ATLANTA -- "We got the last laugh! We got the last laugh!"
It takes an especially weird season to allow the NFL's greatest dynasty -- and after Sunday night, we can completely stop entertaining that debate -- to claim to be an afterthought. But none of the other Patriots' title teams had quite as many flaws, produced so many doubts, required quite as Herculean a coaching effort as this one.
Matthew Slater, the 11th-year special teams ace, had tears streaming down his face when it was over -- and more than any other reaction on the jammed field as the trophy presentation began Sunday night, that seemed the most appropriate reaction.
This was, arguably, the least talent-laden of the Patriots' title teams. Julian Edelman, who caught 10 passes for 141 yards, was the Most Valuable Player of the Super Bowl -- which is fitting, considering the Patriots never did find a receiving threat besides him, despite all but conducting an "America's Got Talent"-style casting call for prospects during training camp and the preseason.
Rob Gronkowski galloped through the defense like old times Sunday, and in a flashback moment, dove to catch a teardrop of a Tom Brady pass with two defenders dragging on his back. Gronkowski will likely go into the Hall of Fame someday. But Gronkowski's physical travails this season and his January renaissance were like the Patriots' season itself: It was often painful to watch, producing more concern than confidence before pulling itself together for this three-game playoff run.
Indeed, there was little of the self-assuredness and arrogance that had marked other Patriots teams this year. They, more than anybody, knew there were frailties for much of the season. Brady and Gronkowski were hurt, and Brady's struggles set off intense conversation about whether his inevitable decline had finally begun. Certainly, his Super Bowl performance, in which he completed 21 of 35 passes for 262 yards, no touchdowns and one interception, will not quiet those questions going into the offseason that will end with him turning 42. The receiving corps got even thinner when Josh Gordon left the team to get treatment for his substance-abuse struggle (and was suspended indefinitely by the league), and its bolstering will have to be a paramount priority. The routine late-season surge materialized much later than usual, after a startling December stumble.
And yet the Patriots have won two of the last three Super Bowls, and three of the last five. They completed this one with a smothering defense, not an explosive offense. The second half of the dynasty has been just as productive as the first, and it seems ludicrous to think the Patriots cannot be in contention again next season -- or for however long Belichick and Brady remain together.
On Saturday, cornerback Ty Law, a star of the first years of the Patriots' dominance, was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He is certainly deserving, but because he is one of the very few Patriots of this era to be so honored, it was a reminder that these titles have largely been built on very good, very smart, very well-coached players, but very few transcendent ones. Whenever this run ends -- and we should stop forecasting that for now -- the only surefire Patriots who will join Law are Brady and Belichick and almost certainly Gronkowski, too. But other than Adam Vinatieri and Darrelle Revis, who have also played elsewhere, there are precious few others. That is a testament to the greatness of Brady and Belichick, who have been able to hold the team together and elevate it, despite its very apparent weaknesses.
"I'll tell you this: It was the most satisfying year I've ever been a part of," said Gronkowski, who jumped around with a gaggle of Gronks to celebrate. "How we came together, the obstacles we had to overcome, the grind from the beginning of training camp to now, it's just surreal. We went through life this year. We figured it out. We found our identity. We weren't making big, flashy plays all the time, once in a while, but we stuck together, grinded, ran the ball, now we're Super Bowl champions."
Belichick was ping-ponging around the field, embracing any player he could find. He thoroughly outcoached Sean McVay and rattled Jared Goff. He will have to retool his team again this spring as he does every offseason, although this time may require replacements for some of the bigger and more reliable players of this era. Gronkowski said he will think about retirement later -- Belichick told him he was going to party Sunday night, so he knew this would be a good one -- but his departure seems nearly inevitable. Both McCourty twins -- Devin and Jason -- could retire together after completing a dream season, the only in the NFL they played together. If they go, the secondary would be substantially weakened. And, of course, the search for Brady's successor has to begin again at some point.
The red, white and blue confetti was still piled up on the field before the questions about the future began.
"What is next for you?" Brady was asked -- and, for a second, the quarterback looked incredulous.
"What's next is Monday and some rest," he replied. "I'm looking forward to getting some rest."