ATLANTA -- Matthew Slater watched the ball bounce awkwardly, then squirt past the cupped hands of his New England teammate, Julian Edelman, on a fourth-quarter punt in the AFC Championship Game. One minute, Edelman was waving off his fellow Patriots in order to corral a kick that had the possibility of rolling for extra yards in the wrong direction. Then the next thing Slater knew, Kansas City's Gehrig Dieter had scooped up what officials were calling a muffed punt. Despite the Patriots controlling that contest before that point, it suddenly seemed that the normally reliable Edelman had made a momentum-shifting blunder.
Slater wasn't one of those people worrying about that possibility. As officials scanned replay angles to see if Edelman had indeed touched the football -- and created a costly turnover -- Slater patted his friend on the back and prepared to move forward. Even though Edelman kept telling the Patriots that he hadn't mishandled the ball, what his teammate definitely knew was that Edelman was going to come back stronger regardless of the final ruling.
"Julian doesn't flinch in those moments," Slater said. "He knows how to hit the reset button and move on. If there's one thing I've seen him develop over the course of his career, it's great mental toughness. As a younger player, he would've dwelled on that mistake and let it get to him, but he went on to the next play. That's what great players are able to do."
Edelman ultimately had that call go in his favor. He also hooked up with quarterback Tom Brady for two receptions that led to first downs -- both coming in third-and-10 situations -- on the game-winning drive in that 37-31 overtime win at Kansas City. These types of contributions are nothing new for Edelman, who's made his name in this league by producing in the most difficult situations. It's just that now, as the Pats prepare to face the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII, it feels a little bit sweeter.
Edelman missed the entire 2017 season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, which meant he had no chance of participating in New England's 41-33 loss to Philadelphia in Super Bowl LII. He also started this year serving a four-game suspension for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances. So having the opportunity to help his team win the sixth Super Bowl in franchise history is a blessing Edelman doesn't minimize. As Patriots wide receiver Chris Hogan said, "Other than Tommy, he might be the next-most-competitive person on this team. I know it hurt him to not be with us last year."
"It means the world," Edelman said when asked about returning to the Super Bowl. "This is what you play the game for and it's been a crazy year for me -- two years. (You) have a kid (Edelman's daughter was born in November 2016), tear your ACL, you miss four games. It's been a mentally, physically, emotionally exhausting year. You put all that effort into overcoming that for this game. It's always a great thing getting to play in the last game of the year."
The 32-year-old Edelman knows a thing or two about playing in this game by now. Of the nine Super Bowls the Patriots have reached over the last 18 seasons, he's been around for five. Edelman also has been so productive during his 10 NFL seasons that his 105 career postseason receptions rank second in league history. Hall of Famer Jerry Rice is the only player who has amassed more catches (151) in the playoffs. And yet, that raw catch total doesn't even give you a true sense of how Edelman performs on this stage.
In the Patriots' 28-24 win over Seattle in Super Bowl XLIX -- a game during which he had nine receptions for 109 yards and a touchdown -- Edelman ran a crossing route on a third-and-14 play, caught a pass from Brady, absorbed a brutal shot from Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor and somehow wobbled forward for another 10 yards. Officials ultimately ruled Edelman down on contact and limited the gain to 21 yards. What was more impressive was the fact that Edelman appeared to be shaken up by the hit, but continued to fight at a time when the Patriots trailed by 10 points in the fourth quarter.
Edelman was just as spectacular in New England's 34-28 overtime win over Atlanta in Super Bowl LI. He had five receptions for 89 yards in that contest, with the biggest play coming with the Patriots trailing by eight points with just over two minutes left in regulation. Brady threw a dart as Edelman raced down the middle of the field, but Falcons cornerback Robert Alford tipped the ball at the last second. Somehow Edelman dove forward between two other defenders, cradled the pass before it hit the turf and secured a 23-yard gain.
The most noteworthy aspect of both those plays was that Brady wasn't looking anywhere else in a moment of desperation. He wanted the ball in the hands of his most dependable playmaker and he found the results his team needed. That ability to deliver in the clutch is what makes Edelman such a dangerous weapon once again in this year's Super Bowl. Said Rams head coach Sean McVay: "He's one of those guys that, if you're just watching him from afar, you're not betting against a guy like that."
"The better you do it in practice, the more confident you go into the situation," Edelman said when asked about his penchant for making critical plays. "The better you do it, the more you do it, the better shot you have of doing it in the game. So that's what we're going to continue to try to do, (to) go out and practice and put ourselves -- at least myself -- in the position to go in confident and execute in the game."
The Patriots are quite candid about how much energy they draw from Edelman's presence. Hogan said Edelman "has an attitude going into these games that you try to replicate. He goes out there with determination and trying to play physical and he definitely helps our (receivers) room prepare for these games."
Wide receiver Phillip Dorsett added that he often reminds Edelman to protect himself when he is being aggressive: "I say it all the time, 'We need you.' He goes in there and does all the dirty work. That's the most underrated part of his game. A lot of people don't really understand how hard that is, the punishment he's taking when he's catching the ball over the middle. A lot of people can't take it. That's what sets him apart from other guys."
Of course, Brady is Edelman's biggest fan on the team. They both hail from the Bay Area and they also know plenty about being underdogs. Brady has become the most accomplished sixth-round pick in NFL history, while Edelman was a college quarterback at Kent State who converted to wide receiver after the Patriots used a seventh-round selection on him. Teammates like cornerback Jason McCourty joke that the duo has built quite the bromance, but it's also easy to see why they've become so tight. The way Brady talks, these two forged their connection on determination, trust and a common desire to destroy anybody who stands in the way of their goals.
"I don't have a little brother, but he's kind of like a little brother and he knows how much I love him," Brady said. "What he's done with his career has been incredible and he's so impressive as a player, as a leader -- to go from playing quarterback in college to receiver in the pros and then to become really a dominant receiver in the pros, I think that speaks to his work ethic."
The drive that has brought Edelman to this stage of his career has become his defining characteristic. Slater first noticed it when he spent four years living with Edelman in their early days in New England. It wasn't uncommon for a video game loss to send Edelman spiraling into a major tantrum in those days. More than a few times, he'd chuck a controller across the room and storm out like a toddler who didn't get his way.
Back then, Edelman was simply a scrappy nobody trying to hold a spot on a roster. He went from being a punt returner to being the replacement at slot receiver for Wes Welker to being Brady's favorite target. When Edelman was asked on Super Bowl LIII Opening Night about the differences between being in the Super Bowl now as opposed to earlier in his career, he talked about how he's able to appreciate the moment these days. The first time he made it to the Super Bowl -- he was on the Patriots team that lost to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLVI -- he was such a non-factor on offense that he actually played defensive back at certain points during that season.
Edelman thought about the wide-eyed 25-year-old he was in those days and chuckled: "I probably did always have to go the long road, so I was always worried about trying to make a team, trying to [earn a spot] on a roster. And then when you earned that, you're trying to win ballgames, so you never really get to think about things, especially when you're younger. I think it's definitely a little different (now) just because I know (the) routine -- what you gotta do, what you gotta handle."
It didn't take much to understand the impact Edelman had on the Patriots' offense this season. His September suspension was a big reason why some skeptics were forecasting the end of the New England dynasty. The Patriots were relying on lesser receivers like Dorsett and Cordarrelle Patterson and the passing game struggled. The team went 2-2 in the opening month -- including double-digit losses in Jacksonvilleand Detroit -- with Brady failing to surpass 300 yards passing in any of those games Edelman missed.
It's not a coincidence that New England won five straight after Edelman returned to the lineup.
"Julian is a playmaker," Hogan said. "He and Tom have been together for a really long time and their trust is something they've been working on for a long time. He does a great job of getting open and creating separation and making plays for our offense. When he came back, it took a little more pressure off Tommy and gave the defense a little more to think about."
Edelman finished the regular season with 74 receptions for 850 yards and six touchdowns. As usual, his game rose to another level once the postseason began. Edelman first scorched the Los Angeles Chargers with nine receptions for 151 yards and a touchdown in the Divisional Round. Then he posted seven catches for 96 yards in the AFC title game. Of course, Edelman also was so irked about all the naysayers forecasting the Patriots' demise that he even sold $30 T-shirts on his website with the slogan "Bet Against Us" printed on them.
That business decision said plenty about how Edelman keeps himself motivated and his teammates energized. In his mind, the old wounds of being doubted and denied opportunities never fully heal. If there's a chance for Edelman to lean on the underdog narrative, he's more than happy to pounce. Even in a game where New England is favored by the oddsmakers to win yet another Super Bowl, there's a feeling around the Patriots that most people outside their fan base can't wait to see them fall.
Still, Edelman has found some time to relax during a week that can be incredibly taxing. When the Pats arrived on Sunday, he took a little walk from his downtown hotel over to the neighborhood where Martin Luther King Jr. was born. Before long, he struck up a conversation with a local resident who gave him an impromptu tour of the more prominent historical spots in the area. The longer Edelman talked about that afternoon, the more he gave the sense that he liked maneuvering with such anonymity.
Edelman also clearly knows that he'll have plenty of eyes on him come Sunday. Los Angeles has a talented secondary -- one that includes aggressive cornerbacks like Marcus Peters, Nickell Robey-Coleman and Aqib Talib, who played for the Pats in 2012 and '13 -- and they'll be committed to keeping him from working the middle of the field. However, the challenge Edelman will face on Sunday won't be much different than what he's encountered in previous Super Bowls. For New England to win, he'll have to be clutch at some point during this contest.
That likely explains why Edelman has grown tired of hearing questions about the shaggy beard he's grown or his lack of activity on social media. All he wants to think about this week is winning another championship.
"I'm more worried about the Los Angeles Rams and their defense and their schematics and Coach Wade [Phillips] and Talib and Robey and Peters," Edelman said. "That's the stuff that you're thinking about because you know they're thinking about you."