Over the Patriots’ nearly two decades under Bill Belichick, every year seems to follow a familiar pattern—from the concerns of the offseason through a firm sense of identity and purpose as January approaches. This week The MMQB examines New England’s 2018 season in four parts, Tuesday through Friday, from the perspective of that now-familiar narrative, and what it means for the Patriots’ ninth Super Bowl appearance of the Brady-Belichick era. Previously:
ATLANTA — The turning point came in the visitors’ locker room at Heinz Field, on a dark December evening when daylight was running short and, for the first time in a long time, it felt like so might be the Patriots’ season.
It wasn’t just that the Patriots had lost to the Steelers, 17-10. They’d also lost the week before, in Miami, on the Dolphins’ hook-and-ladder walk-off touchdown that was so improbable it was given its own name, the Miami Miracle. The Patriots just don’t lose two in a row very often: Since Tom Brady became New England’s starting quarterback in Week 3 of the 2001 season, the Patriots have only followed up a loss with another loss a dozen times. Two of those 12 occasions happened in 2018.
And this Steelers loss was ugly, full of the self-inflicted wounds that are also atypical of the Patriots. They were penalized 14 times for 106 yards; eight of those came before the snap, which are particularly groan-worthy. For the second straight week, the Patriots whiffed on an opportunity to clinch the AFC East. New England played the underdog card plenty this postseason, but the truth is, at that point in the year, even the Patriots didn’t quite feel like the Patriots.
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“It would have been easy for us as a team to say, ‘Ah man, we just don’t have it this year, can’t win on the road, not getting any breaks,’ ” says Matthew Slater, team captain and special teams ace. “We could have packed it in.”
It surprises no one in the Patriots’ locker room that Slater stepped in, right then and there. He didn’t wait until they got back to Foxborough. At the lowest point of the season, he told his teammates they had a choice.
“I remember him saying, it’s up to us,” says right guard Shaq Mason. “We could feel sorry for ourselves or rise to the occasion. It was a moment that needed to be had.”
What happened from there? The Patriots began playing their best football at the most important part of the season. The following week, they rolled over the Bills with 273 rushing yards. They got a little help, too, when the Texans lost to the Eagles, putting the Patriots back in position for their routine first-round bye with a Week 17 win against the Jets.
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Then they came out in the divisional round game against the Chargers, took the ball after winning the opening coin toss rather than deferring to the second half, and promptly drained nearly half of the first quarter with a 14-play, 83-yard touchdown drive. Twelve of the plays on that march involved the running back touching the ball, either on a handoff or a short pass. On Sony Michel’s 1-yard touchdown run, the Patriots lined up with an extra offensive tackle, two tight ends and two backs, and Michel plunged into the end zone on a power play with fullback James Develin bulldozing a path behind blocks by tight end Rob Gronkowski and left tackle Trent Brown.
Brown described the feeling in that playoff game as “imposing your will” on the Chargers defense, and getting in their opponents’ minds, to where “maybe they want to think about coming on the field.” A week later the Patriots opened up the AFC Championship Game in similar fashion: An eight-minute, 80-yard drive with 10 run plays, capped by another 1-yard Michel TD run. “Once you have success running the ball, it definitely irritates the defense,” Mason adds.
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The Patriots have averaged 165.5 rushing yards per game this postseason, more than any other team except for their opponent in Super Bowl LIII, the Rams, who have been picking up 175 yards per game during the playoffs. This NFL season has seemed to be all about passing, and yes, Brady passed for 348 yards against the Chiefs after the conference championship turned into a shootout in the fourth quarter and overtime. But one of the biggest reasons the Patriots are still playing, in February, is that they have remade their identity this season as … a power running team?
“How about that?” says Slater, the third-longest tenured Patriots player behind only Brady and kicker Stephen Gostkowski. “I don’t know if we have ever done it like we are doing it this year. Everyone has really bought into, Hey, this is kind of our thing, we are good at it, let’s embrace it. It starts with Tom buying in, and he’s sent that message throughout the ranks: We are going to run the ball. We are going to do whatever we need to win.”
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Some of it may be zigging when other teams are zagging. But the Patriots had a plan for this—just look at some of their offseason moves. During this year’s NFL draft they used their two first-round picks on offensive tackle Isaiah Wynn (now on IR with a torn Achilles) and Michel; they also added Brown, the league's largest left tackle at 6’’8”, 380 pounds, in a draft-weekend trade with the 49ers. Having a strong run game would allow the Patriots to avoid loading everything onto their 41-year-old quarterback and also gave them perhaps the best defense against a hot young passer like Patrick Mahomes (or an explosive offense like the Rams): Playing keep away with the football.
While much of this season might not have seemed typical of the Patriots, the last month has in this way: The Patriots’ only real identity is that they do whatever they need to do to win. A couple days before they departed Foxborough for Atlanta, Gronkowski was walking through the locker room with Michel, when he pointed to the rookie running back and announced to the media: “Five touchdowns, right here, everyone.” He might have been referring to the five TDs Michel had scored this postseason—or, perhaps, a prediction for the final game of this season?
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The Patriots are playing in their ninth Super Bowl on Sunday because of their ability to remake themselves, both tactically and psychologically; to understand that it’s a long season, and that who you are as a team in the beginning and middle is a means to what happens at the end. That’s why, when faced with a crossroads in Pittsburgh, they were able to choose the path that that brought them to Atlanta, where they will play for a sixth ring.
“We were in a fork in the road in our season,” Slater says of that night at Heinz Field. “We were going to go this way, or going to go that way, but we knew it was going to be up to us. We rallied around one another, and here we are.”
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