ATLANTA – It’s a shame more football fans can’t appreciate the historic beauty in how ugly the Patriots’ defense made the Rams look offensively in Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday.
The NFL began playing a championship game in 1933. There were 33 of those before 53 Super Bowls were held. So that’s 86 title games. And only one of those 86 champions won with fewer than the 13 points the Patriots did while posting the largest margin of victory (10 points) in their six Super Bowl wins.
Or, as Tom Brady said amid all the whining about the lack of points, “How about our defense, man! How about our defense!”
One has to go back to Dec. 19, 1948, at old Shibe Park in Philadelphia to find the only NFL champion crowned with fewer points that the Patriots were. And it took what’s remembered as the “Philly Blizzard” to halt both offenses as the Eagles beat the Chicago Cardinals 7-0.
The 1948 season was a statistical anomaly for the era. In a 10-team league, the average point total for one game was a record 46.5. Not until 2013 (46.8) would that mark be broken.
This year, the NFL averaged 46.7 points per game, No. 2 all-time. It also set records for touchdowns (1,371), passing TDs (847), completion percentage (64.9), passer rating (92.9), average per rush (4.42), quarterbacks with a 100-plus passer rating (eight), receivers with 100 catches (11) and teams averaging 30 or more points (three).
In other words, a Patriots team immune to the NFL’s laws of parity kept doing what it wasn’t supposed to do. It finished the season beating the top two scoring teams — Kansas City (35.3) and the Rams (32.9) — while shutting both of them out in the first half.
“It’s 11 guys, man,” safety Devin McCourty said. “There was no God that did it all. It was 11 guys all day.”
With today’s rule book tilted heavily in favor of the offense, the Super Bowl came down to defense. Had the Rams made a few more plays or found an answer for game MVP Julian Edelman, we’d be talking about 71-year-old defensive coordinator Wade Phillips pitching his second Super Bowl masterpiece with a second team in four seasons.
But let’s talk more about Bill Belichick and how his defense did what it did.
• For the first time in 40 postseason starts, Brady’s first pass was intercepted. But the defense forced a three-and-out. It would be the first of eight consecutive Rams possessions ending in fewer than five plays, a punt and no third-down conversions in eight tries.
• With 4:56 left in the first half, Rams quarterback Jared Goff ran play-action, something the Rams did a league-high 35 percent of the time this year. But the Patriots had already taken away the outside zone runs and appeared to anticipate that Goff would run play-action. In a third-and-2 situation, they played both safeties deep in Cover 2 and blitzed. Goff never had a chance as he turned to throw, and linebacker Kyle Van Noy sacked him for a 14-yard loss.
• The Patriots turned the ball over on downs, giving Los Angeles the ball with 1:12 left in the half and two timeouts. Ignoring the play-action once again, New England got a first-down sack and forced another three-and-out. Goff had 52 yards passing at the half, the second-fewest in a half in his career behind the 27 Belichick held him to in his rookie season.
• The Patriots played more zone than they showed while leading the league with 54 percent man coverage. The execution wasn’t flawless. During one blown coverage, Rams receiver Brandin Cooks was wide open in the end zone. Pressure on Goff prevented him from spotting it right away. By the time he launched the ball, McCourty had time to spot the mistake and race into the end zone, arriving just in time to hit Cook’s arm and break up the pass.
• On a day when Belichick turned up the stunts and extra pressure on Goff, he essentially ended the game with an all-out, cover zero blitz that caused Goff to panic and throw the ball up for grabs near the goal line. New England cornerback Stephon Gilmore came down with the ball.
“Their coverage principles were definitely mixed compared to what they put on tape,” Rams coach Sean McVay said. “I know I definitely have a lot to learn from this one. But that is one of the things that makes them so great.”
It’s a shame more fans can’t appreciate that the Rams were ugly, because the Patriots were historically beautiful on defense.
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org