It’s appropriate that the lowest-scoring Super Bowl ever saw an interception on the first pass and set a record for the longest punt in a title game. In a season with the second-most points scored per game in NFL history, it was defense, not offense, that ruled the day.
Throughout the 13-3 New England victory, the Patriots frustrated the Rams’ offensive plans, pressuring quarterback Jared Goff into off-target throws, ill-advised scrambles and finally — when it mattered most, with 4:19 left in the fourth quarter — a game-clinching interception. In holding Los Angeles to 3 points — which tied the 1971 Dolphins with the lowest point total in a Super Bowl — the Patriots were relentless in their pass rush. They blitzed an incredible 41 percent of the time, and Goff was pressured on 39 percent of his dropbacks, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group. And it wasn’t just the Patriots front six that made life difficult on the Rams; the Patriots secondary blanketed Los Angeles all night long. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Rams receivers had the worst separation when targeted by Goff since Sean McVay was named head coach.
But this wasn’t a case of the Patriots defense — one that was middling most of the regular season — suddenly morphing into the 1985 Chicago Bears or the 2000 Baltimore Ravens.1 The Rams’ execution and play-calling were suspect as well. The Patriots held C.J. Anderson and Todd Gurley to 57 yards on the ground, and they did it without stacking the box. The Rams never faced a defensive front with more than seven men near the line of scrimmage — not even once in the game. Against a light box of six or fewer defenders, the Rams offensive line was able to generate only 21 rushing yards on six carries — a 3.5-yard average. That was 2.2 yards worse than their regular-season average of 5.7 and just a 10th of a yard more than the 3.4 yards per carry2 they averaged Sunday against a seven-man front. The Rams went from being the third-ranked rushing team in the league against these light and neutral defensive fronts — averaging 5.4 yards per carry in the regular season — to one that could muster only 3.4 in the biggest game of the year.
Goff, who was hit five times in the game, was never able to find a consistent rhythm and frequently missed his target. Most notably, he was late on a pass in the third quarter, allowing safety Jason McCourty to break up a sure touchdown to a wide-open Brandin Cooks in the end zone. McVay, meanwhile, failed to aggressively push small edges, never going for it on fourth-and-short. The Rams also played sloppily, earning nine penalties for 65 yards to New England’s three for 20. Much was written about the experience gap between the two teams at coach and QB, and it showed. At one point, Goff forgot the snap count he called in the huddle and was flagged for a false start, an incredibly rare feat for an NFL quarterback.
The net result of the Rams’ offensive futility was historic: They became only the second team in Super Bowl history not to score a touchdown, wasting a defensive effort that held Tom Brady and the Patriots to 13 points. And while there may be more to football than scoring points, it’s hard to argue that this Super Bowl was a shining example of compelling low-scoring football. Neither team was efficient on third down, with each converting just three opportunities into a new set of downs. A total of one play was run in the red zone by either team. The first half of the game was so uneventful that the two plays with the highest impact as measured by positive win probability3 added were punts by Johnny Hekker.
In a season defined by high-scoring excitement, this Super Bowl could have been a showcase for explosive offensive efficiency. Instead we got nine Hekker punts and Maroon 5 in the halftime show. In short, it was one of the worst Super Bowls ever.