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The Winners and Losers of Super Bowl LIII

The matchup didn’t live up to the billing, but legacies were still made and torn down on Sunday. Where do we stand on “Sean McVay, Offensive Genius” after the lowest-scoring Super Bowl ever? Did this change anything about what we think about Tom Brady? And did the Pats just prove suspensions are a good thing?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Every week this NFL season, we will celebrate the electric plays, investigate the colossal blunders, and explain the inexplicable moments of the most recent slate. Welcome to Winners and Losers. Which one are you?

Winner: Tom Brady, I Guess?

Tom Brady’s legacy received another boost, as if it needed one. Brady’s case as the greatest quarterback of all time was already rock solid. Now he has too many rings to fit on one hand. He was already the first quarterback with five championships, and now he has six. He is one of just a few quarterbacks to play a snap at age 41, and he won the damn Super Bowl. If Brady never makes it back to this stage, the images of Sunday night’s win will forever serve as a crowning moment, a concise monument to the unprecedented excellence he has managed for longer than anybody before him.

But the Patriots’ championship, stunningly, wasn’t won by Brady’s greatness. In fact, Sunday’s game was one of his worst performances of the season and arguably his worst-ever Super Bowl appearance. Brady got this win because the Patriots defense absolutely dominated a Rams offense that spent most of the season demolishing opponents with a revolutionary scheme that convinced the rest of the league to hire Sean McVay’s assistants, acquaintances, and ex-roommates to head-coaching jobs. Both defenses turned the game into a waking hellscape, the lowest-scoring Super Bowl ever. But the Rams defense eventually broke, allowing 10 points in the final 10 minutes, and thus Brady emerged victorious.

Brady actually had a pretty mediocre game, going 26-for-49 for 273 yards, a touchdown, and an interception. Actually wait, my bad—that was Matt Hasselbeck’s line in Seattle’s 2006 Super Bowl loss to the Steelers. Brady was worse, going 21-of-35 for just 262 yards with no touchdowns and an interception. Here’s that interception, a pass which came out of his hand wobbling like a punt kicked to make it tough for a returner to catch.

It was the first of Brady’s nine Super Bowl appearances in which he failed to throw for a touchdown. He certainly was more deserving of a ring last year—when he threw for a Super Bowl–record 505 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions but lost because his team’s defense couldn’t stop Nick Foles. It was only the third time in 19 games this year Brady failed to throw a touchdown, and the only time in which he also threw an interception.

Of course, nobody will care that Brady’s win tonight was a stunning dud at the tail end of an exceptional season and career. Nobody drags 37-year-old John Elway for putting up 123 yards with no touchdowns and a pick in Denver’s Super Bowl XXXII win, or 39-year-old Peyton Manning for putting up 141 yards with no touchdowns and a pick in Denver’s Super Bowl 50 win. (Denver: Where Hall of Fame QBs ride off into the sunset with weird, washed championships.) Brady deserves his unparalleled legacy. Sometimes, even the great ones get wins they don’t fully deserve.

Loser: Basically Any Human Who Watched This Game

I can tolerate bad things, but not dull things. And I can’t remember a duller Super Bowl than this one, a movie that featured the same plot as a bunch we’ve seen before, but significantly less action. It’s like if they decided to make a Taken 6, but in it Liam Neeson’s character just takes an 80-minute nap and runs errands before half-heartedly dispatching a few henchmen.

Sunday night’s game should have been a thriller. Los Angeles scored the second-most points in the league this season, and New England was fourth. Instead we got the lowest-scoring Super Bowl ever at just 16 points, smashing the previous record of 21 set all the way back in 1973. And this game didn’t even seem like it would have 16 points until late—the score was 3-3 at the end of the third quarter.

Great defense can be thrilling, when explosive pass rushers leave quarterbacks fearing every moment; when omnipresent defensive backs swoop in for logic-defying interceptions; when opportunistic ball hawks forcefully separate offensive players from the ball. Four drives ended in scores, two ended in turnovers, and 14 ended in punts. And both turnovers stemmed more from ghastly passes than breathtaking coverage. Let us not defame majestic waterfowl by saying this pass Jared Goff threw was a duck. Unlike this throw, ducks are quite good at flying.

Sunday night’s game wasn’t even fun like that. It seemed less about the opportunities each defense created and more about the ones each offense was too inept to seize.

And yet, this still could’ve been fun. I would’ve settled for a bad game if it meant we got some fresh experience—some new fan base experiencing the greatest thrill in sports, some new player whose legacy was made. Instead, the Patriots won. Brady is to football what Liam Neeson is to action movies, but this was his dullest performance yet.

Winner: Suspensions

For the second time in three seasons, a Patriots player won Super Bowl MVP after being suspended by the league to start the season. Two years ago it was Tom Brady, for smashing his cell phone with a hammer, or something—I never quite did find out what the exact reasoning was there. This year it was Julian Edelman, who was suspended for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. It was never quite explained what Edelman did—the league can’t formally say, it never leaked, and Edelman’s only comment was “I got to follow the protocols a little better.” But he admitted responsibility for whatever it was he did.

In a game devoid of offense, Edelman had a monster night. His 10 receptions are tied for the eighth most of all time in the Super Bowl, his 141 receiving yards are 11th most ever. No matter what coverage the Rams ran, Edelman got open. Often wiiiide open.

I highly recommend that players take performance-enhancing drugs. Best-case scenario, your performance is enhanced—it’s in the name!—and you never get caught. Worst-case scenario, you get suspended for four games like Edelman. Every football game is brutal on the human body—why not skip four and show up in October ready to win the Super Bowl? It’s worked for Brady and Edelman. The real performance enhancer was taking September off, giving Edelman the legs he needed to destroy the step-slow Rams in February.

Loser: Offensive Genius Sean McVay

The Sean McVay hype train screeched off the rails Sunday night. Before we talk about that, I’d like to make sure we still acknowledge that what McVay has done is still incredible: He took a moribund Rams franchise and in two years turned them into an offensive powerhouse capable of reaching the Super Bowl. The 36 games we’ve seen him coach over the past two years should receive more weight than the one dud he just put up.

OK, now that that’s out of the way: How did a team coached by Schemey McScoresalot just put up ONE OF THE WORST OFFENSIVE GAMES IN SUPER BOWL HISTORY? Three points! Back in the 1960s, when quarterbacks smoked cigarettes on the sideline and wide receivers showed up hungover? They scored more points. Back in the 1970s, when everybody thought you had to run the ball 50 times a game and quarterbacks threw three picks in wins? They scored more points.

There’s no other way to say it: McVay was outcoached tonight. Take it from Sean McVay, who remembers every football play he’s ever seen and summarized tonight’s win by saying, “There’s no other way to say it, but I got outcoached tonight.”

It’s not just that McVay lost, but that he so dramatically failed in exactly the department where he’s been widely lauded for his success, and that will make the backlash even harsher. Bill Belichick just hollered IS THIS YOUR OFFENSE KING??? and hurled Sean McVay off a 20,000-foot-high waterfall.

Winner: Red Zone Offense

Enough about the bad offense. We’re done talking about it. Why don’t we focus on the positives? Like the fact that every single play either team ran in the red zone tonight was a touchdown. Here’s the first red zone play of the night, a smashmouth bash by the Patriots to get Sony Michel into the end zone from the 2-yard line.

Here’s the second red zone play of the night:

OK, it turns out the two teams got into the red zone only one time. The Rams never made it closer than the 26-yard line, and the Patriots had drives that stalled on the 24- and 28-yard lines but had only the one trip inside the 20. Michel’s touchdown was the only one of the night—congrats, by the way, to anybody who bet the under.

But still: Michel’s score proved that the Patriots had a killer goal-line offense. They just didn’t get near the goal line often.

Loser: SpongeBob

This Super Bowl didn’t just have the lowest-scoring game ever. It also had the lowest-scoring halftime show ever. No, there’s no way of objectively tallying how many points Maroon 5 put on the scoreboard, but Maroon 5’s performance absolutely mirrored the game. Bad things can still be enjoyable, but this one was also dull. Maroon 5 didn’t try anything interesting enough to be termed a fumble. They just punted 14 times.

Their biggest boot: failing to come through on an apparent promise to please the internet with a performance of a song from SpongeBob SquarePants. In one SpongeBob episode, the titular invertebrate performs a song, “Sweet Victory,” at an undersea version of the Super Bowl halftime show. After the November death of the show’s creator, an online campaign to get Maroon 5 to perform the song sprang up and became stunningly popular. Even more stunningly, the band seemed to embrace the premise: When SpongeBob showed up in the trailer for Maroon 5’s set, it was widely assumed that they would play the song.

Instead, this is what happened:

Maroon 5 didn’t play the song; neither did SpongeBob. There was a brief snippet of pre-taped animation, and after 10 seconds, the diversion was over. Anybody who didn’t know there was a SpongeBob tribute planned was utterly confused; anybody who expected “Sweet Victory” was disappointed.

Why did any of this happen? Nobody expected Maroon 5 to dedicate any of their set to a song from an 20-year-old cartoon. Why did they need to do that? To appease the signees of a petition whose signees made up a minuscule portion of the Super Bowl halftime show’s total audience? Instead of pleasing those people, they just upset them. Never promise something to the internet if you have no intention of delivering. Nobody would’ve remembered the SpongeBob petition if it had been ignored; everybody involved will remember how Maroon 5 acted as if they might follow through, only to disappoint.

Winner: Gladys Knight and Degenerates

You know who was much better than Maroon 5? Sunday night’s national anthem singer, Gladys Knight. She was the perfect performer for so many reasons that Maroon 5 weren’t—unlike Maroon 5, she’s a bona fide legend. Unlike Maroon 5, she’s from Atlanta. Unlike Maroon 5, she accurately sang all the notes she was supposed to sing. (Jon Gruden voice: I call Adam Levine the speed option, because every once in a while, the guy’s a bit pitchy.)

Knight’s performance of the national anthem was simultaneously beautiful and powerful—and perhaps most importantly, it made people a lot of money. The length of the national anthem is perpetually one of America’s favorite prop bets—no protesting during the anthem! Only illegal gambling is OK!—and some books had the over/under on Knight’s anthem set at 1:50. Sunday night, she sang the anthem in a little over two minutes—but that’s only because she ended the song by repeating the “the brave.” Most sportsbooks specify that the anthem is considered over at the end of the first “brave,” and with that consideration, Knight took just 1:49.5 to sing the anthem.

One sportsbook, BetOnline, decided to pay out both sides of the bet. It’s actually a great decision for the book—sure, they’ll lose a lot of money now, but Super Bowl prop bets aren’t about making money for these sportsbooks. They’re about convincing the slew of first-time bettors giving gambling a shot while watching the most popular sporting event of the year that gambling is a fun, lucrative activity. Every sportsbook puts out a decent helping of Super Bowl props that are easy to win—and they’ll make that money back when newly birthed degenerates decide to try their luck betting actual lines next season. But for tonight, everybody who got to watch Knight’s incredible anthem won—literally.

Winner: The 2008 Oregon State Punting Competition

For all the failure on Sunday night, there were two players who were nearly perfect: the punters. Johnny Hekker blasted the longest punt in Super Bowl history, a 65-yard miracle that boomed toward the left sideline then veered right to avoid going out of bounds:

Last week I wrote about how Hekker is legitimately the best punter in football history, and he had a great game Sunday night. But he was arguably outperformed by Ryan Allen, his Patriots counterpart. Allen punted five times, and stuck three of those within the Rams’ 10-yard line. Here’s a 49-yard kick of his that spun backward to pin the Rams at the 2-yard line:

It’s legitimately not that crazy to argue Allen should have been the game’s MVP. The Rams actually had 260 yards of offense—not that many, but way more than you’d expect for a team with just three points. There have been 72 games in the past five NFL seasons in which a team scored three or fewer points, and in 52 of them, the team had fewer than 260 yards. Allen’s punts put the Rams in a position that even though they gained yardage, they still never entered the red zone.

The amazing thing? Allen and Hekker briefly played together in college. They were brought on as walk-ons at Oregon State and competed for the starting job and a scholarship. Hekker won and Allen left. Somehow, both punters on one forgettable college team were so brilliant they wound up having dominant competing performances in the Super Bowl. We will never see another punting competition like the one the 2008 Oregon State Beavers had. Then again, we’ll never see any punting competitions, because most of us don’t spend our time watching college punters practice.

Loser: Brandin Cooks

Poor Brandin Cooks. He’s just the third player in the history of the sport to lose two Super Bowls in two years with two different teams. Last year he played for the Patriots and got knocked out of the game with a concussion early in the second quarter, having to sit out as New England lost a title.

But this year, Cooks could’ve changed the game. Cooks had two opportunities to catch touchdowns and missed both. In the third quarter, Goff had Cooks wide open in the end zone with a chance to connect on a go-ahead score. But Goff threw an ugly ball that hung in the air long enough for cornerback Jason McCourty to recover and jar the ball loose:

In the fourth quarter, Goff once again had Cooks en route to the end zone—and this time, Cooks was hounded by two defenders and couldn’t come down with the ball.

These were two tough plays for Cooks. Both times, Cooks was under heavy duress, and neither throw was on target. But still: The Rams had zero touchdowns and came close only twice—on two passes to Cooks. Both of them literally slipped through the wide receiver’s hands, and instead those two drives ended with a field goal and an interception. The plays were hard to make, but Cooks has to know that if he managed to make them, he’d be a world champion right now.

Loser: The Saddest Field Goal

Every decision Sean McVay made Sunday night failed, but his last was the saddest. Down 13-3 with eight seconds left, McVay sent out his field goal unit onto the field to attempt a 48-yarder. I suppose the logic was sound—the Rams needed a touchdown and another score, and attempting to get the touchdown from the 30-yard line might take more than eight seconds. Their only hope was to kick a field goal, which takes about five seconds, recover an onside kick in about a second, and attempt a miracle play after the clock expired.

But the field goal attempt served another, more achievable goal. The Rams were about to tie the record for fewest points in a Super Bowl. Their chances of winning were slim, but they could at least avoid the ignominy of being the worst ever.

Greg Zuerlein missed. It was sad enough that attempting the field goal was sure to make the Rams the second-ever team to be held out of the end zone in the Super Bowl. But they couldn’t even achieve their sad goal.