By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
ATLANTA (CBS) — The New England Patriots are far and away the most successful NFL franchise of the past 20 years. Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time. Josh McDaniels, just like Charlie Weis before him, is one of the most innovative and creative offensive coordinators in the sport. The team has made nine Super Bowls in 18 years, more than any other franchise has reached in the history of the NFL.
And yet, despite getting eight kicks at the can, the Patriots are 0-for-8 when it comes to scoring a touchdown in the first quarter in their Super Bowl appearances under Bill Belichick. That’s two full games’ worth of action, and zero touchdowns to show for it. They’ve scored just three total points.
It’s a trend that the Patriots are likely eager to change. And at least for now, McDaniels feels the Patriots are in a good place heading into Sunday’s game.
“We feel like we’ve got a good handle on what we want to try to do as we head into the game,” McDaniels said Thursday at the Patriots’ hotel in Atlanta during their final media sessions of the week. “I think the most important thing we can do now is to fine-tune everything, go back over it, answer any questions that may be outstanding from any of our guys, and make sure they really understand how we want to start the game and how we want to play the game.”
Having been through this before, McDaniels is aware that even the world’s best game plan will need to be tweaked and changed once the game begins.
“I’ve never been in one of these where you didn’t have to make an adjustment. Some earlier than others, some later. So whatever the game plan is, it isn’t gonna stay the exact same for the entire 60 minutes of the game,” McDaniels said. “So the best thing we can do is feel really good about how we start it. I think we feel really good about what we’ve done so far in our preparation. Our players are loose, confident, and prepared. They’ve practiced hard. They’ve practiced well. They’re focused on the opponent. They know what to do. And hopefully we can have a good last three days here of preparation and just go out there and play as aggressive and fast and as confident as we can be.”
Helping the Patriots in this year’s quest are two factors. First, the Patriots have authored two remarkable opening drives thus far in the playoffs, journeying 83 yards on 14 plays on the opening drive against the Chargers and then going 80 yards on 15 plays a week later for the opening drive in Kansas City. Those drives chewed up 7:11 and 8:05, respectively, as the Patriots’ offense executed its game plan to perfection in both instances.
That’s something that the Patriots have to hope they can keep rolling on Sunday. And if there’s someone who can help in that regard, it would be Sony Michel, the rookie running back who obviously played no part in the Patriots’ previous struggles to score early in past Super Bowls.
“You always want to hit the ground running — fast,” Michel said. “Nobody plans to go into games to start slow. So yeah, we want to start as best as we can, we want to execute, and we want to keep that consistently for four quarters.”
Michel will play a significant role in attacking the other factor at play — that the Rams struggled mightily this season against the run, allowing 5.1 yards per carry — which ranked 32nd, aka dead last, in the NFL. Los Angeles has been much better in its two postseason wins over Dallas and New Orleans, allowing just 2.3 yards per carry. But the Patriots have been rumbling their way through the postseason, with 155 rushing yards and four touchdowns against the Chargers and a ridiculous 176 yards and four touchdowns in Kansas City.
As evidenced by the Patriots’ 5-3 record in Super Bowls during the Brady/Belichick era, the slow starts have not necessarily doomed them. That is to say, it’s not the lack of offense that’s necessarily cost them championships, but it was the falling behind early aspect that proved problematic multiple times. They’ve been trailing after the first quarter four times in Super Bowls, going 1-3 in those games. They’ve finished first quarters tied 0-0 in Super Bowls in the other four appearances, going 4-0 in those games.
PATRIOTS’ FIRST QUARTERS IN SUPER BOWLS
Super Bowl XXXVI vs. Rams: Trailed 3-0; won 20-17
Super Bowl XXXVIII vs. Panthers: Tied 0-0; won 32-29
Super Bowl XXXIX vs. Eagles: Tied 0-0; won 24-21
Super Bowl XLII vs. Giants: Trailed 3-0; lost 17-14
Super Bowl XLVI vs. Giants: Trailed 9-0; lost 21-17
Super Bowl XLIX vs. Seahawks: Tied 0-0; won 28-24
Super Bowl LI vs. Falcons: Tied 0-0; won 34-28
Super Bowl LII vs. Eagles: Trailed 9-3; lost 41-33
It certainly hurt in Super Bowl XLVI, the rematch against the Giants, when New York outscored the Patriots 9-0 in the opening quarter, thanks in part to Brady’s intentional grounding in the end zone for a safety. And it certainly didn’t help matters a year ago, when the Eagles jumped out to a 9-3 lead after the opening quarter.
Overall, the Patriots have been outscored 24-3 in the first quarters of their eight Super Bowls. They’ve outscored opponents 207-166 in quarters two through four.
McDaniels was quick to point out that the Patriots did score on their opening drive of Super Bowl XLII, but it just happened to have come in the second quarter. The longtime offensive coordinator also downplayed the impact of the scoreless first quarters.
“I think each game is its own game,” McDaniels said. “I understand. Look, it’s important, but it’s not the end of the world. I don’t think you can make too much of it. There’s not one football game where we’ve ever gone into where we didn’t want to score on the opening possession of the game. We talk about it all year long, from OTAs through the end of the season. When we go on the field, we only have one job, and that’s to score a touchdown.
“So we’re going to do everything we can do,” McDaniels continued. “There’s no magic formula, there hasn’t been a magic formula in the postseason for us. We’ve strung a lot of good plays together, and that’s because the players played well. I don’t have any magic plays on the call sheet. Those guys are the guys that provide the magic, and that’s just through execution and toughness, communication, and doing their job as well as they can do it. There’s going to be a lot of emotion, a lot of energy, a lot of intensity at the beginning of this game, and you just gotta settle in and eventually focus on the things that are really important on every single play at your position and do it as best you can. And, you know, getting ahead is always important in our league. It’s always been something that’s a factor in every game. We’ll certainly try to play our very best every single snap that we’re out there.”
As for that intensity, it is a very real factor when it comes to executing as crisply as possible. Julian Edelman, who’s played in three Super Bowls before, still expects to feel some real jitters come Sunday.
“I mean, your juices are going, that’s for sure. It’s the Super Bowl,” Edelman said of the first huddle and the first snap. “So any time … I mean, you definitely gotta hold yourself, because you do have that little boy in you still, when you’re 12 years old, playing football for Redwood City, dreaming about that. So you gotta control that stuff. And then you get hit, and once you get hit, we’re good. Good to go.”
Last year, that field goal against Philadelphia marked the first time the Patriots had simply put points on the board in the first quarter. It could be a step in the right direction for one of the most inexplainable phenomena in professional sports.