6:30 PM EST, CBS – Line: Patriots -2.5, Over/Under: 57.5
With a thoroughly entertaining Conference Championship Weekend in the books, it’s now onto Super Bowl LIII as the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams meet in a titanic clash from Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia, to crown the latest recipient of the Lombardi Trophy. The more things change, the more they continue to stay the same for the Patriots (11-5, 1st in AFC East), who find themselves competing in their third consecutive Super Bowl, becoming the first team since the Buffalo Bills in the early 1990s to achieve that feat, while appearing in their fourth Super Bowl in five years, and overall for the ninth time since the turn of the millennium. Of course, the ageless, record-setting partnership of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady has reaped the benefits of that success, hoisting five Lombardi Trophies over the past eighteen years, and have been presented with the golden opportunity to further raise their platform into yet another stratosphere with a sixth. Coming into the season, there were many pundits of the opinion that this would indeed be the year in which the Dynasty crumbled, what with Brady turning Forty-One Years Old and a slew of departures from their carefully-laden roster. While they certainly raised some concerns (particularly at the beginning of the campaign), New England nonetheless improved as the season progressed, marching towards another AFC East Championship (their sixteenth since 2001), and earning an unprecedented ninth straight First Round Bye in the Playoffs. Belichick’s charges put that respite to good use, ambushing the white-hot Los Angeles Chargers in the Divisional Round, embarrassing them in a 41-28 rout at Gillette Stadium. This one was never in question folks, for the hosts jumped out to a commanding 35-7 lead late in the Second Quarter, and at one point had amassed a ridiculous Twenty-One First Downs in comparison to the mere Twenty Plays that the visiting side had managed to run. When it was all said and done, the Pats totaled Thirty First Downs, 498 Yards of Offense, and held the football for over Thirty-Eight Minutes, booking an eighth consecutive appearance in the AFC Championship Game.
An underdog for the first time in an insane sixty-seven contests, Brady led the Patriots into frigid Arrowhead Stadium against the high-powered Kansas City Chiefs, and to the surprise of many, controlled the contest virtually for it’s entirety, putting together a vintage game-winning Drive in Overtime to secure an instant classic 37-31 triumph. After escaping the Chief’s inferno in a 43-40 shootout earlier in the season, all eyes were on Belichick & Co. as they faced MVP frontrunner Patrick Mahomes, leaving many to wonder just what exactly the Machiavellian Mastermind could construct to slow him down. Ironically, the perfect Defense once again turned out to be an efficient Offense, as New England made play after play when it needed to throughout the Fourth Quarter and Overtime, with Brady leading successful drive after drive. Trailing 17-21 midway through the final stanza, the visitors traveled Seventy-Five Yards on Nine Plays culminating in a Sony Michel (29 CAR, 113 YDS, 2 TD) Touchdown to take the lead. With the hosts rallying back with a Touchdown of their own, Brady & Co. engineered a 65-Yard Drive ending in another Touchdown Run, this time courtesy of Rex Burkhead (12 CAR, 41 YDS, 2 TD) to recapture the lead with just under Fifty Seconds remaining. The Chiefs responded in kind, driving right down the field before sending the affair into Overtime with a Field Goal. From there, the Pats won the toss, claimed possession, and let Brady get to work, with the Three-Time MVP doing what he does best; the veteran Quarterback authored a virtuoso 13-Play, 75-Yard Drive capped by yet another Burkhead rushing score, in which he deftly completed 4-of-9 Attempts for Sixty Yards, with three of those Completions coming on crucial Third Downs. When it was all said and done, Brady completed 30-of-46 Attempts for 348 Yards, with a Touchdown and Two Interceptions, piloting a ruthlessly-efficient attack that accumulated a whopping Thirty-Six First Downs, 524 Total Yards, held the football for a staggering 43:59, and converted on a remarkable 13-of-19 Third Downs. Indeed, it was once again vintage Brady, vintage Belichick, and above all else, vintage Patriots.
With that said, what makes their run to yet another Super Bowl so remarkable is the fact that for much of the season, these Patriots were rather far from vintage. In fact, if you were to compare them to their eight predecessors that had advanced to this stage, you would be well within your rights to proclaim them as the least-imposing. The evidence is certainly there to reinforce that notion: Brady (65.8%, 4,355 YDS, 7.12 NY/A, 29 TD, 11 INT, 68.8 QBR) at Forty-One wasn’t quite as prolific as he was during his MVP campaign of 2017, while years of injuries appeared to have finally taken a toll on All-Pro Tight End Rob Gronkowski (47 REC, 682 YDS, 14.5 Y/R, 3 TD), who posted his weakest stat line in years in 2018. Furthermore, the Receiving Corps was dangerously thin, while the Defense lacked real teeth and seemed to rely far too heavily upon Turnovers (28, 5th Overall) to halt their opponents. However, Belichick and his Staff did a masterful job of adapting to circumstances, offensively shifting to a far more run-oriented gameplan, focusing on the likes of the aforementioned Michel (209 CAR, 931 YDS, 4.5 Y/C, 6 TD) and the versatile lynchpin of the attack, James White (94 CAR, 425 YDS, 4.5 Y/C, 5 TD). This Backfield will in all likelihood be the key to Super Bowl LIII, for when New England rushes for at least 100 Yards in the Postseason, they are 11-0, and a definitive 162-1 since 2000. On the year, the Patriots averaged 127.3 Yards per Game on the Ground (5th Overall), and in the two Playoff Games have churned out 155 and 176 Yards respectively. Keep an eye on White though, folks, for few players have been more dangerous catching passes out of the Backfield than this guy, who in 2018 hauled in more Receptions (87) and was targeted more (123) than any other player on the team, creating a wealth of mismatches against haplessly slow-footed Linebackers. Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels uses him like a proverbial cheat code in the flat and on screen plays, particularly on Third Down, catching 25-of-37 Targets for 186 Yards and Three Touchdowns in such situations this year. Thus far in the Playoffs, he has caught Nineteen Passes for 146 Yards, fifteen of which came in the victory over the Chargers.
Meanwhile, as the world openly ponders as to whether or not the immortal Patriot Dynasty will end in a few weeks, the thought of a new potential dynasty beginning for the Los Angeles Rams (13-3, 1st in NFC West) is a very real thing. Hollywood loves their stories, and we can’t stress the litany of storylines that will be running rampant for the next few weeks centering around this young powerhouse. In an age of parody, the Rams were a lackluster 4-12 just two short years ago, but thanks to some inspired Draft Picks, a youthfully brilliant Head Coach, and a revolution of new faces, this once downtrodden franchise now finds themselves on the precipice of the Promised Land, where it very well could take residence for years to come. Seriously folks, what better way is there to juxtapose an opponent for the mighty Patriots than these Rams? Is there possibly a better foil for Belichick than Sean McVay, the 32-Year Old wonderkid who has revolutionized the way that these teams across the league approach the offensive side of the football and developing Quarterbacks? Or how about Jared Goff, who at Twenty-Four Years of Age will be competing against Brady, who as we’ve stated multiple times already, continues to defy Father Time at Forty-One? How about an aggressive, brash Defense led by reigning Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald, along with veterans such as Ndamukong Suh, Aqib Talib, and Marcus Peters in comparison to the stoic, unheralded unit in New England? Furthermore, how about the fact that eighteen years ago it was the Patriots who pulled one of the most celebrated upsets in Super Bowl History over the Rams’ Greatest Show on Turf, effectively launching their Dynasty, while conversely damning their counterpart to nearly two decades of irrelevance? This one reads likes a Hollywood Script, folks, and for a team that is still a year away from moving into their brand-new stadium, there isn’t much more that they could ask for other than perhaps a Lombardi Trophy.
While it may come have come as a surprise to some, the Rams reaching this stage is certainly no shock, particularly given how they spent nearly two-thirds of the campaign as arguably the most formidable unit in the NFC, if not the entire league. McVay’s charges were the last unbeaten to fall at 8-0, and were 11-1 before suffering disappointing back-to-back losses to the Chicago Bears (6-15) and Philadelphia Eagles (23-30) late in the year. Granted, injuries had slowed down All-Pro Tailback Todd Gurley (256 CAR, 1,251 YDS, 4.9 CAR, 17 TD), while also effecting the interior of the Offensive Line, and the Defense struggled to maintain consistency as well during that stretch. However, the Bye Week worked wonders for Los Angeles, who used the break as an opportunity to course-correct themselves and get healthy, which was readily apparent in their 30-22 victory over the Dallas Cowboys. In a shocking turn of events, the Rams did to the Cowboys, what many figured that the NFC East Champions would do to them, punishing them on the ground with the Running Game, led by C.J. Anderson (23 CAR, 123 YDS, 2 TD) and the aforementioned Gurley (16 CAR, 115 YDS, 1 TD), who became just the fourth pair of teammates to rush for 100 Yards apiece in a Playoff Game. When it was all said and one, the hosts churned out a staggering 273 Rushing Yards on Forty-Seven Carries against one of the more staunch defenses in the league, leading to a stark contrast in Time of Possession (36:13). It was the quite the performance for Anderson, a journeyman who landed on his fourth team of the campaign when Los Angeles acquired him to fill the void left by Gurley late in the term. In just four games with the team (including Playoffs) Anderson has been a proverbial wrecking ball, averaging 149.5 Yards per Game on a whopping 7.0 Yards per Carry. The veteran is yet another weapon in McVay’s holster alongside Goff (64.9%, 4,688 YDS, 7.52 NY/A, 32 TD, 12 INT, 65.4 QBR), Gurley, and a pair of 1,000-Yard Receivers in the form of Brandin Cooks (80 REC, 1,204 YDS, 15.1 Y/R, 5 TD) and Robert Woods (86 REC, 1,219 YDS, 14.2 Y/R, 6 TD). Each of these individuals figures to play a prominent role in the Rams’ greatest weapon: Play-Action. No Quarterback attempted more passes this season when using Play-Action than Goff, and in the NFC Championship Game against the Saints, he completed 10-of-12 Attempts for 108 Yards and his only Touchdown in these situations.
Of course, there was one more stepping stone for the Rams to tread upon before arriving to this point, and that was no doubt to be their most difficult, and ended as their most controversial. Their meeting with the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Championship was a rematch of a previous clash in which the Rams traveled to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, and were ousted in a 35-45 affair that would end their unbeaten run. In their second trip to the New Orleans, Goff & Co. started slowly, falling behind 13-0 in the Second Quarter, though slowly adjusted to their opponent, before crawling back into the contest, drawing even twice in the Fourth Quarter before a 48-Yard Field Goal courtesy of Greg Zeurlein sent the game to Overtime. However, the controversy arrived well before that penultimate kick, for on the previous possession, the hosts drove down the field to the Rams’ 13-Yard Line, with Drew Brees rifling a pass out to Tommylee Lewis for what would potentially have been a First Down had Defensive Back Nickell-Robey-Coleman not injected himself into the path of the football (and ahem, Lewis), deflecting the pass out bounds. To the outrage of nearly everyone in the Superdome, the Officials failed to recognize the play as Pass Interference on the visitors, forcing the hosts to kick the ensuing Field Goal to take a 23-20 lead, leaving a precious 1:41 left on the clock, whereas the penalty would have allowed them to virtually run the clock out before attempting a shorter Field Goal. After Zeurlein’s kick ensured an extra period, Los Angeles would intercept a tipped pass, and moments later found themselves in a position to win the game, which they did on the strength of Zeurlein’s leg once again, this time from a whopping Fifty-Seven Yards. In a bizarre affair that saw Gurley mysteriously relegated to the sideline, and Goff carrying the brunt of the Offense, it was the Rams’ Defense that proved it’s weight in gold, suffocating the Saints throughout the matchup, limiting them to just nineteen First Downs, 290 Total Yards, including a season-low Forty-Eight Rushing Yards, and 6-of-14 on Third Down. Yes, the blown call was inexcusable, but credit Defnsive Coordinator Wade Phillips and his crew for learning from their previous mistakes against New Orleans, and smothering one of the most explosive attacks in the league in arguably the most notoriously difficult stadiums to play in to boot.