Stop me if you’ve heard this before. The New England Patriots face off against (insert NFC team here) in the Super Bowl. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick will head to Atlanta for Super Bowl LIII, where they take on the young up-and-coming Los Angeles Rams. The Rams are the complete antithesis of the Patriots. They are led by a young quarterback, Jared Goff, and a head coach who is several years younger than Brady, Sean McVay. All Super Bowls the Patriots play in tend to be exciting and always down to the wire. They easily could have been 8-0 in their Super Bowls, yet also 0-8. This one promises to be equally as exciting, what should we watch out for and what will decide the Super Bowl?
What to Watch For in Super Bowl LIII
1.Todd Gurley’s Health
C.J. Anderson has been great since his arrival in LA, but if the Rams want a shot at beating the Patriots, they need their Pro Bowl running back Todd Gurley at full health. Todd Gurley is a match-up nightmare because not only can he beat you by running out of the backfield, he also can catch out of the backfield and burn past linebackers. Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower will have their hands full with Gurley if he is healthy. McVay uses Gurley so creatively and finds ways to put him in mismatches. If Gurley starts running the ball well, watch out because that opens up so many more opportunities for the Rams to use him.
Another huge reason why Gurley’s health is essential to the Rams’ success is that his effective running opens up the play-action game for the Rams. According to Football Outsiders, the Rams rank first in the league in percentage of play-action plays ran. The only way that the Patriots will bite on the play-action is if the Rams, and especially Gurley are running the ball successfully.
2. Top Wide Receiver vs. Cornerback Matchup
Last year’s Super Bowl saw quarterbacks combine for almost 900 yards passing. Success through the passing game will once again have a huge impact on this years’ Super Bowl, but which match-ups should we specifically watch for? The Patriots have made life miserable for opposing defenses by being able to turn five-yard gains into 25-yard gains with Julian Edelman. Nickell Robey-Coleman will be tasked with trying to slow down Edelman. Robey-Coleman has been in the news a lot lately for his pass-interference penalty that went uncalled in the NFC Championship. But if he can shut down Edelman, people will soon remember him for better reasons. Robey-Coleman is going to have to play press coverage on Edelman, especially on third downs. Edelman is Brady’s go-to target on third down and has consistently found success in quick out routes that require perfect timing. If Edelman is able to burn Robey-Coleman time and time again on third downs, the Rams will not be able to get off the field on defense, and the game will quickly get away from them. This match-up very well may decide the game.
Another match-up to watch here is between pass-catching running back, James White, and the Rams’ linebackers, particularly Cory Littleton. White loves the big stage, and the Rams must find a way to limit his effectiveness. If Brady is able to dominate the Rams with underneath routes to White and Edelman, game over. If the Rams make Brady throw the ball deep, that is when they can force turnovers and take advantage.
On the other side of the field, an intriguing match-up to watch is the battle between Brandin Cooks and Stephon Gilmore. Cooks is Goff’s big play wide receiver, but Gilmore, who was Pro Football Focus’ number one cornerback this year, will make life difficult for him. Even though the Patriots have been susceptible to big plays down the field this year, Belichick will game plan to stop Cooks from burning them. Since the Rams have another reliable receiver opposite Cooks, Robert Woods, expect Gilmore to see some time shadowing Woods as well. When that happens, McVay will have a play ready to throw deep to Cooks. The chess match-up between the defensive-minded Belichik and offensive-minded McVay is mouth-watering, and will be a thrill to watch.
3. Aaron Donald vs. Patriots Offensive Line
Tom Brady has not been sacked yet this year in the playoffs. If the Rams are not able to get pressure on Brady, they may as well just hand over the Lombardi Trophy right now. Brady has been susceptible in the past when there has been pressure up the middle. Luckily for the Rams, they have the best defensive player in the league on their defensive-line, who just so happens to rush up the middle. Aaron Donald has been a handful for opposing offensive lines this year. He led the NFL this year in sacks with 20.5, which is astonishing for a defensive tackle. He and Ndamukong Suh will need to create pressure up the middle, which will allow for edge rushers, Dante Fowler and Michael Brockers to get to Brady.
Luckily for the Patriots, they also have one of the best offensive guards in the league, Joe Thuney. Thuney has not played against anyone near Donald’s level recently, but he has slowed down just about everyone in his path. If he can buy Brady just a few seconds when he drops back, he will be doing his job. Brady gets rid of the ball so quickly, that even if Donald does beat Thuney, he will need to get to him within a couple seconds to affect Brady’s rhythm. This match-up will be one that sets the tone from the beginning of the game. In the past, when teams have given Brady trouble with the pass rush, the tone has been set from the start. The Rams will need to get to Brady early and often if they want to slow down this red-hot offense.
This week I have flip-flopped between a couple different scores. Expect the first half to be relatively slow and low scoring, but that will ramp up in the second half. I believe McVay will have some plays early to get Goff comfortable and in a rhythm, but Belichick will throw everything he has at Goff and try to disturb him. I am inclined to pick the Rams, just because their roster is more complete, they have big playmakers and innovative play-calling, but it is hard to go against the Pats in a big game. This game will come down to the wire, and there will almost definitely be a lead change in the fourth quarter. Late drive heroics likely win this game. 34-31 Patriots.