During the buildup to Super Bowl 53, the football world was in a retrospective mood. The nature of the New England Patriots’ nearly two-decade run since the arrival of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in 2000 meant there were the basic totals to tally. With his ninth Super Bowl appearance, Brady eclipsed the number of times any other franchise had made it to the championship game, and with another victory, he’d become the only quarterback to win six titles. But the Patriots’ players seemed also to sense—or invent—a pattern of doubt outside their locker room. A shirt sold by the wide receiver Julian Edelman during the playoff run featured a defiant-looking version of the New England logo emblazoned with the phrase “Bet Against Us.” Before the team jet left Foxborough for Atlanta, Brady led fans in chanting, “We’re still here!”
The skeptics were hard to identify, exactly; the Patriots were two-and-a-half-point favorites over the Los Angeles Rams. What few there may have been were proved wrong as New England won, 13–3. In retrospect, that drumming up of detractors seems like an attempt to fill a narrative vacuum—one that Sunday’s game exposed in full. The Patriots have spent the better part of the 21st century as the most successful franchise in pro football, with a quarterback and a coach uniquely suited to adapting to a sport in flux. Over four low-scoring and inevitable-feeling quarters, the Super Bowl simply confirmed them as such.
For the most part, the game was a slog; reading the statistics is almost as interesting as it was watching the events unfold. The only scoring in the first half came on a field goal from New England’s Stephen Gostkowski, and the Rams’ first eight possessions ended in punts. Until the fourth quarter, things kept to a pattern. Los Angeles got the ball and promptly gave it up; New England got the ball, held on to it marginally longer and advanced it marginally farther, and then sent it back L.A.’s way.
With just under 10 minutes left and the score tied at 3—“It’s the first Super Bowl ever without a touchdown through three quarters,” CBS’s Jim Nantz had noted earlier, doing his best to render the tedium historic—Brady slipped into his now-familiar mode. He floated a short pass to the tight end Rob Gronkowski, who rumbled for 18 yards, then fired the ball to Edelman in the middle of the field for 13 more. On a second down on the Rams’ 31-yard line, with the first palpable momentum of the evening behind him, Brady arced a deep throw to a tightly covered Gronkowski, who hauled it in at the two. A touchdown quickly ensued, then an interception of the Rams quarterback Jared Goff, then a clock-bleeding New England drive that ended in a field goal to put things out of reach. “It wasn’t pretty,” Edelman, the Super Bowl MVP, said afterward, “but we’ll take an ugly win over a pretty loss any day.”
It is tempting, after any championship, to draw ironclad conclusions, to isolate some title-worthy trait of the winning team. This is doubly true in the NFL, where success fosters unabashed mimicry. The Rams’ turnaround under the 33-year-old Sean McVay, who in two seasons built a 4–12 team into the Super Bowl runner-up, has inspired the hiring of a slew of young, offensive-minded head coaches over the past month. Former Belichick lieutenants have long dotted the coaching ranks, as rival organizations look to co-opt the “Patriot way.”
This championship, though, reaffirmed that New England’s success is not reducible to any one style of play or strategic principle. Sunday’s was the lowest-scoring title game in NFL history, coming two years after the biggest championship comeback ever. The Patriots have featured stalwart defenses and borderline unrealistic offenses; they have favored the run and the pass. Sometimes these shifts have happened from season to season, sometimes from week to week. The team that scored touchdowns on five of its first six possessions in a divisional-round rout of the Los Angeles Chargers was entirely dissimilar, in everything but the final outcome, to the one that played in the Super Bowl.
Beyond the hoarding of Lombardi trophies, the most frustrating aspect of the Patriots’ dominance, for the rest of the NFL, may be that it offers little by way of a blueprint. The discernible constant is also the element that can’t be replicated; the Patriots still have arguably the greatest coach and quarterback in NFL history. If other teams’ successes tend to reflect some certain advantage—a high-octane aerial attack or imposing defensive front—Belichick and Brady have a gift for adjustment. On Sunday night, Belichick engineered a defense that had graded out in the middle of the pack throughout the season to stop the second-highest-scoring team in football. Brady, after three quarters spent similarly stymied, spotted his opportunity and led the crucial drives.
In some ways, the analyst’s challenge mirrors that of the Patriots’ opponents. How do you say something insightful about a team that resists any particular insight, whose only pattern is change, whose genius resides in its impossibility to pin down? In the closing moments, after the late field goal had pushed New England’s lead out of reach, the CBS analyst Tony Romo tried for a summary. He had garnered plaudits in recent weeks for his spot-on play predictions, but here he could be accurate only in a more abstract way. “They’ve been here; they’ve been in so many close games. They just”—Romo paused, searching for the phrase—“know how to do it.”
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