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Chief Thoughts: Patriots Claire De Lune

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The Patriots are world champions.

NFL: Super Bowl LIII-New England Patriots vs Los Angeles Rams John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

It’s all gravy now. That’s a common refrain since Super Bowl 51. I never felt that way. It never felt like gravy to me. I desperately wanted this team to win another championship. I was miserable through last year’s AFC Championship. I was furious after the Super Bowl 52 loss. My passion for this team peaked this year. I have never dedicated more time and thought to this team.

This Super Bowl was not a bad game. Not from an entertainment sense. It was a defensive war. Every successful offensive play felt like a back breaker. Every defensive stop felt crucial. As someone who has complained about a future where 30 point games become regular I honestly could not have asked for more. I should have been in love. But it was absolutely miserable for me. Present and attending were good food, family and friends. Yet I was miserable. Sitting on my sofa I could feel my heart palpitating like I’d just finished running three miles on the track. As the game ended, without rhyme or reason, a song began to play in my head.

Claire De Lune.

Over and over it beat inside my head as if it was playing from the Bose speakers on the table nearby. I was obviously elated. But not as elated as I was after Super Bowl 51. I felt frustrated that I’d let what should have been such a good night feel like a bad one 85% of the time. Most of all I felt a sense of release. There was such a perfect symmetry to this victory. The dynasty came in with a disrespected defense dominating an elite Rams offense and a bright eyed quarterback who didn’t play particularly well but played great when he had too. The dynasty may end with a disrespected defense dominating an elite Rams offense and an ancient quarterback who didn’t play particularly well but played great when he had too. If this was a storybook you’d say it was cheesy and too cliche.

I have absolutely no doubt that if the Patriots continue to be in the thick of things that I will care. I will feel anxious. I will feel elated. But for the first time I can in full honesty say: It’s all gravy now.

Let’s get started.

Defense Is The MVP

Brian “GOAT DC” Flores + Bill “GOAT HC” Belichick

Reports indicate that this was Flores’ game plan. Like Bill Belichick was responsible for the game plans as defensive coordinator when he won two Super Bowls with the Giants, Flores was responsible for the game plan and the play calling last night. The pick by Stephon Gilmore? Planned out by Flores in advance. He was going to play zone most of the game and then transition to man late in the game and get a pick. That’s what happened. The blitz wizardry continued and Goff got battered all night.

I remember a PFF podcast where they said the Patriot lack of a pass rusher did not matter because they were so good at scheming pressure. You saw the dark side of that in last years Super Bowl. They couldn’t scheme pressure and with so little talent outside of Trey Flowers they were annihilated.

This time around Flores game plan worked to perfection and he did it while securing a head coaching job for Miami. I’m legitimately scared that this guy is going to be in our division. He will be a massive loss but I could not be happier for him.

Belichick obviously deserves a world of credit too. He took a team that was floundering and got them angry. Got them ferocious. And like always, he kept them tough and focused. This team rallied around the underdog mindset and Belichick is responsible for that. The players flat out said he was. Heck, James Harrison said that when he went to the Patriots last year he was mostly just angry at the Steelers and wanted a chance at a ring.

By the time the Super Bowl rolled around he believed it was him and the Patriots versus the world. Belichick does an incredible job honing and managing the psychological will of the team. The Chiefs, Rams and Saints all peaked in November. Belichick got his guys to peak in January. Don’t think that isn’t enormous because it is. And he consistently manages to do it year in and year out. It’s one of the many reasons he is probably the greatest coach in all of sports history.

Team Defense

I want to highlight something here about context. A common narrative I could see developing here is that Flores is superior to Patricia. It might be true but it’s not necessarily true. If Patricia had coordinated in 2016 and then left we’d have declared him a hero. I absolutely agree that he let the team down in Superbowl 52 but conditions are not equal across championships. The run defense was superior this time around and a sieve in Superbowl 52. The Rams offensive line was good but not as good as the Eagles. The Patriots were healthier this time around and faced less experienced competition. The health and experience is huge when you want to blitz a lot. Flores had horses to blitz and horses to cover in the back end that Patricia just did not have. He also faced quarterbacks that had very limited experience reading defenses. Mahomes is more talented than Goff and had better weapons. Flores kept the pressure up all game but by the 4th quarter Mahomes was finally wise to it and the Chiefs explosive talent took over. Patricia gets knocked for not being aggressive but he only blitzed something like five percent less in the Superbowl last year than Flores did in this Superbowl. This year the blitzing worked for a lot of the reasons I just described. That is not to take away from Flores at all. He has done an outstanding job. My bet is that he DOES end up being a more successful coach than Patricia. But context matters. Football is the ultimate team game.

Jason McCourty

“My God!” That was Bill’s reaction when asked about the Jason McCourty pass break up. “My God. Cooks was basically sitting there for a fair catch in the end zone and Jason flew out of nowhere. Yeah my God. Incredible play.” An absolutely wizard play from a guy who looked like he might not even make the team during preseason and struggled at numerous point throughout the year. What’s more it was the twin brother of a Patriot stalwart who just came from a 0-16 team. My God indeed Bill. My God indeed.

Stephon Gilmore

It’s hard for a first team All-Pro to exceed expectations. Gilmore did. H had red zone interception AND an end zone pass break up. Now I have been hearing Duron Harmon get the credit for the end zone break up but it looked an awful lot like Gilmore tapped the ball and Cooks dropped it. He was glue in coverage and had several other pass break ups in the game. This is the second straight year that Gilmore, despite a couple bad regular season games, has been a lockdown cornerback in the postseason. This was his biggest game of the year and his best performance of the year.

Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy

I am dishing the crow not eating it on this one. I never stepped off the Hightower bandwagon. Numerous times I suggested he had the capacity to play significantly better than he was and that’s absolutely what he did during this incredible postseason run. I said I was against cutting Van Noy in my Fixing the Patriots 1.0 column but I still had him down as a potential cut. Something tells me he won’t be there in my 2.0 edition. Van Noy is not a star but again he played his best football in the best moments (you should be sensing a theme) and was a huge part of this championship victory. He and Hightower combined for three sacks, helped cause the interception to Gilmore, and made life for Rams quarterback Jared Goff hell while also being stiff against the run.

Defensive Line Run Defense

I said if the Patriots were dominant against the run they would win. Guess what? They were dominant against the run and won. The reason that was so crucial was that the Rams consistently relied on play action in their lethal passing attack. They could not get the ball rolling on the ground and it had devastating ripples for their passing attack. They had no backup plan for losing that element of the passing attack. Statistically, Dallas had a much better ranked defense during the year but they were blown apart by the Rams rushing attack. The defensive line largely relied on creative blitzing and incredible back end coverage to get pressure but their work against the run was huge.

Never Ending List

You don’t hold one of the league’s best offenses to three points and not have every single player matter. This will go down as one of the greatest defensive performances in history. A lot of folk have talked about Tom Brady getting the help to go out on top the way Peyton Manning did. He may not be going out on top — “zero chance of retiring” — but damn did he get the help.

Old Dogs, New Tricks

Julian Edelman. 32. 7th round pick. Quarterback converted to wide receiver. One year removed from an ACL tear. Suspended for PEDs. Super Bowl MVP.

Edelman played three straight games where he would have at least be in the conversation for MVP of the game. He was the best wide receiver in the postseason this year.

In consecutive games, Rob Gronkowski captured the go ahead catch for a touchdown. He clocked in almost 100 yards and 13+ yards per a catch in New England’s toughest games.

Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett, heck even James White were basically non factors. Gronk and Edelman were drafted and raised Patriots. The old guys. And they showed up. There is no one waiting in the wings to replace these guys. The Patriots receiving core remains dangerously undermanned. But it doesn’t matter today. I thought Gronk and Edelman would both be key pivots in the game and they were. The rest is history.

The Forgotten Man Who Will Always Be Remembered

When I wrote the Forgotten Man, my profile for Sony Michel, I talked about the two most important questions Belichick asks every coach before drafting a player. Are they team centered and do they come up in big moments? I decided the answer to both questions was yes in spades. Michel proved it during this postseason run. Look, the offensive line deserves a ton of credit here. There is zero doubt about that. They have been awesome.

But Sony Michel deserves special praise himself as well. His postseason run now ranks 2nd of all time in terms of touchdowns and yards. Despite some struggles he averaged 6.1 yards a carry in the second half. This isn’t just a coincidence. Michel did the exact same thing one year ago. He scored three touchdowns in the college semi finals before averaging 7.0 yards a carry against a Alabama defense that had allowed an average of 2.3 yards per a carry. He is a clutch running back. And you know what? I think he gets better. One year ago, Michel lost a college championship in Atlanta. This year he won a Super Bowl in Atlanta. What a ride.

Josh McDaniels Adjustment + Offensive Line Grit

McDaniels pulled his guys to the side during the fourth quarter and admitted defeat. Flores and Bill beat Sean. Wade beat Josh. The game plan they spent two weeks preparing was not working. They had to do something different. It was not what they planned. It was not what they practiced. But this was something he thought could work. It did. They scored a touchdown and a field goal in the fourth quarter to win the game. McDaniels deserves criticism for how ineffective the offense was. So does Tom Brady. But he made the adjustment Rams coach Sean McVay couldn’t. That was enough to win a championship.

The offensive line struggled a little bit in pass protection but no more than you would expect facing one of the best DL in the NFL. They were straight up lethal in the running down the stretch. Sony didn’t average 6.1 yards a carry in the second half on his own. He walked in for the game winning touchdown untouched. These guys wore out the Rams defense and it showed at the end where they just straight up overpowered them in critical moments.

Clutch Is A Skill

The 2007 Patriots were probably the most talented team in NFL history. It did not matter because they were not the most clutch team in NFL history. They could not play their best football when it mattered the most.

What people call clutch is generally just luck. We interpret it as clutch because of the outcome. But if you keep doing it over and over again it’s not luck it’s a skill. Tom Brady always seems to play his best football in the fourth quarter. That’s not just luck. It’s a skill. Or a trait. Whatever you want to call it. That element of his game, like Joe Montana, simply has more value than being an overall more talented and athletic player like Aaron Rodgers or Dan Marino.

I wouldn’t say this is the Patriots’ least talented team to make a Super Bowl. But it’s not their most talented. This team was at its healthiest, coached their best football, and played their best games when it mattered most. They might not be their most talented team but they may be the most clutch.

Brady has a sixth Infinity Stone and the world is doomed

GOAT. What else is there to say? Tom Brady was bad for decent stretches of the game. He was not the reason the Patriots won, but he was part of the reason. He made the plays when he had to including an awesome pass to Gronk to set up Michel’s touchdown run. I’ve heard some people dogging on him but this is a quarterback who is one year removed from scoring the most points in a losing Super Bowl in NFL history. In the post game locker room after the AFC Championship Game, Julian Edelman could be heard telling Brady that he doesn’t care about himself. His mission is to make Brady the greatest quarterback of all time. I would argue he was that long ago but there is no denying it now. You did it Jules. Be proud.

Battle of the Punters

A minor note but I thought both punters were absolutely spectacular. For a special teams guy like Bill Belichick that element of the game must have been a dream come true.

Look Forward

Nope. I’m not going to do it. I will. But not today. There are a lot of shadows on the horizon. I wrote back in August that this was the team’s last best chance to win a Super Bowl. I still believe it and there are a lot of reasons why. But I’m not going to talk about them. Today is a day of victory. As a wise Jedi master once said keep your thoughts in the here and now where they belong. Tom Brady might believe the best ring is the next one but that doesn’t mean we cannot enjoy this one. The Patriots are world champions! I am glad I got to share this journey with you all. You’re all champions to me.

Vive Le Patriots.