By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
HOUSTON (CBS) — When Bill Belichick traded Chandler Jones, most people believed the Patriots’ head coach was making a decision that was best for the team. When Belichick traded Jamie Collins, some folks wondered if Bill had lost his mind.
But, of course, the coach had not. The Patriots finished the season with the No. 1 scoring defense, and they finished the postseason as Super Bowl champs.
And while it takes a game-day roster of 46 men to win a Super Bowl, it’s fair to say this victory would not have been earned if not for the performance of Trey Flowers.
While it was Dont’a Hightower’s strip sack in the fourth quarter that has received a proper level of credit as being the turning point of the game, the fact is that the turnover would not have mattered if not for Flowers’ sack on the Falcons’ next drive.
“Huge,” Bill Belichick said of the work of Flowers and the defense after Atlanta had quickly driven to the Patriots’ 22-yard line. “That pushes it back to a two-score game. That was a huge defensive stop. … We got the sack [from Flowers]. We got the holding penalty [drawn by Chris Long] and we were able to push them back out of field goal range. So that was a huge defensive series for us.”
While the athleticism on display from Flowers throughout the night was evident with his six tackles and 2.5 sacks, what’s most encouraging for the Patriots is the young man’s confidence.
According to Alan Branch, it was the 23-year-old Flowers who told his teammates in the defensive huddle that he wanted to be the one to make the play. And he did.
“We got the play called,” Branch explained. “We had a stunt on that. Someone was supposed to stunt on that play. Trey stepped up. He was like, ‘Look, let me do the stunt.’ He went in there. I just went in there and covered him and let him do work.”
As Hightower explained, the entire defense felt that Flowers was the right man for the job at that moment.
“I honestly don’t think it mattered if Trey wanted it or not,” Hightower said, “because we were going to give it to him.”
What happened next perfectly displayed Flowers’ explosiveness, strength, speed and sheer willpower, as he bullied his way through center Alex Mack and flung Matt Ryan to the turf.
Despite the obvious individual effort required to make this play, Flowers opted to not talk about himself in the glow of a victorious postgame press conference.
“We knew then it was just one play away. Now we just need one stop, one big-time play and we were able to get it,” Flowers said. “We were able to get the stop and put our offense out there with a lot of time left, and they marched the ball down the field and got the two-point conversion.”
The sack came, of course, at a point in the game when the Falcons have been heavily criticized for not running the ball up the gut, forcing New England to use its timeouts, and then kicking a field goal to put the game likely out of reach. This is fair criticism.
But to harp on the Falcons’ mental mistakes is to overlook the championship effort put forth by the Patriots’ defense at the time. Had the Patriots played like the game was over, they would have lost. Instead, they scrapped. And you know the final result.
It was incredibly appropriate that on the next snap, it was Chris Long who drew the holding penalty on Jake Matthews. All season, Long has been an important contributor on defense, even if his impact was rarely measured properly by statistics. Though he didn’t get a tackle or a sack or a hurry or a QB hit on that play, it pushed the Falcons out of field-goal range and kept the Patriots’ hopes alive.
While the flurry of events through the course of a 25-point comeback can lead to some blurred memories, there should be no downplaying the significance of that Flowers sack.
The crunch-time play was really just a continuation of the night Flowers was already having. He came up with a sack on a third-and-5 on Atlanta’s opening possession to force an early punt (and nearly create a defensive score), and toward the end of the third quarter, he and Kyle Van Noy sacked Ryan on another third down to force another punt. That was an Atlanta drive, mind you, that began on the Patriots’ 41-yard line after a filed onside kick and a penalty on kicker Stephen Gostkowski. The high-flying Falcons offense should have easily been able to at least tack on a field goal. Instead, they were forced to punt.
At that point, the Patriots still trailed by 19 points, and they needed every stop they could get. A third-down sack at that point in the game might have been overlooked in the moment. But after a comeback like that, its significance is known.
That’s three sacks, all with a major impact on the game. The first two forced the opponent to punt. The final sack helped turn a 41-yard field goal attempt into a 53-yard field goal attempt, before the ensuing play ended up removing the field goal opportunity altogether.
Take it all together, and that is the work of a defensive MVP.
And now, as Flowers enters year three, he has a Super Bowl victory under his belt, and he’s progressing on a path to become the next dynamic, explosive player in that Patriots’ front seven.
Turns out, this Belichick guy knows what he’s doing with his roster.
“Trey Flowers is one of the better players in the league,” said Branch, a veteran of 10 NFL seasons. “He’s definitely going to have a lot of people paying attention to him next year because that guy’s a monster. I think he’s one of the better pass rushers and one of the better all-around defensive linemen in the league. I give him all of the credit in the world. To me, he’s one of the best.”
Hightower, a highly accomplished defensive captain with five years and two Super Bowls on his resume, agreed.
“Trey is honestly one of the best players on defense,” Hightower said. “He does a hell of a job each and every day, works hard, he’s great at his craft. There’s been plenty of times throughout the year where he’s had double-team, triple-team guys, and he’s gotten sacks.
“To be honest,” Hightower continued, “we expected it. And I’m glad to have him as my teammate.”
Prior to Sunday night, teams that trailed by 25 points in a game had won just six times in 2,655 opportunities. So to mount a historic comeback, it takes the contributions of dozens of players stepping up when it matters.
And while the offensive exploits of Brady and Co. have received their proper due, and while Hightower’s game-changing play has likewise gotten its fair share of attention, it’s only right to put it on the record that the Patriots would not have won this Super Bowl if not for the fourth-round pick out of Arkansas.
“It’s crazy,” Flowers said shortly after becoming a champion. “I still can’t believe it. It’s going to be amazing waking up tomorrow because this is like a dream. It feels like a dream.”