It was finally supposed to be a changing of the guard, a new dawn for the NFL. After 18 years of utter American Football Conference domination, and it generally feeling like Tom Brady held the fate of entire NFL seasons in the palm of his glorious right hand, 2018/19 was supposed to be when the sand in his and the New England Patriots’ hour glass finally trickled out.
With a sixth Super Bowl ring against the upstart LA Rams on Sunday night in Atlanta though, Father Time instead proved he is still running like clockwork – even if the Patriots aren’t.
Offensively speaking, this is not a star-studded side. Bar excellent Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman the Pats possess a pretty paltry pass attack.
A banged-up, physically eroding Rob Gronkowski has soldiered on heroically in what could be his final season. The troubled yet extremely talented Josh Gordon was a mid-season acquisition, but was soon released and watched Super Bowl LIII from an in-patient facility in Florida following an indefinite suspension by the NFL for his latest run-in with lawmakers for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.
Cordarrelle Patterson and Chris Hogan meanwhile, are hardly names to strike fear into opposition defences. Rex Burkhead and James White, a post-season hero but still hardly considered glamorous, are the pass-catching backs. These are certainly not the star names of past fearsome New England receiving ranks.
Two years ago, Brady was without injured bull Gronkowski, but Edelman was ably assisted by Danny Amendola, now at the Miami Dolphins.
In 2015 he had Shane Vereen and Brandon LaFell. In earlier Super Bowls, Deion Branch, Corey Dillon, David Givens, Troy Brown, Kevin Faulk, Troy Brown and Daniel Graham were stellar and safe pairs of hands to throw to.
Even in defeats at Super Bowls XLII and XLVI, Wes Welker, Randy Moss, Donte Stallworth, Aaron Hernandez, Danny Woodhead, Branch and a young Gronk provided panache and poise.
Of course, Father Time didn’t exactly play to his accustomed superstar standards at Mercedes-Benz Stadium either. Like the bare arsenal at his disposal, the 41-year-old is not firing like he once did.
It was the only one of his six Super Bowl wins that didn’t produce a touchdown pass. His 262 yards passing was the third fewest of his winning efforts, while only in his debut on the grand stage, aged 24 in 2002 against the same opposition, did he throw fewer completions (21 vs 16 in 2002). His passer rating (71.4) was also his worst.
It was a microcosm of his season as a whole. During the regular season he threw more interceptions (11) than he had since 2013, and his rating dipped to 97.7, putting him 11th among NFL starters. He was 10th in touchdowns and seventh for yards thrown.
Yet even with a giant of the game’s powers diminishing, he still made the difference when it mattered most.
In one of the worst Super Bowls ever witnessed (the lowest scoring in history), he showed up, almost right on cue – delivering a 69-yard drive masterpiece that included two clutch throws to Gronk, another player somehow still ticking, before Sony Michel plunged into the end zone from two yards for the game’s only touchdown. Though he was far from ticking, Father Time struck just in time to deliver the game’s telling score.
Of course, a large slice of the praise must be shared with another veteran figure, his coach Bill Belichick, 66, who now surely has an unrivalled claim to the crown of best NFL coach ever. Perhaps even a stake as one of the greatest coaches to have graced any sport.
The NFL is somewhat in a state of flux, a little like men’s tennis. Alexander Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Dominic Thiem appear on the cusp of challenging the dominance of Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal. Yet they just can’t quite shift them.
It’s the same in the NFL, where despite the undoubted talent and arm strength of Jared Goff and Patrick Mahomes among others, they can’t quite push the elder statesmen aside. The respective AFC and NFC Championship games featured Mahomes and Goff (23 and 24) but also Brady and Drew Brees (41 and 40).
It’s not that the new generation is flattering to deceive. A whole host of names impressed this year, none more so than vanquished Rams QB Goff and Kansas City Chiefs phenom Mahomes.
Their gargantuan promise was best encapsulated in a bizarre and brilliant encounter in LA in November, a game that ended in a 54-51 triumph for Goff’s Rams, shattering all kinds of records.
By season’s end Mahomes became only the third player to toss 50 touchdowns in a season – drawing level with Brady’s 2007 exploits. Only Peyton Manning’s 55 TDs in 2013 tops this.
Stats such as these steered Mahomes to the 2018 MVP on the eve of the Super Bowl. At 23 he became the youngest winner since Dolphins deity Dan Marino in 1984. Mahomes earned 41 of the votes. New Orleans quarterback Brees got the other nine. He had earlier beaten the Saints stalwart to the league’s Offensive Player of the Year award too, winning by 30 votes to 16.
Goff may not be quite as spectacular a player but also delivered on previous promise this season. His 4,688 yards were the fourth most behind Mahomes, Matt Ryan and Ben Roethlisberger, with 32 touchdowns enough for joint sixth and a passer rating of 101.1 good enough for seventh. All three were higher figures than Brady.
But when you’re up against arguably the greatest player of all time, it’s unlikely to be an easy task to push him aside.
Despite all the promise and stats padding of the emerging duo it was Brady, who is just six years younger than these two young pretenders combined, lifting a sixth Lombardi trophy.
At 41 time is no longer on Brady’s side. But his timely contribution to claim a sixth ring proves Father Time is not quite ready to be placed against a wall like a grandfather clock just yet.
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