ATLANTA -- It would be something of an exaggeration to say that no one believed in the Patriots defense. That's the story their players were telling after a 13-3 victory over the Rams in Super Bowl LIII, the lowest-scoring Super Bowl in NFL history. In reality, New England's defense was a replacement-level unit during the regular season and since Week 11, had been the league's worst unit against 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end), which the Rams feature on nearly every offensive snap.
In terms of the numbers, it was reasonable to believe that the Patriots, based on what we'd seen throughout the previous 20 weeks, might struggle against a Rams team that ranked second in the NFL only to the Chiefs. But here's the thing -- and it should come as no surprise: That Patriots defense we saw from September until January wasn't on the field Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It was a completely different group.
The names were the same but the scheme was completely different, to the point that 33-year-old Rams coach Sean McVay admitted he was taken to the woodshed by Bill Belichick, who at 66 now becomes the oldest coach to win a Lombardi Trophy.
"They did a great job but it was mostly result of me doing a poor job calling plays and not giving us a chance to win," McVay told Westwood One's Ed Werder. "I don't know how you ever get over this."
The Patriots weren't willing to concede that their success was primarily a function of McVay's poor job performance but instead attributed it to two weeks of preparation that stymied Los Angeles' potent running attack and forced Jared Goff to beat them with his arm. That, it turns out, played right into New England's hands.
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Yes, Julian Edelman earned Super Bowl MVP honors, and Tom Brady should probably already be enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame now that he has his sixth Super Bowl victory, but cornerback Stephon Gilmore was the best player on the field on Sunday night. His interception with just over four minutes to go and the Patriots leading 10-3, all but sealed the Rams' fate.
"I knew [Goff] was desperate and it was down to the wire," Gilmore said. "I saw him release it from his hand the whole time. I knew we had a blitz on and it had to come out of his hand [quickly]. ... I just knew I couldn't drop it.
The cornerback added: "It's probably one of the easiest picks I had all year."
Gilmore had just two interceptions all season but don't be fooled; he had 20 passes defended and Pro Football Focus ranked him as the NFL's best cornerback. His teammates agree.
"I didn't even see the [interception] to be honest," defensive back Jason McCourtysaid. "I just know that a series before we're sitting on the bench and Steph goes, "[Goff's] gonna throw us one, we just gotta make sure we squeeze it. And Gilly Lockdown has been doing it all season. Going against team's No. 1 receivers. He's the best corner in the game this year -- there hasn't been anybody that has played better football than him at the corner position."
And while Brandin Cooks led the Rams with eight catches for 120 yards, he never found the end zone. The Patriots' defensive game plan was near-perfect; shut down the running game, force Goff to abandon the play-action pass, and force him to be a pure drop-back passer. And Gilmore's time came late in the fourth quarter on that career-defining interception.
"He's a fast guy, you know," Gilmore said of how he defended Cooks. "I had to get up and get my hands on him, press him every snap I could. We played a little bit more zone so sometimes I couldn't press him. Our defensive line put a lot of pressure on the quarterback and I was able to play a lot of tight coverage like I've been doing."
Gilly Lockdown doing his thing isn't surprising. What no one outside of New England expected was what the Patriots' front seven perpetrated against the high-flying Rams offense. Read More Here