ATLANTA — The Patriots and Rams met in Super Bowl XXXVI 17 years ago. It was a day that gave birth to a dynasty, with the Patriots winning their first Super Bowl and a day that ended the Rams hopes of having their own dynasty.
Seventeen years later, to the day, the two teams meet again, this time in Super Bowl LIII at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
This time, Tom Brady has five Super Bowl rings on his fingers, and no one views the Patriots as an underdog except themselves. They face a Rams team that fell apart after those “Greatest Show on Turf” days and missed the playoffs in 12 straight years before Sean McVay and Jared Goff revived the franchise in 2017.
The 41-year-old Brady is fighting Father Time as much as he is fighting the Rams, while Goff is trying to prove Los Angeles made the right choice making him the No. 1 pick in 2016.
“In many ways, I’m similar,” Brady said about that first Super Bowl this week as he prepared for his ninth Super Bowl appearance. “I don’t think in the end that things are that different for me.”
Brady entered his first Super Bowl still largely as an unknown sixth-round draft pick. Now, he is considered the greatest quarterback in history and can become the first player to win six Super Bowls.
Goff was in grade school for the last Patriots-Rams Super Bowl clash. He is 24 now, the same age Brady was in his first Super Bowl. The 17-year age difference is the largest between starting quarterbacks in Super Bowl history. Goff has been respectful of his elder this week.
“It’s a guy that you’ve looked up to for so long,” Goff said, “and now I get a chance to play in one with him.”
Brady said this week that he plans to play until he’s 45, so this may not be his last Super Bowl.
“I loved playing then, I still love playing now,” Brady said. “I don’t take anything for granted, I really don’t. I enjoy it. I think we all work hard at it, but to get to this point is really exceptional. I’m proud of the guys for making the commitment and it’s certainly not easy. I think everyone at this point is tired and worn down but at the same time, you have one of the great opportunities in your life.
“This is a memory you’ll have forever and I really hope we can go out and take advantage of it.”
Gronk’s farewell?: Tom Brady was not the only Patriots player people were asking about retirement this week. Every time tight end Rob Gronkowski had a microphone in front of his face, he was asked if this could be his final game.
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“Yes, no, maybe so,” Gronkowski answered on Thursday.
Ah, Gronk. He is a refreshing presence on the business-like Patriots. But he did talk seriously about the toll football has taken on his body. The whispers started a year ago that he might walk away from the game. After another year of battling injuries, he could choose to become an actor or a pro wrestler.
“I haven’t really put thoughts like that into it,” Gronkowski said. “But I’ve always thought I would want to be a part of the fitness world, the fitness industry. I love staying active. So whenever that day is, it would probably be along the lines of staying fit and being active out there in the community.”
Donald’s dominance: If you had to predict one player other than the quarterbacks to dominate this game, it would be Rams defensive stud Aaron Donald. The defensive tackle is one of the best players in football and could wreak havoc in the Super Bowl.
Donald’s matchup with the Patriots’ offensive line is the key matchup in this game. If Donald can pressure Brady up the middle, the Rams defense could take over the game. Donald record 20.5 sacks in 16 games this season, the most by an interior lineman in NFL history. He is making the $135 million contract extension the Rams gave him at the start of the season look like a bargain.
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Been there, done that: It is easy to lose sight of just how astonishing this run by the Patriots is. They are appearing in their third straight Super Bowl, becoming just the third team to accomplish that feat and the first in 25 years. If they win this game, they will tie the Steelers with six Super Bowl championships. But Pittsburgh won six over a span of four decades. The Patriots would have six in 18 seasons.
If the Patriots win, Bill Belichick will join George Halas and Curly Lambeau as the only coaches with six NFL titles, moving past Vince Lombardi, who he is currently tied with.
Knee-d for speed: Rams running back Todd Gurley had just five touches for 13 yards on 32 snaps in the NFC Championship. The Rams insist he is healthy after dealing with a knee injury late in the season.
“He’s feeling good, a hundred percent,” coach Sean McVay said. “We expect him to play a big role in this game.”
Gurley rushed for 1,251 yards and 17 touchdowns this season. He had four more touchdowns on receptions. C.J. Anderson has done well for the Rams in the playoffs, but Gurley is the engine that makes the offense go, and they need him back at 100 percent for this game.