ATLANTA >> For most of the season the New England Patriots have been creatures of habit on defense, sticking to their principles and making just enough plays to win.
They were much more than that tonight against the Los Angeles Rams.
The Patriots battered and bewildered quarterback Jared Goff and the Rams, stifling the NFL’s second-ranked scoring en route to a 13-3 Super Bowl victory.
New England quarterback Tom Brady said the Patriots’ defense set the tone.
“They played unbelievable,” Brady said. “Challenged all these plays. …. They held them.”
When Goff began to find his grove late in the fourth quarter and the Rams trailing 10-3, Los Angeles drove inside New England’s 30 for just the second time in the game.
The momentum proved to be short-lived.
Enter safety Duron Harmon.
Playing in place of Patrick Chung after he suffered an arm injury in third quarter, Harmon combined with cornerback Stephon Gilmore to break up what would have been a touchdown pass to Brandin Cooks in the end zone. Then, on the next play, Harmon pressured Goff on a blitz and forced him into a throw into coverage that was intercepted by Gilmore.
“It was clutch,” Gilmore said of his interception. “I knew he was going to force it up there. Our defensive line put a lot of pressure on him and he chucked it up there and I was able to make a play.”
New England’s offense took it from there, sealing the victory with a 9-play, 72-yard drive that ate up 3:05 and ended with a 41-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski.
The Patriots’ defense gave Goff different looks all night and many of them seemed to confuse the 24-year-old quarterback. They routinely sent an extra deep safety on third-and-short situations and disguised their blitzes up the middle. The latter benefited linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who dropped Goff for a pair of sacks to stunt drives.
New England finished with four sacks for the game.
It added up to an abysmal performance by Los Angeles on third-down situations. The Rams were 0 for 6 on third down in the first half and 3 of 13 for game. New England also held Los Angeles to just 260 total yards.
None of the Rams’ running backs were able to get much traction, either.
Los Angeles, which entered the game averaging 175 rushing yards per game during the playoffs with four touchdowns, mustered just 3.4 yards per rush on third down. All-Pro running back Todd Gurley finished with 10 rushes for 35 yards. C.J. Anderson, who had 167 yards and two touchdowns through two playoff games, had seven carries for 22 yards.
New England bailed Goff out early in the fourth quarter when Gilmore was called for defensive holding on Goff’s third-and-11 pass attempt, giving the Rams a fresh set of downs.
But the Patriots recovered and used a sack by Jonathan Jones, holding penalty and threw Gurley for a loss to force a punt.
It was the second straight impressive performance by the Pats’ defense.
In the AFC championship game the Patriots held the Kansas City Chiefs, the NFL’s top-scoring offense during the regular season, scoreless in the first half. They held the Rams, which averaged 32.9 points per game during the regular season and 28 points in the playoffs, to just three points.