ATLANTA -- It was a slog.
The Patriots made yards in fits and starts during Super Bowl LIII, but they couldn't sustain anything long enough to truly threaten the end zone against an explosive and opportunistic Rams defense.
Tom Brady's interception early in the first quarter killed a promising march into Rams territory. Later, after a Stephen Gostkowski field goal in the second, Patriots drive results went as follows: punt, turnover on downs, punt, punt, punt.
Bill Belichick's club found something on its 10th drive of the game, though. It required Josh McDaniels to draw up one play on the spot. It required the Patriots to run out a personnel package they didn't anticipate using much. And it required three consecutive successful executions of the same play-call that's been a New England staple for years.
The Patriots were up to the task. They'd done so little to that point, they had to be.
"We finally had a touchdown drive there in the fourth quarter," Brady said. "Took us a while, but you've got to grind it out and find a way. We did that against KC. We did it against LA. Then, obviously, again tonight. All different teams. All different styles. But world champs, man. It's pretty unreal."
Here's how the lone touchdown drive of Super Bowl LIII played out, according to those who saw it up close . . .
FIRST AND 10, PATRIOTS 31-YARD LINE, 9:49 LEFT
The Patriots started their lone scoring drive with the same personnel package they selected to begin the game. It was their "21" grouping, with Sony Michel and James Develin on the field as the two backs and Rob Gronkowski as the lone tight end. They'd run the football on 16 of 24 first downs to that point in the game, so the combination of the players on the field and the down-and-distance had the Rams thinking run.
That's when the Patriots hit them with something they hadn't seen to that point. Brady faked a hand-off and Develin shot ahead to lay a punishing lead block on a linebacker one yard from the line of scrimmage. Why was the timing of that shot important? Because it was a pass. Any further down the field, and Develin might've been called for a penalty since blocks before passes are caught are only permitted within one yard of the line.
Brady faked the hand-off to Michel, allowing Gronkowski time to sell his block on Samson Ebukam, release and run a wheel route up the sideline for 18 yards. According to Gronkowski, that was an improvised play-call, something left off the menu of plays for the night until that moment.
"The pass up the sideline on that drive, we put that play in right there on the spot," Gronkowski said. "It was a great job. Great throw by Tom. Great call by McDaniels."
Gronkowski took a shot to his legs earlier in the game that he said made it hard to walk after the fact. But it wasn't an issue on the touchdown drive. He ended up playing all 72 plays in the game.
"When it comes to crunch time," he said, "I always find a way."
He couldn't know it for sure, but the Patriots would need him again later in the drive. Gronkowski said Julian Edelman gave him a heads up just in case.
"In the huddle on that last drive, he looked at me and said, 'We need another one from you, bro. We need a huge play.' He'd been making them all game," Gronkowski said. "I had to step up."
FIRST AND 10, PATRIOTS 49-YARD LINE, 8:57 LEFT
At this point, with the score tied, 3-3, and Patriots fans perhaps sensing some momentum building -- perhaps feeling some desperation -- began chanting.
"BRA-DY . . . BRA-DY . . . BRA-DY..."
This time on first down, the Patriots rolled out their 22-personnel package. Rex Burkhead and James Develin were the backs. Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen were the tight ends. That's a heavy grouping that can threaten to move a defense at the point of attack in the running game. The Rams responded to New England's substitution with its base 3-4 defense.
"I think the real key breakthrough came when Josh went to the -- McDaniels made a great adjustment," Belichick said. "We talked about that on the sideline. We went to a two tight-end offense, but we spread them out."
The effect of the shotgun, empty spread formation -- with Develin aligned outside the numbers to the left, Allen in the slot on the left, Gronkowski in the slot on the right, and Burkhead outside the numbers on the right -- meant that suddenly Wade Phillips' linebackers were looking at some assignments.
The Rams were in zone, meaning corners Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters were aligned outside across from Burkhead and Develin, respectively. Gronkowski and Edelman were mismatches on linebackers in the middle of the field, and Brady knew it.
New England's "HOSS" concept would work beautifully, Brady had to know. It's a play they've run for years against similar looks.
"It's called 'HOSS' where you run hitches on the outside and then you run your inside guys down the seam," former Patriots receiver Troy Brown said after the game. "Depending on what the coverage is, one of those guys can take the middle of the field as well.
"Those lock hitches on the outside get the corners to come up, and when they come up, those inside guys have all that field from the numbers all the way out to the sideline to make a play on the football."
Brady didn't go to the seams or the hitches on this play. Instead, he went to his middle-of-the-field player. Linebacker Cory Littleton was no match for Edelman's return route -- faking an inward breaking route, then bending back from the direction he came -- with oodles of space in the middle of the field.
The result: Thirteen yards and another first down.
"He's one of those guys that starts going across the field, whipping back out, feeling your leverage and pressure, breaking off that," Littleton said. "He's a wiggly guy."
That would end up as Edelman's final catch of his Super Bowl MVP performance. He finished with 10 catches for 141 yards on 12 targets, shaking free of coverage -- man-to-man or zone -- consistently throughout the game.
"I think we just had to worry about one play at a time and just keep knocking at the door," he said. "Yes, it is being resilient. Just keep on working. That's what our group did. It wasn't pretty, but I'll take an ugly win over a pretty loss any day."
"He always [rises to the occasion]," Brady said. "He's a fighter, man, that kid. I'm just so proud of him. He's been an incredible player for this team in the playoffs and he just cemented himself, again, in the history of the NFL for what his accomplishments are."
FIRST AND 10, RAMS 38 YARD-LINE, 8:19 LEFT
The Patriots stuck with the same personnel grouping for their third play of the drive. And why not? They'd just picked up an easy chunk gain out of "22." Why not see if the Rams could figure it out before the Patriots bailed out of it.
The Patriots spread things out again, with the formation simply flipped. Burkhead was wide on the left, while Develin was wide to the right. Gronkowski was in the slot on the left, while Allen and Edelman were detached from the formation to the right.
The Rams were in zone again, and Brady probably knew it when he saw Talib and Peters aligned across from Develin and Burkhead, respectively.
"HOSS" was coming again. Same. Thing.
"You can get to those routes from different formations, different packages," Brown said. "And those guys can be moving around to get into different positions for those packages as well. They can make it look a little different initially, but it's the same route that they ran the play before."
"[The Patriots] are going to ride this play," CBS color commentator Tony Romo said during the broadcast. "Once they find you have a weakness, it's gonna keep coming at you now."
"Pretty much," James White said, laughing. "Yeah. Pretty much."
Peters played four yards off the line before the snap, and Burkhead knew Brady might come to him on his hitch route.
"If someone drops off a little, you have the better chance," Burkhead said. "But Tom still has to make his reads, of course. Ultimately it's up to him to give you the ball or not."
Burkhead sprinted ahead, stopped at five yards, turned and caught Brady's throw clean. He picked up two more yards before being stopped.
White has found himself in that play, in that spot, many times.
"Anybody can get the ball," he said. "Run your route to win. Tom does a great job of finding the open person. Just gotta read the defense out, guys catch the ball, get vertical. And it can be a different person each and every time so you never really know."
Man or zone, White explained, the route combinations have the potential to work regardless. Against a Phillips defense that toggled between coverages all game, it was probably viewed as a relatively safe call for Brady.
"Doesn't really matter," White said. "Just find the right matchup, and he gets the ball to us . . . He always finds the right matchup."
SECOND AND THREE, RAMS 31-YARD LINE, 7:46 LEFT
The Patriots didn't substitute prior to their next play. They didn't even change the formation.
Once again, it was Burkhead and Gronkowski to the left, running the hitch and the seam, respectively. It was Develin and Allen to the right, doing the same. Edelman was inside, positioned to run an option route over the middle.
But this time Brady wasn't going outside to Burkhead, or over the middle to Edelman. He must've sensed some confusion in the Rams secondary as they adjusted to Edelman's left-to-right motion. There was a safety over the top of Gronkowski, but he was 11 yards off the line and looking for help.
No one else was in the vicinity.
Littleton realized just before the snap that he was late getting to Gronkowski. He'd unintentionally allowed the tight end a free release off the line.
"Mistakes," Littleton said. "We had adjustments. We were moving, and players were scattered all over the field . . .
"A person lined up on the left. I was lined up on the right. I went to the left, started to go back to the right. We lined up wrong."
The safety, John Johnson, dropped back into the deep middle portion of the field, leaving Littleton to carry Gronkowski up the seam one-on-one. The 6-foot-3, 228-pound linebacker was giving up about four inches and 35 pounds to the future Hall-of-Famer, and Brady didn't hesitate to pull the trigger.
Gronkowski got a step on Littleton as Johnson sprinted in their direction, but Brady placed his pass perfectly up the seam for a diving 29-yard completion.
"Hell of a catch," said center David Andrews.
"Incredible catch," Brady said.
"I knew the ball was coming," Gronkowski said. "I saw the coverage. It was the same coverage as the play before when we ran it. I'm pretty sure it was two plays before when I wound up in the same spot.
"McDaniels saw it, and I saw the same coverage, same play-call. I just knew it was going to come to me. I just understand how we work as an offense, understand the play-calling. We've been together for how many years now? Tom and I, McDaniels and I. Everyone. I knew it was going to come to me and I knew I had to make that play."
"HOSS" out of New England's 22-personnel package was three-for-three.
"It was really well-executed," Belichick said of his two tight-end looks. "Not something we had, I'd say, anticipated doing a lot in this game. We did it against Kansas City, but it was kind of 'right time, right situation.' We had good protection to be able to make those throws. Tom did a great job getting the ball to the open guy. That was a great throw to Gronkowski . . . Josh McDaniels did an -- as usual -- did an outstanding job of play-calling and eventually finding things that worked."
Brady wasn't touched on the play. The Rams rushed five, giving them one-on-one matchups across the board with the Patriots offensive line, but the 41-year-old had a clean pocket to float one up to one of his all-time favorite pass-catchers.
"I had an opportunity there on a one-on-one," Rams defensive tackle and NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald said.
"I got off my one-on-one clean. [Editor's note: He was well-blocked by Joe Thuney during the play.] [Brady] was sitting back there and had time to make a good pass. He made a good play."
Donald and Ndamukong Suh played as though they were shot out of a cannon to start the game, but their impact seemed to subside late. Brady was sacked once on the night by John Franklin-Myers. It was the only sack the Patriots offensive line allowed all postseason.
Thuney was asked after the game how he'd feel if someone would've told him before the playoffs that Brady would hardly be hit in three games.
"Probably pretty stoked," he said.
FIRST AND GOAL, RAMS 2-YARD LINE, 7:03 LEFT
The Patriots finally subbed at the goal line, but only to beef up even more. Edelman came off the field, as did Burkhead. Sony Michel and an extra offensive tackle, LaAdrian Waddle, entered.
At that point, the entire country was probably expecting a run. But that situation -- where everyone knows what's coming, and you have to execute anyway -- is one the Patriots practice when the pads come on for the first time in training camp.
A tough football team, according to the Patriots, is one that can run the ball and the stop the run. They were going to run it for the first touchdown of the game, and they felt confident in the fact that they'd run it successfully.
"That whole time, man, we just knew eventually something was gonna pop," right guard Shaq Mason said. "We knew it was gonna be a tough battle. We knew they had a great defense. But we knew eventually something was gonna happen."
It wasn't a bad time to make something happen. Through almost 53 minutes of play, it was New England's first play inside the red zone.
The Patriots aligned in an I-formation, with Develin leading the way for Michel. At the snap, the fullback plowed toward the C-gap, between left tackle Trent Brown and Gronkowski. He promptly caved in safety-turned-linebacker Mark Barron.
Michel dove into the end zone untouched, and he was greeted first by Andrews, his old college teammate at the University of Georgia.
"I'm so proud of him," Andrews said. "He faced a lot of adversity at the beginning with an injury and he battled through that. People saying he's a bust and all this and all that, and I knew when he got in . . . he'd cut it loose.
"To me, it felt like we were letting him down [early in the season]. That's our fault that they were calling him a bust because we weren't giving him holes to run in.
"We started to find our identity throughout the year, and our identity is a tough football team. We're going to run the football, even when it's not going great. Hats off to [McDaniels] for sticking with the run all night. We struggled there a little bit, but he stuck with it, he kept pushing it, and we finally broke them."
"We knew we could wear them down," Mason said. "We knew those guys would get tired. We knew nobody works like us. We could see the fruits of our labor."
Seven minutes later -- after a key interception from Stephon Gilmore and a clock-melting drive that left just over one minute for the Rams to make up 10 points -- the Patriots celebrated as red, white and blue confetti fell for the sixth time in team history.
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