Here we go again. There are few certainties in life: death, taxes, and another Patriots Super Bowl. Seventeen years after the inception of the dynasty that would bring the NFL to heel, it still just seems like the same old Patriots — the same cold, emotionless gaze from Bill Belichick, the same giddy excitement from Tom Brady and the same recycled victory speech from Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
Despite the view fatigue, averaging more than one Super Bowl victory every three years for nearly two decades is an incredible feat to witness. However, somewhere along the line, the NFL’s fans became wary of what the Patriots have been doing. Although for many Patriot fans this empire seems to be the confluence of everything they’ve convinced themselves that they deserve, others (let’s just call them “the vast majority”) feel this New England victory is just the latest scene in a tale that will rival the tragedies of Shakespeare and ancient Greece.
The first Patriot Super Bowl win, nearly two decades ago, came against the very same team they just soundly defeated, the Rams. Unsurprisingly, Tom Brady is the only player left from either of those two Super Bowl teams who is still playing in the NFL today (excluding the ageless wonder of Adam Vinatieri, who now plays for the Indianapolis Colts). A lot has happened since then. The NFL became a passing league, in part due to the unprecedented offensive success of the team the Patriots had just beaten, the “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams. During that time the Patriots built a new stadium, the Rams moved back to Los Angeles, and Bill Belichick and Tom Brady became the two most successful men in the history of the NFL’s playoffs.
At the outset of this regime, the Patriots team strongly resembled the one we just watched win the Super Bowl —defensive teams built around playing mistake-free football that can force turnovers, possessing the football, and running the clock. The Belichick Special. This slowly evolved into the Patriots we’ve come to know.
History will always first recall the shootouts and late-game comebacks Brady has been canonized for — as it should. But the first three Patriots Super Bowl victories all came on the execution of prepared defenses and a running game that considerably outgained each Super Bowl opponent. Brady himself was measurably outplayed by Donavan Mcnabb and Kurt Warner during these games and was very nearly outclassed by Jake Delhomme.
After a brief 10 year hiatus from Super Bowl victory, highlighted by two Super Bowl losses to the New York Giants, the Patriots would make it back to the promised land but this time with new philosophies.
The NFL had been changing and the Patriots, as always, were ready to adapt.
Belichick’s Patriots teams have always looked to abuse their opponents’ most glaring weaknesses in every game they play. So as the league made defending the pass harder and harder, the Patriots began throwing more and more. During this decade Brady would become the quarterback we all know him as today.
The Patriots would soon go on to draft one of the most dominant Tight Ends of all time in Robert Gronkowski. They would hire a new offensive coordinator by the name of Josh McDaniels, and they would light NFL defenses up like Christmas trees, allowing Brady to pick up three MVP awards along the way.
So after two of the most thrilling victories in the history of the Super Bowl, coming against the Seahawks and Falcons in Super Bowls 49 and 51, Brady was crowned and hailed the greatest of all time. Another monstrous record-breaking passing performance, in which he threw for 505 yards against the Eagles in a losing effort, seemed to cement Brady’s place in the hearts and minds of all those who watch football as the greatest pure passer to ever do it.
However, this year was something different entirely. From the outset of the season, the talking point on the Patriots was that they don’t look the same.
Brady wasn’t playing near an MVP level for the first time since 2006. After years of being considered one of the toughest players in the league and taking all the abuse that comes with it, Gronkowski appeared a shell of his former self. Even the defense and special teams units, which Belichick has always been able to keep more than functional, looked slow sideline to sideline and unable to execute consistently.
So the talk swirled once again but this time louder than ever before: “Is this it for Brady and Belichick? Could the patriots dynasty be coming to an end?”
Then Super Bowl LII happened.
This game was a slow motion automobile collision of a football game (from an entertainment standpoint). However, for more serious followers of the NFL, it illuminated what for many was a horrid truth.
The Patriots aren’t done yet.
With Brady putting out what is statistically the worst game he’s had since his first meeting with the Rams in the Super Bowl, it was also somehow the Patriots’ most dominant performance in any of their Super Bowls.
Brady threw for the least yards since their first championship showdown with the Rams and, for the first time in his Super Bowl career, failed to throw a touchdown pass. Despite this objectively poor performance from Brady, the Patriots managed to win the first Super Bowl in which they were not trailing once in the entire game.
Tom Brady didn’t win them this game, and Julian Edelman didn’t win it for them either, despite his being awarded the SBMVP. This game was won by the defense and the offensive line, which kept Brady as protected as any QB in postseason history. Most importantly, this game was won by their unshakable run-game, spearheaded by Sony Michel and James Develin.
The Patriots rushed for 154 yards to the Rams’ 62. Running primarily out of the I-formation, the Patriots took it back to the old school. They ran north and south all postseason, beating up on lighter more modern defenses built to play side-to-side. This was the first season since they beat the Eagles in 2005 that Brady needed his team to cover for his shortcomings, and for the first time since 2005 they were able to employ that coverage.
The first time around, a youthful Brady’s lack of preparation and experience allowed the rest of his team win their first Super Bowl. Now we see a Patriot team that looks similar to the olden days — only this team exists with the distinction of being led by a Tom Brady who makes up for the attritions of his war against father time with what is, at this point, an unmatched level of experience and regiment of preparation.
We all know that father time is undefeated, and despite his illustrious career, even Tom Brady is not going to be the first athlete to defeat him.
Soon enough he’ll have to hang ‘em up and ride off into the sunset, but now, as we enter the third and final act of the Patriots dynasty, only one question remains: If the Patriots keep end up playing inexperienced teams —teams coached and quarterbacked by men without a fraction of the playoff experience had by either Brady or Belichick, ones who freeze in the spotlight, like we just saw McVay and Goff do — how many more rings could the Patriots and a game-managing Tom Brady rack up?
A version of this article appeared on p. 7 of the Feb. 7, 2019 edition of the Daily Nexus