ATLANTA – The New England Patriots grow older. Their quarterback is 41, Their coach is twice as old as the one he faced on Sunday night. This team is so old school you get the feeling it should be playing in the mud against the Pottsville Maroons or the Canton Bulldogs on a field bracketed by wooden goal posts.
They win Super Bowls with field goals and guts and the ability to stink out the joint if necessary, but then suddenly make the catch, make the block, the hit or steal the ball. And it works. The games are so close, the tendency is to think, “Well, this time it’s over.”
Sunday, as first three quarters failed to produce a New England touchdown, the guys who lined up against Tom Brady may as well have thought that. Actually in such games, that’s when he has you right where he wants you.
The Patriots came to the moment as the blue-collar workmen. The Los Angeles Rams are perfect for Los Angeles — all glitz and helmets with horns and a hot young quarterback in the image of Tinsel Town. The Pats are grinders — pool hustlers who sprinkle you with hope and then pick your pocket.
They Patriots were 2.5-point favorites at kickoff. They should have been even higher based on the money bet on them, but when you win for as long as they have and, more important, when you win in the style they win, logic says there is no way they can beat clock much less the calendar.
But Sunday night, they beat the upstarts of the Left Coast, 13-3 in Super Bowl 53 — and they did it by the book — their book. And, for the record, they hold the copyright on that formula. For three quarters they turned the Rams into somnambulists with shoulder pads.
On offense, through those three quarters, the Patriots huffed and puffed, and won the battle of statistics, but all they had to show for it was a 3-0 lead. What kept them respectable were the magnificent routes run by receiver e (the gae’s eventual MVP) and his soft hands that didn’t drop a ball.
To nobody’s surprise, the Rams deadlocked it with a field goal of their own. If truth be told — and I’ve covered every Super Bowl — it was slowest, dullest, most boring 45 minutes this game has ever offered. It was as though 70,000 people were watching a tree form its annual ring.
Brady looked old, and over on the Rams’ sideline they were thinking, “Hell, we’ve got the kid at quarterback, and we can also run the ball. 3-3? This is the kind of game we always win.”
And then the New England Rip Van Winkles rose up from their slumber and did what they always seem to do. Running back Sony Michel began to run, and holes opened for him and Brady, with all those barnacles sprouting on the longevity of his career, threw the ball like, well, Tom Brady. He completed three straight passes, and then came the obligatory big play.
Brady and tight Rob Gronkowski have played pitch and catch on so many fields with so much success, it was almost pre-ordained. The money was on the line, and Gronkowski has always been a money player. Brady dropped a perfectly thrown ball into double coverage and, just like that, the Patriots were on the 2-yard line.
They sent Michel between guard and tackle on next snap. The blocks were superb. You could have driven an 18-wheeler though that space. They were up 10-3 in the fourth quarter, but they needed one more silver bullet.
With about four minutes remaining, Jared Goff, the kid quarterback, had the Rams running without a huddle. He moved them from their 25-yard line to the Patriots’ 27. Now he had wide receiver Brandin Cooks running toward the right side of the end zone.
Cornerback Stephon Gilmore was matching him stride for stride. They had been in that private war most of the night. Because the Patriots had picked this play to bring an all-out blitz for the first time in the game, the pass was high and two steps short. Gilmore cut in front and stole the ball. He was tackled on the 4-yard line.
And from there, the Patriots clawed their way to what they honestly have come to believe is their birthright. They ran the ball eight times — including seven carries by Michel. It was the Patriots’ brand of caveman football.
And not long after kicker Stephen Gostkowski applied a punctuation mark with a 41-yard field goal, the confetti fell again.
Jerry Izenberg, Columnist Emeritus for The Star-Ledger is one of two newspaper columnists to cover every Super Bowl.