By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Patriots needed a four-minute drive to trigger the confetti and break out the Lombardi trophy. They only got about three, but it was enough to finish off the Rams and call themselves champions once again.
For the Pats' offensive line, prior postseason challenges weren't as daunting as it looked on Sunday. But in their biggest opportunity of Super Bowl LIII, they delivered championship football. Stephon Gilmore’s pivotal fourth-quarter interception gave the Pats a chance to run the clock out with 4:17 to go, and they nearly drained it all thanks to a few massive runs propelled by excellent blocking up front. It wasn't much different from what they did the first 18 weeks.
There’s a distinction between having to block for each other and wanting to do it. You can do your job either way. But stronger familial bonds between the players make a marked difference - especially along the offensive line. The Patriots have raised a happy, productive family, riding four of the same starters to two Super Bowl rings in three years with the latest one the most impressive triumph yet.
Through continuity and chemistry, they just completed one of the best seasons ever for an O-line under Bill Belichick.
Newcomer Trent Brown quickly assimilated himself as a mountainous blind-side force at left tackle. Months of physical sacrifices built the foundation for championship-caliber mental toughness on Sundays. The new starting five meshed under O-line maestro Dante Scarnecchia and all played some of the best football of their careers. And they finished the job for the Patriots in fitting fashion, chewing up 3:05 and creating 67 yards in nine plays to set up a Stephen Gostkowski field goal that dumped the Rams into garbage time.
For an offensive lineman, there's no more satisfying way to cap your season.
“Best feeling in the world,” said center David Andrews in his postgame presser on the Patriots' final drive. “You knew the game was on your back. ... There’s no other group I’d rather step out on the field with for that moment.
"All the times we’ve been through - the training camps, running the hills, the chewing-outs by Scar, all of it – it’s all worth it. The full pads in December, Oklahoma drills in December. It’s all worth it.”
Credit for the blocking on the drive is also due to tight end Rob Gronkowski, who helped spring Burkhead’s 26-yard run by turning aside Rams safety Lamarcus Joyner. Gronkowski didn’t impact the passing game like fans are used to seeing in 2018, but his run-blocking remains some of the best in the league at his position. When asked about the drive, Gronk credited almost everyone for making it happen.
“We need to make the plays, we make the plays,” Gronkowski said. “Whoever gets called on, whoever’s number it is – Rex [Burkhead], Sony [Michel], Julian [Edelman], [Chris] Hogan - whoever it is. Myself, Tom [Brady]. The offensive linemen just doing a great job sticking together, grinding it out, making the yards we need to win this game.”
Fullback James Develin was impossible to ignore. The hammer of the O-line on the ground, Develin's lead blocking stayed consistent all season. He dropped some anvils in the fourth quarter, including a perfect block to open up Sony Michel's touchdown, and another to free Burkhead for his big gain on the last offensive drive.
Belichick had them all prepared for the moment in the first place.
"We talk about four-minute situations where you're ahead with the lead [and] you have to make yards and we ran the ball," Belichick said in his postgame presser. "The way Sony [Michel] busted that one and we had a lot of plays – I don't know if it affected them much in the second half, certainly in the fourth quarter. I thought we had good time of possession and [that's] sometimes when you make the most plays. We moved the ball decent, we just couldn't get the points on the board for one reason or another. But in the end, it feels a lot better than last year when we did get some points on the board and [it's] just a great win for our team."
Belichick referred to Michel's 26-yard explosion on the second play of the drive, which sparked the whole thing. As the humble rookie did himself for the entire season, he can thank the perfect blocking in front of him. Joe Thuney executed a textbook pull block to the right, right guard Shaq Mason and right tackle Marcus Cannon turned Aaron Donald, then Cannon switched to the second level to seal off linebacker Cory Littleton. Michel did the rest as he serpentined up the middle and gave the Patriots the breathing room they needed.
“Kid battled all year. He’s a tough football player,” Andrews said of Michel. “I’m so proud of him.
“More proud that he’s a Dawg, though,” he added, referencing his former SEC teammate with the Georgia Bulldogs.
Andrews gave one last hint at the brotherhood that existed all season in the Patriots locker room. It was underestimated. Their bonds made the sacrifices worthwhile, and this was an offensive line that put the team first from start to finish. And they're not being blown up soon, either - Mason is locked up through 2023, Cannon through 2021, Andrews through 2020.
When it came time for a championship drive, the most consistent positional group on the roster seized its big moment to close out the Super Bowl with championship-level execution.
"We come in, it's not easy, it's tough," Andrews said in a postgame interview on the NFL Network. "You've got days where you wonder why you do it. But you do it for moments like this. It was on the line there. It took a four-minute drive from our own 4-yard line. I'm just so damn proud of these guys. It's just amazing."
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].