ATLANTA — Seeing the Patriots find their way to a Super Bowl is almost an annual rite of winter. It is cold, it is bitter and it is the Pats. In many ways, Super Bowl LIII inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium is the old guard vs. the new blood.
The Rams will wear their throwback blue and gold and the Patriots will be in white as a rematch of Super Bowl XXXVI takes place 18 years after this remarkable Patriots dynasty began with a young upstart quarterback named Tom Brady guiding his team to a 20-17 upset of the Rams in New Orleans.
These are two of the highest-scoring teams in the NFL, with plenty of offensive firepower on each side. The Patriots are looking to avoid losing back-to-back Super Bowls for the first time in franchise history. The Rams are seeking the second Super Bowl triumph in their history.
Rams pass offense vs. Patriots pass defense
Jared Goff is as cool and calm as a Los Angeles spring evening and a rising star who often looks at ease running Sean McVay’s varied attack. He can throw from the pocket with anyone, and is adept at rolling out and hitting his target in stride. Long or short, he is extremely accurate with the ball and knows his way around play-fakes. His receivers do not grab the headlines but are skilled at grabbing the ball out of the air.
Robert Woods (86-1,219) and Brandin Cooks (80-1,204) give Goff different options. Cooks is a speed demon, and Woods is a more physical technician and will help Goff by coming back on his routes. Gurley also is a weapon out of the backfield, Josh Reynolds has been adequate replacing injured Cooper Kupp, and tight ends Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett are contributors here.
It is a formidable group, but the secondary is the strength of the New England defense. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore is a No. 1 cover man and matches up with everyone. J.C. Jackson is more than capable, and Jason McCourty is versatile enough to play outside and in the slot. The safeties are experienced and savvy. Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung pack a punch and will not be outsmarted on the back end.
Rams run offense vs. Patriots run defense
For most of the season this was primarily a one-man operation, and quite an operation is was. Todd Gurley surged to the top of the NFL’s running back pecking order, rushing for 1,251 yards and 17 touchdowns. He missed the final two games, though, and newly acquired veteran C.J. Anderson sipped from the fountain of youth, pounding away to give the Rams a bona fide 1-2 punch.
The health of Gurley’s knee is a concern. He looked fine in the playoff victory over the Cowboys but was a non-factor (four runs for 10 yards) in New Orleans and actually got benched. He needs to be at full strength. The Rams’ offensive line is not a highly decorated unit and is led by center John Sullivan, left guard Rodger Safford and 37-year old left tackle Andrew Whitworth.
The Patriots allowed 113.7 rushing yards per game (11th in the NFL). It is difficult to move the ball on defensive linemen Malcom Brown and Lawrence Guy, and linebacker Elandon Roberts is underrated as a pursuer of the ball.
Patriots pass offense vs. Rams run defense
Tom Brady at 41 is not what he once was, but what he is now is better than almost anyone else. It is almost impossible to confuse him, and he gets rid of the ball so quickly he can frustrate pass-rushers — who almost always seem to come up just short of sacking him. When he gets in a groove, he can rip off completion after completion and leave defenses gasping for air and searching for answers.
Brady’s receivers know they must get their heads around quickly, because the fastballs are coming their way. Julian Edelman is so shifty he leaves the coverage looking as if he is a forgotten man. There is no one better at navigating the middle of the field. Rob Gronkowski is at times held back because of physical issues, but he is too big and too strong to for any individual defender to deal with. Think the Hulk in shoulder pads.
Cornerback Aqib Talib is a proven winner, strong and smart and after 11 years can still run. Marcus Peters is physically gifted and can make big plays, but can also give up big plays. Nickelback corner Nickell Robey-Coleman is small in the slot and coming off an infamous penalty that was not called in the NFC title game.
The only way to stop this passing attack is to pressure the pocket. Aaron Donald had 22.5 sacks this season and must get to Brady and move him off his spot, or else it will be a long night for the Rams. The Rams need Michael Brockers and Dante Fowler to apply pressure from the edges.
Patriots run offense vs. Rams run defense
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This is a remarkable rushing attack. One week it is Sony Michel, the next it is James White and when you forget about Rex Burkhead, he emerges as the leading ball-carrier. Thus, defenses rarely know who is going to do what, and when. Michel is the most dangerous game-breaker, a rookie who has gained the trust of Bill Belichick. White is shifty and will make would-be tacklers miss, and Burkhead can get the tough yards by keeping his legs churning. Fullback James Develin plays a big role as a blocker, but it is the offense line that represents the real heroes here. Massive Trent Brown (6-foot-8, 380 pounds) bowls over defenders in the run game and center David Andrews directs the traffic.
The Rams have a bunch of tough customers on the inside. There are no tougher interior defenders than Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh, who are both hard to move and harder to block. Donald can get into the backfield almost before the handoff is made, and Suh has bad intentions when he zeroes in on a ball-carrier. Linebacker Cory Littleton led the team with 125 tackles and had nine tackles for loss. Donald (41) is a tackle-for-loss monster and Suh (19) is also a factor.
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The Rams have the best kicker-punter duo in the league. Greg “The Leg’’ Zuerlein sent his team to the Super Bowl with a 57-yard field goal in overtime to beat the Saints, and his range is almost anywhere in the building. Johnny Hekker is built like a tight end and is the best passing punter in captivity, so watch for a fake. The Patriots are not far behind. Stephen Gostkowski is 34 years old and a proven pressure kicker, though he did miss five field goals this season. Ryan Allen is a quality punter.
It is not often one coach (Bill Belichick, 66) is twice as old as the other (Sean McVay is 33), and this is a fitting battle of established legend vs. up-and-coming young savant. Belichick does not always win in Super Bowls, but he gives the Pats the best chance every game and knows how to take away the opposition’s top players. Patriots defensive signal-caller Brian Flores is the head-coach-in-waiting of the Dolphins. John Fassel, son of former Giants head coach Jim Fassel, is an inspired special teams coordinator for the Rams.
This is the ninth Super Bowl for Belichick and Brady, and the first for McVay and Goff. This vast experience difference is sure to be a factor, one way or another. Both teams hat to survive in overtime and on the road in the conference title games, so there were no easy roads here. The Patriots have a loyal and rabid fan base. The Rams are a work in progress here.