NFL

Patriots-Rams Super Bowl rematch brings Tom Brady, Bill Belichick full circle

Seventeen Super Bowls later, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are going right back to where the Patriots’ seemingly never-ending dynasty started.

OK, so the “where” is a little different. Super Bowl 53 will be played in Atlanta, not New Orleans, and these Rams are from Los Angeles, not St. Louis. But it’s appropriate that New England’s opponent in their latest attempt at a record-tying sixth Super Bowl championship is the same team it faced in its quest for the first.

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As a refresher, that was a 24-year-old Brady and a 49-year-old Belichick in a modest, 20-17 victory in Super Bowl 36, well before they became the most successful player-coach duo in the history of American professional team sports. It’s unfathomable that Brady is now only eight years younger than Belichick was then.

The Rams in 2001 were two years removed from winning a Super Bowl, and they looked like they were primed to start a dynasty of their own with Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk under the offensive genius of Mike Martz. They were 14-point favorites against the Patriots and were expected to light up the scoreboard.

That was until they faced a game plan from Belichick’s staff that employed heavy defensive-back packages, physical play on the Rams’ wide receivers and a relentless emphasis on taking Faulk out of the passing game. The Rams failed to adjust by running the ball with Faulk, while the Patriots had no problems playing methodical ball control on the other side. Then there was a young Brady, in his serendipitous initial starting stint, coming through with a game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter.

The assistant coaches and players for Belichick and Brady have changed, but the preparedness and execution have not. It’s still extremely hard to both out-coach and out-clutch the Patriots when the stakes are highest. That was the launching point to a stratosphere of consistent excellence the league has never seen.

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The Patriots will play that underdog card again, even though the Rams opened as favorites before the line flipped. Sure, these Rams also are known for an explosive offense centered around an elite feature back, but it’s not like the Patriots are operating with a rag-tag group of playmakers.

Even without that reliable, speedy, outside threat Josh Gordon could have provided the Patriots, Sony Michel, James White, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski and their offensive line give them skill players and blockers as strong as those of the Rams. The betting line might indicate the Patriots are not the intimidating favorites, but everyone outside of New England knows they are.

New England has already extended its dominance beyond the reasonable limitation. The Eagles threw everything they had at the Patriots, and it was barely enough to interrupt them. But until another team can do it again, last year will feel more like a Giant anomaly.

The Rams have a 24-year-old Jared Goff at QB and a soon-to-be 33-year-old Sean McVay as head coach. Another Bay Area kid and another pedigreed football savant are charged with taking down counterparts who began their ring business while Goff and McVay were in elementary and high school, respectively.

It’s now on the Rams to figure out how to slow down the Patriots with their stout defensive line and physical defensive backs. Goff will need to be as unflappable in the biggest game moments as a much less experienced Brady once was.

The Patriots beat the best, and they became the best for longer than anyone could have imagined. There have been points where we thought the Brady and Belichick championship story would end, only to see it come back stronger with a different cast and different dramatic finish. When they beat the Rams the first time, the Patriots went on to win three of four Super Bowls. Should they do it again, it would be a back-end three of five Super Bowls.

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Many thought these particular Patriots didn’t quite have “it.” We looked at their speed and quickness deficiencies on defense and downfield passing limitations on offense. We saw their road struggles, to the point that a No. 2 seed and not a No. 1 would be almost impossible to overcome. But with three rings as a top AFC seed, and two more as a second seed, maybe the Patriots were looking for synergy and symmetry there, too.

When coaches and players are asked to compare championships, the go-to cliche is, “Each one is a little different.” The Patriots treat every opportunity to win a Super Bowl with Brady and Belichick like it’s both their first and their last.

That’s why the dynasty has lasted long enough for them to both repeat and make history against the Rams.

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