ATLANTA -- The NFL plans, Bill Belichick laughs.
The future of football is offense, we've all been told for months. NFL scoreboards spent September, October and November like a pinball machine on tilt as innovative coaches and favorable rule changes laid waste to the offensive record books and sent a half-dozen teams scurrying to hire clones of Rams coach Sean McVay.
Then, Sunday night, came Super Bowl LIII, in which Belichick's New England Patriots throttled McVay's high-scoring Los Angeles Rams 13-3 to win the lowest-scoring Super Bowl of all time. It was Belichick's sixth Super Bowl title as a head coach to go with the two he won as a defensive coordinator. That it came against McVay and the 11th-highest-scoring team in NFL history sent a message that defense isn't dead after all. And who better to send such a message than the all-time coaching master who was already a defensive mastermind way back when McVay was still in diapers.
The future of football might be offense. It might be defense. It might be robot quarterbacks on hoverboards throwing to genetically engineered four-armed receivers on roller skates. All we know for sure is that, while Belichick is still coaching the Patriots, the future of football is on hold.
"Coach Belichick did an outstanding job," McVay said when Sunday's game was over and the number next to his team was still, incomprehensibly, a three. "There really is no other way to put it. I'm pretty numb right now, but definitely, I got out-coached."
Yeah, you give Belichick two weeks to prepare, he's generally going to figure it out. He and Brian Flores, the linebackers coach who has been calling New England's defensive plays this season and is expected to be named head coach of the Miami Dolphins this week, designed a game plan to stymie the Rams' ground game and flummox quarterback Jared Goff. To hear the Rams tell it, it worked.
"They played six on the line all day, which kind of limited the space to get the runs in there," Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "They played an open-field 6-2 almost, but with one guy in the middle -- almost a little bit of goal line. And they played a lot more zone than they played all season, so that kind of shook it up a little bit."
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That was the key difference. The Patriots' defense played more man coverage during the season than any team in the league. But Sunday night, New England was in zone on about 40 percent of its defensive plays. That might not sound like a lot, but it's a lot more than the Patriots showed in any game film the Rams were able to watch the past two weeks, and it worked.
"When they start running zone, you've got to hold it a little bit," Whitworth said. "And then they end up rushing six guys -- all NFL rushers, all guys who can rush in the NFL -- somebody's going to have a mismatch somewhere."
The results were a bit similar to what happened to Goff and the Rams in their Week 14 loss in Chicago. That night, the Chicago Bears played a bunch of zone concepts and intercepted Goff four times in a 15-6 victory. Until Sunday night, that point total was the Rams' lowest of the season -- by 17.
"They mixed it up," McVay said of the Patriots' Super Bowl game plan. "In the early downs, all they ended up playing was some single-high buzz structures and some quarters principles. Then on third down, they had their designers and things like that. It was a great game plan."
Up front, the Patriots succeeded in their first two playoff games against the Los Angeles Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs by running a constant stream of games and stunts to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks. That was the same Sunday night. The difference was, the zone looks on the back end made Goff more hesitant with his reads, which gave the guys up front even more time to generate the pressure on him. According to ESPN Stats & Information tracking, Goff faced pressure on 38 percent of his dropbacks and was 3-for-12 with an interception when pressured, tied for the worst completion percentage for any quarterback who threw at least 10 passes under pressure in a Super Bowl.
Overall, Goff completed just 50 percent of his passes in the Super Bowl. He was 3-for-10 on third down, and the Rams failed to convert any of their first eight third-down situations. He was 0-for-5 on passes traveling at least 20 yards downfield, which tied for the highest number of such throws without a completion in any game so far in his three-year career.
"You think at some point you're going to come out of it, as we have all year," Goff said. "And we almost did."
Almost, indeed. The Rams were moving the ball in Patriots territory, down 10-3, with a little more than four minutes left in the game. It was second-and-10 from the New England 27. Goff was in the shotgun. Flores called a zero-blitz (basically, send everybody). Goff saw it and knew he had to unload the ball quickly, to Brandin Cooks, who was sprinting toward the end zone. Goff threw off his back foot. The ball floated.
"My reaction was to try to get a P.I. [pass interference]," Cooks said. "But I couldn't get the angle to."
Said Goff: "I knew they were bringing cover-zero blitz there, and I tried to hit Brandin on a go-ball. But [Patriots cornerback Stephon] Gilmore was too far off for me to make that decision. It was a bad decision."
Gilmore knew what he had to do.
"All I was thinking was, 'Don't drop it,'" Gilmore said. "We knew when they get near the end zone they like to take shots. Our defensive line put great pressure on him, he chucked it up, and I was able to make a play."
By the time Goff and the Rams got the ball back, they were down by 10 with 1:12 left and it was basically over. The real shame of it was, for the Rams, that their own defense was so good. If you'd told McVay and Goff on Sunday morning that the Rams' defense would hold the Patriots to 13 points, they'd have put the champagne on ice before they took the field.
"They were tough on defense," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. "They definitely had a good game plan and made us work for everything. There wasn't anything."
Brady got them with one good touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, which was all he needed because of the way his own defense played. The Patriots' 13 points were the fewest ever scored by a winning team in the Super Bowl. Oddly, their 10-point margin of victory was their largest in a Super Bowl in the Brady/Belichick era.
"Team defense," Belichick said. "There is not one guy that can stop the Rams. They have too many good players and they're too well-coached. We played the run competitively, we rushed the passer competitively, we covered competitively, and we didn't give up big plays, which they hit on everybody."
It was a brilliant defensive game by a brilliant defensive coach at the end of a season defined by offense. Belichick has made it clear time and again that he's willing to cut against the grain, strategically, if that's what it takes to win a game, and Sunday night might have been his macro masterpiece in that arena. While the rest of the league was trying to figure out how to top McVay and all of these high-flying offenses, Belichick decided the better idea was to figure out how to stop them.
"It's a cliché saying, but I think it's ultimately true -- defense wins championships," Rams defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said. "Their defense outplayed us."
That was, quite clearly, the story of Super Bowl LIII. Yes, Belichick tied Curly Lambeau and George Halas for the most NFL titles by a coach. Yes, Brady broke a tie with Charles Haley and became the first player to win six Super Bowl rings. Yes, the Patriots tied the Steelers for the most Super Bowls titles.
But all of this happened because the Patriots, as they almost always do when confronted with a puzzle, came up with a way to solve it that no one saw coming. Defense isn't dead after all, and Belichick delivered that message in front of the largest audience possible by using defense to load the latest Infinity Stone into his gleaming gauntlet.
The game might be changing, and at some point it might undergo the tectonic change the Rams' 54-51 Week 11 Monday night victory over the Chiefs was supposed to have heralded. But neither of those teams mustered a single first-half point against Belichick's Patriots in his past two games. He beat them both, and reminded us all that the NFL is going to have a hard time changing as long as he's up there grinding out game plans in Foxborough.