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Banks' Super Bowl LIII Pick

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ATLANTA — Maybe we should have seen this Super Bowl matchup coming for a while now, because since mid-November or so, these Patriots and Rams have pretty much mirrored each other’s moves on parallel tracks leading up to the NFL’s showcase game of the season.

In Week 11, the Rams won while the Patriots’ took their bye. The two teams reversed that role in Week 12: New England won while Los Angeles was idle. Both teams won in Week 13, but both teams also lost consecutive mid-December games in Weeks 14 and 15, in disconcerting fashion, raising serious questions about their Super Bowl viability.

With skeptics abounding, both clubs quietly mounted comebacks. The Rams earned division wins over the Cardinals and 49ers in Weeks 16 and 17, while the Patriots notched two division wins themselves, against the Bills and Jets. Just plucking off low-hanging fruit, the doubters said, and they weren’t exactly wrong.

But come playoff time, the symmetry grew even stronger. After both No. 2 seeds earned a first-round bye, the Rams and Patriots took care of business at home in the divisional round, comfortably dispatching the red-hot Cowboys and Chargers, respectively. In the conference title games, with both clubs playing the visitor, the Rams and Patriots pulled stunning upsets in New Orleans and Kansas City, each winning in overtime in two of the most intimidating road environments in the league.

And just like that, we have perhaps the Super Bowl pairing we least expected a scant six weeks ago, when both New England and Los Angeles appeared to be on the ropes and fading fast. It’s a Super Bowl matchup lacking in either No. 1 seed for the first time since the Ravens-49ers Harbaugh brothers showdown in the 2012 season, and the first No. 2 versus No. 2 Super Bowl ever, since the NFL expanded its playoff field to 12 teams starting in 1990.

Which for me makes it a somewhat difficult Super Bowl to size up. Is the wind behind the backs of the young and aggressive Rams, who at 15-3 become the first Patriots Super Bowl opponent to enter the game with a better record than New England since the vaunted 2001 Rams managed it 17 years ago in New Orleans? Or are we seeing the clear-cut signs of a well-seasoned 13-5 Patriots team playing at its absolute peak at the perfect time of the year, fortified by the knowledge it has survived and persevered through every one of its toughest tests this season?

I don’t believe the Sean McVay-led Rams will cower or wilt beneath the spotlight of the franchise’s first Super Bowl berth in 17 years. Los Angeles is a confident and well-prepared team under McVay, and the Rams are ready for this moment on the game’s grandest stage. In many ways, just getting out of New Orleans with the win — controversial as the outcome was — could imbue Los Angeles with the sense it’s playing with house money already, freeing the Rams to be even looser and more aggressive in their game plan than usual. Can you imagine McVay unleashed?

Just getting here in year two of the McVay era already feels like a fast-track accomplishment of rare proportion. Plenty of these Rams were members of the 4-12 first-year relocation to Los Angeles effort in 2016 and dealt with the debacle that was Jeff Fisher’s final season of coaching in the NFL. So the Super Bowl two years later must feel like a relative overnight success story. Could the Rams be that unique team that not only won the NFL’s offseason with their star-laden personnel build-up, but will follow through and take the big confetti shower and lay claim to the Lombardi Trophy Sunday night in Mercedes-Benz Stadium?

They certainly could. But I’m not predicting it. Not against a back-from-the-brink Patriots team that looks as driven and motivated as any in recent vintage. Tom Brady wants this one. Maybe it’s last year’s Super Bowl disappointment in Minneapolis. Maybe it’s all he’s gone through this season as the questions intensified about why he sat out the team’s offseason workouts and how much does he have left in the tank at age 41?

These Patriots know the terrain and tenor of a Super Bowl better than anyone ever, and when the turning point arrives against the talented but less-experienced Rams, they’ll make the play that saves the day and delivers a record-tying sixth ring. At that point, the parallel tracks these two teams have been on for weeks now will finally diverge.

And then we can all get back to obsessing over the question of when the dynasty might end? But first, Sunday will provide a familiar answer: Not yet.

* Super Bowl LIII Pick: New England 27, Los Angeles 23

* Last week: 1-1 (.500); Season: 168–96 (.636).

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