By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — After two longs weeks of talk, talk and more talk, the Super Bowl is finally upon us. Almost.
But we’re just a day away from the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams duking it out for NFL supremacy. The Patriots are going for their sixth Super Bowl title, which would tie the Pittsburgh Steelers for the most all time, while these current L.A. Rams are going for their first in their lengthy three-year history.
With all the stories of New England’s demise over the last few years, it’s only fitting that they’re once again taking the franchise they beat to kick start this dynastic run. Few believed the Patriots would be here just six weeks ago after they dropped back-to-back road games to the Dolphins and Steelers, but their dominant run attack and some solid defense have them back in the Super Bowl for the third straight year.
Here’s what we’ll be watching for when the Patriots and Rams kick off Sunday evening.
The Patriots have been bullies on the ground lately, running all over the Chargers and Chiefs to get to the Super Bowl. Rookie Sony Michel has been outstanding, Rex Burkhead is bowling over defenders, and even James White is mixing in some carries along with his usual serving of receptions. Patriots running backs have been nearly unstoppable.
Of New England’s 91 plays against Kansas City, there was only one play that lost yards: Brady’s kneel down at the end of regulation (though it should be noted that Burkhead was stuffed on a fairly important 4th-and-1 run early in the fourth quarter). Their rush attack has set up the play action, made Brady’s short game even more deadly, and allowed the Patriots to dominate the time of possession battle this postseason.
And they can thank Dante Scarnecchia and the giants along the offensive line, not to mention fullback/battering ram James Develin. Not only is that group keeping Brady unscathed but they’re opening up gigantic holes for the backs to take advantage of. They’ve made it look extremely easy over the last month.
Now they’re set to face a Rams team that allowed 5.1 yards per carry during the regular season, worst in the NFL. Los Angeles has been better against the run as of late, but they haven’t seen anything like what the Patriots are about to throw at them. If the Patriots can control the ground and the clock, it’ll keep the Rams high-powered offense on the sideline, making it pretty difficult to light up the scoreboard.
On the other side, Todd Gurley is a stud for the Rams. He had more touchdowns than any non-quarterback during the regular season. But he’s looked human during the playoffs, rushing for just 10 yards on four carries (along with a touchdown) in the NFC title game. Head coach Sean McVay says he wasn’t benched in the game, but Gurley was essentially benched for C.J. Anderson. There’s a good chance Gurley is still feeling a left knee injury that was bothering him late in the season.
With two weeks to rest, it’ll be interesting to see which Gurley shows up on Sunday. The Patriots D wasn’t all that great against the run either during the regular season, and when he’s on, Gurley is one of the best in the business. He makes life easier for Jared Goff whether he’s running the ball or catching passes out of the backfield.
But if the Patriots can take him out of the equation, or he takes himself out, the Rams offense will struggle mightily.
A Giant Named Aaron Donald
If there is one guy who can crush New England’s Super Bowl dreams, it’s Aaron Donald. He’s a beast. A monster. The best defensive lineman in the league.
Donald led the NFL with 20.5 sacks in the regular season. And the Rams didn’t even need to blitz on every play for him to accrue those stats. The best way to beat Brady is to NOT blitz him, and the Rams blitzed on just 26 percent of their plays.
Whenever the Patriots lose in a Super Bowl (or any game really), the lasting image is Brady taking a beating or spending the majority of the game on his backside. There’s definitely reason to believe that the offensive line can contain the likes of Donald and Ndamukong Suh (who is known to use his cleats to aerate a QB’s ankle), but this is going to be their toughest challenge yet. Just the way it should be with a championship on the line.
Nickell Robey-Coleman Has A Target On His Back
Anthony Smith. Remember him? He’s the Steelers defensive back who, back in the 2007 regular season, guaranteed a victory against the then-12-0 Patriots. That did not happen, as Brady put a giant target on Smith’s back and hit for a pair of big touchdowns against him. Brady finished with 399 yards that day as the Patriots won 34-14 (We’ll refrain from any further comparisons to that season).
Rams defensive back Nickell Robey-Coleman was probably unfamiliar with Smith (most are), because he had a lot of unflattering things to say about Mr. Brady earlier this week. He of course backtracked on those statements on Opening Night, but the damage has been done. Everyone in New England saw those comments, and they’re going to use them for even more added motivation on Sunday.
To make things even worse, Robey-Coleman also revealed to the world that he’d be covering Julian Edelman. Players usually don’t talk game plan ahead of the game. Then again, players don’t usually call out a four-time Super Bowl MVP either.
Robey-Coleman already had a spotlight on him after delivering the famous hit that somehow wasn’t pass interference in the NFC title game. On Monday, there’s a good chance he’ll be known as the guy the Patriots spend their Super Bowl embarrassing.
At least Smith delivered his smack during the regular season. Robey-Coleman went the Freddie Mitchell route and did it before the final game of the year. If he hasn’t already, there’s a pretty good chance he’ll learn how foolish that was come late Sunday night.
Gronk Back To Being Gronk — For One Last Time
In a story that has been vastly under-covered by the media, there’s a chance this game is Rob Gronkowski’s swan song. No one would blame the goofy brute if he hung up his cleats at the age of before he even hits 30; he’s had more surgeries than a Kardashian and more violent collisions than a crash-test dummy.
Gronkowski was most certainly not his usual self during the regular season. At least not in the passing game. But he was another figurehead of that dominant rush attack, always willing to be a major factor in the blocking game. It’s an unheralded part of his entire career, one that is finally getting its due.
That will play a huge factor on Sunday. But Gronk was also back to being Gronk against the Chiefs, with Brady going his way 11 times through the air. He caught six of those, including a “Gronk is still Gronk” moment when he hauled in a beaut along the left sideline for 25 yards. That was on a third-and-5, in the fourth quarter, which eventually set up Burkhead for a go-ahead score. He had another one of those moments in overtime, turning a slant over the middle into a 15-yard gain. On third-and-10. Setting up Burkhead for the eventual game-winner.
If this is indeed Gronk’s final game, then Brady is going to want to send him out on top. And based on what we saw two weeks ago, Gronk could be his dominant self for one final time.