Tom E. Curran's Super Bowl 53 Preview
Nobody should be more thankful that the Rams got gifted the NFC Championship Game than the Patriots. Think about it. Who would the Patriots rather deal with in Super Bowl 53: a second-year coach and a third-year quarterback helming a team that brings almost zero experience (and no fans) into Sunday’s game? Or a veteran coach and Hall of Fame quarterback with a rabid fanbase that would have overrun Atlanta. They would prefer to deal with Sean McVay and Jared Goff, without question. Now, last season's Patriots also figured to have an on-paper experience advantage going into the game as well. But that Patriots team -- which barely got past the Jaguars in the AFC Championship Game -- was shaky as hell defensively, distracted during the game and had far more health issues (Donta Hightower and Julian Edelman on injured reserve being prime examples). This Patriots defense has been daunting since the Pittsburgh game, is engaged and playing with purpose and healthy as hell. Don’t expect an upset this time.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN
Can the Patriots rise-and-grind against yet another playoff opponent? In their first two postseason games against the Chargers and Chiefs, the Patriots blew the opposing defense off the ball on the ground, put together sustained drives and dictated how the game would be played. The Rams -- even with the presence of Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh on their defensive line -- actually shape up as a team New England could do it to again. Suh is huge, but Donald is 280 while the rest of the front seven is populated by guys like Dante Fowler (255), Samson Ekuban (245), Mark Barron (230) and Cory Littleton (228). Against 21 personnel (2 backs, 1 tight end), the Rams are permissive on the ground. Their tendency under Wade Phillips is to rip and get upfield to create havoc. Look for the Patriots to create creases for Sony Michel, and for Michel to have a big day.
WHEN THE RAMS RUN
This is the game right here. If the Patriots can bottle up C.J. Anderson and Todd Gurley, and put the Rams in a situation where they are reliant on Goff to make play-after-play with his arm, you have to like their odds. The Patriots were outstanding in the first two postseason games bottling up the Chiefs and Chargers. Gurley is the best back they’ll deal with, and the potency of the Rams running game was on full display in the Divisional Round against the Cowboys, when Anderson and Gurley combined for 238 yards and three rushing touchdowns. The Rams' offensive line is a strong point. The Patriots' run defense -- horrible most of the year -- did a turnabout in the past four games. New England needs everyone on defense involved in the run game -- cornerbacks and safeties as well. What really broke the Patriots in last year’s Super Bowl were gash runs by the Eagles. Can’t have that this time.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS
WHEN THE RAMS PASS
Jared Goff is a very good young player, but he’s not as good as Patrick Mahomes or Philip Rivers, and the Rams receivers aren’t as good as the Chiefs and Chargers wideouts. The Patriots brought heavy pressure on both Rivers and Mahomes. Expect them to do the same with Goff, who had a 59.8 rating this season when pressured and completed less than 45 percent of his passes. Interior pressure, as laid out by Phil Perry in this matchup breakdown earlier in the week, seems like a good spot to start since the Rams were porous at times up the middle. But there’s a reason the Rams are here and there’s a reason he’s in the Super Bowl at the age of 33. He’s a really gifted offensive mind. Brandin Cooks is a very good outside receiver with blazing speed. Look for the Patriots to treat him the way they dealt with Tyreek Hill, devoting a quick corner and a safety over the top at all times. That leaves Stephon Gilmore to cover Robert Woods, a consistent and smart receiver who’s not overly explosive. The Patriots like to play man; the Rams make it hard to play man with consistent bunch formations and tight splits. Goff is very good against man, not as good against zone. The Patriots figure to throw everything at him.
The Rams have the best punter in the game, Johnny Hekker. Half his punts this season were downed inside the opponents 20 and he’s got a barrel-full of punting styles he employs. Greg Zuerlein missed four field goals outside 40 yards this year and one PAT. Stephen Gostkowski missed five field goals outside 40 yards this year and one PAT. Ryan Allen usually punts well in big games. The Patriots led the league in blocked kicks. The Rams kick coverage teams have been good all season. The Patriots, after an inconsistent start to the year on special teams, picked it up.
John Parry is the referee. He keeps good command of the game. The Patriots are 9-5 in games he officiates. The Rams are 7-0 in Parry-officiated games. The league needs this game to be as tidy as possible so it will be interesting to see how the “all-star crew” goes about making that happen, flag-happy or let ‘em play.
The Patriots are favored by 2.5 and the total is 56, down from an opening of 58.
Patriots 31, Rams 23