Patriots (-3) over Rams / Under 56 ½ (Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta): With the broad market for this Sunday’s premier attraction varying between Patriots -2 ¹/₂ and -3, depending on your access, this year’s ultimate game looms one of the toughest nuts to crack in recent times, ranking up there with Super Bowl XLV (Packers-Steelers) and XLIX (Patriots-Seahawks). With both New England and Los Angeles boasting powerhouse strengths and exploitable weaknesses, yet another photo finish would be no surprise.

Vegas opened with the Rams as slight favorites (“Hey, the Rams are an enormous part of our market!” “Gee, LA’s roster is younger, and star-studded on both sides of the ball,” “Ummmm, the Pats lost to the Jaguars, Lions, Titans, Dolphins and Steelers!”), but the broad national market took one look at that and instantly understood experience and associated multiple successes at this level have been an overriding historical factor in isolating Lombardi Trophy winners, and dove right in.

It cannot be understated that a vital factor in the Pats’ two decades of success has been maintaining favorable striking position by gaining first-round playoff byes often enough to make their paths to their five titles achievable. This has been directly attributable to their positioning within the AFC East. The other three division teams have generated a grand total of zero Super Bowl participants since Super Bowl XXVIII (Buffalo’s fourth and final loss, in Atlanta).

This level of divisional dominance has permitted New England to gain the edge provided by a bye with enviable regularity and smoothed its path repeatedly. A large portion of the credit goes to the Patriots’ personnel people, to quarterback Tom Brady and to coach Bill Belichick. A clear upgrade in the running back position has been achieved with rookie Sony Michel. Don’t overlook Rob Gronkowski, who figures to show to marked advantage against a Rams defense that has endured consistent issues when up against top-drawer tight ends.

It goes without saying the Rams can’t be deemed anything resembling a hopeless cause here, given their broad talent base. They lost but three times this regular season (as favorites at New Orleans, in the Soldier Field icebox against the Bears, a loss that was followed by their SoCal stumble against the defending champion Eagles).

After a lengthy fallow period for the franchise, a ripe 2016 draft yielded current starting QB Jared Goff. After a coaching switch from Jeff Fisher to Sean McVay for the 2017 season, positive developments came swiftly, with their first-round playoff loss last year leading to this year’s postseason jackpot — with a generous dose of help from iffy officiating in the late stages of the NFC Championship game at New Orleans.

Historically, the NFC’s best efforts against the Pats during New England’s long-term surge have been generated by teams that could minimize Brady’s time in the pocket, cramping No. 12’s style. The Giants turned the trick twice, and the well-balanced, capably coached, alert Eagles looked like the right side virtually every step of the way in last year’s Supe.

With Rams super pass rushers Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh at peak form, another barn burner should shock no one. Former Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib is on patrol for LA, so Brady will feel heat, especially with the Rams’ defensive shots being called by coordinator Wade Phillips. He provided the Pats plenty of grief when bossing the Broncos’ defense, which rubbed out the Pats in the 2015 AFC Championship.

Another prime X-factor potentially favoring the Rams is the health status of top-drawer running back Todd Gurley. His left-knee issues restricted him to just five touches against the Saints — as C.J. Anderson assumed the short-term load — but McVay is on the record saying Gurley will be “a big part of this game,” and we’ll take the coach at this word. Gurley’s status is akin to a top thoroughbred being freshened to the maximum extent possible, to be turned loose on this biggest of stages.

Brady somehow emerged triumphant after losing the turnover battle (2-0) in that rematch with the Chiefs. This is a rare occurrence within the league’s postseason history. Brady is aware he got away with something and will look to avoid placing his teammates in such jeopardy again. The game projects as a close call, but no one should be eager to fade such levels of experience on this biggest stage.

Patriots, 28-24.

Conference championship weekend: Sides: 1-1. Over/Under: 1/1.
Postseason: Sides: 5-4-1. Over/Under: 6-4.

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