ATLANTA -- This latest New England Patriots' championship wasn't about Tom Brady for once. It was about a defensive line filled with unfamiliar names, a collection of linebackers known for their versatility and an assortment of defensive backs adept at shadowing all sorts of receivers. Those were the men who made the biggest difference in Super Bowl LIII. As Patriots inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower joked after his team's 13-3 win over the Los Angeles Rams, "I'm tired of hearing about Brady. I won one today. Shoutout to him for getting his, but this is a team thing."
The Patriots' defense had plenty of reasons to savor the sixth Super Bowl victory in franchise history. So much of this team's success has been about Brady's brilliance, particularly his ability to deliver in critical moments. He did produce again when his team needed it most -- by leading the Patriots to 10 points in the fourth quarter -- but his defense carried New England all game. After all, the Patriots basically sealed the game when cornerback Stephon Gilmore intercepted Rams quarterback Jared Goff with just over four minutes left in the contest.
The final numbers for the Rams were shocking, given that Los Angeles ranked second in the NFL in points (32.9) and total yardage (421.1) this season. The Patriots held the Rams to 260 total yards, 14 first downs and just three third-down conversions in 13 attempts. Los Angeles didn't even score a point until kicker Greg Zuerlein hit a 53-yard field goal late in the third quarter. It was so ugly for the Rams that their head coach, Sean McVay, summarized the game best when he said, "I got outcoached tonight."
The most surprising aspect of New England's defensive success was that more people couldn't see this coming. That defense came up big in the Patriots' AFC Championship Game win over the Kansas City Chiefs, as it held the NFL's highest-scoring offense to no points in the first half. A week before that, New England harassed Philip Rivers and the Los Angeles Chargers in a 41-28 win in the Divisional Round. The Patriots' defense was improving with each passing week, but the story predictably revolved around the New England offense.
After all, Brady was carving up opposing defenses. Wide receiver Julian Edelman and tight end Rob Gronkowski were producing huge catches. The New England offensive line was opening enormous holes for rookie running back Sony Michel while also protecting Brady so effectively that the quarterback hadn't been sacked this postseason until the Rams got to him once. With all that going on, it was easy to underestimate how good this defense had become.
The reality Sunday was that Brady had a tough time moving the ball against the Rams' defense. He threw an interception on the Patriots' first possession and finished with one of his worst performances in a Super Bowl (he completed 21 of 35 passes for 262 yards with no touchdowns). This is why Brady was quick to say that his defensive teammates "saved their best performance for the last game of the season." He knew full well that the Rams might have won this game if the men on the other side of the ball hadn't taken over the game.
"We came out and played Patriots football," Hightower said. "We knew what we needed to do and how we needed to play. We've done a good job the last couple months of playing the way we wanted to. We were able to come out (in this game) and be physical on that side of the ball."
New England's versatility was one key reason why they were able to enjoy so much success against the Rams. The Patriots' defense often confused Chiefs star quarterback Patrick Mahomes in the AFC Championship Game by utilizing Hightower and Van Noy in a variety of pass-rushing stunts that led to constant pressure. They unleashed a similar attack on Goff. The Patriots wound up sacking the Rams' signal-caller four times, but he threw under duress throughout the game.
The biggest mistake Goff made came on that pass Gilmore intercepted. The quarterback had failed to connect with wide receiver Brandin Cooks on a fade route on the play before the pick, as Gilmore and Patriots safety Duron Harmon knocked the ball out of Cooks' hands. Goff tried to go after Gilmore again, only this time he didn't realize Gilmore was playing zone coverage instead of man. Cooks never looked back for the pass after Goff threw it and Gilmore easily picked it off at the New England 4-yard line.
"Our defensive line put some great pressure on the quarterback," Gilmore said. "I knew that when they get close to the goal line, they like to take shots. I was able to get zone vision on it. I knew he was going to chuck it up and I made a play on it."
Like every other Patriots defender who spoke after the game, Gilmore talked about his play as if it wasn't that big a deal. If anything, it's what he's come to expect from himself and his teammates in those situations. The Patriots realized that many critics had questions about this unit throughout the season, especially when it gave up an average of 28.4 points per game in their five losses. Their most stunning defeat -- a 34-33 loss to Miami in Week 14 -- also involved the Patriots blowing what appeared to be a certain victory by allowing the Dolphins to score the game-winning touchdown on a 69-yard hook-and-ladder in the final seconds.
That lost opportunity contributed to New England's failure to secure the top seed in the AFC. It meant the Patriots had to travel a tougher road to win a championship and that far more doubters would line up to celebrate their eventual demise. What we heard often over the last few weeks was how badly Brady wanted to lead his team to another title. What we couldn't see as clearly was why he felt so confident about their chances.
In many ways, the Patriots came full circle in this win. When Brady won his first title -- beating a Rams team that was based in St. Louis but also boasting a powerful offense during the 2001 season -- he managed the game and relied on a great defense to do its thing. That's what made Sunday's victory so impressive for New England. It reminded us once again that this dynasty has always been about more than just one man.