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The Debrief: Super Bowl surprises; what's next for Pats, Rams?

ATLANTA -- It started with a defensive performance for the ages. It ended with a kick. Bill Belichick, perhaps football's foremost historian, might appreciate more than anyone how the Patriots' sixth Super Bowl championship had so many echoes of the victory that began the dynasty 17 years before.

His best shutdown cornerback, Stephon Gilmore, played sticky man coverage and picked off a crucial pass on Sunday, just like newly minted Hall of Famer Ty Law did when New England stopped "the Greatest Show on Turf" in February 2002. An inventive game plan by Belichick and defensive play caller Brian Flores flummoxed the Rams' high-scoring offense, with pressure coming from all corners. Tom Brady was carried by his teammates at times, yet came up with a game-winning fourth quarter drive soon after the Rams tied the game. And the game was clinched on Stephen Gostkowski's kick, like it was on Adam Vinatieri's boot in New Orleans.

While Twitter moaned about a Super Bowl with only six points in the first three quarters, I suspect Belichick was in his element. The former special teams coach has guided the Patriots in consecutive Super Bowls that featured one total punt and 14 punts, just one year apart.

The Patriots' ability to win 37-31 in the AFC Championship Game and then 13-3 in the Super Bowl confirms so many of Belichick's long-held football tenets. Every season has a different shape. Every game is different. And you are going to eventually need every aspect of the roster to finish the season as champions. Even Belichick wouldn't have guessed that his defense and his punter could so carry his squad on the game's biggest stage, but the seeds were planted way back in Week 15, when a loss to the Steelers pushed the Patriots to the No. 3 position in the AFC.

The Patriots' defense held Ben Roethlisberger to 17 points that day with a brand of physical play that had been absent for much of the season. New England followed that up with two grinding victories over AFC East opponents that left Belichick atypically sunny, lauding the team's physical approach on defense and a rugged interior running game. It was the same brand of football that helped the Patriots defeat superior teams on the way to their 2001 title, with Belichick's first championship team and his latest peaking just in time for the playoffs.

The Patriots will never be an underdog story again, no matter what slogans they come up with, but this is still their most improbable title since that 2001 season. In three straight playoff games, they beat teams with superior records. In a league dominated by offense, the Patriots won a Super Bowl that looked straight out of 1975, when Belichick started his journey toward being the greatest coach of all time.

The low final score wasn't the only surprise in a game that played out differently than anyone expected. Here are six other surprises that explain why Super Bowl LIII caught so many of us off guard:

1) Wade Phillips and Belichick schooled their younger offensive counterparts. In a league where seemingly every rule is tilted to the offense, it was disarming to see six points scored in the first three quarters. While Patriots defenders will rightly be celebrated as champions, the Rams' defensive performance was more than worthy of a title. Phillips mixed up coverages early in the game and had Brady making poor decisions, like checking to a run on a third-and-long. Brady routinely thought receivers were open without noticing how Phillips' zone defense had rotated after the snap. It was the Rams' secondary that shined, while the big names up front -- Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh -- were relatively quiet.

2)Rams coach Sean McVay will have to go back to the drawing board after this season. The team's passing attack was never the same after the Rams' 54-51 win over the Chiefs in The Game That Revolutionized Football, and it can't all be put on the injury that ended slot receiver Cooper Kupp's season in Week 10.

3) During the second half, in-stadium host Scott Hanson conducted an interview during a stoppage of play with former Falcons kicker Morten Andersen before unveiling a surprise guest in former Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri. The crowd roared so loudly I wondered if Brady was bothered as he tried to communicate in the huddle. There is something so bizarre in seeing some of the players that started the dynasty so long ago -- Law and Vinatieri -- on the sideline while Brady and Belichick go about trying to create new lasting memories.

4) The Patriots won the Super Bowl despite one of Brady's worst performances in what was his most stressful season in a decade. He wasn't comfortable in the pocket on Sunday and hurried some of his shorter throws, especially on screens. Missing those plays, usually lay-ups, kept ending promising drives without points. Five of the Patriots' first six drives reached at least the Rams' 40-yard line. They scored three points combined on those drives. In typical Brady fashion, however, he saved his best for last.

5)Rob Gronkowski looked fresher in his last two performances than at any other time this season. His gorgeous 29-yard catch setting up the game's lone touchdown was a perfect example of why he's the greatest tight end of all time. No other tight end that physical also is that canny with the ball in the air, able to adjust to passes mid-flight and snag them with a pair of the best hands the position has ever seen. If his six-catch, 87-yard performance is his last as a professional, he went out on top.

6) The Rams couldn't stop the run late in the fourth quarter when they knew it was coming. Perhaps they were worn down, but ultimately they were not on the field that much in the second half and only played 68 snaps.

Credit must be given to the Patriots' running game, which was the most consistent aspect of the team in its five-game winning streak to end the season. Sony Michel's 26-yard run behind right tackle Marcus Cannon from the 5-yard line was the most important run of the game, and Rex Burkhead's 26-yard scamper behind left tackle Trent Brown a few plays later was the backbreaker. Brady and the Patriots never reached the heights of the best passing teams this year, but they didn't need to because their running game closed so strong.

This doesn't mean defense and running are back any more than the notion that they were dead back in November. But Belichick's latest masterpiece was a reminder how many different ways there are to win a football game, even the biggest one of the season.

So, with the 2018 season officially in the books, what's on tap for each of the Super Bowl combatants in 2019? A series of questions ...

Patriots' biggest offseason questions

1) Who retires?

It would be a surprise if Rob Gronkowski doesn't retire on top, especially after NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Sunday that the Patriots tight end dealt with another bulging disc in his back during the 2018 season. Then again, Gronk's last two games (12 catches for 166 yards) proved he can still play the game at a high level. Could the Patriots pay him enough to change his mind? Would they even want to?

The brothers McCourty also appear to be on the fence about playing again next year, especially if the Patriots asked Devin to take a pay cut or if Jason isn't asked back. Jason McCourty's acquisition wound up being one of the best steals of a sneaky-great 2018 Patriots offseason haul that also included left tackle Trent Brown and returner/receiver/quasi-running back Cordarrelle Patterson.

2) Where do they find speed at receiver?

The Patriots won the Super Bowl with virtually no help outside at receiver. Josh Gordon's future is a mystery and the team will want to upgrade from Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett. The need for receiving help will be especially pressing if Gronkowski retires.

3) Will they franchise tag Trey Flowers?

Flowers has been the best overall defensive player during the team's three consecutive Super Bowl appearances. I have him ranked as this offseason's fifth-best free agent. Tough, versatile and at his best in big games, Flowers is the epitome of what Belichick looks for in a defender. If the Pats don't pay market value for him, who will they pay market value for?

Rams' biggest offseason questions

1) Will Andrew Whitworth retire?

The Rams amazingly started the same five offensive linemen for the last two years. That's set to change and could be an especially difficult challenge if their stalwart left tackle retires. Whitworth is undecided about his future and the team needs to upgrade from center John Sullivan. Longtime Ram Rodger Saffold is also a free agent, so the line will get a lot of attention.

2) Who will they spend on?

Jared Goff is now eligible for a new contract, but there's no need to rush one yet. Cornerback Marcus Peters needs to play better in 2019 for a chance at a long-term deal. The team's list of notable free agents is long. Ndamukong Suh may only make sense at the right price. Safety Lamarcus Joyner could leave, while outside linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. earned some money with a stellar postseason run. Few teams are more aggressive than the Rams, so they figure to get creative. Remember: This is the team that looked into adding Khalil Mackafter signing Aaron Donald long-term.

3) How will they respond to Super disappointment?

Losing the Super Bowl is always brutal, but the offense's total no-show on Sunday makes this defeat especially deflating. The Rams' smooth offensive identity crumbled, with Todd Gurley's disappearance and Goff's Super Bowl struggles likely to hang over the offseason. My guess is that general manager Les Snead and coach Sean McVay will prevent lethargy by changing the squad dramatically with trades and free-agent roster shakeups. This isn't a "stand pat" type of team.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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