In case you haven’t heard, the New England Patriots are advancing to Super Bowl LIII. After a victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, the Patriots will appear in the Super Bowl for the fourth time in the past five years. Tom Brady will now have more Super Bowl appearances than any other franchise in NFL history.
Bill Belichick, Brady, and New England have been dominating the NFL for so long that someone born on the day they won their first Super Bowl in 2002 is now a year shy of being able to vote or join the military. Over the course of these past 17 seasons, the Patriots have taken many forms. Watching Sunday’s AFC title game play out in real time was eerily similar to watching a synopsis of this entire dynasty, in chronological order to boot.
The Early 2000’s
The first half of Patriots/Chiefs felt like teleporting to the early 2000’s. The Patriots, led by Belichick and Brady, came out with a run, run, run strategy to combat their opponent. An opponent that featured the likely league MVP at quarterback coming off an absolutely bonkers statistical season, backed up by a defense built on two edge rushers that is highly susceptible against a ground attack.
Defensively, New England played press-man coverage across the board while making it a priority to pressure the quarterback and make him uncomfortable as much as possible over the course of 60 minutes.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because you watched that happen approximately 50,000 times when those early New England teams played Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.
To combat the Manning offense, the Patriots practically tackled the opposing receivers during their routes, while doing everything they could to knock Manning off his spot. As a collective football fan base, we complain about how sneezing on a receiver nowadays automatically draws a flag. The game masquerades its conquest for more fantasy football stats by deeming the new rules an effort to ensure “player safety.”
Whatever the league’s true motivation is, the rules have changed incrementally over the years. And it all started after a home AFC championship win against the Colts in the 2003 season. The Patriots defensive backs were so physical with the Colts pass catchers, with the lasting imagine of the game being Ty Law draped all over receivers all day, that the NFL changed the illegal contact penalty rules that very offseason.
The Chiefs came into Sunday’s game first in weighted offensive DVOA by a mile. At halftime of a home game, the best offense in the league had 0 points and a total of 32 yards. The Patriots collected 3 of their 4 sacks in the first half, including one for a loss of 14 yards in the second quarter that took Kansas City out of field goal range.
Those Colts teams had Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis flying off the edges, but a middle of the defense vulnerable to the run. The Patriots would run, run, run against those defenses, to slow down those rushers.
The Chiefs were tied for first this year in total sacks. Their two edge rushers, Dee Ford and Justin Houston, were second and third on the team in sacks, respectively. They also had a defense that ranked 32nd against the run this year by DVOA. The Patriots ran, ran, ran in the first half to slow down those pass rushers. Kansas City wasn’t able to sack Brady once on Sunday.
When Brady did throw, he got the ball out too quickly for the pass rush to get home. Due to Brady getting the ball out in 2.51 seconds or less, the Chiefs got pressure at only a 19.6% rate.
New England dominated time of possession, yardage, and first downs. The running game was dominant. Sony Michel continued to rip off 5 and 6 yard gains on first down. 3rd and 4 was a running down for the Patriots every time. It was methodical and deliberate. It was the game plan we were all expecting to see, and the Chiefs still looked helpless.
Brady wasn’t taking shots down the field. He barely threw, but when he did it was a screen or wheel route to a running back. James White may be a Super Bowl hero, but J.R. Redmond and Kevin Faulk are the original James Whites.
In basketball there used to be the Jordan Rules. You can argue that ever since February 3rd, 2008, the NFL has adapted the “Brady Rules.” Run the ball, keep Brady on the sidelines, and when he is on the field, get pressure on him while utilizing man coverage. The funny thing is the Patriots invented the Brady Rules before anyone used them against him. OK, they’re not the first time to play press man against an elite quarterback (P. Manning), while pressuring him all day long. They won’t be the last. But they took the playbook to beating themselves and used it against their opponent.
The second half of the AFC championship was the reincarnation of “everything Patriots” from the first time Eli Manning drove down the field to beat this team in a Super Bowl to the present.
After New England blew their chance at 19-0, the team went through a lull (by their standards). Brady tore his ACL and missed the 2008 season, and the Patriots missed the playoffs. The 2009 team got smacked at home in the playoffs by the Ravens because they just weren’t that good. They lost to the Giants in the Super Bowl a second time, because for a second time the defense could not get the stop to win the game late in the 4th quarter, a habitual problem that is still plaguing the team to this day. Brady spent the 2012 and 2013 seasons throwing to former UPS drivers during games in which Rob Gronkowski was unavailable due to injury. The defense has plain sucked in certain years.
The offense looked hapless in the third quarter. The Chiefs clearly adjusted at halftime to focus on stopping the run and it worked. The offense mustered an entire 22 yards in the quarter, and ended up kicking a field goal due to good field position after a punt return.
The Chiefs also came out of halftime as a completely different team. It took Kansas City four plays (2 minutes and 4 seconds) to go 74 yards for a touchdown on the opening drive of the second half. Stephon Gilmore allowed his only catch of the game on the drive, a 54 yard completion to Sammy Watkins. The Chiefs scored on the next play with a throw to Travis Kelce.
Kansas City then exploded for 24 points in the fourth quarter. In total, the Patriots defense allowed 31 points in the second half. Both of those numbers are outrageously terrible. But such is life sometimes as the New England defense, especially on the road in the 2018 season. The Patriots were the second best home defense this year by DVOA, and 31st best road defense this year by the same measure.
And it was the classic culprit that was mostly responsible for the defensive demise. For what seems like an eternity now, the Patriots are notoriously bad at covering running backs in the passing game. In total, Damien Williams and Spencer Ware combined for 6 catches on 9 targets for 87 yards and 2 touchdowns. Williams caught both touchdowns: his first a designed rollout from the 1-yard line where he ended up with Hightower on him in coverage, a linebacker who doesn’t have the wheels anymore to stick with a running back sprinting full speed toward the pylon.
The second of Williams’ touchdowns looked like a play straight off Josh McDaniels’ play sheet. After a fake action this way and that way, Patrick Mahomes flipped the ball out to Williams in the flat with the running back already heading downfield. There was no New England defender anywhere on the television screen, just loads of green as Williams went 23 yards untouched into the end zone.
2010 and beyond
This brings us to the final 7:45 of the fourth quarter, and subsequent overtime, a sequence of events that is as 2010’s (or whatever the hell we’re calling this decade) New England Patriots-y as you’re ever going to see.
From this point forward, the Patriots had three more drives. On those three drives Brady compiled 147 yards, 106 of which went to either Julian Edelman or Gronkowski, and all three resulted in a touchdown.
The first drive began at the 7:45 mark, with New England trailing 21-17. The drive was balanced, as New England called six passes (one of which drew a Kansas City penalty) and five runs. The drive was capped with a 4th and inches from the Kansas City 10 yard line, a play in which Brady audibled out of the original play call (most likely a sneak) to run Michel off tackle. Michel walked untouched into the end zone from 10 yards out to put the Patriots up 24-21 with 3:32 remaining in the game.
But 3:32 remaining is way too much time to expect a New England defense to hold up when you just need one stop to get a win. They couldn’t hold onto a 34-31 lead against the Colts with 2:17 remaining in the 2006 AFC championship. They let up a game winning drive with less than three minutes left to the Giants in the Super Bowl twice. The Seattle Seahawks marched down the field (and got lucky with a lap pass) in Super Bowl LXIX, which all started with Russell Wilson hitting Marshawn Lynch for 31 yards on a wheel route. The defense blew it but Malcolm Butler (and Hightower) saved the game.
The 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers trailed New England 27-24 with 56 seconds remaining. It took one play for the Patriots to decide to just not cover JuJu Smith-Schuster as he galloped down the sideline for 69 yards. All Pittsburgh had to do was not blow it, and they could have at a minimum sent the game to overtime. Alas, Ben Roethlisberger faked a spike and inexplicably threw a ball into triple coverage, leading to the game clinching interception by Duron Harmon. The defense blew it – Roethlisberger just blew it harder.
In Super Bowl LII, a game in which Brady threw for 505 yards and the offense never punted, New England took their first lead of the game, 33-32, with 9:22 remaining. Considering how well the offense had moved the ball all game, if the defense could have produced a single stop, Brady could have either driven down on the ensuing possession to extend the lead to eight and functionally put the game away, or just play keep away and run out the clock.
Doug Pederson seems to have agreed with that theory, as the Philadelphia Eagles went for it on fourth down from their own 45 yard line with 5:39 remaining in the game. Pederson recently did an interview for an episode of the Freakonomics podcast where he basically said there was no way in the world he was going to just hand Tom Brady the ball back because that’s game over.
The Eagles converted that 4th down, because of course they did, and then marched down the field to score a touchdown and take the lead with 2:21 remaining.
3:32 is simply too much time for the defense to stop Mahomes. So, of course, it took the Chiefs offense five plays (1 minute and 29 seconds), to go 68 yards to retake the lead, 28-24.
But stop me when you’ve heard this before: there’s two minutes left, the Patriots are trailing, and Tom Brady has to go the length of the field to win the game. In all honesty, Patriot Nation may be more comfortable with this scenario than the inverse; leading the game with two minutes remaining, and the defense has to get a stop.
Going back to their roots
Brady Edelman’d and Gronk’d his way 65 yards down the field for a touchdown. The Patriots offense has evolved a thousand times over during this era. Brady the game manager, the explosive offenses of 2007, 2010, 2011, the “who the hell even just caught that?” offenses of 2012, and 2013. Since 2014 it has been the Gronkowski show featuring slot receivers and pass catching running backs, with the exception of the lone season of Brandin Cooks.
So the Patriots went to their tight end and slot receiver on the most must-have drive of their entire 2018 season. On 3rd and 5, after an offsides penalty by Kansas City negated a tipped ball interception for the Chiefs, Gronkowski was split out wide and drew single coverage. For the last eight years we have seen Brady throw the ball to Gronkowski in single coverage every. single. time. I knew he was throwing to Gronkowski . You knew he was throwing to Gronkowski . Tony Romo knew he was throwing to Gronk. Planet Earth knew what was about to happen.
It was nearly identical to a 4th and 10 in Denver during the 2015 AFC championship game. The Patriots trailed by eight, and it was 4th and 10 from the 50-yard line with 1:34 left in the game. If they don’t convert the game is over. Everyone in the stadium knew the ball was going to Gronkowski , including everyone on the Denver Broncos defense.
It didn’t matter. Brady went to Gronkowski down the seam because no matter what, Brady was going to Gronkowski down the seam on that play. It resulted in a 40 yard catch and a 1st and 10 from the 10-yard line.
On Sunday, from the Kansas City 29-yard line, Gronkowski drew Eric Berry in single coverage and ran a go route. Brady threw him a jump ball, and he went up and made the catch over Berry before getting tackled at the 4-yard line. There just was a feeling of inevitability prior to that snap.
On the very next play, Rex Burkhead scampered into the end zone, and New England regained the lead, 31-28, with 39 seconds remaining. But, alas, 39 seconds is just too much time to expect this defense to hold up.
Mahomes picked up 21 yards on the first play of the next possession, which went to a running back on a wheel route up the sideline, obviously. On the next play Mahomes found Demarcus Robinson for another 27 yards. 2 plays, 48 yards, and a 39 yard made field goal attempt to go to overtime.
When the Patriots won the coin toss to start overtime, you kind of got the feeling the Chiefs were never going to see the ball, the way that Matt Ryan never saw the ball in Super Bowl LI.
The Patriots offense wasn’t efficient on the game winning drive. Three straight sequences of downs culminated in a third-and-10 situation. On each third-and-10 Brady converted, finding either Edelman or Gronkowski. He hit them for gains of 20 yards,15 yards, and 15 yards, in the games most critical moments, when everyone knew he was going to either one of them.
According to NextGen Stats, “relative to expectation, Brady was at his best on 3rd down (+24.4%) and when targeting the intermediate (+10.7%).”
After the final third down conversion, it took Burkhead three more carries to pick up the final 15 yards for the game winning touchdown. New England wins the game 37-31, advancing to the Super Bowl for the 11th time in the franchise’s history.
To zoom back out for a moment, this was a classic Belichick defensive game plan. Tyreek Hill and Kelce were simply not going to be the reason why the Chiefs won this game. Hill received double coverage all day long, and caught a single pass for 42 yards. Mahomes only threw his direction three times.
Kelce caught three of his five targets for 23 yards and the aforementioned touchdown. In total Hill and Kelce combined for 63 yards on four catches and the touchdown. Coming into this game, no one would have deemed that possible.
Gilmore started out the game on Watkins while J.C. Jackson began on Kelce. After the touchdown to Kelce, Gilmore shifted to covering the tight end, and Kelce wasn’t heard from again.
Belichick was at the forefront of using your best cover corner to take away the opposing team’s tight end, if that tight end was the best offensive weapon. In 2013, when the NFL was watching a seismic change in how the league viewed tight ends with the likes of Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham dominating passing games, Belichick lined up Aqib Talib in man coverage against Graham in a game against the Saints. Jimmy Graham did not record a catch in the game.
For the game, the Patriots totaled 17 pressures on 36 drop backs by Mahomes, good for a ridiculous pressure rate of 47.2%. It seems the old press-man and pressure strategy from the Manning days was effective on Sunday, as Mahomes had only a 57.7 PFF passing grade for plays on which he was under pressure.
The evolution of the New England Patriots
In the first half of the time, we got to see the early 2000’s Patriots run the ball, play defense, and have Brady manage their way to a 14 point lead. In the second half we got to see the issues that prevented New England from winning a Super Bowl for a decade, and then the brilliance of the modern Patriots offense, led by the incomparable Tom Brady, on their way to securing a ninth Super Bowl appearance in the Belichick/Brady era.