They were the favorites in April, and now they meet again in February.
As the legendary Keith Jackson said, “This game has everything in it. In the preamble.”
In my estimation, about half of the Super Bowls have been extremely compelling, close games, while the other half have been uninteresting to watch or blowouts. I can’t even imagine the possibility of this game being a snoozer, as these two teams are so evenly matched in every aspect. It’s worth pointing out that the last time these teams met in the Super Bowl, a young quarterback from Northern California led a miraculous upset against one of the greatest offensive machines in history.
How the turntables…
17 years ago, that quarterback’s name was Tom Brady. At 25 years of age, nobody expected the lanky sixth-round draft pick to stand a chance against “The Greatest Show on Turf.” St. Louis relied on a devastating deep passing attack, featuring Hall of Fame caliber skill players Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce, and Torry Holt. Many of the spread concepts that the 1999-2001 Rams featured are still used today. The popularization of intermediate routes largely started because of the Rams and it routinely allows teams to gain chunk plays by forcing a safety to choose between an intermediate route and a deep bomb.
Today, it is 24-year-old Jared Goff, but that’s where most of the similarities end. While Brady went 199th overall, Goff was the first pick in the 2016 NFL Draft and the consensus top quarterback, despite Carson Wentz’s impressive physical abilities. L.A. is not a 14-point underdog as New England was back in 2002, but national perception seems to heavily favor the Patriots despite the fact that they are only a two-point favorite. New England is not nearly as explosive offensively as the Rams were 17 years ago, as they currently employ a traditional power running offense along with horizontal crossers on third down.
Perception favors New England because their performance over the last five weeks might be head coach Bill Belichick’s finest coaching job yet. When Belichick won his first Super Bowl, he was worried about stopping the great John Elway. At the same time, Rams head coach Sean McVay was worried about sleeping and crying out for food at the ripe age of one. Despite all of Belichick’s experience in the league, however, it is reasonable to argue that this is Belichick’s best work because he is working with a relatively thin Patriots roster. He is revered for his work with the Giants and early Patriots, but it’s important to remember that those teams had blue-chip defensive talent and extremely physical defensive backs. Some of his most famous defensive leaders included Everson Walls, Ty Law, and Rodney Harrison—guys that hit hard at the line of scrimmage and made life difficult for receivers.
Aside from All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore and defensive captain Devin McCourty, Belichick’s defensive backfield is largely comprised of castoffs and late draft picks with little talent and superior coaching. Two late picks stood out in the AFC Championship Game: 7th-rounder Keion Crossen and undrafted J.C. Jackson. The two played pivotal roles over the last five weeks for New England, helping them shore up a defense that had looked shaky over the course of the regular season. The defense performed well down the stretch, conceding 12 points to Buffalo and three points to the New York Jets to close out the regular season. Though they allowed 28 and 31 points in playoff games against the L.A. Chargers and Kansas City, the Chargers game was well out of reach when the defense eased up and Kansas City didn’t manage a point in the first half.
New England also got plenty of help from their running game. The return of offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia has proven extremely useful over the last three years. Going into the season, New England had a myriad of questions concerning the left tackle position, as Nate Solder signed a lucrative contract with the Giants and top draft choice Isaiah Wynn was injured before the season began. Ultimately, the Patriots acquired Trent Brown from San Francisco, who quickly learned New England’s system. Scarnecchia also molded Shaq Mason and Marcus Cannon into top players at their respective positions. This allows New England to run the football with authority. Rookie Sony Michel is taking advantage of the improved play from the line, rushing for 242 yards and five touchdowns in these playoffs. Tom Brady has also benefited from the upgrade, as he’s only been sacked twice in the last four games. New England’s smashmouth offense has proven to be a winning formula in the AFC playoffs and may serve them well in the Super Bowl.
Speaking of excellent running games, the Rams have one. You might’ve heard of a player named Todd Gurley. The presumptive Offensive Player of the Year candidate at midseason, Gurley amassed 1,831 yards from scrimmage and 21 total touchdowns despite a late-season slump. Arguably the best back in the game when he’s playing to the best of his abilities, Gurley demonstrates tremendous value both as a runner and a receiver. When he’s hampered with injury or poor play, the Rams can count on C.J. Anderson to pick up the slack. Since being rescued from the bottomless black hole that is the Raiders, Anderson has produced at a staggering rate, averaging 116.5 rushing yards per game and scoring four touchdowns. Over the course of his career, Anderson has been known as a powerful rusher with a low center of gravity, making him difficult to tackle. The ground game opens up a very balanced passing attack for L.A., and Jared Goff’s development under offensive wizard Sean McVay is well-documented. As far as receivers go, the Rams have a bit of everything: a deep threat in Brandin Cooks, a physical force in Robert Woods, and a fine young slot receiver in Josh Reynolds.
Despite all their talent offensively, it was the defense that grabbed headlines in the offseason and made this Super Bowl run possible. The Rams secured the most dominant defensive force in football by signing Aaron Donald to a six-year, $135M extension. With respect to Khalil Mack, J.J. Watt, and other fearsome pass rushers, Donald is simply the best. He rewarded the Rams’ faith by amassing 20.5 sacks, a staggering number for a defensive tackle who routinely faces double teams and chip blocks. Because having the best defensive player in the game wasn’t enough, Los Angeles went out and acquired cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, as well as defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. Suh has been a force in the playoffs, helping Donald generate pressure up the middle. Peters and Talib have locked up receivers in single coverage, allowing defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to bring the pressure in his exotic blitz packages.
Over the years, Belichick and the Patriots have been known for a few defensive hallmarks, and the most important point they emphasize is to ensure that the opponent does not win with their best player. Naturally, this would lead us to believe that Belichick will zero in on Gurley, but we’re still unsure of his effectiveness. I believe the Rams will pose a greater challenge offensively than the Chiefs did because Kansas City lacked a running game. Los Angeles, on the other hand, has created a balanced machine that has threats at all levels on the field. Fortunately for New England, Cooks is the only receiver the Rams have who is known for his speed. The other Rams receivers are largely grinders that the slower but more physical Patriot defenders might be able to keep up with.
Defensively, I believe the Rams have the personnel and talent to hold New England back, but their numbers over the season are concerning. Traditionally, the Patriots’ offense is more pass-oriented and prefers to run horizontal crossing patterns to confuse a defense and create natural picks. The formula to beat modern New England offenses has always remained the same: pressure up the middle and tight man coverage on the outside. Both elements are essential because Brady will be able to beat poor man coverage even if the pass rush arrives, and he can patiently pick apart excellent coverage if the pass rush can’t get home. It would seem as though the Rams have all these pieces; Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib are excellent shutdown corners, and Aaron Donald can bring more pressure up the middle than anyone in the league. However, this is a different New England team. Offensively, this team is reminiscent of the early-2000s Patriots who relied on a powerful running game and clutch possession receivers to grind opponents down. This does not bode well for the Rams who permitted over five yards per carry in the regular season and finished 28th in defensive rushing DVOA.
This game should be an exciting one as both teams are complete squads with a legitimate chance at victory. However, I believe that New England will win, 34-23. The Patriots are playing their best football right now. Ultimately, their current momentum and vast experience will wear the Rams down, and we’ll have to endure another year of Brady and Belichick on the podium. Can they just retire already?
All statistics acquired from Football Outsiders, Pro Football Reference, and Pro Football Focus