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Breaking down Super Bowl LIII - Previewing Patriots-Rams

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Back in September, 32 NFL teams began a journey that they hoped would end with a trip to Atlanta and an opportunity to lift the Lombardi Trophy as the victors in Super Bowl LIII.

After 16 games in the regular season and some hard-fought contests in January, the field has been whittled down to just two. The New England Patriots – back for the third year in a row and for the ninth time in the 21st century – are set to face off against the Los Angeles Rams, who haven’t been to the big game since they lost to these same Patriots back in 2002.

This rematch is to be played 17 years to the day after that one, a New England victory that would prove to be the first championship of the team’s dynastic run.

Obviously, these aren’t the same teams that faced off on February 3, 2002. However, two very important figures from that long-ago Patriots squad remain. Quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick are still here, continuing to build on the astonishing legacy (nine Super Bowls, eight straight AFC Championship appearances and 13 total) that they’ve spent the past two decades burnishing.

On the other side, we have the Rams, representing the new guard in the NFL. Head coach Sean McVay is just 33 years old – half the age of his opponent. Quarterback Jared Goff is 24 years old and in his third season; he was just six years old when Tom Brady entered the NFL. They’re a young and hungry group predicted by some to be the successors to the Patriots atop the football world, but they haven’t won anything yet.

So what’s going to happen?

While I’m not one to give too much credence to the necessity of experience, the reality is that this Patriots team has been in this spot A LOT. Meanwhile, just about everybody on the Rams sideline is new to this kind of big game pressure. Will that make a difference? Almost certainly. The amount of difference will likely determine who ultimately comes out on top here.

Still, it’s all about the matchups on the field. Let’s have a look.

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Quarterback

I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Tom Brady is the best quarterback of all time. However, it’s tough to argue against his presence in the GOAT conversation. His regular season was up and down, but he turned it on in a big way in the postseason, putting up nearly 700 yards over the past two games. Granted, he’s got just two TDs against two picks, but there’s no denying that he’s looked far better than the oldest QB in Super Bowl history should look.

Jared Goff took a real leap forward in his third year in the league. His postseason performance has been good – better even than the stats might lead you to believe. And he had a hell of a season, one in which he earned the trust of his receivers and his coach. However, while he’s absolutely talented, he has also shown the occasional tendency to get a little rattled and make mistakes. In a big game like this, those mistakes can make the difference.

Advantage: Patriots

 

Running Back

In a lot of ways, the Patriots were at the forefront of the evolution of the running back position. While New England doesn’t have a superstar in the backfield, they do have Sony Michel, who has come on strong in the postseason, averaging over 120 yards on the ground and five TDs, and James White, who has been a game-changing pass-catcher (he caught 15 balls in the Divisional Round). Add Rex Burkhead into the mix and you’ve got a good group.

No one seems to know why Todd Gurley spent most of the NFC Championship Game on the sideline, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s probably the best all-around running back in the NFL these days. He can carry the ball and he can catch it. Plus, you have C.J. Anderson, an unheralded late pickup for the Rams who has proven quite capable as a rusher. L.A. might not have the range of runners that the Pats do, but Gurley is the cream of the crop.

Advantage: Rams

Wide Receiver

The Patriots rarely have an impressive receiving corps. Losing Josh Gordon to suspension late in the season left them even thinner than usual. However, Julian Edelman continues to be spectacular out of the slot – 16 catches for over 250 yards in two playoff games. He’s a first-down machine. Guys like Chris Hogan and Philip Dorsett are solid, but not much more than that. It’s a hard-working group, but not particularly outstanding in terms of talent.

L.A. lost a lot when slot receiver Cooper Kupp went down for the season, but they still have some skilled pass-catchers. Former Patriot Brandin Cooks is still a potent deep threat, while Robert Woods has caught a dozen balls this postseason. Josh Reynolds has done his best to make up for the absence of Kupp. All three are more athletic than anyone New England puts on the field; in a big game like this, that can make a difference.

Advantage: Rams

Tight End

Anyone who watched the Patriots this year could tell that Rob Gronkowski was no longer the planet-devouring force of nature that menaced the league for most of the decade. However, he’s gotten up for the postseason, and not just as a pass catcher. His work as a blocker has played a large part in giving Brady the time he needs. While he’s no longer a threat on every play, he’s still got a little left in the tank – and he’ll leave it all on the field.

The Rams have a pair of perfectly nice tight ends in Gerald Everett and Tyler Higbee, but the truth is that neither of those guys brings anything close to what Gronk brings to the table. They can throw a block and catch the occasional pass, but they simply don’t alter the fabric of the game the way their opposite number on the Pats side does.

Advantage: Patriots

Offensive Line

The Patriots offensive line has stepped up in a big way in the playoffs. They’ve kept Tom Brady clean to a surprising extent – he hasn’t been sacked once this postseason - and paved the way for an effective run game, with center David Andrews and guard Shaq Mason leading the charge. This unit was pretty good during the season, but they’ve gone to a whole new level in January.

The Rams offensive line has been good enough to allow C.J. Anderson to be swapped in for Todd Gurley with only a minimal drop in production. That’s really all you need to say. They’ve been good in pass protection as well – key for any team, but especially one with a young quarterback.

 

Advantage: Patriots

Defensive Line:

New England’s defensive line is … fine. They’ve been playing up in the playoffs – guys like Trey Flowers have really shined so far. But even at a higher level, this group still isn’t particularly gifted at getting to the passer. They’ve handled the run OK, but they haven’t faced a run game like this. It’s a decent crew that needs to keep outperforming expectations.

The Rams defensive line is one of the best in the NFL. It starts with the presence of Aaron Donald, who led the league with 20.5 sacks as a defensive tackle and is easily one of the five best players in the league. But that’s not all – Ndamukong Suh is there, getting after quarterbacks. Dante Fowler’s no slouch either. This is one of the better defensive units in all of football.

Advantage: Rams

Linebackers

Kyle Van Noy has been putting on a bit of a show in these playoffs, leading the team in tackles while getting a pair of sacks and forcing a fumble. He’s leading the way for another overachieving group – Donta Hightower has looked good, as has Elandon Roberts. They’re better against the run than the pass; their handling of McVay’s offensive schemes might be the biggest key to the defense’s entire performance.

On the Los Angeles side, Cory Littleton is the one who has been all over the field – 19 tackles in his two postseason games. Mark Barron has looked good too. It will be interesting to see how this group does when they’re forced into pass coverage; it’s an area the Patriots are known to try and exploit. They might be in for a long night if Brady gets things going – a little too much screen time.

Advantage: Rams

Secondary

The Patriots secondary has played a huge role in the team’s success this year. Stephon Gilmore has been a shutdown corner and snagged New England’s only interception of the postseason thus far. The McCourtys – Devin and Jason – have been playing pretty well. Even J.C. Jackson (who admittedly had some trouble last game) has been decent. Coverage has been solid against some talented passers – both QBs they’ve faced so far are better than Goff. This is probably the team’s best defensive unit.

The Rams are led by ex-Patriot Aqib Talib, who continues to perform at a high level. This is a group that had to face down an excellent passer of its own – New Orleans QB Drew Brees – to get here. They’re going to have to be on their toes for Brady and company, but if they can slow him down, they’ll give their team a great chance to win. The work of the safeties – particularly John Johnson – will be key.

Advantage: Patriots

Special Teams

This is consistently an area in which the Patriots excel; this season is no different. Stephen Gostkowski continues to add to his postseason point total – with two in this game, he becomes the second-ever with 200. He’s made every field goal and looked good on kickoffs. Ryan Allen’s been solid in the punting game. They’ve also got Matthew Slater leading the charge on the coverage teams and Cordarrelle Patterson waiting to break off at least one big return.

The Rams have a major special teams weapon of their own in Greg Zeurlein. The Leg nailed a 57-yarder to push the NFC Championship game to overtime; he shortens the field. So too does punter Johnny Hekker, though he’s been sharper. The return game isn’t anything to write home about, while their coverage team is good-not-great. It’s a capable unit, but a top-heavy one.

Advantage: Patriots

Coaching

Hard to argue with results. The Patriots are coming off their eighth straight AFC Championship game and are coming into their third straight Super Bowl. You don’t do that without great coaching – and Bill Belichick is one of the greatest. Say what you will about his methods, he remains as sharp and competent as ever. This team isn’t anywhere near his best, talent-wise, which makes their presence here so impressive. And they’re here because of him.

Tough to bet against Belichick’s track record, but seeing him opposed by a coach like Sean McVay makes you think about it, which is remarkable in its own right. McVay has shown himself to be a bit of a coaching wunderkind – he has vaulted the Rams out of mediocrity with unexpected speed and put them in a spot to succeed at the highest level. He’s still young and relatively inexperienced, but he’s not intimidated.

Advantage: Patriots

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The categorical advantages break down as six for the Patriots and four for the Rams. It’s a close thing – particularly when you consider the relative value of the spots where the Rams won (running back, wide receiver, defensive line). In fact, one could argue that it’s almost equal.

The likeliest scenario is that the game turns out to be a) close; and b) high-scoring. These teams can both put up points. It’s going to come down to which team can get that extra one or two big plays – a long TD or a sack or a pick or a long third-down conversion.

The Rams are probably the more talented team top-to-bottom, but the Patriots have a couple of all-timers on the field and on the sidelines. This is the third straight Super Bowl for this New England team, while there only a couple of Los Angeles players who have ever even played for a championship, let alone won one. It will be interesting to see how the disparity in experience plays out.

My guess? It’ll be the Pats.

Super Bowl LIII prediction: New England 34 – Los Angeles 31

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As for those of you interested in hearing from Kibbles and Picks star Stella about her pick and how she’s handling my pulling out a K&P postseason win thanks to a championship round push, she wants you to know that she’s fine and that small sample sizes are the devil’s playground. She is also picking the Patriots (although part of me thinks she’s doing it just because she doesn’t want to hurt my feelings); she’s calling for a slightly lower-scoring, more run-driven game and expects the defenses to be a bit stauncher than I do.

Stella’s SBLIII prediction: New England 28 – Los Angeles 24

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