ATLANTA -- Two weeks of hype that follow up six months of build-up are nearly complete as Super Bowl LIII is just about upon us.
The biggest game in all of sports will kick off Sunday night at 6:30 from Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The Patriots and Rams both installed the bulk of their game plans back in New England and Los Angeles, respectively. This week has been a flurry – there was actually a snow day in the city for local kids, though actual accumulation never arrived – of media obligations and family arrivals balanced out of with final football preparations to fine tune tactical agendas for Sunday night.
Two weeks after dispatching Patrick Mahomes, never-aging legend Tom Brady prepares to take on another up-and-comer in Rams star passer Jared Goff. Similarly, certified genius Bill Belichick matches wits with a man literally half his age in L.A. leader Sean McVay.
Oh, and the game just happens to come 17 years to the day that New England shocked the world and the then-St. Louis Rams to jumpstart a dynasty with the Super Bowl XXXVI victory in New Orleans.
For L.A., a team building a massive new stadium in a massive new market that’s notoriously tough to cultivate fan passion, Super Bowl LIII is an opportunity to lay the foundation of the franchise’s future.
For New England -- a team in its third straight title game, fourth in five years and ninth since Brady and Belichick became a world champion tag team back in 2001 -- Super Bowl LIII is another opportunity to add to a modern dynasty that may never be matched.
But to get to the potential postgame glory, to lift that Lombardi Trophy again, the teams need to take care of the business of football. Matchups, game plans and execution will decide this battle, and history.
“I think our team’s done everything we’ve asked them to do this week. They’ve been focused, spent a lot of time doing extra things,” Belichick said in his final media availability of Super Bowl week. “Look, the players are playing in the biggest game of their life, you’re coaching the biggest game of your life. It’s a great opportunity to put everything you have into it and do the best you can.”
As the final hours count down toward Super Bowl LII, here are some keys to this 17-years-in-the-making big game rematch between the Patriots and Rams.
Players to Watch: Super Bowl LIII
Patriots Football Weekly's Andy Hart shares his players to watch during the Patriots Super Bowl LIII matchup against the Rams at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday, February 3, 2019.
It’s all on the line – A strong argument can be made that New England’s offensive line, led by legendary coach Dante Scarnecchia, has been the MVP of the postseason. The group helped kick off wins over the Chargers and Chiefs with long, balanced drives to Sony Michel 1-yard touchdowns. Tom Brady has not been sacked in 90 attempts this postseason. Michel has 53 of the Patriots 82 attempts on the ground, the first-round rookie averaging 4.6 yards per carry while tallying five touchdowns. All that clean production is thanks to Trent Brown, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason and Marcus Cannon. Now the final challenge of the season presents presumed Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald (you know, the guy with 20.5 sacks to lead the NFL) and a dangerous Rams defense. Donald, Ndamukong Suh and Dante Fowler get after the passer. The Rams run defense, which allowed opponents to average 5.1 yards per carry during the regular season, has held the Cowboys and Saints (two top-10 rushing attacks) to a combined 2.3 yards per carry this postseason. If the Rams are to pull off the upset, it will likely need to include Donald and company causing problems up front. Look for the Patriots to try to run some early, maybe right at Donald, to establish a balanced attack once again. If that plan is executed, much of the rest of the game could fall into place.
Fighting a Gurley – When healthy, Rams running back Todd Gurley is one of the most productive, versatile playmakers in the game. He led the NFL with 21 touchdowns, including a league-best 17 rushing scores. But Gurley’s role in L.A. has been limited in the postseason after he dealt with knee soreness late in the regular season. Veteran late-season journeyman signing C.J. Anderson actually leads the Rams with 39 rushes for 167 yards in two postseason games, compared to 20 carries for 125 yards for Gurley. But there is no question the L.A. attack is at its best when it’s going through Gurley. His outside zone runs set up the play-action passing game. His efforts out of the backfield – Gurley caught 59 passes for a 9.8-yard average, including a 56-yard long during the regular season – are a matchup nightmare for opposing linebackers like Kyle Van Noy. If Gurley is on and gets things going early it increases the challenge to the Patriots defense immensely. If Gurley is ineffective or on the sideline giving way to Anderson, it’s a major victory for New England.
Goff his game? – Goff is just 24 years old and closing out his third NFL season with the biggest game of his life. It’s an interesting spot opposite Brady’s endless experience and aged calmness. It’s more than worth watching how Goff deals with the spot, the moment of the Super Bowl. Is he ready to hit the turf running and keep pace in what has the potential to be a shootout with Brady at Mercedes-Benz Stadium? Quarterbacks’ legacies are blown up or torn down in the Super Bowl, sometimes on a single play. That’s an immense spotlight shining on a young player who’s had some highs and lows in his career and in the first two weeks of the postseason. New England will likely throw a variety of looks at Goff early, both in terms of coverage and pass rush. They can probably be aggressive getting after him in a similar way that they got to Philip Rivers, both physically and mentally, on the way to dispatching the Chargers. Goff’s time to shine or wilt is now.
Matchups and adjustments – Early on in any game, and certainly in the Super Bowl, the way teams choose to match up with each other on each side of the ball and then how they adjust to those matchups is a key to the game declaring. With two weeks to prepare, Belichick and Brian Flores might have some interesting looks to throw at Goff, Brandin Cooks and the rest of the Rams weapons. Cooks has practiced against most of the DBs he could face, other than rookie J.C. Jackson. Will Jackson get after the speedy outside target (or might Jonathan Jones be the call?) with some help over the top? That would leave No. 1 corner Stephon Gilmore to deal with former Bills teammate Robert Woods, the second of L.A.’s pair of 1,200-yard receivers. On the flipside, could Wade Phillips deploy his talented, aggressive cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters more tightly in the face of the Patriots short passing game that’s been so key to the success this postseason. Getting up tight on Julian Edelman and Co. could get Brady to hold onto the ball a tad longer and give Donald and the front a chance to get home. But it also opens up the chance for bigger plays for the Patriots in the passing game. The Rams are generally a left/right team in coverage and can be somewhat predictable. Does that hold true? The matchups and adjustments early will greatly affect how things play out late.
Still here – Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman were a key part of the Patriots pulling out the overtime win in K.C. to earn this shot in Super Bowl LIII. Sunday will mark the first time that the core offensive trio – and defensive leader Dont’a Hightower too – have all been together for a Super Bowl since facing the Seahawks in XLIX. That’s a nice crop of experienced Super Bowl playmaking talent, even if the guys are aging and maybe not quite be at their all-time best. With all the retirement talk this week, there is a real chance the group will never play all together again. All, though, have shown flashes of game-changing play in recent weeks. All will likely be needed to have a positive impact once again. Edelman should have a fun battle with quotable Rams slot corner Nickell Robey-Coleman, which may even get a little chippy. Gronkowski has a nice size advantage on defenders like Mark Barron and Lamarcus Joyner. The Patriots have been playing elite team football with contributions from all over the roster, but to finish the job in Atlanta the longtime stars will need to do their thing once again with all the football world a watching.
Prediction: The Patriots would seem due to have a Super Bowl that doesn’t come down to the final gun or even overtime. Sooner or later given the frequency of trips and how consistently good New England has been you would think there would be a win in which the team controlled the game almost throughout. This may just be that time. Belichick’s team has peaked at the right time and has easily played its best football over the last month. It’s all come together. The Rams have plenty of talent on both sides of the ball but just haven’t been clicking in a unified manner or playing as well overall as they were earlier in the year. One interesting decision/factor could be the coin toss and who gets the ball first. It’s not hard to see the Rams getting off to a slow, jittery start. It’s also not hard to envision the Patriots putting together another scripted, efficient scoring drive to get things going. If that happens, New England may be able to play the game on its terms and that would be bad news for McVay’s young squad. The offensive line has earned the benefit of the doubt in recent weeks. It says here New England can run it and throw it, likely with some wrinkles and double-moves in the passing game to make some plays down the field. Defensively the Trey Flowers-led pressure continues. As long as the front keeps Gurley in check, there is no reason to believe the group can’t slow down the NFC’s highest-scoring offense. Could it be a shootout? Could it come down to the wire? Could the Rams win? Sure, all are possible. But the thought here is Belichick’s team controls the game throughout on the way to a 31-20 victory and a sixth Lombardi Trophy! Let the celebrations begin!
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