Super Bowl LIII showed why football has three phases and they all matter

Feb 3, 2019; Atlanta, GA: New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore intercepts a pass intended for Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Brandin Cooks in the fourth quarter in Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)
Feb 3, 2019; Atlanta, GA: New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore intercepts a pass intended for Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Brandin Cooks in the fourth quarter in Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com

For NFL fans who spent the last three months lamenting the downfall of defense, the pointlessness of special teams, and the saturation of stats and fantasy teams, Super Bowl LIII was a thrilling throwback.

To be fair, "thrills" wouldn't exactly describe the totality of the New England Patriots' 13-3 win over the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday. In a season defined by offense, they won with excellence in American football's other phases. Billed as the greatest quarterback of all time vs. one of the most talented young passers in the NFL, the game more closely resembled football as it existed before the forward pass was even allowed.

Defensive showcases. Field position. Trench warfare. This is what decided Super Bowl LIII. And while it would scorch the Earth to suggest this game was "good for the league" - it wasn't - the Patriots at least proved that you can still win in ways other than winning an overtime coin flip or having the ball at the end of a scoring bonanza. Until Sunday night, complete football felt like a lost art.

Super Bowl LII between the Patriots and Eagles was significantly better for the league. Casual fans marveled at two high-powered cavalries galloping up and down the field with little resistance. All those yards and touchdowns. It captivated viewers who otherwise prefer NCIS.

Sunday was more for the purists. Call them crusty. Bemoan the game as boring. But for those truly engaged in the action on the field, Super Bowl LIII delivered a wealth of suspense for most of the 60 minutes - much more than we saw last February.

Ultimately, Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis didn't sear a ton of lasting memories. In fact, the most memorable thing about the game was Bill Belichick's benching of Malcolm Butler. The game itself made highlight reel creators work overtime, but a lot of that offense was instantly forgettable. It was entertaining, but not dramatic. The game featured exactly two plays worth remembering: the Eagles' "Philly Special" trick-play touchdown on fourth-and-2 by the goal line, and Brandon Graham's fourth-quarter strip-sack of Tom Brady that finally showed viewers the defenses did, indeed, suit up.

Feb 3, 2019; Atlanta, GA: Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff is tackled by New England Patriots outside linebacker Dont'a Hightower during the second half in Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports)
Feb 3, 2019; Atlanta, GA: Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff is tackled by New England Patriots outside linebacker Dont'a Hightower during the second half in Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports)

Two of the Patriots' prior Super Bowl appearances were far more memorable than Super Bowl LII, both because they featured more than just quarterbacks scrimmaging back and forth for 58 minutes. Super Bowl XLIX may have been the perfect Super Bowl, featuring big-time plays by both teams on both sides of the ball. The Patriots got an all-time fourth-quarter comeback from Brady, then capped the victory with a goal-line interception that may never lose its spot as the greatest single play in Super Bowl history. It came after yet another astonishing circus-catch that set up Butler's iconic pick in the first place.

On the other side of the coin is Super Bowl XLII. Not a perfect game, but it famously ruined the Patriots' perfect season. It was played within one possession from start to finish, as the Giants and Patriots' defensive fronts battled to a relative stalemate until late in the fourth quarter. Then Brady and Eli Manning suddenly traded thrilling touchdown drives. While the end result went against the Patriots, the game certainly ranks closer to "unforgettable" for Pats fans than what unfolded in Minnesota against the Eagles.

Super Bowl LIII was not a classic by any means. Unless you really like punting. But it certainly wasn't the worst Super Bowl of all time, either. No Super Bowl that features a Hall of Fame-worthy defensive performance should be considered the worst of anything. This is still football. The game is not called "Quarterbacks". Defense is still a thing, and both defenses played their asses off all night.

Led by Belichick and defensive signal-caller Brian Flores, the Patriots played as well as you'll ever see a defense play as a unit. And many Patriots stepped up individually. Dont'a Hightower (two sacks, three QB hits), Kyle Van Noy (sack, three QB hits), Trey Flowers (two QB hits), Patrick Chung (pass breakup), Danny Shelton (tackle for loss), Stephon Gilmore (interception), Duron Harmon (pass breakup and blitz that led to INT), John Simon (tipped pass), Jonathan Jones (team-leading eight tackles, sack) and Jason McCourty (touchdown breakup) all contributed. Unfortunately, fans outside of New England would've preferred an easy wide-open touchdown for Brandin Cooks over McCourty's incredible play to cover over 20 yards of ground and break up the TD at the last second.

ATLANTA, GA - FEBRUARY 03: Brandin Cooks of the Los Angeles Rams drops a pass in the endzone as he is defended by Jason McCourty of the New England Patriots in the second half during Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - FEBRUARY 03: Brandin Cooks of the Los Angeles Rams drops a pass in the endzone as he is defended by Jason McCourty of the New England Patriots in the second half during Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

If not for the Patriots' Sistine Chapel of defense, they would've fallen to Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips painting his Mona Lisa. Linebacker Cory Littleton dove to intercept a tipped Brady pass on his first attempt of the game. Non-Patriots fans surely thought they were in for a fun night at that point. The L.A. defensive front, spearheaded by Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh, and Dante Fowler, broke through to the backfield for much of the game, sometimes rushing Brady into throws. Besides one championship drive by Rob Gronkowski in the fourth quarter, the only thing that consistently worked for the Patriots was Brady and Julian Edelman. Same can be said for the Rams' Jared Goff and Cooks.

If there's anything that Super Bowl LIII suffered from, it's subpar quarterback play. That's not ideal. Brady and Goff could have carried this game a long way if each of them made just a few more plays. The Rams were doomed from the start by Goff's deer-in-the-headlights look against the Patriots' aggressive pass rush and shape-shifting coverages. Brady seldom looked comfortable, nearly lost a fumble, and receivers other than Edelman struggled mightily to get open.

To be certain, Super Bowl LIII didn't have to feature 14 punts. But even that aspect of the game was executed at an elite level. It's unfair to expect the average Super Bowl viewer to be excited about Johnny Hekker's Super Bowl record 65-yard punt, or Matthew Slater gunning to the 2-yard line to one-hand a fluttering Ryan Allen kick. But these were masters of their craft at work, and for most of the game field position played a major role in the proceedings.

I mean, it was at least just as entertaining as Olympic curling. People spend weeks pretending to enjoy that.

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - FEBRUARY 03: Ryan Allen of the New England Patriots punts the ball against the Los Angeles Rams in the second quarter during Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - FEBRUARY 03: Ryan Allen of the New England Patriots punts the ball against the Los Angeles Rams in the second quarter during Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

The longer Super Bowl LIII went on, the more it felt like it was going to take a defensive touchdown or blocked punt taken all the way to the end zone in order to swing the game. Almost every play hung in that sort of balance. And at the same time, the Pats and Rams both found ways to periodically move the ball through the air. As it turns out, the Patriots got the field-flipping turnover it needed with Gilmore's late interception. The ensuing clock-killing, field-goal drive essentially salted away Brady's sixth Super Bowl championship.

It was far from the most exciting Super Bowl to watch. But this was football. Two 53-man squads in a taut, heavy rock-fight. You're throwing chairs if you took the over and set some DraftKings lineups. It's not out of line to suggest, perhaps, a 20-10 score instead of the historically low 13-3 would've made the product a little more digestible. It would've helped if the teams didn't combine to go 6-for-25 on third downs.

But the important thing, here, is that the Patriots proved you don't have to just assemble the best offense to have a championship roster. Instead, the Patriots defense stymied three straight explosive offenses in the playoffs by allowing seven total points over 90 minutes of first halves. They flustered all three opposing quarterbacks, capping it with Belichick and Flores' wire-to-wire dominance of the NFL's offensive boy wonder, Sean McVay.

Feb 3, 2019; Atlanta, GA: Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay on the sidelines in Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
Feb 3, 2019; Atlanta, GA: Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay on the sidelines in Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

This was the Sopranos finale of Super Bowls. The season didn't end how anyone expected and how few wanted. Viewers stared agape at their TV screens like "That's it!?" But this was a memorable Super Bowl in its own unique way. After a season obliterated by offensive explosions and Pro Bowl-esque ball movement in real games, the Pats subverted the world's expectations with a defensive masterstroke. It may not have a ton of replay value outside of New England, but for millions the game no doubt left a baffling mark.

New England will gladly wear that scar. The Patriots went and decided to play a football game. They showed the world that there's not one, not two, but three phases and you can still win with the two bastard children of a fantasy-driven league. Maybe the Dolphins, who hired Flores as their new head coach, and the Broncos, who hired former Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, will prove to be prescient in prioritizing defense.

Belichick is such a one-of-a-kind football mind that his old-school thumping of the Rams may ultimately be an outlier in a league that is bouldering toward an annual Wild West shootout every February. But the Patriots earned their latest championship in such stunning, punishing fashion that it could cause the game to change course.

For fans of the game of football and all of its phases and nuance and details, that would be a welcome reversal.

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].

Note: This story was updated with the correct information on the Patriots' final scoring drive, as well as additional player stats.