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Styles make fights, or so the saying goes. In the NFL, mismatches in the battle for territory determine the outcome.
Professional football is a game of chess, where pieces are moved to exploit an opponent’s soft spots. When teams as talented as the Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots meet Sunday, the games within the game will determine which squad will raise the Lombardi Trophy as the winner of Super Bowl LIII.
Can Jared Goff match Tom Brady, who is 17 years his elder?
Will the Patriots’ previously impregnable offensive front slow the game’s best player, Aaron Donald?
What approach will New England’s defense use to counter the Rams’ high-octane offense?
Will a lesser-known contributor—such as the Rams’ Mike Jones or Patriots’ Malcolm Butler during previous Super Bowl appearances—emerge from the shadows and enter legendary status?
Answers can be found by assessing each team’s personnel and comparing them. Both franchises hold advantages. But the overall matchup on a position-by-position basis is closer than the Vegas spread.
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Brady’s championship pedigree began 17 years ago against a seemingly unbeatable St. Louis Rams squad. The tables have turned, with the Patriots dynasty still in full swing and the upstart L.A. Rams ready to open their championship window.
Today’s version of Brady is far different than the one who captured his first Super Bowl MVP. He’s seen everything; he’s done everything. The Rams won’t find ways to surprise or rattle him.
This is where the advantage lies.
The 41-year-old might not display the same pinpoint accuracy or rip throws like he once did. However, his pre- and post-snap manipulation of defenses shows how he operates at a higher level of understanding than other quarterbacks.
Goff has been treated like a cog in the Rams machine, but he’s far more than that. The third-year signal-caller began to change the narrative with his performance against the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Championship Game after Los Angeles surrendered an early 13-0 lead.
“He took control in a way that I’d never seen before,” left tackle Andrew Whitworth told NFL.com’s Michael Silver. “It was crazy loud, and a bunch of us kept trying to chime in and give input, and he just said, ‘Hey! Everybody shut up. I’ll get you guys into the right places. This is my show. I’ve got it.'”
The 2016 No. 1 overall pick holds the ball longer than Brady, though, while the Patriots are the league’s best at maintaining coverage beyond 2.5 seconds, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
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On the surface, the Rams appear to have a clear running-game advantage. They still do, but it’s become closer than many think.
James White is the constant in New England’s backfield. He led the team with 87 receptions during the regular season and continues to be Brady’s favorite target in the postseason.
“He can run every route,” Rams safety John Johnson III said, per the Los Angeles Times‘ Jeff Miller. “He’s someone we really have to be aware of.”
The emergence of Sony Michel as a workhorse is the biggest improvement for the Patriots, though. The 31st overall draft pick carried the ball 53 times for 242 yards in New England’s first two postseason contests. According to Pro Football Focus’ Austin Gayle, Michel has run on an NFL-high 69.2 percent of his snaps, even though he’s faced the highest rate of stacked boxes since Week 12.
The rookie’s effectiveness can’t be overlooked as the Patriots’ offensive approach continues to evolve.
Despite New England’s blossoming run game, the Rams are more talented and effective while Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson lead the way.
The Rams don’t have a fancy approach to running the ball. The coaching staff uses pre-snap motion to lure defenders’ eyes before unleashing Gurley and Anderson behind the game’s best run-blocking front. The Rams rely heavily on simple inside and outside runs yet dominate at the point of attack.
Gurley finished fourth overall with 1,831 total yards from scrimmage, but Anderson has been a late-season godsend with 466 rushing yards over the last four games.
“Our job is the same: As many first downs as we can get,” Anderson said, per Kevin Patra. “Whoever gets the most first downs, I guess that’s how it goes. But at the end of the day if Todd wants to play 98 percent of the snaps, that’s what he’s going to do. We gonna be OK with that.”
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If the Patriots have a glaring weakness, it’s at wide receiver where the group lost a dynamic downfield threat with Josh Gordon’s indefinite suspension.
As stated earlier, White is the team’s leading pass-catcher.
Julian Edelman remains Brady’s security blanket, though. The slot receiver led the team during the regular season with 850 receiving yards despite missing four games because of a suspension. Edelman is almost impossible to cover at or near the line of scrimmage because of his outstanding short-area quickness.
The Patriots don’t threaten anyone deep, though.
Phillip Dorsett is a potential X-factor since the 2015 first-round pick, who saw his role decline until Gordon’s suspension, has scored a touchdown in both postseason contests.
While the Patriots rely on ancillary spots such as running back and tight end to oil their passing attack, the Rams stand pat in 11 personnel, as Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods lead the way. Cooks and Woods both posted 1,200-plus receiving yards during the regular season.
Cooks said, per NFL.com’s Jeff Chadiha:
“We all can do everything. There’s not just one particular guy doing one particular thing. I think that’s what makes this offense special. [Head coach Sean McVay] is able to put us in different positions to attack in different ways, so to be able to have guys that can run a complete route tree is huge for us. That’s what separates us.”
Unfortunately, the Rams lost Cooper Kupp to a season-ending torn ACL in Week 10. But Josh Reynolds provides a downfield threat.
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Rob Gronkowski hasn’t been himself this season. The care-free, fun-loving Gronk has been replaced by a more introspective version.
“The season’s a grind. It’s up-and-down. I’m not going to lie and sit here and say every week is the best,” Gronkowski said, per NBC Boston’s Nick Goss.
And the five-time Pro Bowler suffered through his worst season in ’18. His three touchdowns tied a career low.
Despite all of this, defenses must still be aware of Gronkowski at all times—especially without Gordon on the roster. Gronk may not be the same dominant presence he once was, but he’s still good enough to wreck a game plan as a receiver and blocker.
Gerald Everett and Tyler Higbee aren’t primary weapons in the Rams offense. Still, they must be accounted for even though L.A. is almost always in 11 personnel while the team’s receivers do the heavy lifting in the passing game.
Higbee and Everett combined for 57 receptions and 612 yards during the regular season. Ironically, Higbee caught the Rams’ only postseason receiving touchdown.
New England can’t sleep on the Rams’ tight ends, because they can do damage. However, they’re far from primary options.
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When an offense features the greatest quarterback of all time, a surefire Hall of Fame tight end, a first-round running back and a premier slot receiver, the offensive line tends to get overlooked. Make no mistake, though: New England’s offensive front is its greatest strength.
The interior—which features left guard Joe Thuney, center David Andrews and right guard Shaq Mason—is the league’s best trio. Thuney will become the first player in NFL history to start every game and three straight Super Bowls to begin his career. Andrews is a technician in the middle. Mason plays with tremendous leverage and power.
New England’s offensive tackles, Trent Brown (6’8″, 380 lbs) and Marcus Cannon (6’6″, 335 lbs), are massive and difficult to circumnavigate.
This group has been so good in the postseason that the officials called a crucial 15-yard grazing-the-quarterback penalty the only time Brady has been touched.
The same five offensive linemen have started all 18 games for the Rams this season. Continuity cannot be dismissed when it comes to five men trying to form a cohesive unit. The Rams boasted the league’s best trench-play even though none of their blockers was named to the 2019 Pro Bowl.
Left tackle Andrew Whitworth, left guard Rodger Saffold, center John Sullivan, right guard Austin Blythe and right tackle Rob Havenstein form a reliable veteran-laden group.
Like New England, the Rams have kept their quarterback clean this postseason. But their real strength is found in the run game, where they destroy opposition through simple inside- and outside-zone plays. A strong play-action attack then sets up the passing game.
Advantage: Patriots (barely)
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The Patriots’ defensive front is a mix-and-match group with one standout in defensive end Trey Flowers. And they use a chameleon-like approach based on their opponent.
For example, New England countered the Kansas City Chiefs’ prolific passing attack by starting in a nickel package that featured a pair of defensive ends inside and two outside linebackers providing edge help.
Flowers fits nicely because the team’s leading sack artist is equally effective at working in multiple positions. Lawrence Guy will have a bigger role against the Rams as the unit’s best run defender. How New England uses the rest of its defensive front will depend on its game plan.
Instead of trying to explain how good Donald is, let five-time Super Bowl-winning Patriots head coach Bill Belichick succinctly describe the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year’s skill set.
“He’s pretty much unblockable,” Belichick said, per the Los Angeles Times‘ Gary Klein.
Donald’s effect on every game cannot be fully understood simply by looking at stats, even though the defensive tackle led the league with 20.5 regular-season sacks. His constant disruption changes games.
When Donald is paired with another force in the middle such as Ndamukong Suh, the Rams’ front holds the advantage over every opponent. Suh has been especially good against the run during the postseason. Even at 32 years old, the five-time Pro Bowler is one of the league’s most powerful defenders.
Michael Brockers shouldn’t be treated as an afterthought. The 2012 first-round pick isn’t as dynamic as his linemates, but his size and length (6’5″, 305 lbs) make him difficult to move.
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Versatility comes to the forefront when discussing New England’s linebackers.
Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy provide a unique combination of skill sets.
Hightower is a massive linebacker (6’3″, 260 lbs) when the league is trending away from bigger, more physical second-level defenders. But Hightower doubles at the unit’s best blitzer and even rushes from the edge at times.
Van Noy is a bit of renaissance man. He presents scheme flexibility, which allows him to handle multiple responsibilities since he can play the edge and not look lost in coverage. The ability to do both is difficult for most and a boon for teams. According to Pro Football Focus, Van Noy has been the highest-graded linebacker during the playoffs.
Inside linebacker Elandon Roberts can be a downhill, heat-seeking missile, while John Simon provides quality depth.
Los Angeles’ linebackers are the team’s biggest liability. The defensive front borders on dominant. The secondary has multiple playmakers. The Rams’ second level isn’t nearly as impactful.
Cory Littleton did develop into a Pro Bowler during his first season as a full-time starter. The inside linebacker registered a team-leading 125 total tackles and continues to lead the way in the postseason.
But Mark Barron suffered through his worst campaign, and opponents have exploited him in coverage of late.
Outside linebacker is even more of an issue, because the Rams don’t generate much pressure from the edge. Dante Fowler Jr. came up big in overtime to force a Drew Brees interception, but he’s been inconsistent since the Rams acquired the 2015 No. 3 overall pick from the Jacksonville Jaguars in late October.
Samson Ebukam will be a vital component because he’s capable of rushing the passer, defending the run and working in space.
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An elite cornerback changes a contest’s complexion. If one side of the field is effectively shut down, the rest of the secondary rotates to the other side and provides help for any liabilities.
Stephon Gilmore ranked in the top five overall this season in overall grade (first), coverage grade (second) and yards per coverage snap (fifth), per Pro Football Focus.
“When you see Steph literally locking down one side, you’re like, ‘Man, I’ve got to do my job,'” safety Duron Harmon said, per The Athletic’s Jeff Howe. “Honestly, my job is not as hard as his, but he is doing it at a high level every week.”
Opposite Gilmore, the Patriots can rely on a proven veteran in Jason McCourty, who hasn’t lost a step at 31 years old, and a surprise standout in undrafted rookie J.C. Jackson. The Patriots believe in Jackson so much that they matched him with Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce during the AFC Championship Game.
Rams general manager Les Snead made two major trades last offseason to improve at cornerback.
Aqib Talib has been vital to the team’s success, while Marcus Peters hasn’t been the same player who made a pair of Pro Bowls with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Peters’ struggles start in man coverage. According to The Quant Edge, the 26-year-old cornerback allowed a reception 70.3 percent of the time he was locked on to a receiver. Peters is much better when he can read the quarterback through the receiver and then jump routes.
Despite two well-known, established starters on the outside, the Rams’ nickel corner, Nickell Robey-Coleman, garnered the most attention this week. The non-call in the NFC Championship Game notwithstanding, the 27-year-old defensive back unwisely poked the bear.
“Age has definitely taken a toll,” Robey-Coleman said (before later backing off), per NFL.com’s Herbie Teope. “For him to still be doing it, that’s a great compliment for him. But I think that he’s definitely not the same quarterback he was.”
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The strength of the Patriots’ safeties, much like their linebackers, lies in the position’s versatility and depth. Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon and Patrick Chung are all starting-caliber options.
McCourty is a consummate professional, a team captain and reliable piece in multiple roles.
“There’s not many that do more behind the scenes than Devin does,” Belichick said, per ESPN.com’s Mike Reiss. “He’s an outstanding player and an even better person and better teammate.”
Chung lines up over the slot and provides a physical presence. Harmon, meanwhile, is an interchangeable piece who seamlessly moves from free to strong safety.
This group allows the Patriots to utilize different looks and coverages. However, the Rams have two better individual performers.
Johnson entered the national consciousness when he intercepted a Brees pass while on his backside in overtime to provide the Rams with a Super Bowl opportunity.
The second-year safety has been deserving of the attention all season. Johnson finished second on the team with 119 tackles and led Los Angeles with four interceptions. Now, he should help slow the Patriots offense as the Rams did to the Dallas Cowboys and Saints.
Johnson is adept at playing near the line of scrimmage with 19 run stops during the regular season—which ranked third among safeties, according to Pro Football Focus.
Lamarcus Joyner is the ideal complementary piece for Johnson. The Rams’ franchise-tagged player shifted from nickel corner to safety in 2017 and saw his career take off. Joyner is an instinctive side-to-sideline defensive back who can effortlessly move from the slot to cover the deep third.
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New England’s special teams are as steady and reliable as they come.
Stephen Gostkowski has been with the team since 2006, kicked through multiple Super Bowl appearances (including a pair of victories) and set an NFL record with 523 consecutive extra points made. The four-time Pro Bowler missed only two field goals under 50 yards during the regular season.
Punter Ryan Allen, meanwhile, has been with the Patriots since 2013. Like Gostkowski, Allen is a two-time Super Bowl champion and a consistent performer with a career average of 45.3 yards per punt.
Usually, the Patriots hold a distinct advantage in special teams. But, the Rams have arguably the best kicker and punter in football.
Greg Zuerlein quelled any potential concerns about a lack of big-game experience when he won the NFC Championship Game with a booming 57-yard field goal in overtime. Thus, the Patriots’ championship experience is less of a factor in this area.
Zuerlein suffered a strain to his non-kicking foot during the contest, but he’s expected to be fine for Sunday.
As good as Zuerlein is—and he has one of the league’s best legs—Johnny Hekker is even better. Belichick described the Rams punter “a weapon,” per CNLS Media’s Evan Lazar. The Patriots will be prepared for anything since Hekker’s history as a high school quarterback already played a role in the postseason.
“We’re going to have to play this game very differently than we’ve played any game this season because of Johnny and because of [special teams coordinator John] Fassel and how they want to call the game,” Patriots special teams standout Matthew Slater said, per Boston.com’s Nik DeCosta-Klipa.
Total: Patriots 5, Rams 5