Super Bowl 53 - Rams/Patriots Preview: Goats, Evil Empires, and West Coast Wunderkinds
You either love the New England Patriots or hate them. The Pats are either the greatest franchise in all professional sports, or you view them as the Evil Empire. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are playing in their third straight Super Bowl with their ninth appearance since 2002. They won five Super Bowls and are seeking a sixth championship.
Seventeen years ago, the Patriots entered the Brady/Belichick dynasty with a win against the then-St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. Now, the Los Angeles Rams are playing the role of the underdog attempting to usurp the Patriots' dominance.
The Rams are the new kids on the block; they have a wunderkind coach, a high-octane offense, and are led by a former #1 overall pick. Head coach Sean McVay was a 16-year old high schooler when the Pats and Rams squared off in SB 36. Rams QB Jared Goff was only in the first grade when Brady hoisted the Hunt Trophy over his head for the first time.
Super Bowl 53: Los Angeles Rams (15-3) vs. New England Patriots (13-5)
Point Spread: NE Pats -2.5
There are two sides to every coin (and yes, you can wager on the opening coin toss among other wacky prop bets for SB 53) and the outlook for Super Bowl LIII depends on your world view. Sport vs. Spectacle. Light vs. Dark. Good vs. Evil. Old Empire vs. New World Order. Haves vs. Have Nots. Destiny vs. Free Will. Peak Fitness vs. Gross Consumerism. Nihilism vs. Existentialism. Patriots vs. Rams.
WORLD VIEW: GOAT DYNASTY
Brady and Belichick have a 5-3 overall record in Super Bowls, including back-to-back titles in 2003 and 2004. If it weren't for Eli Manning and the New York Giants, those two could be 7-1 in the Super Bowl. If the Pats win this Super Bowl, it will be their sixth overall championship, which would put them in a tie with the Pittsburgh Steelers (who are tops with six Super Bowl wins).
UP IN SMOKE
Both teams lost their main WR this season. The Rams losing Cooper Kupp to an ACL injury was far more devastating than the Pats losing WR and cannabis connoisseur Josh Gordon. Gordon arrived through a midseason trade and the troubled receiver meshed with Brady. It felt like the Pats were getting a steal until Gordon toked up during the bye week and all hell broke loose. The Pats lack depth in the WR department and Gronk is not as dominant as his former self. Yet, their core guys make big plays in crunch time. Julian Edelman and Gronk were always in the right place at the right time against the Chiefs. It seems like Brady can throw to RB James White at will, either as first option or last option.
The Rams are the worst team in the NFL at defending the run, allowing 5.1 yards per carry. The Pats ran early and often against the LA Chargers and KC Chiefs in the playoffs. With such an obvious weakness in the Rams defense, expect the Patriots to pound the ball up the middle with Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead. Michel scored five touchdowns in two playoff games and averages 121 yards per game.
Protecting Brady is always a priority. Despite excellent pass rush during the regular season, the Chargers were unable to get to Brady. The Pats O-line allowed zero sacks in two postseason games. Their next assignment will be to slow down Aaron Donald.
GHOSTS OF FOXBORO
The Pats hold a super-duper home-field advantage. Foxboro intimidates opponents and it's become hallowed ground for the Pats. They went 9-0 at home this season, but were only 3-5 on the road in the regular season.
The Pats won a key road game in the AFC Championship to beat the Chiefs in KC, but the Chiefs are notorious for blowing home playoff games. The Pats are impossible to beat at home, but they're beatable away from New England.
WICKED SMART FOLK HERO
Brady won the Super Bowl MVP four times, but the Pats are a true veteran team without a lot of household names. Seems like one of the minor characters steps up every Super Bowl and puts on a dazzling performance. Who will it be this year? Which unsung player will be enshrined as an eternal hero in New England sports lore... Gostkowski, Hogan, Patterson, or Develin? Or maybe Gronkzilla will come alive for a game. There are rumors he might retire, so he'll want to go out on top.
WORLD VIEW: EVIL EMPIRE
Brady and Belichick in the Super Bowl, again? Brady will forever be the bete noire of the NFL.
At face value, the Rams are youthful team with a high-powered offense that is fun to watch when its operating at its peak efficiency. The played in several thrilling games this regular season, including shootouts in the Superdome against the New Orleans Saints and the game of the year on Monday Night Football against the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Rams are 7-2 on the road this season. Playing the Super Bowl on neutral territory in Atlanta is not as bad for them as it might be for New England. Los Angeles sports fans are fair-weather at best. The NFC Divisional Game against the Cowboys had far more Dallas fans than local Rams fans. They don't have an overwhelming home-field advantage, so playing at a neutral site might seem normal for them.
GURLEY/ANDERSON: LIGHTNING AND THUNDER
The Evil Empire is trying to shut down McVay, his crafty playbook, and the double-headed monster known as Gurley/Anderson. If Todd Gurley has a bum knee, he had an extra week to rest it. We'll find out if Gurley is back to his old self, or if he's still being super emo.
If Gurley is on fleek, then the Pats are doomed. When Gurley gets going, it sets up the play-action for Goff. He's like a different QB when he gets that extra split second to pass out of play-action. In his last four games, he threw only one interception. The Rams went all-in on Goff with the number one overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft with the hope that he would lead them back to the Super Bowl. Less than three years later, Goff is heads-up with Tommy Terrific.
The Pats have few weaknesses, but their run D allowed 4.9 yards per carry, which is third worst in the NFL. McVay has two premium running backs at his disposal. Belichick has been studying game tape nonstop the last two weeks coming up with a plan to stop the Rams' lightning (Gurley) and thunder (Anderson).
If both teams focus on running the ball and move the chains via lengthy drives, then the total will fall way under. Then again, this matchup can go sideways at any moment and a defensive slog in the first half can turn into a second half shootout (e.g. the AFC Championship).
AD 99 AND GREG THE LEG
The Rams defense is anchored by Aqib Talib and Aaron Donald. Both can turn around a game with a single play, but will Belichick neutralize them? The Rams D had their problems this season yielding huge chunks of yardage, but they held Drew Brees and the Saints to under 300 total yards, including overtime. The Rams run D stepped up in the playoffs. They faced Ezekiel Elliott and the Alvin Kamara/Mark Ingram tandem in consecutive weeks, yet allowed only 93 combined rushing yards. Wade Phillips, the son of legendary head coach Bum Phillips, is the Rams defensive coordinator. If there's anyone who wants to beat the Pats more, it's Wade. He can't eait t unleash Donald onto the Pats O-line.
If the Super Bowl comes down to a kicker battle, at least both teams have two of the best around. Steve Gostkowkski and Greg Zuerlein both kicked 27 FGs this season and only missed one XP each. Greg the Leg hit 7 of 8 FGs in the playoffs and nailed two key kicks in hostile conditions in the Superdome. It's not every day you drill a 57-yarder to advance to the Super Bowl. Greg the Leg was money and then some. He could have cleared 70 yards on the game-winning kick.
Pauly McGuire is a writer specializing in sports betting. He's covered the NFL, NBA, college basketball, MLB, and the Olympics for numerous outlets. He's the former co-host of the Everything Is Bettable podcast with Jesse May. You also might remember Pauly as the creator of the Tao of Poker blog. He was a partner in one of the first daily fantasy sports sites, Fantasy Sports Live.