ATLANTA — As the confetti fell inside U.S. Bank Stadium, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick walked off the field with dejected looks on their faces. After Brady’s Hail Mary fell incomplete, all of the Patriots left that cold Minnesota night last February upset and probably wondering if they had lost their last opportunity to win a Super Bowl.
Brady was 40, after all, and not many quarterbacks are still at the top of their game in their 40s. There were stories about the fracturing relationship between the once-in-a-generation quarterback and once-in-a-generation head coach, as well as the head coach and the owner.
Then the Patriots began the 2018 season by losing two of their first three games. All eyes shifted to the Chiefs, with their hot young quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, and their exciting and seemingly unstoppable offense.
The Patriots were too old to make another Super Bowl. That was a popular belief . . . and one they proved incorrect.
The Patriots disposed of those Chiefs in Kansas City in the AFC Championship Game and will be playing in their third straight Super Bowl when they face the Rams on Sunday at Mercedes Benz Stadium.
Before the Patriots left for Atlanta and Super Bowl LIII, Brady ended a pep rally in Foxborough with a chant of “we’re still here!” and dropped the mic.
The 41-33 loss to the Eagles in last year’s Super Bowl is behind New England. Their motivation is to prove they’re not too old and that they can beat another upstart team led by a 33-year-old coach, a third-year quarterback and fourth-year running back.
“We want to play for those rings,” Brady said. “That’s what being a competitor is all about. Our team has established very high standards.”
The Patriots have won five Super Bowls under Belichick and with Brady under center, one behind the Steelers for the most in NFL history. The first was 17 years ago against the Rams of St. Louis — and they’re still here.
This is the fourth time in five years that the Patriots have reached the Super Bowl and the ninth time in the last 18 seasons that Brady and Belichick have been here together, overcoming Spygate, Deflategate and plenty of internal drama.
Belichick and Brady are the winningest coach-quarterback tandem in playoff history. Their 29 postseason victories are more than twice the amount of the next-best coach-quarterback duo. Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw won 14 playoff games.
The Patriots’ dynasty begins with Belichick and Brady. The team just seems to add the right players, Belichick makes it work and Brady makes them better.
“We’ve been privileged to keep continuity with two people who are unbelievable at what they do,” Patriots owner Robert Kraft told CNBC this past week.
It’s been an incredible partnership that’s been timeless and seemingly endless. Brady is 41 and has said that win or lose, he plans to be back next season. He wants to play until he’s 45. Why would anyone doubt him? No one believes Belichick will walk away, either.
As long as Brady and Belichick are together, this run of greatness could continue.
“He’s an incredible coach,” Brady said. “We have a huge degree of trust in one another. I know he’s working every day to make our team the best it possibly can. I’m trying to do the same. We’ve been together for so long in a great way. I’ve learned so much from him. I’ve just tried to be what I think a quarterback should be for a team.”
Belichick knows he’s coaching arguably the greatest quarterback of all time. Brady has thrown 18 touchdown passes and five interceptions in his Super Bowl career. A sixth ring would be the most for any player in NFL history.
“I’d certainly put him up there against anybody,” Belichick said. “Certainly his record is unmatched. I’m glad he’s my quarterback.”
Of course, it’s going to take more than Brady’s greatness and Belichick’s genius to beat Sean McVay — some have used the word “genius’’ to describe him as well — and his loaded Rams.
Brady threw for a Super Bowl-record 505 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions last year, and the Eagles still won.
“New team, new game, new opponent,” wide receiver Chris Hogan said. “If anything, you don’t want to have that nasty taste in your mouth at the end of the game.”
The Patriots’ defense, which believes it gets overlooked, knows it has to play its best game of the season.
They held the Chiefs scoreless in the first half of the AFC title game but couldn’t stop them in the fourth quarter. The Patriots were fortunate to win the coin flip in overtime. Brady got the ball and New England’s defense never had to take the field.
The Rams are stacked offensively with improving quarterback Jared Goff, dual-threat running back Todd Gurley and a receiving corps that includes Robert Woods and former Patriot speedster Brandin Cooks.
They were the only team with two 1,000-yard receivers and a 1,000-year rusher this season. Gurley scored 21 touchdowns in 14 games. C.J. Anderson has been a workhorse in the backfield of late.
“I see a good football team that’s been consistently good for the two years that he’s been there,” Belichick said of McVay. “They’ve led the league in scoring over that period of time. They’re very good on defense. They’re very explosive in the kicking game. Every play is a problem, and he’s done a great job of creating that type of explosive attacking team that’s very hard to play against.”
The key for the Patriots’ offense will be to keep the Rams’ formidable front off Brady. Aaron Donald led the NFL with 20 1⁄2 sacks. The Rams also have Ndamukong Suh, Samson Ebukam, Dante Fowler Jr. and Michael Brockers.
Brady wasn’t sacked in the first two playoff games and was hit only three times. It’s allowed the Patriots’ running game to flourish and Brady to carve up defenses.
Sony Michel has five rushing touchdowns and Rex Burkhead has three in the postseason. Brady has thrown for 691 yards, distributing the ball to his usual cast of characters — Julian Edelman, James White, Rob Gronkowski and Hogan.
“Playing in this game, you have the two best teams,” Brady said. “You fight it out. One team wins. There’s no do- overs. There isn’t any retakes or Hollywood scripts or anything. This is live bullets and we got to go out and get the job done under pressure. I’m looking forward to it.”
He added: “The football season is like a climbing a mountain or running a marathon. The goal is to reach the top. Only one team reaches the top, top. We’re pretty close.”
The hardest step awaits for Brady, Belichick and the Patriots.