When we look back on the 2018 season, I believe it will be characterized as one of the most entertaining years in league history. We had high-scoring shootout affairs, some of the league’s best parity in its history, some controversy and even *gasp* the Cleveland Browns got in on the fun. While the officiating left much to be desired, the product on the field was entertaining. Even if you knew nothing about the game, you could appreciate the excitement of that Rams/Chiefs Monday night game that more resembled an NCAA basketball score than an NFL one. However, even though we were treated to some outstanding defensive performances throughout the season, the league’s regular season results seem to hint that it’s all about offense these days and football purists were left wanting. To win in the new NFL, it appeared you had to keep pace with the new age offenses of the Rams, Chiefs and Saints.
The public loved it, football went from a grind it out chess match to passes mimicking the punching power and volume of Ivan Drago vs. Rocky Balboa, each one appearing to have the ability to knock the competition out cold. It was accessible to the common fan whose only required prerequisite knowledge of football was to know what a touchdown was and that a no look pass is pretty friggin’ cool. This, however, was not quality football. There are three phases to the game of football; offense, defense and special teams and more often than not, the offense outshined the other two thirds and it seemed defenses were still chasing offenses to catch up schematically in 2018/19 . Buried deep beneath the mountain of tweets glorifying games like the Rams/Chiefs were a minority of football purists calling those games exactly what they were, terrible defensive efforts and awful displays of the game as it was meant to be played.
Some might argue that Super Bowl LIII could be characterized as a poor offensive effort and if the game was just about the box score, they might be right, but the nature of competition is one team or one phase of the game has to outperform the other. Someone had to not be perfect on Sunday night for the game not to end in a tie. There is also a clear-cut difference between offenses running wild scoring behind secondaries as they did in that exciting Monday night affair where it seemed the defense wasn’t even on the field and a game in which guys appeared, at least for a second, to be wide open before a defensive back would make a miraculous play on the ball. Twice the Rams looked to have the Pats on the ropes with the biggest plays of the night, only to have balls swatted out of the sky at the last second. The Rams picked off Tom Brady’s first pass of the night after the pass was defended and tipped into the air.
Both defensive lines got after it. Stunts used by both teams caused issues for the offensive line up front, it wasn’t as if offensive linemen were just losing battles to guys straight up. Rushers were schemed open. The Patriots got to Rams quarterback Jared Goff on key downs and made plays when they needed to. At the start of the game it appeared Ndamukong Suh and the Rams defensive line could and would get to Brady, but halftime adjustments seemed to buy Brady the time he needed. The punt units for both teams were spectacular, routinely pinning one another with their backs to their own end zone. In what appeared to be a surefire short field and a high probability opportunity for the Pats for the games first touchdown, the Rams set a Super Bowl record when Johnny Hekker launched an absolute rocket of a punt for 65 yards. Kickers and punters proved precisely why they are needed in the sport of football last night. If the Rams won, Hekker had a case for MVP, in fact, both punters did.
As far as the offenses go, there’s a pretty simple explanation as to why the offenses appeared to struggle. We gave the two best minds in football right now a season’s worth of film and two weeks to prepare for an opponent and were surprised they knew nearly every move the other would make early on. These two coaches also spoke to each other and shared information on a weekly basis and lastly, the Rams feature former Patriots Brandin Cooks and Aqib Talib. Two people very familiar and with intimate knowledge of the Patriots base offense. This game was going to come down to half time adjustments and as history has shown, that is the Patriots wheelhouse.
The game was stripped of everything that was attractive, flashy and accessible to the common fan and it came down to who could make halftime adjustments to run the football, continue playing great defense and win the field position game with excellent punt coverage (a Bill Belichick staple). Coach Belichick went old school to beat Sean McVay’s new school, at one point running a split back wing formation that resembled the Wing T and running buck sweep, a play popularized in the 1960s that no doubt came from the library of forgotten football texts he keeps in his home office. James Develin, a man whose position is an afterthought in the NFL showcased vintage iso blocking as the fullback in many of New England’s two back sets.
It wasn’t like the Rams went quietly either. I have watched Todd Gurley all year and thought to myself, “No one can keep this volume of production up, at some point it will catch up.” It couldn’t have at a worse time for the Rams as the playoffs loomed. They did, however, fall into success with C.J. Anderson, who experienced a nice resurgence in his career. He ran hard in Super Bowl LIII, but when Gurley is healthy there’s absolutely no comparison. A C.J Anderson 8-9 yard gain sometimes looks like a run where Gurley hits his head on the goal post. To fault the Rams offense when they were without, in my opinion the person who deserved Offensive Player of the Year is an unfair sleight. As far as receivers are concerned, as mentioned before, guys were open for the Rams in the second half and they made it scary at times for Patriots fans. It seemed, however, like any key down McVay had a receiver dialed up appearing to be open, a Pats defensive back would be there to make a play. How can anyone fault the Rams offense or McVay when they had their deep threat Brandin Cooks wide open, dead to rights in the end zone, only to have Jason McCourty of the Patriots sprint 20 yards out of position to deflect the pass at the last second? The plays were there for the Rams, unfortunately, so were the Patriots. There’s no play in anyone’s playbook to negate a hustle play like McCourty’s and defensive backs for the Patriots made plays like that all night.
When it mattered most, New England did what New England has been known to do for what seems like forever: find a way and make plays with the guys who have made plays for them for over a decade. Brady, Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski shined and the Patriots offensive line got it done on the touchdown drive with lanes you could drive a truck through. Gronk appeared to resemble someone’s first car, a beater that made great memories and still had a trip or two left. Edelman was in the intermediate part of the field where he always is and the line bought brady time to make the throws he needed to make. Sony Michel introduced himself into Patriot’s lore as did Rex Burkhead. When push comes to shove, the Patriots showed up and Patriot’d so hard that you just have to appreciate it as a lover of the game.
Is it exciting to watch teams exchange touchdown after touchdown? It sure is, but when you have the two best teams in the NFL going at it, they’re going to take away the strengths of the opposition and make every point be earned. It seemed like there was a changing of the guard happening earlier this year in regards to how games can be won and it may be true for the regular season but to be successful in the playoffs and the Super Bowl when it’s the best vs. the best you still have to run the football, play defense, win the field position battle and adapt at halftime. This was the game the way you played it in the backyard with your friends when you were a kid, a steady dose of nostalgia and purity, it wasn’t the game at its worst, it was football and it’s many nuances at it’s finest.