The Patriots/Rams is an exciting matchup on several different levels; the NFL dynasty vs. a rising young team, a coaching legend vs. a young whiz kid, and a rematch of Super Bowl XXXVI, and several others. Ironically, this game will be played 17 years to the day from Super Bowl XXXVI, featuring the same two teams. Let's start by saying we believe the Rams are superior across the board with the talent of position by position. However, the Patriots do have the overall experience in the field. There is also an old saying that we may have heard the last couple of weeks--"Never bet against Tom Brady."
Rams Offense vs. Patriots Defense
New England's typical defense in that the total is greater than the sum of its parts. When we think of the big stars for the Patriots, the names that most pop up are exclusively on the offensive side of the ball. Tom Brady [apparently], but also Rob "Gronk" Gronkowski, Sony Michel, Julian Edelman, and even James White has been making a name for himself as of late. The average NFL fanbase outside of New England would probably be hard-pressed to name more than two or three Patriots defensive players, and yet this team was still seventh in the league in points allowed.
How do they do it? The Patriots have a long-standing slogan: ''Do your job." They also have a brilliantly designed defense and overseeing it all is a future Hall of Fame head coach (Bill Belichick) who specializes in defenses. One of the hard things about game planning for the Patriots, on both sides of the ball, is that we never know what to expect. They change things up from week to week more than any other NFL team, and what they designed up two weeks ago against the Kansas City Chiefs will probably be very different than what we expect to see from them on Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia. One thing Bill Belichick typically tries to do is take away the teams best offensive player. For the Los Angeles Rams is that still the 2017 NFL Offensive Player of the Year Todd Gurley; or will it become CJ Anderson? Perhaps ex-Patriot wide receiver Brandin Cooks can be the focus of that shutdown?
Good question, but we guess that the Patriots intention on winning this game by running the ball as well as stopping the Rams run-game, daring Jared Goff by beating them with his arm. The flip side of this is that the Rams will open up in a run-heavy offense, similar to the playoff game against Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Divisional Playoff game a couple of weeks ago at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The Patriots defense against the run has allowed only an average of 60 yards per game. Those number could be a little misleading since they got out to a huge early lead against the Los Angeles Chargers and a solid lead against the Kansas City Chiefs.
One of the biggest battles of this game will be the Rams offensive line against the Patriots defensive line. If the Rams can open up run lanes and control the line, it may not matter whether the feature back will be Gurley or Anderson (we guess that it will be Gurley assuming he is healthy). If the Rams can run the ball effectively, they probably will win this game. However, they likely will face eight men in the box defense unless the Patriots get out to a big early lead.
The Rams throwing the ball to Gurley was a staple of the offense for a majority of the season, although, after an early pick in which TGII (Todd Gurley) mishandled a very catchable ball that led to an interception deep in Rams territory, we didn't much of it, or him, against New Orleans Saints. Gurley's health produces into questions, is he still bothered by a bad knee he sustained late in the season. As good as CJ Anderson is running between the tackles, he is no Todd Gurley as a receiver out the backfield. We believe Gurley is healthy, and that he can have a huge day catching the ball against the Patriot linebackers, especially Kyle Van Noy.
The Patriots pass rush been nothing to write home about this past season, logging only 30 quarterback sacks, the second fewest in the NFL. Assuming Belichick loads up to stop the run, that is going to put much pressure on their secondary, which, fortunately for them, is very good. We never know for sure what the Patriots will pull out of the hat, but in passing situations, they will probably try to confuse Goff with disguised coverages and maybe some exotic blitzes. That is one reason the Rams want to avoid third-and-long situations, and why the Rams running game is such a key to this game.
One crucial potential match up is Patriots corner Stephon Gilmore against Cooks. The Patriots often, though not always, put Gilmore on the opposing teams best receiver. We could argue whether for the Rams that is Cooks or Robert Woods, but Cooks had the more significant day against New Orleans, with seven catches for 107 yards, and is more of a significant play threat because of his blinding speed [he is possibly the league's fastest receiver not named Tyreek Hill]. However, Gilmore was Pro Football Focus' top-graded cornerback this season, and he knows Cooks well from their time last season as teammates, seeing each other in practice on a regular basis.
The Rams are likely to see a fair amount of man-to-man defense in this game. Goff was better against man coverages then zones this past season. However, again with Belichick, we can never be sure what they will do.
The Rams have been going through a slow evolution this season of using tight ends Gerald Everette and Tyler Higbee more and more as the season progressed. Higbee had a huge catch to set up the game-winning field goal against New Orleans. The Rams even started using some two-tight end sets late in the season, after using three wide-receiver, single tight end sets almost exclusively for most of the year. It will be interesting to see what Sean McVay does on Sunday and whether the tight ends play a significant role.
New England Offense vs. Rams Defense
In the three Super Bowls New England has lost, Tom Brady was sacked eight times and was pressured extensively, especially in the Giants upset win after the 2007 season. No quarterback likes inside pressure up in their face, and nobody, but nobody, generates that better than Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald. Donald set a record for defensive tackle sacks this past season with 20.5. We would expect the Patriots to double up on Donald, but the primary responsibility will probably fall to guard Joe Thuney. Thuney is an excellent player, but he has not played against a player like Donald yet because there isn't one. Brady gets rid of the ball quickly, but he is not very mobile [nobody is perfect], and if the Rams can make him uncomfortable, that could be a huge deal. In keeping with Belichick's philosophy of "take away their best player," they will do whatever they can to stop Donald, whether that means triple teams, holding [these are the Patriots after all], or just about anything else. Hopefully, the refs will not allow the Patriot lineman to get too hands-on with Donald, but who knows.
New England got away with basically mugging Marshall Faulk in Super Bowl 36, not to bring up painful memories. Yeah, that was a long time ago, but there is a suspicion among many that New England gets away with, shall we say "extra-curricular activities" more often than most other teams. We hope that is not the case on Sunday.
That is where Ndamukong Suh comes in. Suh, after a pretty mediocre regular season, has been whom we thought he was during the playoffs, with big games against both Dallas and New Orleans. He needs to be that guy again on Sunday. Rams outside linebacker Dante Fowler has also been better lately, notching a massive hit on Drew Brees that led to the game-winning field goal in overtime. Fowler and Suh need to make the Patriots worry about more than just Aaron Donald in this game.
One of the key matchups in this game when New England has the ball will be Rams safety John Johnson against Gronk. Johnson mostly held his own against elite tight ends this season, and Gronk is undoubtedly elite. They cannot let Gronk have a huge day--anything much over 60 yards receiving is trouble for the Rams--so if they have to make changes to shut Gronkowski down, they will.
Perhaps an even bigger matchup will be Rams slot corner Nickell Robey-Coleman against Patriots receiver Julian Edelman. Robey-Coleman has been in the headlines for all of the wrong reasons lately. First, the now infamous "non-call" in the Saints game. He then followed that up with comments about Brady's age having supposedly '"taken it is toll" on the future Hall of Fame quarterback. Hate to speak badly of a Ram stalwart--but man, that is simple-minded. First of all, considering the man is in the ninth Super Bowl, it is hard to find fault with Brady. Not the Peyton Manning in 2015, a case of a great defense dragging a quarterback in serious decline over the finish line. Tom Brady is still, well, Tom Brady.
However, even more than that--don't give the man any extra motivation. Robey-Coleman tried to walk his comments back, but don't believe for a moment that TB12 did not hear him loud and clear, or that he has forgotten them. If he gets the chance to embarrass Robey-Coleman, he will.
Beyond that, Edelman is a huge cog in the Patriot passing game. If the Rams need to double team him, they will, even if that means opening up other opportunities for New England.
The other key matchup in this battle will be the Patriots running backs against the Rams linebackers, especially the inside linebackers, Mark Barron and Corey Littleton. Both are on the small side at 225-230, and the Rams rush defense during the regular season gave up an average of over five yards per run. They have been better in the playoffs-- outstanding in fact--but there is still a suspicion that if we can get past the d-line, we can run on these guys. Watch for the Patriots to try to match up running James White against Littleton in the short passing game as well.
The Rams defense has been much better lately but, well, Tom Brady.
We could argue that the special teams won the NFC title game for the Rams. Punter Johnny Hekker completed a pivotal pass to Sam Shields for a first down when the game seemed to be rapidly slipping away from Los Angeles. Placekicker Greg Zuerlein nailed a long field goal to keep the Rams alive on the last play of the game and then nailed another one to win it in overtime, kicks of 48 and 57 yards respectively, The second one probably would have been good from 65 yards or more. While Zuerlein supposedly has had an injury to his non-kicking leg, he also had that same injury during both of those kicks (he reportedly slipped on a plate under the turf during the game), and it did not seem to matter. With an extra two weeks to recover, the general belief is that he is fine. No one will be shocked if he is called on to win this game as well.
The Patriots special teams are most certainly NOT a weakness. Kicker Stephen Gostowski, in particular, is a cool veteran with a big leg and much experience in big games. Still, the Rams special teams may be the best in the game, and bother Hekker and Zuerlein are elite weapons.
It is a real chess match, not only concerning McVay versus Belichick but also Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips vs. Belichick as well. We love the Rams Coaching staff, but this may be the only NFL team where we would put them at a slight--, and we emphasize the word slight--disadvantage. We cannot argue with five Super Bowl rings.
Edge: Patriots (not by much)
The oddsmakers have New England picked by 2.5 points. As we said at the top, we will see this as a battle of talent versus experience. We will take talent. Don't be surprised if this game comes down to a Greg Zuerlein field goal attempt at the end.