How Much Longer Can the Patriots Rule the NFL?February 4, 2019
What the New England Patriots have accomplished shouldn't be possible.
Sunday's 13-3 victory over the Los Angeles Rams at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta gave the Patriots their sixth Super Bowl title over an 18-year period to tie the Pittsburgh Steelers for the most in pro football history.
Today's NFL prides itself on parity. Each team is supposed to have a chance at making the playoffs and competing for a championship. Reality is far different.
The Patriots have been the one constant in an era defined by free agency, player movement, multimillion-dollar contracts and athletes prioritizing their earning potential.
Their championship window isn't closing any time soon, either.
"Do Your Job" might be the most simplistic slogan in sports, but it's been a franchise-defining mantra that permeates every nook and cranny of the Patriots organization. Players become ensorcelled by the approach.
Even those previously considered problem children at other stops like Corey Dillon, Randy Moss and Aqib Talib buy into the approach, because everyone understands the Patriots' championship pedigree. Every year that head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady are at the helm, they're contenders.
The culture supersedes individuals, which also applies to the franchise's revered leaders. It's possible for New England to continue its excellence beyond the Belichick and Brady era.
Their greatness cannot be denied. Both are the best ever at their respective jobs. What they've built over 18 years is meant to last, especially with rock-solid ownership under Robert Kraft.
Brady will turn 42 before the 2019 campaign, although he has already stated he plans to return.
"I absolutely believe I will," Brady said during a Westwood One Sports interview before Super Bowl LIII. "I know I've talked about it a long time. I have goals to play not only next year but beyond that."
The 14-time Pro Bowler doubled down when asked again about his future after hoisting yet another Lombardi Trophy.
Said Brady, "Look at this—how could this not motivate you?"
The stability a 19-year veteran brings can't be overstated. However, the Patriots' approach in their latest championship should provide the blueprint for upcoming seasons.
Less should be placed on the GOAT and far more on the surrounding pieces. This also applies to tight end Rob Gronkowski, who will walk off the field sooner or later and stroll into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Gronkowski remained non-committal about his future after the contest.
"That decision will be made in a week or two," he told reporters.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels described how the Patriots approached a talented Rams defense and eventually prevailed despite a slow start, per ESPN.com's Mike Reiss:
Mike Reiss @MikeReiss
On the key strategy shift to go big personnel on offense, Josh McDaniels tells me they finally found something that worked as the key was getting the Rams into a base defense. So throwing with big personnel on the field, against base defense, was the change that sparked lone TD.
An understanding of this approach is important since the Patriots' ability to consistently win at the point of attack throughout the postseason allowed them to capture another championship.
Brady isn't going to get better. Gronkowski's health won't improve after taking more hits (if he even returns next season). It's time for the franchise to shift the focus, and the talent to do so is already on the roster.
On offense, a physical brand of football propelled the Patriots, as their offensive line is already counted among the league's best.
Only left tackle isn't set going into next season since Trent Brown is a pending free agent. His development under offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia has been extraordinary, as the career right tackle took to the left side and improved each week.
But the Patriots had the foresight to select Isaiah Wynn with the 23rd pick in last year's draft. With a replacement already on the roster, New England's offensive line is guaranteed a stable front for another season.
Brady will only be as good as those protecting him. An aging quarterback under constant duress is a recipe for disaster, but the Patriots are well-positioned after allowing only one postseason sack. Of course, a cerebral quarterback with a quick trigger helps, but the front five is equally adept at opening holes in the run game, which makes life easier for everyone.
Sony Michel is now the bell cow. Last year's 31st overall pick amassed 71 carries for 336 yards during the second season. He became the eighth player in NFL history to record six or more rushing touchdowns in one postseason, according to NFL Research.
James White is a wonderful complementary piece to Michel as the league's best receiving back. These two are weapons for New England to build the offense around since wide receiver still needs to be addressed.
Defensively, multiple difference-makers can be found. Linebacker Dont'a Hightower played arguably his best game on the biggest stage and wrecked the Rams' game plan. Stephon Gilmore is the game's best pure cover corner. If the Patriots find a way to re-sign upcoming free agent defensive end Trey Flowers, they will have game-changing talent at all three levels.
This year's Patriots weren't the most talented unit Belichick has ever fielded, but the scheme flexibility allowed the group to experiment and befuddle opposing signal-callers.
"Disguise," safety Duron Harmon explained, per Mass Live's Andrew Callahan. "What we're doing, where we're lining up, where we gotta get to. We're making things hard on the quarterback. Not just lining it up and giving (the coverage) to him."
Up front, the Patriots shifted, stunted and blitzed to keep the quarterback guessing. Behind those packages, multiple different coverage looks helped create confusion.
"We might not have the 99 (overall rated) guys in Madden and all that s--t, but we're a good team," Hightower said, per Callahan.
Of course, the Patriots must reload after inevitable offseason departures. It happens every year. Linebackers coach Brian Flores will be the biggest loss as he makes his way to Miami to become the Dolphins' new head coach.
Belichick often gets credit, but Flores served as the team's defensive play-caller. The longtime assistant called a near-flawless game and earned the right to take over an organization.
"There is no other way to say it, but I got outcoached," Rams head coach Sean McVay admitted after the game, per CBS Sports' Will Brinson.
Wide receivers coach Chad O'Shea, meanwhile, will likely join Flores and become the Dolphins' offensive coordinator.
Attrition among the coaching ranks may be the most difficult thing for the Patriots to overcome. Everyone wants a piece of Belichick's success.
Former defensive coordinator Matt Patricia left last year to run the Detroit Lions. Flores and O'Shea are next. Fortunately for the Patriots, McDaniels stayed in New England instead of becoming the Indianapolis Colts' next head coach.
McDaniels is the obvious heir apparent to Belichick. He'll never be able to replace his mentor, but the Patriot Way can make a smooth transition once the 66-year-old decides enough is enough.
The next steps are already being taken.
New England's scouting staff continues to work through prospects with the NFL combine in Indianapolis rapidly approaching. Needs at wide receiver and defensive line are at the forefront. Brady's successor must be acquired and developed, even if he plans to play until he's 45 or older. The Jimmy Garoppolo trade may have been the organization's biggest misstep in recent years.
All the while, the rest of the league already has a head start on finding ways to dethrone the champions.
The Kansas City Chiefs, New Orleans Saints and Chicago Bears are only a step or two away from New England's current standing. A young and exciting crop of quarterbacks—Patrick Mahomes, Mitchell Trubisky, Jared Goff, Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson, Josh Rosen—are champing at the bit.
There's no rest for the winners. The Patriots are already on to the 2019 season.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.