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‘Once-in-a-lifetime’ nine times: Patriots QB Tom Brady eyes Rams 17 years later

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will play in his ninth Super Bowl on Sunday. | Seth Wenig/AP photo

ATLANTA — Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has been to so many Super Bowls — nine in 17 years, to the day — that he’s a qualified expert in how it has changed. The circus surrounding the game has grown, he said this week.

The only thing that hasn’t changed, it seems, is Brady. Make that two things: Patriots coach Bill Belichick is the other constant, as synonymous with the Super Bowl as overwrought halftime shows.

Brady and Belichick have reached nine Super Bowls, more than any franchise not named the Patriots. In the last 18 seasons, they’ve reached the Super Bowl half the time.

‘‘It is once-in-a-lifetime, this experience,’’ Brady said Friday. ‘‘But we’ve just been fortunate enough to play good enough in the playoffs to advance and to get to play in this game.

‘‘It’s hard to believe it’s the ninth time doing this. It wasn’t always like this.’’

It won’t be like this forever. Entering the Super Bowl on Sunday against the Rams at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Patriots’ dominance shouldn’t be taken for granted.

‘‘When you’ve been in the position I’ve been in, you just count your blessings every day,’’ Brady said. ‘‘I’ve just been part of so many great teams that have had an opportunity to play in this game.’’

If this turns out to be Brady’s last appearance, the symmetry will be poetic. He appeared in his first Super Bowl on Feb. 3, 2002 — 17 years ago Sunday — against the Rams, who hailed from St. Louis at the time.

With the score tied with 90 seconds left, Brady marched the Patriots downfield to set up a game-winning

48-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri. It was the first of Brady’s five championships, and he was named the Super Bowl’s most valuable player for the first of an NFL-record four times.

‘‘I think I’m a better player than I was in 2001,’’ Brady said. ‘‘I don’t think I was the best player I could possibly be at that point. There’s been a lot of work and effort over the years to try to get where I’m at now.’’

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That’s perhaps the most compelling part of the game. In the Patriots’ Super Bowl loss to the Eagles last season, Brady passed for 505 yards. Against the Rams, the Patriots figure to lean more on their running game — both to control the clock against a potent offense and to try to neutralize a unit Brady called the best defensive line in the sport.

Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald was the NFL’s highest-paid defender of all time for about a day — before the Bears traded for outside linebacker Khalil Mack. He lived up to top billing, though, finishing with 20½ sacks.

Though Belichick is famous for customizing his game plan from week to week, the Rams seem to know a run-heavy attack is coming.

‘‘We stop the run, we get after the quarterback,’’ Donald said. ‘‘I know [Brady] gets the ball out quick, but … we’re going to have our opportunities where he’s going to hold the ball, and we’re going to have to get him down to the ground.’’

Patriots rookie Sony Michel leads the NFL with 242 rushing yards in the playoffs. The Patriots’ eight rushing touchdowns this postseason are three more than the next-closest team. Rams coach Sean McVay credited the running backs, but he also singled out two Patriots pass-catchers — tight end Rob Gronkowski, who might be playing in his final game, and receiver Julian Edelman — for their selfless blocking.

‘‘First and foremost, you want to stop the run,’’ Rams defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said. ‘‘Make them a one-dimensional team where they have to pass the ball. . . . And it’s our job to either get balls tipped or knock the quarterback down or whatever it may be to get those turnovers and eliminate them from moving the ball down the field.’’

The Rams can do that when they have the ball. Quarterback Jared Goff is confident after orchestrating three scoring drives in the final five minutes of regulation and overtime of the Rams’ victory against the Saints in the NFC Championship Game. Robert Woods and Brandin Cooks ranked 13th and 14th in the league in receiving yards during the regular season. And Todd Gurley was the NFL’s third-leading rusher with 1,251 yards during the regular season, though his measly four carries against the Saints sent up warning flags about the health of his knee.

Against that kind of firepower, the Patriots will let Brady show his dominance by trying to control the game, not race to 50 points.

In his ninth Super Bowl, it might prove to be Brady’s most tailored game plan yet.

‘‘There’s no do-overs,’’ Brady said. ‘‘This isn’t any retake or Hollywood script.’’