8:20 PM EST, FOX/NFL Network – Line: Rams -4.5, Over/Under: 44
Week Fourteen kicks off with a rematch from Super Bowl LIII, though these teams would likely be hard-pressed to recognize each other as the Los Angeles Rams play host to the New England Patriots from SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California. Of the two sides that competed for the Lombardi Trophy back on February 3rd, 2019, it has been the Patriots (6-6, 3rd in AFC East) that have undergone the most change, parting ways with legendary Quarterback, Tom Brady (signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a Free Agent), along with All-Pro Tight End, Rob Gronkowski (retired, though recently returned to team up with Brady in Tampa) and venerable Defensive Coordinator, Brian Flores (hired as Head Coach of the Miami Dolphins), while not to mention standing by helplessly as a league-high EIGHT players opted out of the 2020 campaign due to concerns over COVID-19. Of the twenty-two starters from Super Bowl LIII, only six remain active for New England heading into tonight’s rematch, with Bill Belichick & Co doing their best to reconfigure the team throughout the season. Though it hasn’t been easy, the Pats have managed to rally back from a 2-5 start, which featured the first four-game losing streak suffered under Belichick since he arrived in Foxborough back in 2000, to climb back into Playoff contention at 6-6, and with three consecutive dates with division rivals to close out the schedule, their hopes of extending their remarkable streak to twelve consecutive Postseason appearances remains a distinct possibility.
As poorly as they appeared throughout the first two months of the season, is it really any surprise that the Patriots have managed to turn themselves around? Winners of four of their last five outings, New England finally looks comfortable in their own skin after searching for a new identity for the better part of eight weeks. Replacing Brady is none other than Cam Newton (66.7%, 2,053 YDS, 6.40 NY/A, 5 TD, 9 INT, 51.0 QBR), with the former MVP Quarterback experiencing his fair share of ups and downs following nine years with the Carolina Panthers. It didn’t take long before the 31-year old’s charisma, confidence, and personality endeared himself to his new teammates, starting all but one game thus far with the exception of a 26-10 loss at the Kansas City Chiefs back on October 5th due to contracting COVID-19. However, make no mistake the learning curve in New England has been rather steep for the three-time Pro-Bowler, particularly within an Offense that has seen a number of injuries along the Offensive Line and remains short of weapons in the Receiving Corps. With that said, Belichick and (Offensive Coordinator) Josh McDaniels have shifted their approach to the running game, playing to Newton’s strengths; the Pats have ran the football more than any team the NFL (33.2 A/G), averaging 150.9 yards per game (3rd Overall) on a healthy 4.6 yards per carry (9th Overall) accounting for nineteen touchdowns (2nd Overall), with Newton churning out 435 yards and eleven of those scores on 9.6 attempts per contest, the most of his career. With that said, passing the football has been a different story altogether for the former No. One Overall Pick, who has struggled to find consistency within a system that has long called for precise, accurate passers. With accuracy never really being his strong suit and a shoulder injury marring his final few seasons in Carolina, Newton’s consistency throwing the football was always going to make his addition to the Patriots a fascinating one, and it’s been very much a mixed bag thus far; his completion percentage (66.7%) is the second-highest of his career, though he’s thrown five touchdowns in comparison to nine interceptions, while posting a career-low 186.6 yards per game through the air. He has though risen to the occasion and made plays when they’ve needed to be made, as highlighted by the gritty performance he authored in a 20-17 victory over the Arizona Cardinals two weeks ago, picking up a key late first down (along with drawing a personal foul) setting up the game-winning field goal. Whether or not he will be extending his stay in the Northeast past this season is a question that remains unanswered, though one would have to think how he finishes this campaign will factor heavily into said decision. It should also come as little surprise that the Defense has played a large role in reversing their fortunes, particularly with Belichick at the helm. No matter how many key figures he loses, the venerable mastermind always seems to get the most out of the players at his disposal, putting them in position to make plays, and this current group that has largely void of familiar names has been no different; on the year, the Pats have allowed 21.3 points per game (7th Overall) on a respectable 344.6 total yards (12th Overall), and while they struggled up front in terms of stopping the run early on, they’ve appeared to have figured that out, limiting the last five opponents to 88.6 yards per game on the ground. With that said, the strength of this unit is clearly the Secondary, which is one of the deepest in the league, headlined by reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Stephon Gilmore (31 TKL, 1 TFL, 1 FF, 1 INT, 3 PD), the McCourty Twins (84 TKL, 1 TFL, 2 INT, 9 PD, 1 TD combined), and the emerging J.C. Jackson (25 TKL, 1 TFL, 3 FR, 7 INT, 12 PD), who has been a bonafide ballhawk with fifteen interceptions over the past three seasons, including a career-high seven picks through the a dozen games in 2020.
When we last saw the Patriots, they kept their momentum rolling and turned in what was clearly their most impressive performance of the season, utterly embarrassing the Los Angeles Chargers on their home field, 45-0. This was complete domination from New England, who owned the affair in all three phases, controlling the contest on the strength of 165 rushing yards and two touchdowns on forty-five carries, relegating the hosts to a mere 258 total yards and forcing a pair of turnovers, and crushing it on Special Teams with a 70-yard punt return to the house from (Rookie) Gunner Olszewski (3 REC, 48 YDS, 16.0 Y/R, 1 TD), and a 44-yard blocked field goal return courtesy of Devin McCourty (47 TKL, 1 TFL, 2 INT, 6 PD, 1 TD). Credit to Belichick who once again found a way to confound another Rookie Quarterback, limiting the prolific Justin Herbert to 209 yards on 26-of-53 passing, picking him off twice and sacking him on three occasions. Newton didn’t really need to do much as a passer, completing 12-of-19 attempts for sixty-nine yards and a touchdown, though once again factored into the running game with forty-eight yards and two more scores on fourteen carries before giving way to his Backup, Jarrett Stidham (50.0%, 185 YDS, 6.59 NY/A, 2 TD, 3 INT, 25.2 QBR), who found the aforementioned Olszewski for a 38-yard strike extend the lead to 45-0 late in the Fourth Quarter. Now we’ll see what Newton & Belichick have in store for the Rams, with the former having faced them just three times in his career, latest being a 30-27 defeat in last year’s Season Opener in which he was sacked thrice and committed a pair of costly turnovers, while the latter rendered their high-powered attack inert with just three points on 260 total yards in the lowest scoring Super Bowl in NFL History (13-3).
Meanwhile, though the Rams (8-4, 1st in NFC West) haven’t undergone quite the seismic change that their opponent tonight has since they last met in Super Bowl LIII, they’ve still instigated a good deal of turnover over the past twenty months, but then again this has been a team that has been among the busiest in the league in regards to handing out contract extensions. Of course, many of these moves came as a result of that defeat at the hands of the Patriots, with Los Angeles following that up by making a flurry of trades and adding a wealth of veterans in an attempt to keep their championship window open. Unfortunately, they would finish 2019 at a disappointing 9-7, missing the Playoffs altogether, which prompted (General Manager) Les Snead and (Head Coach) Sean McVay to reconfigure their roster on the fly; after signing two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Aaron Donald (34 TKL, 9 TFL, 22 QBH, 11.0 SK, 4 FF, 1 FR, 1 PD), and former No. One Overall Pick, Jared Goff (68.4%, 3,372 YDS, 6.98 NY/A, 17 TD, 10 INT, 61.8 QBR), to lucrative contract extensions, the franchise got to work extending All-Pro Cornerback, Jalen Ramsey (33 TKL, 2 TFL, 1 QBH, 1 INT, 3 PD), whom they added at the Trade Deadline last season, and their talented tandem of Wideouts, Robert Woods (71 REC, 764 YDS, 10.8 Y/R, 5 TD) and Cooper Kupp (74 REC, 836 YDS, 11.3 Y/R, 2 TD). However, anytime you allocate that volume of funds to a quintet of players, the other shoe is bound to drop in other areas, which is precisely what happened as Los Angeles parted ways with a myriad of players in a relatively short period of time. After all, this is a business, right?
As we stated earlier, McVay and Snead swung for the fences and missed, and have thus reassessed their approach to team-building, along the way cutting ties with a wealth of vets, releasing the likes of 2018 Offensive Player of the Year, Todd Gurley, trading away (Receiver) Brandin Cooks, allowing (Edge-Rusher) Dante Fowler and (Linebacker) Clay Matthews to leave in Free Agency, while saying goodbye to (Cornerback) Aqib Talib, (Safety) Eric Weddle, and even (Defensive Coordinator) Wade Phillips who all chose to walk away in retirement. In turn, they identified Donald, Goff, Ramsey, Woods, and Kupp as the foundational pillars of their franchise, with those five figures alone set to comprise over 62% of their Salary Cap in 2021, which thanks to COVID-19 is all but guaranteed to decrease, making it even more difficult to replenish the rest of the roster. Managing the Salary Cap is a very understated part of maintaining long-term success in the National Football League, and as their opponent tonight will attest, when you sell out to remain in contention, as the Rams did bartering away so many premium Draft Picks over the past few years, the bill eventually WILL come due. In the meantime, the general thought was that Los Angeles would need another year to reconfigure themselves following an Offseason of trimming the proverbial fat, particularly when you consider the relative strength within the NFC West. After all, the San Francisco 49ers were coming off a No. One Seed and advancing to Super Bowl LIV, while the Seattle Seahawks were projected by many to compete for that very same distinction this year, with the Arizona Cardinals an improved side to boot. However, they’ve found a way to balance remaining successful in the present while building for the future, which quite frankly is one of the most difficult things to do in the NFL, sitting in first place within the division with just four games left on the schedule. Balance has returned to the Offense after a season in which the Offensive Line was routinely a point of concern, ranking third in total yards (405.2), sixth in first downs (278), fifth in passing yards (281.0) eighth in net yards per attempt (7.0), and eighth in rushing yards (124.2). So much of what McVay does in the passing game is built off the success of the run, and Goff is a MUCH better passer when he has the threat of play-action to lean upon; this season, the 26-year old has completed 70.9% of his attempts for 1,110 yards (8.7 Y/A) and six touchdowns opposed to two interceptions when utilizing play-action, while a 67.5% passer with 2,262 yards (7.0 Y/A), eleven touchdowns and eight interceptions otherwise. Furthermore, nearly 40% of his passing attempts have come via play-action, most of any Quarterback in the league thus far. Keep an eye on how the Offensive Line continues to perform without the presence of (Left Tackle) Andrew Whitworth, who will likely miss the rest of the campaign with a torn MCL and PCL in his left knee. Goff has enjoyed solid pass-protection thus far (16 sacks), and the run game continues to be steady if unspectacular. Defensively, the Rams have returned to the ranks of the elite under (Defensive Coordinator) Brandon Staley, ranking fifth in points allowed (20.3), second in total defense (291.4), and third against the pass (198.3) and rush (93.1). Star-power has been the key here, with Donald and Ramsey playing like the all-world talents that they are; the former continues to be an unbridled force in the trenches, leading the league once again with eleven sacks, while the latter has shut down once side of the field, exhibiting the ability to take away the opponent’s primary pass-catcher, evidenced by his nullification of Seattle’s D.K. Metcalf a month ago. With that said, the younger pieces of the supporting cast have really shown considerable growth, which will be the key moving forward; the Ninth Overall Pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Leonard Floyd (39 TKL, 9 TFL, 15 QBH, 7.0 SK, 2 FR) is thriving alongside Donald, while the undrafted Darious Williams (27 TKL, 1 TFL, 4 INT, 13 PD) has flourished with a team-high four interceptions and thirteen defended passes.
When we last saw the Rams, they bounced back from a second disappointing loss to the 49ers, this time reminding the Cardinals that they are still very much the little brother within the NFC West, besting them in a 38-28 victory on the road. The hosts started quickly, with Kyler Murray finding Dan Arnold for a 59-yard touchdown on their opening drive, but Los Angeles would gradually take control of the affair, forcing Arizona to punt on their following four drives, before a missed 48-yard field goal ended the First Half. During that period, the visitors scored on two of their final three drives, with Rookie (Tailback) Cam Akers (80 CAR, 357 YDS, 4.5 Y/A, 2 TD) taking off for a nine-yard score followed by a one-yard touchdown from the aforementioned Goff to (Tight End) Tyler Higbee to take a 14-7 lead into intermission. After a 39-yard field goal courtesy of Matt Gay extended the lead to 17-7, the two dies traded touchdowns with McVay’s charges leading 31-21 early in the final stanza. However, this is where the game changed for good, as (Cornerback) Troy Hill (67 TKL, 1 TFL, 1 FF, 2 FR, 2 INT, 7 PD, 2 TD) picked off Murray and returned it thirty-five yards to the house. The Sophomore Quarterback would drive the birds downfield for another touchdown to Arnold, but it would be too little too late for the the final outcome was all but assured. In the end, this was as lopsided an affair as you’ll see in terms of the box score, with the Rams holding significant advantages in a slew of categories including total yards (463-232), first downs (30-18), passing yards (351-173), turnovers (1-2), and time of possession (38:53). Goff was 37-of-47 for 351 yards and a touchdown, while his counterpart struggled once more against Los Angeles, completing 21-of-39 passes for just 173 yards and three touchdowns, but committed two turnovers and was hardly a threat in the running game (5 CAR, 15 YDS).