If you had told six year old me in 1986 after the Patriots got blown out by the Chicago Bears in the Super Bowl that they'd become the greatest franchise in NFL history some day, I probably wouldn't have understood what you meant. If you'd then told sixteen year old me in 1996 the same thing after the loss to the Green Bay Packers, I probably would have laughed in your face. We were happy just to have made it to the game again. Twenty-one year old me in 2001 was just so happy to have won the first title that I wouldn't have cared to look eighteen years into the future. But now? Now, in 2019, after ELEVEN Super Bowl appearances and SIX titles? I've seen them all with my own eyes and I still don't believe it, but after last night's 13-3 victory over the Los Angeles Rams, the New England Patriots are six-time champions and unequivocally the greatest franchise in NFL history.
Heading into the playoffs and then the Super Bowl, the Patriots were playing their best football of the season and had improbably beaten the top team in the AFC, the Chiefs, in Kansas City. They shut down the number one offense in the NFL by playing their best defensive game of the season. However, leading up to the Super Bowl there was some worry, including from me, about how they would match up against the Rams. LA had the second highest scoring offense in the league after the Chiefs and a fearsome defense led by twin beasts on the line in Aaron Donald (the Defensive Player of the Year) and Ndamukong Suh. This was a defense unlike the weak one in Kansas City that Brady and the Patriots offense shredded to the tune of 37 points. Still, the New England offense was pretty potent itself this season and the prevailing wisdom was that we'd probably see a high scoring game. In the Guy Boston Sports Super Bowl Roundtable from last week I predicted a 31-21 Patriots victory. I thought this would finally be the year the Pats would win by a margin greater than three or four points. I ended up being right about the ten point margin, but nothing else in the game went the way I or anyone else guessed.
I won't get into the minute details of the game, but this was simultaneously the strangest and yet most satisfying Patriots Super Bowl victory of the entire run. First was the bookending feel of it, beating the Rams for the second time during the dynasty, seventeen years to the day they defeated them the first time. There was, of course, the larger margin of victory although the game was still very much in question until the final few minutes. Everything else that happened was wacky, though. Both defenses played incredibly well, with the Patriots in particular playing with a ferocity and tenacity that carried over from the last month. (As an aside, if Bill Belichick's defensive game plan in the first Rams Super Bowl was his greatest, then this one has to rank number two). The defense kept Jared Goff and the Rams offense off-kilter and rendered them ineffective all night. They neutralized Todd Gurley (who seemed to be getting the Malcolm Butler treatment from Sean McVay) and CJ Anderson and other than old friend Brandin Cooks who made a few nice catches, completely shut down the passing game, too. They harried and hurried Goff all night, sacking him and knocking him around to the point that he was feeling the pressure before it was even there. As for the Pats, they moved the ball pretty well on offense considering how tough that Rams defense was, but for some reason their drives kept fizzling out. The first drive ended with a brutal Tom Brady interception and another ended with a missed Stephen Gostkowski field goal. I don't think anybody would've predicted a 3-0 Patriots lead at halftime and I don't think a 3-3 game midway through the fourth quarter was on anyone's radar either. Julian Edelman, the eventual Super Bowl MVP, was unstoppable all game and it was around the nine-minute mark in the fourth quarter than the Patriots finally uncorked two championship drives. The first one saw Brady hit Edelman, Rex Burkhead, and Rob Gronkowski for big gains before Sony Michel scored the game's lone touchdown for a 10-3 lead. Then, after Stephon Gilmore's clutch interception of Goff at the Patriots four-yard line with four minutes left, Brady marched the offense down the field for a Gostkowski field goal to make it a two-score game at 13-3. The defense made one last stand (on a drive where the Rams strangely showed no sense of urgency) and the game was over. Ring number SIX for Belichick, Brady, and the Patriots.
This year's title has to be, along with the first one in 2001, the most improbable of the entire dynasty. I certainly didn't think they had it in them this season; last season's team should have won it all and the loss to the Eagles kicked off the most bizarre and tumultuous offseason of the last twenty years. The huge roster turnover and the sluggish start to this season didn't help, and two brutal last-second losses in a row in December led me (and others...it wasn't just me!) to conclude this wasn't the year. From there, we know what happened and it culminated with this latest title. With this sixth title, the Patriots are now tied with the Pittsburgh Steelers for the most Super Bowl championships in NFL history. Despite this, I think it can be safely said without a doubt that the Patriots are now the greatest franchise in league history. They've won all six of these titles in a league with a hard salary cap that is designed for mediocrity. The NFL is set up for every team to go 8-8 every season (in theory) such that any team can win the Super Bowl in any given year. For the Patriots to have gone to THIRTEEN AFC Championship games, NINE Super Bowls, and won SIX of them in the last eighteen years is mind boggling. They've won more for a longer sustained period of time and in a league set up to make that sort of thing impossible. (Remember, the Steelers won their first four titles in the 1970s in a league full of rampant steroid use, no drug testing, no salary cap, and no rules limiting what defenses could do). The Patriots have also done it all with the same head coach and quarterback. It all adds up to something that has never been done before in the NFL and never will be again. (And remember again, what the Steelers did wasn't so unique...a decade later, the San Francisco 49ers also won four titles in a decade). I've watched every game of this run of dominance, and I still don't believe what I've seen. Savor it, enjoy it, celebrate it, because like I said a couple of weeks ago, this is not normal and it's something we're never going to see again once it's over.