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Tom Brady celebrating his Super Bowl LIII victory on February 3, 2019

Even for the most devoted of NFL fans, Super Bowl LIII was hard to watch. Sunday night’s game pitted the young Los Angeles Rams – known for their balanced offense and play-making defense – against the undying dynasty that is the New England Patriots. It was poised to be an exciting matchup; the day of the game, the over-under on the game’s total points stood at 56. 

Four hours after kickoff, that prediction proved laughable at best. Neither Jared Goff nor Tom Brady threw a touchdown. Both teams missed kicks; they combined for a whopping 14 punts (in last year’s Super Bowl LII, the Patriots did not punt once). That number – four more than the NFL average for a game – underscored the prevalence of failed runs and passes, particularly by the Rams. The team seemed lost without wide receiver Cooper Kupp and a fully healthy Todd Gurley. 

By the end, Super Bowl LII had drawn the lowest ratings in a decade. In this article, I’ll delve into five questions the game might have left its viewers wondering.

Should the Saints have played?

For many, this is the single biggest question. The January 20th NFC Championship game included one of the most controversial calls in recent memory, potentially costing the New Orleans Saints a chance to compete in the Super Bowl. 

With 1:58 left on the clock and the score tied 20–20, the Saints had a third down on the Rams’ 13-yard-line. Quarterback Drew Brees fired a pass to wide receiver Tommylee Lewis. But before the ball came near Lewis, Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman laid him out. To the Saints, their fans, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, and even Robey-Coleman himself, the penalty was obvious. But a flag never came. 

So the controversy lies not in whether there should have been a penalty, but in whether a call would have changed the game – and what should have been done afterwards.

In the days following the Super Bowl, Saints fans started a petition to replay the game. Goodell offered an explanation and apologized for the call, asserting that he reached out to the Saints. New Orleans receiver Michael Thomas refuted his claim. Now, the football community is entertaining discussions about whether pass interference calls should be reviewed in the final two minutes of a game.

Super Bowl LIII could have been an epic matchup between Tom Brady and Drew Brees, two aging legends in the twilight of their careers. Instead, fans saw Brady face unproven newcomer Jared Goff, who finished the season with 7 TDs and 8 INTs in the last eight games, only once eclipsing 300 yards in that span.

Should the Saints have played? There is no plausible way to determine this. Replaying the game would have forced the teams to risk their bodies playing another week. It would have as well disadvantaged the Patriots, who would have had to wait another week to play. 

Is Edelman deserving of the MVP?

In short: no. 

It’s true that Edelman was the most impressive player on offense, serving as Brady’s primary target with 10 receptions and 141 of Brady’s 262 yards through the air. However, the argument that an offense that scored only thirteen points included the most valuable player of the game falls flat. Rather, as Stephen A. Smith pointed out on First Take, the honor should have gone to someone on the Patriots’ defense, which allowed just three points against the Rams’ notoriously strong offense.

Smith highlights the efforts of defensive coordinator Brian Flores, the mastermind behind the schemes employed by the Patriots’ defense. It would make sense to award the MVP to the defensive line, which held the Rams to just 62 yards rushing for the game. But to assign the distinction of MVP to multiple players is difficult; to assign it to a coach is impossible.

I believe the player on the defense who saved the game for the Patriots was Jason McCourty. With just under four minutes left to play in the 3rd quarter, McCourty broke up a go-ahead touchdown pass from Goff to Brandin Cooks that looked sure to be a score.

The replay reveals the sheer technical difficulty of his play; McCourty was 20 yards behind Cooks when the ball was thrown. To my mind, this play should have earned Jason McCourty the Super Bowl MVP. He kept the momentum in the hands of the Patriots and limited the Rams to just three points.

Who has more to do with the Patriots’ dynasty: Brady or Belichick?

Tom Brady (21/35, 262 yds, 1 int) looked very pedestrian in the Super Bowl, but he still got his sixth ring. Throughout Brady’s career, fans and haters alike have debated whether he is the GOAT or simply a system player under Belichick’s genius. Brady displayed a flash of brilliance with his lone touchdown drive, which included tight passes to Gronkowski and Edelman. But overall, his play fit the lackluster theme of the night.

That said, Brady actually has made a significant difference for the Patriots throughout his career. Brady tore his anterior cruciate ligament during the 2008–2009 season. The Patriots ended their play 11–5, but that season is the only one since 2002 in which they did not make the playoffs.

Additionally, Brady’s past Super Bowl performances – especially in Super Bowl LI’s legendary comeback against the Atlanta Falcons – display feats that few other quarterbacks have been able to accomplish, let alone consistently repeat. This year’s game was an anomaly. It was a game that, in many ways, was predicated on winning by controlling field position.

Is Sean McVay as brilliant as advertised?

Throughout the season, Sean McVay has been touted as a wunderkind. Coaches across the league have praised his brilliance, but his team’s three-point performance in the Super Bowl has called this into question.

Aside from the success he has found this year, the biggest pieces of evidence used by the media to showcase McVay’s cerebral abilities are his ability to remember every play from his coaching career and the time he was able to break down the entire Chicago Bears’ defense in an early December interview

The ability to remember every play is by no means a unique quality among people involved in professional sports, as evidenced by LeBron James’ ability to remember the exact sequence of events from his own games. 

McVay’s breakdown of the Bears’ defense was not particularly impressive either. Giving a breakdown of an opposing team’s defense should be expected of an opposing coach, who presumably has studied film beforehand. As for the matter of McVay’s success, I believe he was carried by a talented defense; the Rams limped through their last eight games with a struggling offense and a quarterback who seemed to regress.

During the game, commentators Jim Nantz and Tony Romo repeatedly referred to the matchup between McVay and Belichick as a “chess match.” If McVay were truly a brilliant strategist, his stagnant offense would have scored more just three points and had more than just eight first downs before the last two drives. Especially in the running game McVay would have made better adjustments to keep his offense on the field longer.

Was this truly the worst Super Bowl ever?

Many media outlets, like Rolling Stone and CNN have labeled LIII as the worst Super Bowl in history. Others, like Yahoo!Sports have listed it in their top ten worst Super Bowls. Popular twitter accounts, like NFL memes, have had a field day. 

I agree that the game amounted to a punting contest, but that does not make it a bad Super Bowl. The defenses – especially the Rams’ defensive line and the Patriots’ secondary – were spectacular throughout the game. And their success highlighted an interesting paradox: though the NFL is trending towards high-powered offenses, it seems that defense still wins championships. 

Even the game’s punting deserves some attention. It wasn’t until Ray Guy, a punter for the Oakland Raiders in the 70s and 80s, came to the NFL that punting became a legitimate strategy for teams. Guy’s height and accuracy on the ball made him known as the first punter to actually be able to win a game. Though punting is usually used as a symbol for a failed drive, the ability to lengthen the field for an opposing offense can often gain a team an advantage for the next few possessions. 

New England was able to pin Los Angeles within their own ten-yard line three times in the game. That allowed the Patriots to creep up the field at the start of their own drives, in turn gaining better field position for eventual field goals or touchdowns. With Brady and Edelman playing better than Goff and any of his receivers, this strategy worked out much better for the Patriots.

Perhaps Super Bowl XLIII did not offer many exciting deep throws or breakout runs. Maybe the Saints, boasting Drew Brees and Alvin Kamara, would have been more exciting as an opponent. However, whether it was Belichick, Brady, Edelman, McCourty, or the punter Ryan Allen who won the game, the Patriots’ championship win was dominant in more ways than one.

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