Super Bowl 53 is one sleep away and with all the fanfare done and dusted, now is the time to look at the nitty-gritty and work out who is going to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
The Rams and Patriots both finished second in their respective conferences, but make no mistake about it, both deserve to be here.
Los Angeles were 8-0 to start the season and all the risks they took to assemble a locker room full of defensive game-wreckers seemed to be paying off.
They didn’t finish the season as strongly as they started it. Losing wide receiver Cooper Kupp to an ACL and Todd Gurley playing through a knee injury hampered the explosiveness of their offense, but they had more than enough firepower to spare.
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The Patriots meanwhile looked pretty average throughout the season if we’re being completely honest. Of course, every time they questionably dropped a game to teams like Detroit and Jacksonville, in the back of everyone’s minds we still knew they would make it to the Super Bowl. That’s what they do.
Brady was well below his MVP-level best throughout the regular season and star tight end Rob Gronkowski was nowhere to be seen, dealing with injuries.
Both were back to their legendary selves last week in the AFC Championship Game – and that should terrify Los Angeles.
While this game features two of the top four scoring teams of the season, don’t necessarily expect a shootout. In fact, it’s on defence where this game is likely going to be won or lost.
We know what Tom Brady is going to do for the Patriots and we know the offense Sean McVay is going to cook up for LA. What we don’t know is which defence is going to show up.
How the Rams can win
There is one statistic that matters in this game above all else and The Ringer’s Kevin Clark summed it up best on his show Slow News Day.
“It’s a little simplistic to say Tom Brady doesn’t like being pressured. That’s true of every quarterback ever,” Clark said.
“There’s a certain type of pressure that can really get to Tom Brady. His quarterback rating when he’s being pressured from the edge is 118 (really good). That’s better than like every quarterback normally. (Bears QB) Mitchell Trubisky would kill for 118 quarterback rating.
“However, when he faces interior pressure, the type Aaron Donald brings, his passer rating is under 65 (really bad). Aaron Donald leads the NFL in interior pressure.”
If you’re watching or listening to Super Bowl coverage, prepare to be bombarded with mentions of Rams pass rusher Aaron Donald – he is the key to this game.
Donald is the best defensive player in the NFL and will be recognised as so when awards season comes around, but he could very easily be Super Bowl MVP as well if he can get through the Patriots offensive line and make life hell for Brady.
After signing a six-year $135 million extension to stay in LA, Donald delivered this season, finishing with 20.5 sacks for the season. The next best finished with 16.
If Donald and fellow interior rusher Ndamukong Suh – who the Rams paid $14 million to this year – can dominate, the Rams probably win. It’s as simple as that.
There’s only one issue. The New England offensive line has not given up a sack in this playoff series. Brady posted on his Instagram story after the win over Kansas City, praising his offensive line for keeping him protected.
As part of his Instagram story, Tom Brady posted a picture of his AFC Title game jersey, minus any grass stains, as a shoutout to his offensive line for keeping him clean. Guard Shaq Mason was asked about it, "We take a lot of pride in it. That’s our guy." #Patriots pic.twitter.com/iLnLRZoE5M— Michael Giardi (@MikeGiardi) January 23, 2019
If Brady goes through this game without getting sacked – or worse with minimal pressure – he’s getting a sixth Super Bowl ring. It’s, also, as simple as that.
So to recap, the Rams need Suh and Donald to dominate the game on defence if they want to win.
Their offense will get the job done. You could argue Jared Goff isn’t in the top 15-ish quarterbacks in the NFL, but he’s proven in this postseason he is good enough and has enough talent around him.
He’s made big plays when it’s mattered and you can count on him to do his job … which is to listen to everything McVay tells him to do and execute it.
How the Patriots can win
Stay within six points of the Rams and make sure Tom Brady has the ball in his hands in the dying stages of the fourth quarter and you win. That’s all you’ve got to do really.
We know the recipe for the Patriots. They’re going to run the ball as much as they possibly can with Sony Michel, James White and Rex Burkhead in the first half, taking time off the clock and controlling the game. White himself could have 10 catches before the halftime show.
Last week, White had six touches in the first half and converted all six into first downs.
Come the second half, Brady will start to throw the ball downfield more, looking for Julian Edelman, Gronk and Phillip Dorsett.
Edelman is the key here. If Brady can hit him in the middle of the field for 10 yards over and over, he will. It seems simple enough to stop, but few have.
The Chiefs proved they had no answer for this last week and got stuck playing from behind, which is exactly what Bill Belichick wants.
Belichick has bucked tradition in this postseason, winning the toss and electing to start the game with the ball rather than deferring to the second half.
He’s done this so they can score first and play the game from in front, controlling the clock and forcing the Chargers/Chiefs to play more aggressively, leading to mistakes and turnovers.
Brady then comes out and hits Edelman in the middle of the field a few times, James White out of the backfield once or twice, runs it with Sony Michel ad nauseam, makes a big play with Gronkowski and then puts points on the board, sapping eight minutes off the clock in doing so.
There’s no reason to expect anything different in Super Bowl 53.
Their formula over the last two weeks has been doing the above on offense, the offensive line keeping Brady clean and giving him time to throw and forcing quick three-and-outs on defence, keeping the opposing quarterback on the bench for long stretches of the first half.
If they follow the formula of the last two weeks, they’ll be champions again. It’s up to the Rams to force them into playing from an uncomfortable position, instead of the other way around.
The Patriots get it done in an incredibly tight affair with Brady scoring two touchdowns in the final quarter. New England leads at half-time, but the Rams dominate the third quarter.
Score: Patriots 31 – Rams 28