Sixteen years ago, as the St. Louis Rams strolled into the Louisiana Superdome favored by 14 points to win their second Super Bowl in three years because of a record-breaking offense and resourceful defense, Kurt Warner had a gnawing feeling the upstart opponent he had shredded in November had something different in store for him.
He just didn’t know what.
“The first time we played them, I think I threw for 400 yards,” the Hall of Fame quarterback said this week. “I think you had a pretty good sense that [Super Bowl] game wasn’t going to be the same. … They came out with the approach that, ‘We’re just going to beat them up.’ ”
Warner and the Rams lost 20-17 to a plucky Patriots club that emerged from the tunnel in red, white and blue jerseys just months after 9/11. New England sent only four rushers after Warner most of the game, stationing players on Marshall Faulk’s side of the field to knock the prolific running back off his routes while their corners hammered Rams receivers at every turn.
It was the first Super Bowl won by a score on the game’s final play (Adam Vinatieri’s 48-yard field goal as time expired). Even though Tom Brady, the 24-year-old former sixth-round pick who had replaced injured Drew Bledsoe as the Patriots starting quarterback during the season, threw for only 145 yards in the game, he won MVP honors after directing a drive that denied Warner his second Super Bowl title.
The upset victory, as it turned out, was the first chapter in nearly two decades of mythmaking.
“The New England Patriots, every role has been played — in terms of being an underdog, seeing if you can repeat, winning three out of four, trying to go undefeated,” said Tedy Bruschi, who won three titles as a Patriots linebacker and now works for ESPN. “[There were] so many different experiences that that generation and this generation has experienced, in terms of different types of mental challenges.”
Even as the Patriots insist the latest episode of their story — the eighth Super Bowl trip of Brady and coach Bill Belichick’s historic run — will not be their last, there is a symmetry to what they face now and who they were then.
Their foe at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday night, as Brady tries to win more championships than any quarterback in NFL history and Belichick tries to surpass Vince Lombardi and tie George Halas and Curly Lambeau with his sixth championship: a Philadelphia Eagles team that can send waves of pass rushers after Brady, aiming to corral the NFL’s top-ranked offense while hoping quarterback Nick Foles, who took over for injured Carson Wentz in December, can become the first backup to win a Lombardi Trophy since Brady did it against the Rams.
“We know what we’re faced [with]. We know the opponent we’re going against,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said. “A lot of respect for them, obviously, and what they’ve done and what they’ve accomplished. It’s about what we do, how our players handle this week, eliminate the distractions, eliminate the noise, how well they prepare and get ready to go.”
Clouds linger on the horizon of this Patriots season, after an ESPN report before the start of the playoffs detailed a feud between Belichick and Brady and alleged, among other things, that Brady forced the team into trading possible successor Jimmy Garoppolo in November. All week before Super Bowl LII, the 65-year-old coach and 40-year-old quarterback answered questions about how much longer they could do it, about how many more years they wanted to remain partners in the Patriots’ sustained excellence.
It is not the first time reports of New England’s demise could turn out to be greatly exaggerated, and a victory Sunday likely wouldn’t be the Patriots’ greatest triumph over adversity. Last year’s 25-point comeback and overtime victory over the Atlanta Falcons, at the end of a season that began with Brady on a four-week suspension, would take that title.
But the Patriots, ever wary of the blow that could rend their dynasty, know as well as anyone what a brash newcomer can do to an established champion.
“We didn’t have any experience [in Super Bowls] in 2001,” Belichick said this week, “and that didn’t seem to bother us.”
Pass rush could be Eagles’ key
Whatever template exists for beating Brady in the Super Bowl is based on what the New York Giants did in 2008 and 2012, when they sacked him a combined seven times with a pass rush plan that rarely called for extra help from linebackers or defensive backs.
Justin Tuck, pressuring Brady largely from an interior rush spot, had four of the Giants’ seven sacks in those games. After New York beat the Patriots for a second time in Super Bowl XLVI — a game in which the Giants blitzed Brady only a handful of times — the quarterback said passing against the Giants was like “throwing into a forest.”
The Eagles might have the components to replicate some of the Giants’ formula — starting with a deep defensive line that accounts for most of Philadelphia’s quarterback pressure.
According to Pro Football Focus, the Eagles pressured quarterbacks more than any team in the league this season, getting to the QB almost 41 percent of the time, despite sparingly sending five or more defenders after the quarterback.
“It’s funny — no matter where you go, people want to see the blitz, right?” Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. “That’s every fan in the stands’ answer: ‘You’ve got to blitz, you’ve got to blitz, you’ve got to blitz.’ I think really what they’re saying — they’re not saying you actually have to blitz seven guys or six guys. They’re saying you have to pressure the quarterback. I think that’s probably the No. 1 thing in the passing game.
“And the ability to do that without blitzing just adds another guy to coverage. There’s only so many things you can do when you blitz, and most of them have to do with man coverage. If you pressure with four, it just gives you the ability to do so many other things coveragewise.”
Said Warner: “Tom Brady is a balance thrower; he’s not a guy that can throw with his body moving in different directions. He’s better when he’s on platform, being able to finish his throw. The more you can take his legs out of it and make him throw with his arm, the better you’re going to be. It’s the same with all QBs, but some are better at [throwing off-balance] than others.”
While Bruschi cautioned the side effect of rushing four defenders is a pass rushing unit that’s out of gas by the fourth quarter, the Eagles have the depth to keep the pressure on Brady late into the game.
No Philadelphia defensive lineman played more than 64.4 percent of the team’s defensive snaps this season. Seven — Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, Vinny Curry, Chris Long, Tim Jernigan, Derek Barnett and Beau Allen — were on the field at least 40 percent of the time.
“In the fourth quarter, if you only have four [rushers], they’re exhausted. You understand what I’m trying to say?” Bruschi said. “The emotion of playing defensive football in the Super Bowl, you’re gassed in the fourth quarter, especially if the New England Patriots are throwing it over 40 times a game. You’re so emotional, you think you’re rushing so hard to get Tom Brady on a five-to-seven-step drop to sack him, that you’re doing that every single time, and half the time, they’re three-step drops and look passes, but you’ve used the same amount of energy. So Philadelphia, rolling in these five, six and seven guys, [and] Long coming off the bench, that rush should be fresh for four quarters.”
Brady’s latest act
None of the Eagles’ defensive athletic ability, none of their carefully laid plans to disrupt Brady, can inoculate them from the possibility that the five-time champion will simply be better in the game’s most pivotal moments than they will.
In the fourth quarter of the seven Super Bowls in which he has played, Brady is 67-for-103, with 703 passing yards and five touchdowns against two interceptions. In his past two victories, both of them late comebacks over the Seahawks and Falcons, Brady has hit 29 of his 36 fourth-quarter passes for 320 yards and three touchdowns.
“There’s a great belief that, no matter what the circumstance, we have enough to overcome it,” he said. “I realize it’s a 60-minute game. We’ve got to have confidence that we can go down and score to win the game.”
The game clock is not the only measure of time Brady has frequently been able to defy.
He led the league in passing yards with 4,577 at age 40, surpassing 4,000 yards for the fifth time since he turned 35. The book Brady published this fall — cited in the ESPN story as one of his first moves to establish his brand beyond that of the Patriots — details the famously rigorous approach to fitness and nutrition he’s pursued with trainer Alex Guerrero, and he agreed to be part of a documentary this fall called “Tom vs. Time,” because “it was just good timing.”
Brady has talked for several years about playing into his mid-40s, and in between telling stories of his childhood exploits at his grandparents’ farm in Browerville, Minn., this week, he has met insinuations that his career might be winding down with a bemused look.
“Why does everyone want me to retire so bad? I don’t get it,” Brady quipped Wednesday. “I am having fun. The team is doing good. I know I am a little bit older than the rest of the guys, but I am really enjoying it. I obviously enjoy the experience of playing this game. This is a dream come true many times over.”
If U.S. Bank Stadium turns out to be the final setting for Brady’s Super Bowl story arc Sunday, it’s possible he will be taken down by a team that might amount to something of a Shakespearean foil: relentless with pressure up the middle, more aggressive than any team in the league (including New England) on fourth downs, full of enough vigor to punch an aged champion in the mouth in the way the Patriots did to the Rams back in 2001.
Or, it could be simply the latest venue where the Patriots have stared down one of their many adversaries — prolific offenses, Deflategate suspensions, gaping fourth-quarter deficits, whispers of internal strife, the seemingly inexorable march of time — and walked away with a victor’s smirk.
“This story Coach [Belichick] talks about, of us writing,” Brady said, “hopefully we can write the best ending on Sunday.”