If you squint really hard, and maybe turn your head 75 degrees to the right, you could find an oasis of good football in the desert of crap that was Super Bowl 53. It didn’t come in the first half, which was the second-lowest scoring opening 30 minutes in Super Bowl history. And it didn’t come from the Rams, who only had three drives go longer than 30 yards (the results of those drives: field goal, interception, missed field goal).
It came from the Patriots about midway through the fourth quarter, when the team that had won five Super Bowls before Sunday finally decided to show up for a few minutes. With 9:43 left to play in this terrible, no-good game, New England took over at their own 31-yard-line and put together a nifty little drive—spanning just two minutes and 49 seconds—to take an insurmountable 10-3 lead. Sure, the Pats defense deserves most of the credit for the franchise’s sixth ring, but their offensive counterparts stopped barfing up shit for just long enough to look like an honest-to-goodness championship team.
This wasn’t a vintage Tom Brady game-winning drive, though. Those back-breaking sequences are usually more drawn-out, with multiple third- and fourth-down conversions that sap the energy from opponents and flood social media with dread: This shit is happening again. Hell, to even get to play in this putrid Super Bowl, the Pats had a game-winning drive against Kansas City in the AFC Championship game with three third-down conversions, including the 15-yard Rob Gronkowski catch that got the Pats into the red zone for the eventual game-winning score.
Instead, the only touchdown of the Super Bowl came on a breezy five-play drive that featured just one running play (on a night when the Pats called 32 runs total), and only one snap from anything past first down. When New England received the ball after the ninth Rams punt of the evening, you would be forgiven for settling into a death-by-a-million-paper-cuts situation. Brady and his two most-trusted receivers had other plans, unlocking the Rams’ defensive mystery for the first time all night. All it took was running (basically) the same play four times in a row.
That play was essentially distilled into two main parts that played to both of New England’s main passing strengths: Julian Edelman cuts across the middle, while Gronkowski runs a go-route outside. To free them up from the Rams’ good cover corners, the Pats lined up their running backs (either Rex Burkhead or Sony Michel, as well as fullback James Develin) outside, leaving Edelman and Gronk to run their preferred routes against linebackers and safeties. Perhaps due to mental or physical fatigue or maybe just due to the rapid-fire nature of the drive, the Rams allowed that to happen, instead of adjusting, either by bringing in more defensive backs or just having Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib swap assignments on the fly.
On the first play of the drive, Edelman lines up on Gronk’s side before motioning across to the left side of the formation, leaving the big tight end one-on-one with Rams linebacker Samson Ebukam, who jams Gronk at the line of scrimmage. That actually worked in the Pats favor though, because it pushed “America’s golden retriever” (barf) far enough toward the sideline that Brady was able to dump an easy lob into his hands for 18 yards.
The same concept plays into the second snap of the drive, with Gronk lined up in the slot on the right side, while Edelman does the same on the left. This looks more like Brady’s favorite play for Gronkowski, the seam go-route down the middle of the field, though it ends up being a distraction. Edelman runs a simple five-yard hook against linebacker Cory Littleton, and is able to spin away from him and scamper for a gain of 13 that put the Patriots into Rams territory:
The third play of the drive was its least exciting—not even Rex Burkhead can get excited for a seven-yard Rex Burkhead catch—it did flip the Edelman and Gronkowski positions, something that come into play one snap later. Notice, though, that the routes stay the same: Edelman cuts across from the right, given Brady a potential easy pass down the middle, while Gronk clears out the left side to allow Burkhead space underneath.
And then there was the big one. The Pats had racked up 38 yards in three plays, and faced a second-and-3 from the Rams’ 31. This is was deemed to be the perfect time to just go for it; at worst, you have a third-and-3 in field goal range. New England wouldn’t need that, though. Gronk, again on the left for the second consecutive play, is always the target here, running a go-route right past Littleton (and a late-charging Peters), but underneath safety John Johnson.
Brady, who had been mediocre all game, finally puts a throw on the money, threading the needle between both Rams players, allowing Gronkowski to make a play on the ball without too much resistance. And just like that, the Pats were on the doorstep.
After that, the Pats finally hand the ball off to Sony Michel, who had a wonderful game and a real case for MVP, with 18 carries for 94 yards and this game-winning touchdown:
This was the type of drive your annoying cousin runs in Madden, because he found an overpowered play that the game’s AI has no answer for. In this case, though, it showed an understanding of how the Rams would cover the Edelman threat across the middle, allowing Gronkowski the room to operate further to the outside. Los Angeles was trying to stop the long drive that has become Brady’s signature move, and instead gave up a high-octane sequence more akin to how the Rams offense would look on a day where it wasn’t shitting the bed.
Competency was hard to find in Atlanta on Sunday night, but New England managed to get its heads just far enough of their own asses for almost three minutes, and won the Super Bowl because of it.