When the Patriots and Rams clash in Super Bowl LIII, it’ll mark the ninth Super Bowl appearance of the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick era. That’s exactly half of the 18 years they’ve spent together as a starting quarterback and head coach, and that includes the 2008 season in which Brady went down for the season in Week 1.
It’s been an absolutely remarkable run, and you can’t help but notice that 17 years ago it was the Rams that the Patriots defeated as 14-point underdogs in Super Bowl XXXVI. The Rams have had eight different head coaches and 21 different starting quarterbacks since that game. And yet here are the Pats, marching into the Super Bowl with the same combination they had back in 2001.
It’s a different league than it was 17 years ago — Brady threw for 691 yards and two touchdowns in the two playoff games to reach Super Bowl LIII. But it came on 90 passing attempts, surprisingly compared to 91 passing attempts in the two playoff games to reach Super Bowl XXXVI — 21 of them were by Drew Bledsoe in the AFC Championship game after Brady got injured.
Meanwhile, the Patriots ran 55 rushing plays and scored one rushing touchdown to reach the Super Bowl in 2001 —37.6 percent of the plays. This time around? The Pats have pounded the rock 82 times (47.6 percent of the plays) for 331 yards and eight touchdowns.
By today’s NFL standards, the Patriots are accomplishing their success the same way they did back in 2001 — running the football, playing defense and having solid quarterback play.
Again, we need to account for the changes the league’s seen over the past 17 years, but Brady didn’t throw a touchdown in the postseason until that Super Bowl against the Rams (he did rush for one in the Snow Bowl victory over the Raiders).
While Brady’s been as clutch as ever in the passing game, the dominance has belonged to the ground game and the defense. The Patriots defense was able to dominate for full games back in 2001, allowing just 30 points in the two playoff games leading up to the Super Bowl.
The 59 points the Patriots have allowed to the Chargers and Chiefs this time around aren’t ideal, but they also allowed just seven combined first-half points to the teams tied for the highest win total in the AFC. You can’t expect to shut teams like that out anymore, but limiting them early while building a lead seems to be the key to success.
That’s exactly what the 2001 Patriots did to the Rams — AKA “The Greatest Show on Turf” — in the Super Bowl. That Rams offense, which featured Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, and Torry Holt, was ahead of its time — they slung the ball 44 times for 365 yards in Super Bowl XXXVI. Yet the Pats managed to limit the Rams to just three points heading into the fourth quarter before they burst out for 14 points to tie the game.
This is the Patriots’ third straight trip to the Super Bowl, and each time we’ve questioned if it’ll be their last. If this is the time that narrative actually proves to be true, there are a lot more similarities than the opponent when it comes to the way this team and the 2001 team play, including the motivation of the quarterback and coach.