BOSTON (CBS) — In what is becoming a yearly tradition, the New England Patriots are back in the Super Bowl. And as is usually the case when a team reaches the last game of the NFL season, they’ll meet a formidable foe.
The Los Angeles Rams are in the Super Bowl just three years after moving from St. Louis, so there really isn’t much of a history between these two franchises. Super Bowl LIII will take place exactly 17 years after the Patriots beat Rams (then of the St. Louis variety) all the way back in Super Bowl XXXVI to start their dynastic run. But Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are the only two carryovers from that clash, with every other player in that game not named Vinatieri now enjoying retirement. Current Rams head coach Sean McVay had just celebrated his 16th birthday two weeks prior to that game, while quarterback Jared Goff was only seven at the time.
As for these current Rams of Los Angeles, they pack a powerful offensive punch. They were second in the NFL in total yards (6,738), yards per game (421.1) and points per game (32.9), trailing only the Kansas City Chiefs in each category. Goff threw 32 touchdown passes, while running back Todd Gurley led the NFL with 21 total scores.
They’re still rolling in the playoffs, too, averaging 418.5 yards and 28 points per game, good for second and third, respectively. They trail the Patriots (39 ppg and an astounding 511 ypg) in both, with New England leading the postseason pack in each category (KC was second at 31 points per game).
The Rams are really good. Really stinkin’ good. They may be here because the refs gifted them the NFC Championship against the New Orleans Saints, but that followed an impressive win over the Dallas Cowboys in the divisional round.
Here’s a look at what you need to know about the team standing in New England’s way of a sixth Super Bowl title.
1. They Are Not Great Against The Run
We’ll start on the defensive end, because we just had a lot of nice things to say about the Los Angeles offense. There are some nice things to say about their defense, but they share one thing in common with the Kansas City Chiefs: They stink against the run.
You may have heard by now that the Patriots are a pretty good running team these days. Yes, Tom Brady is still doing Tom Brady things, hitting the likes of Julian Edelman, James White and Rob Gronkowski (he is catching passes again too) in the tightest of windows. But the Patriots have been pounding the rock, and it’s been working like a charm.
The three-headed dragon of Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead and White rushed for 176 yards against the Chiefs in the AFC Championship. That came after they racked up 155 yards against the Chargers in the divisional round. Not only did they cover the field, but all of those running plays (82 in total this postseason) have kept opposing offenses off the field. The Patriots have had the ball for almost 40 minutes longer than their opponents during the playoffs, which has made it pretty hard for opposing offenses to score.
The Patriots are now 51-1 when they have a 100-yard rusher, and 11-0 in the postseason. And now they get to face a team that gave up 5.1 yards per carry during the regular season, ranking dead last in the NFL.
That being said, the Rams’ porous run D hasn’t hurt them this postseason. The Cowboys managed just 50 rushing yards on 22 attempts in the divisional round, and the Saints had just 48 yards on 21 attempts. They held Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliot to 47 yards on 20 carries, and Alvin Kamara had just 15 rushing yards on eight carries for New Orleans. So maybe Michel will look like an actual rookie next Sunday.
But that doesn’t mean the Patriots should change things up. The run game is working, and it’s leading to some spectacular results. And if it’s not as dynamic as it has been so far this postseason, White is in line for another big game (when isn’t he?) on Sunday, as Kamara turned 11 receptions into 96 yards against the Rams in the NFC title game.
2. Yet They Have A Great D Up Front
Aaron Donald had 20.5 sacks during the regular season. That is half of the Rams’ total, and more than the Oakland Raiders (13 sacks) had all season. He also forced quarterbacks to cough up the football four times. The man is menace, someone Belichick referred to as “unblockable.”
And he’s not their only menace on the defensive front. There will also a guy by the name of Ndamukong Suh gunning for Brady on Feb. 3, and everyone knows the garbage he brings to the table. He had 1.5 sacks on Drew Brees on Sunday, on back-to-back plays, matching his production over his previous eight games.
Donald will obviously be the man the New England offensive line doubles throughout the Super Bowl, but they can’t sleep on Suh either. The O-Line has been spectacular this postseason, opening up gigantic holes for running backs and keeping Brady spotless so far. The Chiefs led the league in sacks, and they got nothing against Brady last weekend.
But next Sunday is going to be a gigantic test for the unit.
3. Offense Can Get Cookin’
Brandin Cooks gets to play in the Super Bowl for the second straight year, and hopefully this time, he’ll get to finish the game. He must be champing at the bit to get back on the big stage after leaving Super Bowl LII with a horrible concussion in the first half.
Cooks had a solid season catching passes from Goff, finishing with 80 receptions and over 1,200 yards. He had six 100-plus yard games, including the NFC Championship when he led the way for the Rams with seven catches and 107 yards. He also has a solid running mate in Robert Woods, who also had over 1,200 yards on the season. The duo gives Goff two incredible options in the passing game, and will cause fits for the New England secondary.
If the Patriots D plays like they did in the first half in Kansas City, they can keep the Rams offense from lighting up the scoreboard. If they play like they did in the second half in Kansas City, then the Rams will put points up in a hurry.
4. Their Star Running Back Was Benched In NFC Championship Game
Todd Gurley is a game-changing back. He had 1,251 rushing yards during the season, averaging 4.9 yards per carry, and 17 rushing touchdowns. He added 580 yards and another four touchdowns as a pass-catcher. He’s good.
But he picked up just 10 yards on four carries, adding another three off one reception against the Saints. One of those carries went for a 6-yard touchdown, but his 13 yards of production were the fewest he’s racked up in his career. He played less than half of Los Angeles’ snaps, and didn’t play at all in the third quarter.
McVay said after Sunday’s game that Gurley is healthy and was not benched, but Gurley was clear that he deserved his spot on the bench after the game. It’s pretty odd that their most dynamic play-maker was on the bench for a large chunk of their biggest game of the season, paving way for C.J. Anderson to take more snaps than Gurley for the second straight week. Anderson managed 44 yards on 16 carries, good for 2.8 yards per carry.
The New Orleans defense had a lot to do with this; they were one of the best teams in the NFL against the run this season. Gurley will probably be back to his usual self against a New England defense that gave up 4.9 yards per carry (only slightly better than the Rams’ run D), but as we’ve learned this postseason, he can be stopped.
It’s also worth mentioning the Patriots have allowed 60 rushing yards this postseason. Total.
5. Their Mindset Is To Winnnnnnnnn
Cooks isn’t the only former Patriot we’ll be seeing in next weekend, and chances are we’re going to hear a lot from Aqib Talib leading up to Super Bowl LIII. No complaints here.
Talib was just what the Patriots needed when they got him at the trade deadline in 2012, and then his surprise departure for Denver caused Belichick to bring in Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. Again, no complaints.
Talib was just average during the regular season and only had one interception, but the Rams were very good at taking the ball away. They finished with 18 interceptions, tied for third in the league with the Patriots, while recovering 12 of the 14 fumbles they caused in the regular season. Their 30 takeaways were third during the regular season.
It’ll be interesting to see whom Talib, and fellow corner Marcus Peters, will cover in Super Bowl LIII. At least none of the Patriots receivers wear gold chains.
6. Sean McVay, Dream Boat
The Rams head coach is eight years younger than Tom Brady, turning 33 on Thursday. He played against Julian Edelman when they were both in college (Edelman was a quarterback back then, in case you forgot). He is a bright offensive mind that is turning the NFL upside down. Anyone who has pressed a pair of the guys khakis has a real shot at landing a head coaching or coordinator job in the NFL.
He’s only been in the league for two seasons but is already considered one of the best coaches in the game, the kind of adulation that would make Brad Stevens blush. Now we’ll see how he can match minds with one of the greatest defensive coaches to ever grace the sideline.
McVay and Bill Belichick couldn’t be any more different. One is a dashing young man that can make anyone’s heart melt; the other hacks up phlegm whenever he’s asked about cutting the sleeves off his hoodie. As McVay’s offense is a high-flying circus, Belichick is turning back time and going with a run-first approach.
This is going to be an amazing battle of the minds on Feb. 3.
7. Wade Phillips, Not So Much A Dream Boat
There was just too much sexy oozing from the Rams sideline, so McVay brought in Wade Phillips to handle the L.A. defense. Phillips has quite the lengthy resume in the NFL as both a head coach and defensive coordinator, and he’s shown that his defenses can harass the crud out of Brady. Phillips was in charge of the Denver defense in the 2015 AFC Championship Game, when Brady was pulverized by the likes of Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware. Brady was sacked just twice that day, but hit 17 times. 17 times!
It wasn’t a great year for Phillips and his defense, as the Rams found themselves in a handful of shootouts. If the offensive line can keep the likes of Donald and Suh away from Brady, the quarterback should be able to pick apart their secondary. If not, we could be in for another long night of Brady looking up at a dome.
8. Belichick Is Going To Gush Over Their Special Teams
Greg Zuerlein and Johnny Hekker. Get ready to hear those names leave the lips of Bill Belichick quite a few times over the next week.
The man loves special teams, and those are two of the best in the business. Zuerlein kicked the crud out of his game-winning 57-yarder against the Saints, a boot that would have been good from 67 yards.
And Hekker? Well when the Patriots took on the Rams when they first moved to L.A. in 2016, there really wasn’t much to say about that team (aside from making fun of Jeff Fisher). So Belichick spent the week gushing about Hekker and his booming right leg. And rightfully so; Hekker can also kick the snot out of the football. He averaged a net of 43 yards on his 43 regular season punts (second in the NFL), with 21 of those landing inside the opponents’ 20.
Belichick called Hekker a “weapon,” which you don’t hear too often in regards to a punter. Then again, not too many punters can fire a bullet like this on a fake punt:
Special teams is far too often the forgotten aspect of the game. That will not be the case over the next week.