Is it me, or did this past offseason absolutely fly by?
I have no idea what happened to this Spring and Summer; it’s late August, and the Patriots are gearing up to play the most meaningless game of the entire year against the New York Giants - which means that it’s officially time to jump back into the fray and hope my heart (and my liver) can handle another year of Patriots football. I’m ready, and I can’t wait.
But first, we need to close out some old business. At long last, it’s time to reveal the Number One Most Memorable Patriots Moment of 2018.
As always, by the time I get to the Number 1 Moment, I look back on the list, where I ranked what, and second guess myself for ranking this too low or ranking that too high. There are a few moments I left off, and a few moments that maybe snuck their way on. But that’s alright, because it’s the journey that’s the fun part, and there’s really no right answer when it comes to lists like this.
But when it comes to Number One, New England once again made it pretty easy on me. Much of this list required me to go back through the season, recall certain plays/games, and figure out where they ranked against others. But as seems to be the case every year, I knew what was getting the one spot the moment the season ended. And I’m sure you all did to.
But first, for the final time, the list so far:
20. Danny Etling gets half of the Giants fired with an 86 yard touchdown run.
19. The Patriots demolish the Jets at home to secure a playoff bye.
18. Julian Edelman bounces off a Bill and into the end zone on a 4th down conversion.
17. Some punt team acrobatics keep the Steelers from getting a touchback.
16. Gronk magic returns with a 34 yard touchdown seam route catch against the New York Jets.
15. James Develin finds the end zone twice against the Minnesota Vikings.
14. The New England Patriots trade for Josh Gordon.
13. A Julian Edelman screen pass and an epic Tom Brady fakeout secures a primetime win on Sunday Night Football over the Green Bay Packers.
12. The Patriots right the ship with a Week 4 blowout of the Miami Dolphins.
11. Special teams lead the way for a decisive road victory over the Chicago Bears.
10. Tom Brady avoids the sack on 3rd and goal and dives headfirst into the end zone to take the lead against the Kansas City Chiefs.
9. Tom Brady becomes the all time passing yards leader in a win over the New York Jets.
8. Tom Brady eclipses 1,000 career rushing yards with a five yard scamper against the Minnesota Vikings.
7. The Miami Miracle.
6. A Devin McCourty pick-six seals a Monday Night victory over the Buffalo Bills.
5. Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski team up to lead the Patriots on a late game-winning drive against the Kansas City Chiefs.
4. The Patriots shut everybody up and dismantle the Los Angeles Chargers in the Divisional Round.
3. Tom Brady hits a double-covered Josh Gordon in the end zone for a 34 yard touchdown against the Indianapolis Colts.
2. Tom Brady leads the Patriots to the Super Bowl with an overtime victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.
At Number One...tell me if you’ve heard this one before.
- Stifling defense and a drive for the ages lead the Patriots to a Super Bowl victory over the Los Angeles Rams.
Tom Brady started in his first Super Bowl on February 3rd, 2002 at the Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana. His opponent: the offensive juggernaut, deemed The Greatest Show on Turf, that was the St. Louis Rams. New England came into that game 14 point underdogs, but due to a brilliant defensive plan and a late 4th quarter drive in which the world got their first glimpse of Brady’s greatness, the Patriots came out on top with a 20-17 victory to bring home their first ever Lombardi Trophy.
Tom Brady started in his ninth Super Bowl on February 3rd, 2019, seventeen years later to the day. His opponent: the offensive juggernaut, boasting the highest scoring offense in the league, that was the Los Angeles Rams. A lot had happened in the NFL in the years between Patriots vs. Rams 2002 and Patriots vs. Rams 2019, but the similarities and parallels between these two games were eerie. New England was favored, but not by much, and the narrative that we were all forced to endure in the weeks leading up to the game was whether the young superstar coach, Sean McVay, could continue to ride his meteorically rising star past the greatest coach in league history, Bill Belichick. Whether Jared Goff, a new gunslinger with the best RB in the game behind him, could usurp the old guard in Tom Brady. All the elements were in place for an offensive shootout.
As Patriots fans, we all prepared for the inevitable. The Pats wouldn’t score a point in the first quarter. There would be a lot of back-and-forth. One, possibly two, plays would end up deciding the entire game. Tom Brady would have the ball in his hands late with a chance to take the lead. It was going to be decided by a score or less. None of us were going to have a second of fun the entire time. It’s just the way that Patriots Super Bowls go, evidenced by the eight that had come before it, and this one wasn’t going to be any different.
However, you play the game for a reason, and that reason is to remind us all that talking about it and making predictions don’t mean a damn thing.
In what shocked absolutely everyone, this was the lowest scoring Super Bowl in the history of the game. Two incredibly potent offenses were unable to get a single thing going. New England started out with a solid drive, but a Tom Brady interception cut it short. They then missed a 46 yard FG on their next drive, and punted on the drive after that. The Rams, on the other hand, ran a total of 22 plays for 47 yards in the entire first half. Of their six first half possessions, four of them were three and outs. Their other two drives maxed out at five plays each. The Patriots were able to move the ball, they just couldn’t score; the Rams couldn’t do anything at all.
The reason the Rams were stymied is because of a brilliant defensive gameplan from Brian Flores, who knew that McVay had been helping Goff diagnose the defense pre-snap before the helmet coms shut off. Because of that, Flores made sure the Patriots defense mixed up their man and zones looks constantly, showing one package pres-nap, and then switching it up at the last minute. The most prolific offense in the NFL was shut out in the first half.
(Let’s all remember that this was the second game in a row where a potent offense laid a fist half goose egg against this defense.)
The Patriots were able to get a field goal in the 2nd quarter to take a 3-0 lead into halftime, and anyone who was a fan of this team in the early 2000s couldn’t help but think back to the Pats/Panthers Super Bowl, where a 14-10 halftime score turned into an absolute explosion of points in the 2nd half. But you didn’t even need to go back that far, as the AFC Championship saw the exact same thing. So while the game wasn’t what we were expecting, there was still plenty of anticipation for a slew of points to come.
Except...not so much.
The first four possessions of the third quarter: punt, punt, punt, punt. The Rams were FINALLY able to get a drive going on their third possession of the half, driving inside the Patriots 30. They almost had a TD as well, as a defensive miscommunication left former Patriot Brandin Cooks streaking completely uncovered towards the end zone. Goff, perhaps unable to believe his eyes, hesitated just a bit too long before his release, forcing Cooks to slow down as he ran out of real estate. As the pass sailed through the air, Jason McCourty came in from the opposite side of the field and was able to break the play up at the last second, preventing a surefire score. Goff would eventually take a nine yard sack on the ensuing third down, forcing the Rams to tie it up at 3 instead of taking the lead. It was Jason McCourty’s best play as a Patriot and it isn’t even close.
That field goal represented the only points of the third quarter. The Patriots punted on their next drive, and the Rams did the same. The Patriots got the ball back with 9:43 left to play in the game.
Onto the field came Tom Brady.
Up until that point, Brady had done very little. He had completed only 17 of this 31 pass attempts, gaining 195 yards, with an interception and a sack tacked on for good measure. He just couldn’t figure out the Ram’s defensive looks, and the rapid switching between zone and man prevented him from getting into a rhythm. The only player, on either side, who had been having any success was wide receiver Julian Edelman. As the Patriots took control of the ball at the 31 yard line, something needed to change.
There are a lot of things that make Tom Brady the greatest quarterback of all time. His numbers, his accuracy, his playoff resume, his win percentage...these things all get talked about all the time. But something that doesn’t get discussed as much, that somehow doesn’t count for nearly as much as it should, is Tom Brady’s ability to call upon his greatness, to dig deep within himself in, in order to will his team to victory. There is no other quarterback in the history of this league you would rather have with the ball in his hands and the game on the line, and that he is able to summon his will to win up when he needs to is nothing short of astounding.
The Patriots came out on 1st and 10 in a formation adjustment that Josh McDaniels had drawn up on the sidelines a few minutes before. Operating out of 21 personnel, the Patriots showed run - something they had done on 1st down 66% of the time thus far in the game. The Rams were expecting run, inching the linebackers up closer to the line. At the snap, Brady faked the handoff to Sony Michel as Rob Gronkowski stayed in to block. Drawing single coverage on the play against Aaron Donald, the most disruptive force in the entire NFL, was Joe Thuney. As the linebackers bit on the playfake, and as linebacker Samson Ebukam pulled a swim move to try and get to Michel, Gronk broke out towards the sidelines, where Brady hit him perfectly for an 18 yard gain.
On the next play, the Patriots subbed in 22 personnel, two backs and two tight ends, which forced the Rams to match their lineup bigger as well. With four linebackers and 3 DEs, the Rams were once again playing run. But Brady split back Rex Burkhead and James Develin out, going empty, forcing the Rams to spread their coverage. This put Julian Edelman on a linebacker, creating the mismatch Brady needed. Both backs ran hitch routes, and both TEs ran Gos to clear out the middle. Edelman had the option to cut in or clear out, depending on the linebacker, and as they have done so many times, both Brady and Edelman were on the same page as they picked up 13 more yards.
New England had the matchup they wanted. Call the play again.
Brady hit Rex Burkhead on the hitch for seven more yards. 2nd and 3 from the Rams 31.
Run it again.
But first, let’s run it back.
Tom Brady has done more with less than any QB in NFL history. However, he has not been without his share of otherworldly talent throughout his career. Brady set the world on fire with Randy Moss in 2007. Wes Welker is the greatest slot receiver of all time, a man who completely redefined the position. Julian Edelman is as clutch as anyone who has ever played. Troy Brown was as reliable as it gets. Kevin Faulk was a third down machine. But in the 2nd round of the 2010 draft, the Patriots selected a tight end from Arizona by the name of Rob Gronkowski. And in the nine years that followed, he elevated himself to the greatest tight end in history, a coverage nightmare and in-line blocker on par with any lineman. Gronk grew into a force of nature, too big for a corner, too fast for a linebacker, almost impossible to bring down, and able to make catches that only the most elite wide receivers are supposed to be able to make. Injuries followed him throughout his career, but when he was healthy, there wasn’t a player in the league who could change the complexion of a game like Gronk could. The years and constant hard hits took their toll, however, and the Rob Gronkowski that played for the Patriots in 2018 wasn’t the same guy. He had trouble getting separation, he wasn’t as fast, and had a statistically down year. He still excelled as a blocker, but as a receiving threat, the spark just wasn’t there.
But every great fighter has one great fight left in him.
Tom Brady needed a play. And he knew exactly where he was going.
Same play again, for the third time. Running back hitches, Edelman on the option. Gronk, running up the seam.
Gronk, up the seam.
At the snap, Joe Thuney once again holds Aaron Donald by himself. Gronk gets a good release and makes his break. Brady looks off the safety, glances to his right at his tight end, at our tight end. Gronk has a step. Safety starts to recover. Brady releases, a perfect, arcing, 29 spiral that lands at the two yard line. Gronkowski, coming out of the route, dives and makes the catch. First and goal New England. For the first time that day, a team had made it into the red zone. First and goal.
Sony Michel, a rookie playing in his first Super Bowl, still has much to learn about how to have a successful career in the NFL, but there’s one fact he learned very early on:
Follow James Develin.
The ensuing play was a power dive up the left A gap. Safety Marqui Christian actually diagnosed the play successfully and was right where he needed to be to make the stop, but barreling down on him was 255 pounds of neckrolled disaster that went undrafted in 2010, worked his way around the AFL and UFL, got cut from the Bengals practice squad, earned a spot on the Patriots practice squad, and rose up to become one of the best fullbacks of the 21st century.
Sony Michel ran the ball behind James Develin.
Develin created a massive hole. Of course he did.
Michel ran through it and into the end zone.
Touchdown. The first of the game.
Finally, after three and a half quarters, a team found the end zone. But there was still seven minutes of clock left, and you can’t keep the NFL’s best offense from scoring all night.
Starting from the 25, it took the Rams just five plays to get to the Patriots 27 yard line. LA had suddenly found life, and holes were opening up in the New England man/zone scheme. On 1st and 10 from the 27, Goff hit Brandin Cooks for what could have been his 2nd TD of the day, but Stephon Gilmore and Duron Harmon teamed up to break up the play.
Duron Harmon and Stephon Gilmore.
2nd and 10 from the 27. The Patriots, for the first time all game, line up in Cover 0, with no safety in the backfield and seven men close to the line. The Rams only had six players in to protect, giving Harmon a free release on the blitz. He came in immediately at the snap and got right in Goff’s face. Goff, off his back foot, hurled it up in the direction of Cooks.
Stephon Gilmore backpedaled, one on one with Cooks, never taking his eyes off the quarterback. As the blitz came in and the ball released, Gilmore broke off his coverage as the ball sailed right to him. He jumped into the air at the four yard line, hauled in the pass, and downed it immediately. Patriots ball.
It was a perfectly timed call, and a perfectly timed blitz, at one of the biggest moments of the game, and now the Patriots had to seal the win.
Easier said than done.
Backed up at their own four, Michel was only able to get a yard on their first play. If they weren’t able to gain yards on second down, it would be third and long from deep in their own zone with a very tough decision to make.
On 2nd and 9, from a single back set, the Patriots once again ran Michel to the right side, as Marcus Canon took the interior lineman and Dwayne Allen got a good push on the outside defender. As Michel took the handoff, Joe Thuney once again made a block for the ages, pulling around the center to get to the second level and open up a gap for Michel that led to a 26 yard gain. In what was probably the most underrated play of the entire Super Bowl; the Patriots were able to get out of the shadow of their own goal posts, pick up a fresh set of downs, and keep the clock moving.
Two plays later, Rex Burkhead ripped off another 26 yard run to put the ball at the Rams 33. Two Michel runs later, and it was third and inches from the Rams 24. The Patriots were one play away from being able to ice the game.
The Rams, however, held, and it was 4th and 1. Belichick had a decision to make: go for it and end the game, or attempt the FG and put the game out of reach? He opted for the latter - and Ghost delivered. As the kick sailed through, squeaking past the left upright, the Rams found themselves down 10, with no timeouts, with 1:12 left to play.
LA was able to drive down into field goal range, but Zuerlein hooked it wide right, and that was that.
New England 13, Rams 3.
Six Super Bowl championships for the Patriots.
Six for Tom Brady.
As Roger Goodell handed Bob Kraft the trophy, once again met by a chorus of boos, Kraft made a special point to state that throughout the entire run of this dynasty, there have been two constants: Tom Brady, and Bill Belichick. They are the greatest coach/QB combination to have ever graced any sideline, and because of that the Patriots are now tied with the Steelers for most rings all-time.
This Patriots team wasn’t the most talented. They weren’t the most exciting. In fact, they flat out stunk at times, and were written off by most - including a decent faction of Pats fans - on several occasions in 2018. But when it was all said and done, the Patriots were world champs. Again. And there isn’t a damn thing anybody can do about it.
For most people, this game represented the absolute worst of all worlds. It was the Patriots - again. It was an extremely low scoring game that your average viewer found mind-numbingly boring. It launched Tom Brady into a new stratosphere of greatness and caused at least a handful of the morons determined to die on the “Brady is overrated” hill to roll right off. It was poorly rated, costing the league money. And the Patriots won it, much to the chagrin of everyone outside of New England. And while it wasn’t the greatest SB win from a Patriots standpoint, it ticked a whole lot of people off, which made it all that much better. It was Tom Brady being Tom Brady when Tom Brady needed to be Tom Brady most, and it was a team win all around, from offense to defense to an MVP-quality game from Ryan Allen.
It was what all teams hope to achieve, and New England did it for the sixth time...so of course this gets to claim the top spot at Number 1.
Super Bowl highlights here.
And with that, once again, another offseason countdown is in the books. I hope you enjoyed reading them as much as I enjoyed writing them, and I hope you’re as ready to close the books on 2018 and get ready for a sixth title defense as I am. This series is always such a blast to do, and I appreciate that enough people show interest that I get to keep doing it year in and year out.
Perhaps what’s most exceptionally remarkable about this offseason series of mine is that, in the seven seasons I’ve been doing it, the Patriots have been to four Super Bowls in that span, and they have won three of them. Not only that, but of those three wins, two of those wins have had the wildest finishes in SB history. As great as Buttfumbles and 24 point comebacks and Fake Punt Fails are, that I get to write about goal line picks and OT wins and Brady-to-Gronk for the last time to set up Ring #6 is such a blessing. It’s almost like I’m a good luck charm or something.
Now let’s all get out there and go after Ring #7.