By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
For all the talk about Tom Brady delivering a championship drive and winning his sixth Super Bowl championship, this one was about the defense.
After two weeks of commentary surrounding a desire to atone for a humbling defeat in Super Bowl LII, the Patriots defense put together a tour de force performance in a redemptive win in Super Bowl LIII over the Los Angeles Rams. Any way you slice it, to allow three points against the high-powered Rams and their offensive whiz kid of a head coach, is one of the most impressive defensive performances in Super Bowl history.
It didn't come without significant adversity. Early in the third quarter, safety Patrick Chung crashed into Rams running back Todd Gurley and immediately clutched his right forearm. One of the toughest players on the team, Chung refused to be carted off, leaving the field under his own power in an air cast.
Chung didn't stay in the locker room long. He eventually returned to the sideline, and the ever-resilient Patriots defense kept it together and closed the Rams out. They overcame a tough stretch as they adjusted to the absence of Chung, whose skill set can't be replaced with one player.
It takes a lot of mental toughness to put together the kind of game the Patriots defense did in the Super Bowl. Especially when losing a player as important as Chung.
"We dedicated the game to him," said defensive end Deatrich Wise Jr. of Chung. "He got hurt and we said, 'You know what, Pat Chung gave everything he had for us. We're going to give everything we have for him.'"
The loss of Chung once again put the Patriots' "Next Man Up" mantra to the test. It meant more snaps for linebackers Elandon Roberts and Albert McClellan. It meant different roles for the other safeties, such as Duron Harmon's blitz that helped set up Stephon Gilmore's clutch fourth-quarter interception. They passed it for sure, and they did it with the help of one of their captains and emotional leaders staying on the sidelines as the rest of the game unfolded.
"We're all about 'next man up' when something happens, and we all know that," said defensive tackle Lawrence Guy. "We trust everyone that stepped into that game. We had full faith in everyone else coming in, we had full faith in us building the bond that we had over Week 1 to now. It was a no-brainer - we knew we were going to have [Chung] back on the sideline, giving great leadership. We knew we were going to do everything we can to play for him while he was on the sideline."
Whoever or whatever the Patriots decided to play for on defense, they continued to dominate Jared Goff and the Rams offense into the second half. Even when it looked like they were finally going to strike. Jason McCourty's pass breakup on Brandin Cooks in the end zone ranks among one of the best defensive plays ever made in a Super Bowl, as he closed on a wide-open Cooks after a coverage breakdown and recovered to prevent what could've been an easy touchdown.
Gilmore capped an All-Pro season with one of the most pivotal defensive plays of the Brady-Belichick era, perhaps sliding into the No. 2 spot behind Malcolm Butler's Super Bowl XLIX interception with a pick of Jared Goff as the Rams were driving. His play kept the score at 10-3, and helped the Pats go back the other way and pick up the three-point cushion that ultimately closed the Rams out.
It came down to the same thing that helped the defense stay dominant after losing Chung. Mental toughness.
"We responded well," Gilmore said after the game. "Patrick is one of the warriors on our team. He laid it all out on the line. You watch that play, he came in full speed, and when you see a guy like that coming in, putting his body on the line, not caring [what happens], you want to fight more for your teammates."
This defense fought for each other all season. The Super Bowl wasn't the first week they proved the proverbial doubters wrong. They came up big against other talented offenses like the Vikings, Packers, and Steelers. They took it to another level in the playoffs against the Chargers and Chiefs.
Their domination of the Rams offense was the magnum opus. The masterpiece. It happened amid some of the greatest adversity they'd faced all season. But in classic Belichickian Patriots fashion, the next men up did their jobs and they can call themselves champions again.
"[Chung's] a hard player to replace, but you've got guys hungry on that sideline itching to get their opportunity and those guys were ready," said linebacker Kyle Van Noy. "Duron [Harmon] was ready, Bert [Albert McClellan] was ready, [Elandon Roberts] was ready. They're champions themselves, so they knew what [the situation] was, and they got it done."
"Got it done" is a hell of an understatement. The Patriots are Super Bowl champions, and they did it by being the tougher team amid tougher circumstances. There's no more satisfying way to win a Super Bowl than that.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].