It will be another ring and a Wikipedia entry to click on that will tell you that this year, while the Rams were busy innovating offense, Belichick was still Belichick and Brady was still Brady. They haven’t gotten old yet.