It seems like just yesterday that the 2018 NFL season was just beginning. The sun was shining, the air was warm, and football had just kicked off. Now we have just one game left between us and the cold, dark, dreariness of the offseason.
The New England Patriots will meet with the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII. The Patriots are looking to take home their sixth Lombardi trophy, tying them for most all-time for a franchise. The Rams are vying for their first championship of this millennium. It is an intriguing meeting between old and young, experienced and vivacious, intelligent and talented. It's certainly an interesting matchup to look forward to.
It is wholly unsurprising that the Rams find themselves in Super Bowl 53. They were one of the most talented teams in the NFL heading into 2018, thanks to an impressive combination of skilled veterans, a strong, young core, and an imaginative and dedicated head coach.
Los Angeles won 11 of their first 12 games of 2018, with their only loss coming to the Saints in a shootout in the Superdome. They picked up key wins over the Seahawks (twice), the Chargers, and the Chiefs. They finished 2018 with a 13-3 record, good for second in the NFC. After a solid 30-22 win over the Cowboys in the Divisional Round, the Rams traveled to New Orleans again to take on the Saints in the NFC Championship. A blown call, horrible New Orleans clock management, and a rare Drew Brees interception led to the Rams Super Bowl berth.
Los Angeles' offense is loaded from top to bottom. Former first-round pick Jared Goff also found himself this year, posting career highs in completions, completion percentage, yards, touchdowns, QBR, yards per attempt, and more. This was due in part to an impressive surrounding cast. Goff had a strong receiver corps including Robert Woods, Brandin Cooks, and Cooper Kupp (before he got injured). They also have a solid offensive line that has quietly been efficient all year long. The end result of that was a fantastic year for Todd Gurley, who is arguably the best running back in the NFL.
Despite only playing in 14 games, Gurley set career highs in rushing touchdowns and yards per attempt. He was elusive, fast, and strong, making it nearly impossible for opposing defenses to slow him down. Recently he has been helped by the resurgence of CJ Anderson. The former Bill has performed admirably lately and has somehow created a one-two punch for the Rams at running back.
The Rams defense is no joke either. They have the most talented defensive player in the league in Aaron Donald. The defensive tackle had an absolutely absurd 20.5 sacks this year as an interior offensive lineman. He has an extremely rare combination of size, strength, and speed. Right next to Donald on the line is Ndamukong Suh, one of the most disruptive interior defensive linemen over the past decade. Los Angeles' defensive backfield is nearly as impressive. They traded for Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib in the offseason. These two, along with John Johnson, Lamarcus Joyner, and Nickell Robey-Coleman make for a talented group.
The numbers themselves speak for the Rams. Their offense was one of the best in the NFL. They ranked second in points per game, first in yards per game, third in rushing yards-per-game and fifth in passing yards per game. They also completed 44% of their third downs, good for sixth in the NFL.
Los Angeles' defense did not quite match the production of its offense, but it was nonetheless a solid unit. They rank in the top half in the league in total opponents yards per game, opponent pass yards per game, and opponent rush yards per game. One area where the Rams did seem to excel was in takeaways, where they ranked sixth in the NFL.
This will not be an easy test by any means for the Patriots. However, that being said, the Rams defense is not the best that they have faced this postseason. New England dismantled the Chargers in the Divisional Round, who had a defense that ranked higher than the Rams in most statistical categories.
That does not in any way mean that this will be an easy matchup for the Patriots. It simply means they already know what it takes to prepare for a highly talented defense.
For New England, the gameplan will be straightforward and simple. Their success over the second half of the season has come from old school, two-back rushes with a fullback and a running back. You can expect to see plenty of that on Sunday. The Patriots used their running game to work the clock against the Chiefs in the AFC Championship game. This was meant to prevent the high flying Kansas City offense from having too many possessions. New England will try to do the same thing this week to prevent the Rams offense from having too much time.
The Patriots offensive line will have one of the biggest challenges of the year having to take on Suh and Donald. Joe Thuney, in particular, is about to face his most challenging opponent Donald. However, they have been one of the best units in the NFL this season with an old school toughness. Thuney himself has had a brilliant year, playing 100% of the Patriots offensive snaps (Thuney is also about to set an NFL record for being the first player to start in three Super Bowls to start his career). The Patriots will be able to find ways to neutralize the Rams talented defensive linemen.
When New England has faced talented defensive players in the past like JJ Watt, they have won making sure that those players can't beat them. With Watt, it was throwing an extra blocker his way or running away from him. It will be similar to Donald. If the Patriots run up the middle, it will likely be with pulls from Shaq Mason, and help from James Develin, both of whom could take Donald on.
As I talked about earlier this week, New England's running backs are set to take over the Super Bowl. Sony Michel has had a brilliant postseason so far, and will likely continue that on Sunday. The Rams are giving up 4.8 yards per rush this season. Now they need to face a Patriots offense that will overpower them with a strong offensive line, the best fullback in the NFL and a power back who can beat them with speed and strength. Look for Michel to get a lot of touches on first and second down.
James White and Rex Burkhead will also see plenty of action. The Rams linebacking corps is the weakest unit on its defense. White and Burkhead should both be able to find favorable matchups in the passing game, especially if the Patriots use a Pony formation where both running backs are in the game.
The Patriots passing game is going to be tested against a talented Rams secondary. However, they will be able to find some favorable matchups.
Rob Gronkowski was covered by Eric Berry in the AFC Championship game and still managed to have some huge catches. If he can find himself in a straight one-on-one matchup with any of the Rams linebackers or safeties, he will be able to pick them apart.
Julian Edelman will likely be dealing with Robey-Coleman for most of the night. The Patriots used various motions to get Edelman space against the Chiefs, and that will likely be the strategy again on Sunday.
Phillip Dorsett could also quietly be a key to this game. The Rams will focus on stopping the run, stopping Gronkowski, and stopping Edelman. That could lead Dorsett to end up being covered by a Rams safety or cornerback who is not ready for his speed. He could have a few key catches.
If the Patriots offensive line can pass block as well as they have so far this postseason, Tom Brady will be Tom Brady. They have been brilliant, which has allowed him to be brilliant. His determination and energy this postseason has been at an extra level. It wouldn't be surprising to see an all-time performance.
The Patriots defensive gameplan will also be straightforward and simple. When they faced the Rams in Super Bowl 36, they were facing a high flying offense that had blown people out of the water with speed and athleticism. New England countered that with a tough, physical style of play. That is exactly how the Patriots will play this Rams team on Sunday.
New England does face a serious challenge with the Rams running game. CJ Anderson and Todd Gurley are a scary duo, especially behind a stout Rams offensive line. The Patriots defensive line will be one of the keys to the game. Malcolm Brown, Lawrence Guy, and Danny Shelton need to be able to get a push in the middle of the line, and not allow the Rams to create holes up the middle. New England's linebackers and defensive backs are excellent tacklers. If they can force the Rams to run the ball to the outside more often, then they will be able to prevent some big gains.
New England's edge defenders such as Trey Flowers, Kyle Van Noy, and Dont'a Hightower will be crucial for a number of reasons. The first is to set the edge and prevent Gurley and Anderson from getting to run untouched up the sideline. Secondly, they need to be able to be quick enough on jet sweeps to get hands on the runner. The third reason is to recognize the difference between real and fake jet sweeps. Los Angeles has excelled in this area all year, and will likely try it on Sunday.
New England's defensive backs will have a difficult challenge as they face a highly talented Rams receiver group. It will take physicality to slow them down.
One thing you will likely see is Stephon Gilmore on Brandin Cooks. This isn't always an ideal matchup because of the speed advantage that Cooks has on Gilmore. However, the Patriots gameplan is going to be physicality, and if Gilmore can get hands-on Cooks off the line of scrimmage, then he could take him out of the game. Plus, Gilmore has experience against Cooks after practicing against him last year.
That would leave JC Jackson and Jason McCourty taking turns covering Robert Woods. Woods would likely get the better of Jackson on some plays, but the young cornerbacks' speed and physical style of play could prevent Woods from taking over the game.
Initial coverage off the line will benefit the Patriots. NextGen stats have shown the Goff's numbers decrease the longer he has to wait to throw the football.
New England's pass rush could also be the key to the game. They have been fantastic as a unit this postseason. They beat Phillip Rivers up all game and sacked Mahomes on a few occasions. Getting to Goff quickly could throw the Rams quarterback off his game, and force him to make quick decisions that could lead to turnovers.
There are two extremely important keys for the Patriots. First will be mixing things up and throwing things at the Rams that they may not have seen before. Goff is still a young player and is playing in the most important game of his life. He will be distracted. Bill Belichick needs to come up with schemes that will throw Goff off and make him question himself. Secondly, the Patriots need to be extremely mentally disciplined. Sean McVay and the Rams LOVE to use trick plays and other wild motions and formations that can confuse a defense. Being prepared for anything will be key to them stopping the Rams.
The Rams are a talented team. They have talent top to bottom, and one of the best head coaches in the NFL. They have the ability to beat the Patriots.
But they won't.
This Patriots team is the most focused and determined bunch that we have seen in years. For the first time, since 2001, they have spent the entire playoffs with a chip on their shoulders as the perceived underdogs. In the past, they have overlooked teams. This time they haven't because they've spent the past few months hearing about how they aren't good enough anymore. Despite that, they still went into Arrowhead and beat the best team in the NFL. This is a tough, physical Patriots team that wants to step on their opponent's throats. That will be too much for an inexperienced Rams team. On Sunday night, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick will host their sixth Lombardi trophy together.
New England 33 Los Angeles 24