In 2002, the New England Patriots, big underdogs to “The Greatest Show on Turf” St. Louis Rams, upset the since re(re)located franchise in Super Bowl XXXVI behind relatively unheralded Quarterback Tom Brady and relatively unknown Head Coach Bill Belichick, launching the team’s dominance over the rest of the NFL that still continues.
Seventeen years later (to the day), they will face each other again in Super Bowl LIII, with both Belichick and Brady (the only player still on either team’s Roster, still going strong (whereas Jared Goff was seven years old in 2002). This year, both teams got here in similar fashion, winning close games on the road in overtime, the first (and second) time any team has reached the Super Bowl that way – with two very different types of controversy figuring into the final scores. The Rams had a huge non-call go their way towards the end of their game against the New Orleans Saints which afforded them the chance to get into overtime, where they won.
The resulting firestorm from the official’s clear mistake has led to talk of adding Pass Interference to the list of challengeable calls as well as an actual lawsuit from Saints fans looking to force Commissioner Roger Goodell to replay the game due to their “Loss of enjoyment of life” (true story). The Rams won in overtime when they converted an interception on New Orleans’s opening drive into a game winning 57 yard Field Goal. The Chiefs never had that chance against the Patriots because New England had the ball first and scored a TD on their possession, ending the game on the NFL’s recently tweaked – but not tweaked enough for KC fans – overtime rule that many want to see redesigned again to at least allow both teams a chance to have the ball at least once no matter what.
But that’s for next year. This year we get a solid match up pitting the most successful NFL franchise – and therefore most disliked by so any fans – against a vagabond team with a young loveable coach, another of seemingly a hundred sports teams in Southern California, and an easily rentable vessel for Anti-Patriot sentiment, which is running as high as ever; a recent MSN poll had National preference at more than two to one favoring the Rams in this game. I’m not expecting an All-Time Classic, but I think it will be a good game with strong potential for affecting both existing and future NFL story lines. Here’s my breakdown:
New England Patriots (11-5) VS. Los Angeles Rams(13-3) 6:20 EST, CBS
New England: Though all major team sports have seen at least one true Dynasty dominate a particular era, none have ever had a run to match the last two decades of consistent success achieved by the NFL’s New England Patriots. Not the Yankees with Ruth or Mantle, not the Edmonton Oilers with Wayne Gretzky, nor the Celtics with Bill Russell or Larry Bird, the Lakers with Kareem or Magic, the Bulls with Michael Jordan, or, much as it pains me to say, the San Francisco 49ers during the Joe Montana/Steve Young Era. And despite this seemingly being a “down” year for the Pats and Tom Brady, here they are again, and looking sharp after following a dominant victory over a solid Los Angeles Charger team with the thrilling overtime defeat of the Kansas City Chiefs, who, entering the playoffs, were most expert’s presumptive AFC representative for the Super Bowl.
Though long time Brady target Steve Gronkowski has been slowed this year and is contemplating retirement because “Every Monday it feels like I’ve been in a car accident”, Wide Out Julian Edelman has more than picked up the slack in the passing game, allowing Gronk to be almost as useful as a blocking Tight End as he was a pass catching one. Sony Michelle had a great Rookie year at Running Back and gets the bulk of the carries, and James White will supplement him out of the back field as a reliable third down and check down target for Brady. The Defense, led by Cornerback Devin McCourty – another possible Patriot retiree after the game – is best described as “bend, possibly even crack, but just don’t fully break and we’ll be fine”, and has stepped it up in the playoffs. The Patriots are solid on Special Teams.
L.A.: Despite the outcry from Bourbon Street, and football fans in general, the fact is the Rams solidly outplayed the Saints for the last three quarters in very hostile territory, shutting down a top offense and an experienced and Super Bowl winning Quarter Back in Drew Brees. And the week before that they looked very good in their first playoff win against the Cowboys, also after a sluggish first quarter. They will not be able to afford a slow start here, though. Ball control and a solid running game has been their winning M.O. the second half of this year, ever since the loss of their best Wide Receiver Cooper Cupp, and they need the Todd Gurley from the Cowboy game and not the seemingly hurt and definitely less effective one from the New Orleans’s game for that to happen.
Late season addition back C.J. Anderson compliments Gurley well, but cannot be expected to carry the load if the Rams star isn’t at (or at least close to) full strength. Kicker Greg Zuerlein has been a big asset for L.A. all year but he tweaked something in his foot two weeks ago and though he should be able to play, the Rams may need his full range to get all the points they will need. On Defense, the Rams feature two of the best Defensive Linemen in football, Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh who must get to Brady for the Rams to keep the New England offense under control. Back to bolster the secondary is a healthy Aqib Talib, and the Corner Back looked great in the NFC Championship game, holding All Star Saint’s Wide Receiver Mike Williams to just one catch. He’ll be put on Patriots Wide out Julian Edelman most of the game, possibly the top matchup to watch.
Both teams have shown they can win away from home, and both look equally impressive coming into the match up. The Rams opened as a one point favorite and the EA Sports Madden NFL computer game simulation had the rams winning by three, but the Vegas line quickly moved to Patriots by 2 ½ and Super Bowls aren’t played on computers. Yet. Obviously the difference in experience between both the head coaches (Belichick is literally twice the age of his Ram’s counterpart and obviously has had well over twice the success) and star personnel, including the starting Quarterbacks, leans almost comically lopsided towards the Patriots. And while I don’t expect Rams Coach Sean McVay to get tight here from the pressure, I could see that with Goff, who has yet to develop the consistency he’ll need to move into the elite Quarter Back status many feel he is bound for. There is no chance Brady or Belichick will feel it, but Sony Michelle is a rookie; a case of the nerves is always possible the first time in a Super Bowl and production from him will be a key in taking pressure from that fantastic Ram’s Defensive Line off of Brady as much as possible.
If the Patriots running game is shut down, expect a lot of passes to White, but also a lot of pressure on Brady, leading to a higher percentage of shorter slant passes to Edelman instead of deeper balls. This would be the Rams path to victory, as they are not functioning well enough on Offense to expect to win a shoot out, and must win both the Time of Possession and QB sacks/pressures battles to keep the score closer to the lower/mid range area to win. They certainly have the tools to do it with Donald and Su, but keep in mind, the Patriots two previous playoff opponents, the Chargers and Chiefs, had combined for 90 sacks during the regular season…and together totaled ZERO(!) against the Pats in those two games.
I do not expect that here, and I feel the game is a tossup that could be more like traditional Super Bowls in tempo and score than some of the blow outs. It’s tough to pick against the Patriots in general (I’m 0-2 so far this year) and specifically a game where Belichick has had two weeks to prepare for an opponent, Super Bowl or otherwise. But since I’m basically obligated to pick someone here, I’m going Rams on a late Zuerlein 52 yard Field Goal, partly because I live in Southern California, partly because I heavily dislike New England (the team, not the region, that is), but also because the Rams have had a better season and play the style of football best suited to stopping the Patriots and providing the perfect bookend to their unprecedented run.
Final Score: L.A. 27 N.E. 26