ATLANTA — They began the fourth quarter without a touchdown, and the game finished as the lowest-scoring Super Bowl in league history.
Here was a Rams offense that scored more than 30 points a game during the regular season backed up against their own goal line, praying for a missed tackle that could finally knife open the Patriots defense (that happened, but so did a holding call that took the play back). Here were the Patriots lining up in the i-formation, an honest-to-God threat to soak up the remaining nine-and-a-half minutes on the game clock.
That’s when Rob Gronkowski got a matchup on Cory Littleton and shouldered his way into the ideal leverage with 7:34 to play. As a second defender closed in, he grabbed the ball and landed on his left side, just a body’s length from the end zone. On the following play, the Patriots handed the ball to Sony Michel for a two-yard touchdown for the first—and only—trip across the goal line. It was 9:33 p.m., Tom Brady whipped his hand through the air like he was swinging at all the fictional doubters and detractors he’d created in his own head and all seemed right with the football world.
That’s when the Rams fought their way back down the field only to see Jared Goff float a game-sealing interception into the hands of a leaping Stephon Gilmore—a pass that adequately depicted the on-again, off-again unease that the 24-year-old quarterback felt throughout the night.
The Patriots won their sixth Super Bowl on Sunday, beating the Rams 13–3 and tying with the Pittsburgh Steelers for the most Lombardi Trophies in NFL history. Together, Brady and head coach Bill Belichick have now won half a dozen championships, and three since 2015 alone. Apart from the game’s aesthetics, it will be seen as another chapter in one of the most relentless dynasties in sports history. The 70,000 in attendance, and millions suckered in to the NFL’s biggest stage show on television, came expecting a firefight to close out the NFL’s resurgent Year of Offense. Instead, there was a schematic stalemate that, years from now, may be appreciated as a cerebral prizefight between the best coach in NFL history, and a wunderkind half his age who will almost certainly be here again.
Maybe we didn’t see this coming, but can’t a 45-minute-long thud between two stubborn forces be beautiful too? Scoreboard watchers be damned, the first half played out like a game of War at high speed. Different cards on every turn; man to zone, five wide to a pro set formation callback to a bygone era, but most everything resulted in a draw. Bill Belichick trying to arm-wrestle Sean McVay. Wade Phillips going after Josh McDaniels.
Run the jet sweep action that has become synonymous with the Rams’ offense all season? That receiver is going to get clobbered at the line to disrupt the rhythm. Run play action often? We’ll play two deep safeties the whole time. Have a talented, pass-rushing defensive tackle? We’ll invite him upfield and run in the space he creates. Brady threw an interception on his first passing snap of the game, stunned by Nickell Robey-Coleman’s sudden backpedal into the passing lane, which caused a tip and eventual grab by Littleton.
Goff, meanwhile, spent the precious time he had in the backfield staring at a perpetually closing window. Todd Gurley touched the ball just three times in the first half, netting 10 yards and a long of five. The easy throws were blanketed, and the deep throws took too long to materialize.
We tend to associate scoring with evolution, but this is what happens when both teams are already miles ahead. They shuffle through the ammunition looking for what works. Defenders arrive before the ball on every snap.
The Rams tied the game at 3–3 with 2:11 remaining in the third quarter with a low-hanging Greg Zuerlein kick that buzzed through the uprights—one of the few 50-plus yard field goals in Super Bowl history. It was appropriately desperate; the closest any team had felt to offensive success in a while. But they would need to replicate the feat again on one of their final two drives.
The problem with this kind of brawl, though, was that only one team was truly equipped to handle an ugly, low-scoring game that hinged on precision and clock control—especially with another utterly human performance from Gurley, the Rams’ offensive MVP. The Patriots jarred open enough runs, created enough first downs to force Los Angeles to burn through the remaining timeouts.
Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski stepped up from the 35-yard line and slipped a field goal just inside the left upright. It was fitting that the three points made turned the deficit from insurmountable, to completely impossible.
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