Will the ninth time be the charm for an unprecedented sixth Super Bowl ring for Belichick and Brady?
Love them or hate them, the New England Patriots have established an NFL dynasty that may never be matched in the salary cap era. Defeating the Kansas City Chiefs on the road Sunday earned them a fourth Super Bowl bid in the past five seasons and the team’s ninth with Bill Belichick as head coach. Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady will now go for their sixth Super Bowl ring 17 years to the day after they earned their first, coming against the same team they’ll face a second time down in Atlanta.
Of course, the Rams are hardly the same in terms of personnel since that fateful Super Bowl in 2002; they don’t even play in the same city anymore. Not a single player that played for the franchise then remains on the Rams; head coach Sean McVay was in high school when that game happened. Rams quarterback Jared Goff? He was in second grade.
That type of longevity is what makes these Patriots, Belichick and Brady one of the game’s all-time greats. It’s also experience that leaves them well-positioned to win the Super Bowl, yet again, in a game where they’ve opened as 1.5-point favorites.
5 Reasons Why The New England Patriots Will Win Super Bowl LIII
1. A resurgent running game
Saquon Barkley may be getting all the buzz as the best new running back this season but Sony Michel made a case of his own during these playoffs. Michel just trampled over the Chiefs in the first half of the AFC Championship, finishing with 113 rushing yards and two touchdowns despite inexplicably sitting unused for much of the fourth quarter and overtime. (It was Rex Burkhead, not Michel, who scored the game-winning touchdown and had a number of key runs in the Patriots' final two offensive drives.)
But the fact the Patriots could switch out Burkhead and get the same effectiveness shows you the state of their run game. Michel has now put together back-to-back 100-yard performances against two AFC playoff teams; he has three 100-yard games in his last four. (That puts him one behind Barkley’s 2018 benchmark of four straight.)
While the Rams have buckled down in the playoffs this is still the same defense that ranked just 23rd overall during the regular season. On offense, their own rushing attack is questionable with the health of Todd Gurley II a major concern after he was used sparingly in the NFC Championship.
2. An unheralded offensive line
The Patriots’ line paved the way for a 41-year-old Tom Brady to make magic in the late stages of their comeback win against the Chiefs. During two postseason games, Brady has yet to be sacked. That’s right; zero sacks from a Chiefs defense that tied for the league lead with 52 during the regular season.
Not one of these linemen were selected to the Pro Bowl but rising from virtual anonymity is how the Patriots have done it all these years. The group of David Andrews, Marcus Cannon, Joe Thuney, Shaq Mason and Trent Brown have an average of just 4.6 years of experience between them. But this quintet is growing up at the right time and provided Brady some extra comfort to make key throws down the stretch, especially on third downs.
3. Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman
Speaking of third downs, both Gronkowski and Edelman were money when it mattered, although the latter dodged one potential, game-changing mistake. Two key throws to Edelman kept alive the overtime drive before Gronkowski stepped in to set up the Patriots near the goal line. That duo appears to be all the Patriots need, although Chris Hogan had a key third-down catch himself in the fourth quarter.
Edelman was stopped just short of 100 yards in the AFC Championship one week after going for nine catches and 151 yards in the convincing win over the Chargers. He’s Brady’s most reliable target and has had a chip on his shoulder after his four-game suspension reminiscent of his quarterback’s time away a few years ago. Edelman did get a mulligan when an apparent fumble on a muffed punt return about midway through the fourth quarter was overturned on replay. Brady threw an interception two plays later on a ball that, ironically, bounced off of Edelman's fingertips.
But otherwise as a receiver Edelman came through, hauling in seven of his 10 targets. And when No. 11 was covered? Gronk lined up on the outside and delivered after a season that increasingly appears to be his last. But a creaky, hobbled tight end from years of injuries pulled one out of the hat in the AFC Championship. Seemingly every one of his six catches was a game-changer but it was his blocking that was the real secret weapon, opening up even more running lanes for Michel, Burkhead and James White.
Once again, a Rams defense that allowed 23 points to the Saints’ many talented offensive pieces will struggle to stop a “healthier” Gronk. And if it’s the tight end’s last game ever? He won’t hold back.
4. A defense that pressures the quarterback
The Rams' offensive line has been almost as good as the Patriots'; Jared Goff has been sacked just once during the postseason. But it’s hard to see that number staying low with the Pats’ numbers against the speedy NFL MVP candidate Patrick Mahomes. Their four sacks of the young quarterback included one that pushed them out of field goal range late in the first half, a score that would have potentially made the difference.
Weirdly enough, the Rams and Patriots have the same turnover margin during the postseason, coming out even. But who do you trust heading to Atlanta? The 24-year-old Goff, playing in his first Super Bowl without two major weapons at 100 percent? (Gurley and deep threat Cooper Kupp, out for the season with a torn ACL?) Or do you trust the guy in Brady that’s been there more times (nine) than Goff's age (seven) when Brady won his first ring?
That leads us to...
This duo got beat at their own game last year, Nick Foles and the Philadelphia Eagles using the underdog mantra and dog masks to waltz their way to an epic Super Bowl victory. It’s the first time Belichick-Brady has been beaten in the big game by a team other than Eli Manning and the New York Giants.
Since then, it’s felt like the Patriots have had the odds stacked against them. A bizarre, game-ending miracle play against the Miami Dolphins robbed them of home-field advantage. Eleven wins were their fewest since 2009; inconsistent play dogged both sides of the ball. It all added up to the Patriots being labeled an underdog on the road in the AFC Championship for the first time in what felt like forever.
But that’s when the mastery of Brady and Belichick turned on. The underdog mantra became a rallying cry in the locker room, most famously by Edelman and his #BetAgainstUs shirts. Then, both quarterback and coach came to play. Belichick and his coaches had perhaps their most inspiring performance during the postseason in years Sunday; the variety and gustiness of play-calling kept the Chiefs' defense off guard all night. Remember, the staff was so aggressive they tried to win the game through a flea-flicker with time ticking down in the fourth quarter! Who does that?
Through it all, there was the steady hand of Brady. Sure, he’s had his rough moments this year; an interception in the end zone was the type of mistake he typically doesn’t make (and might have put the game away in the first half). But when it mattered, with the game on the line Brady brought that team down three straight times and scored. His stat line on those drives (taking away the one kneel down to force overtime): 5-for-6 on third down, no sacks taken, 21 points scored. That’s all that matters.
And it’s the type of gritty performance that offers a storybook ending to the 41-year-old 17 years after his first ring. Perhaps the real question is, if the Patriots win again, will Brady choose to retire with the storybook seemingly as complete as it can possibly be?
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.