By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
ATLANTA (CBS) — Doubters. Critics. Haters. Fans. They all serve a purpose. They all help drive the passionate debates and discussions that in large part fuel the modern day sports world.
With that understanding, taking the time to simply appreciate a masterful showing appears to occur less and less frequently these days. We’re always on to the next game, the next argument, the next pull quote, the next dramatic development. We’ve been conditioned to simply move on.
Yet after what the Patriots just accomplished Sunday night in Atlanta, it’s high time for some good old-fashioned appreciation. This team deserves it.
To briefly summarize what just took place.
–The Chargers, tied for having the best record in the AFC at 12-4, visited Foxboro in the divisional round and promptly fell behind 35-7. The game was over at halftime.
–The Chiefs, who also went 12-4, hosted the Patriots in the championship round. Boasting the NFL’s No. 1 offense and having the NFL MVP at quarterback, the Chiefs were shut out by the Patriots in the first half. Though the Patriots did allow a flurry of late points to be scored, they did win in overtime, converting three separate third-and-10 plays on the winning drive, on the road, to earn a trip to the Super Bowl.
–The Rams, who went 13-3 and had the No. 2-ranked offense in the NFL, could muster just three total points in the entirety of Super Bowl LIII against the Patriots. Coincidentally, the final score of the final game was identical to the Rams’ regular-season record. This time, it wasn’t quite as sparkling.
The three “best” teams the NFL had to offer, all vanquished by the Patriots.
The No. 1 and No. 2 offenses in the league, stifled by brilliant game plans and precise execution.
This Super Bowl win was no fluke. And while many have been quick to mock or ridicule the Patriots for playing up some type of imagined underdog role, the reality is that the doubters of this team were very real. That doubt came from all over — from the look-at-me types on TV shows who wanted attention, to the die-hard fan grilling in a dirt lot on Route 1.
At times — like after back-to-back losses at Jacksonville and Detroit, or after the ugly loss in Tennessee, or after back-to-back losses in Miami and Pittsburgh, to name a few — the only people who believed that this team had championship potential were the actual players and coaches on the team.
“We earned it, man. The reason why it’s the best feeling is because we earned it,” safety Duron Harmon said. “Everybody, all this year, said that we wasn’t gonna make it, we didn’t have a shot, we weren’t good enough, defense couldn’t play well enough, offense didn’t have enough explosive players. And all we did was just continue to grind and work, and work, and work. And now we’re Super Bowl champs.”
“We knew what we were capable of,” Jason McCourty said. “And to come out on top, that’s what it’s all about.”
Another aspect of this particular championship run is that it may get buried under the dynastic storylines that can rightfully dominate coverage and discussion. When a team wins its sixth title in 18 years, it’s hard to not get lost in the overwhelming story. Whether it’s those six titles, or just the three in the last five years, the postseason of the 2018 Patriots runs the risk of being remembered as just another accomplishment on a long list. It shouldn’t.
Take, for instance, a rare mistake from the Patriots’ defense against the Rams. Brandin Cooks, L.A.’s most dangerous weapon, was left all alone, completely uncovered as he stood under the goalposts. Jared Goff eventually saw his man and fired a deep ball toward him. What was surely to follow was an easy touchdown. The Rams were set to take a lead in the Super Bowl.
Only they weren’t, because out of nowhere, veteran cornerback Jason McCourty raced to the spot, disrupted the play, and broke up the pass.
“That’s what this team is about, though,” Devin McCourty said about his twin brother’s play. “We cut a guy loose, but the guy backside is hustling his butt off. … We didn’t plan to cut him loose, but with him knowing that play coming up again, just hauling to get there. Probably the biggest play of the game.”
“Man. Definition of heart. Definition of not giving up,” defensive end Trey Flowers said of the play.”Resiliency. Man, it was just great players being great. We don’t got all the great players in the media, so to speak. But that’s a great play in Super Bowl history. That’s when it really matters, man. When everybody’s on the same page, everybody’s giving everything they got. So we champs, man.”
Jason McCourty had never once even played a single playoff game in his 10-year career prior to last month. Yet there he was, on the biggest stage in sports, making arguably the biggest play of the whole game.
The McCourty play was just one of a number of instances that showed what a team with championship makeup can bring to such a game. Another obvious inclusion was the fourth-quarter interception by Stephon Gilmore, which instantly sunk the Rams’ chances of scoring a tying touchdown.
The impact of that play was obvious. But what into it was much more. On the snap prior to the pick, Harmon raced to the sideline to help Gilmore break up a would-be touchdown pass to Cooks. Harmon, who played just two snaps in the AFC title game in Kansas City, was pressed into action in the Super Bowl after do-it-all safety Patrick Chung suffered a broken arm in the third quarter. On that play, Harmon certainly stepped up.
And on the interception, de facto defensive coordinator Brian Flores decided it was time to send the house at Goff and see if the quarterback would chuck up a jump ball to avoid the heavy rush. It was Harmon who broke free at Goff. The young quarterback obliged.
“Big moment in the game, and Flo calls an all-out blitz. And we talked about during the week. Me calling it, and Du came flying in, and it was exactly what we thought — Goff would try to just get rid of it, throw it up. Steph squeezes it, made a great play,” Devin McCourty said. “I think it goes to not just the guys on the field when I say everyone being together, it’s the coaching staff, too. Very open with us all year about how we wanna do things. Their mentality, our thoughts, their thoughts, and that’s what this game was. … There hasn’t been a better mesh here of coaching and playing than I’ve ever had this year.”
The Jason McCourty play and the Gilmore interception were obviously among the biggest plays of the game, but the contributions were across the board. Whether it was Ryan Allen and Matthew Slater dominating in the punt game, whether it was rookie running back Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead coming through with a clock-killing drive to secure the win, whether it was Rob Gronkowski going vintage Gronk, whether it was Trey Flowers outperforming Aaron Donald, whether it was Stephen Gostkowski shaking off an early miss to make a kick to ice the win, whether it was Bill Belichick clearly having his team ready to go from the jump, whether it was Julian Edelman turning the rare MVP performance from a wide receiver, whether it was the defense’s ability to overcome the abrupt loss of Chung, or whether it was Tom Brady turning in another ho-hum Super Bowl-winning drive in the fourth quarter, the Patriots showed exactly why they are now champions.
“That’s character. That’ character,” Slater said. “I’ve said it all year long. So many times we want to talk about, well this guy’s this size, runs this speed, has put up these numbers, he’s that age. You know, there’s no way to quantify character. What you have in there are 53-plus guys that just have belief and character. And that character is built when the lights are off, and that’s built off the football field — making tough decisions, doing the right things when nobody’s looking, not seeking your own glory, trying to see and do what’s best for others at all times. And you have guys in there that truly wanted to display that each and every day, and that’s why we’re sitting here right now.”
Really, for as much as many of the criticisms sent the Patriots’ way this season were warranted, and for as much as people might want to say that this year’s team was somehow not as good or as talented as Patriots teams of the past, there is simply no denying that there’s nothing more the Patriots could have accomplished this year. They did it all. They aced the exam. They beat the three best teams in the league when everything was on the line. They ended up going 6-0 against playoff teams. They won on the road in a conference championship. They beat the league MVP. They held a dominant, high-flying offense to just three points. Total. In the Super Bowl.
Now with the trophy to prove it and memorialize it forever, this year’s team was indeed special. Don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise.