JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — New England’s third Super Bowl victory in four years came down to the most basic of football rules: The Patriots ran the ball and made sure the Eagles couldn’t.
So New England won 24-21, established itself as the team of the century (early though it is) and put Bill Belichick ahead of even the great Vince Lombardi with a 10-1 postseason record.
Lombardi would have loved it.
Like his Packers of the 1960s, this is such a complete team that nobody really knew who the MVP of the game was. It turned out to be Deion Branch, who had 11 receptions for 133 yards. But it could have been Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison or Richard Seymour, who all made big defensive plays; or quarterback Tom Brady, who took home the award when the Patriots won in 2002 and 2004.
“Different plays, different guys,” guard Joe Andruzzi said, expressing what has happened for the Patriots in the past four years and especially the past two, when they are 34-4, an almost unthinkable record in the parity of free agency and the salary cap.
Lombardi certainly would have loved the 66-yard drive late in the third quarter and early in the fourth that broke a tie. Of those yards, 34 came on the ground, including the final 2, by Corey Dillon.
The Patriots also got 20 yards rushing on that drive from Dillon’s backup, Kevin Faulk, who ran for 8 and 12 yards from a spread formation. Faulk also took a screen pass from the 16 to the 2 to set up Dillon’s TD.
“Every time I come in, they yell ‘screen! screen!’” Faulk said. “So we ran the draw and it worked and then we ran the screen.”
What made the drive even more important was that it answered a Philadelphia touchdown that had tied the game and seemed to give the Eagles the momentum.
The game also demonstrated the other characteristic that has made the Patriots into what passes for a dynasty: Big plays from all kinds of players.
As usual, one was Bruschi, setting the tone for the game with a sack on Philadelphia’s first possession. Then he made an interception that ended a fourth-quarter drive one play after a 36-yard pass completion to Terrell Owens, who performed better than expected in his first game back after a severe ankle injury.
Harrison had two interceptions, one on his own 3-yard-line that stopped a Philadelphia drive in the first quarter and the second with 9 seconds left that ended Philadelphia’s last desperation drive. He also finished the second half as the only starter left in the New England secondary — both cornerbacks were lost midway through the season and Eugene Wilson missed the second half with an arm injury.
But the defense was more than big plays: It was stuffing the run.
Aside from a meaningless 22-yard scamper by Brian Westbrook on the final play of the first half, Philadelphia couldn’t run against a defense that often had only two down linemen. But the outside linebackers, Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel and Rosevelt Colvin, often played defensive end, making the Patriots’ 3-4 defense into a 4-3 that Philadelphia didn’t seem prepared to attack.