If the Patriots’ dynasty started with their upset win over the then-St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, many hope that it finally comes full circle this time around 17 years later. While much has changed about the league since then — most notably, the Rams are now based in Los Angeles — Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have somehow managed, for the most part, to stay on top of things. The duo are headed to their ninth Super Bowl together as a coach-quarterback tandem, a feat that is even more impressive when one considers that no other franchise has been to the Super Bowl more than them.
The legendary duo faces upstarts in the rams’ third-year quarterback Jared Goff and second-year head coach Sean McVay. The popular duo is emblematic of how the league and its fans have become obsessed with young, talented, offense-minded teams and coaches. As a sign of the times, the running joke is that if one has had coffee with Sean McVay in the last two years, they’re likely to be in consideration for a head coach or offensive coordinator opening somewhere in the league.
For the Patriots, the defensive key to the game will be stopping the Rams’ run game. Rams running back Todd Gurley finished third in the league with 1,251 rushing yards, while the pick-up of CJ Anderson has done nothing but complement the Rams’ backfield. Anderson was instrumental in the Rams’ 30-22 Divisional Round victory, picking up 123 yards on the ground. Patriots fans also need not be reminded of the kind of damage Anderson has done against their team in years past while the Berkeley graduate was on the Denver Broncos.
Stopping the run game effectively puts the ball in Jared Goff’s hands, which for the Patriots is the lesser of two evils. While Goff has put up the fourth-most yards in the regular season and has a passer rating of 117.1 when in a clean pocket, Goff doesn’t perform so well when he is put under pressure; he rates at just a 59.8 under the rush. Even though the Rams have some of the best pass rushers in the league in Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh, the Patriots have also been equally capable of putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks this year.
The Rams, meanwhile, have to deal with a newly improved Patriots run game. While the Patriots have shown their ability to run the ball in bits and pieces this season, their breakout game came against the Buffalo Bills in Week 16 as they pounded the Bills with 273 yards on the ground. They followed this up in the post-season, recording over 100 rushing yards in both playoff victories so far. The Patriots will also probably like their running-back matchup in the pass game against the Rams’ linebackers. Controlling the line of scrimmage and effective use of their running backs will invariably allow the Patriots to control the time of possession, something they did to devastating effect in the first half against Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs.
Bill Belichick has, of course, made a career out of devising game plans to nullify the opponent’s big threat. One can expect the Patriots to continue to use a lot of man coverage — they lead the league on this front — and repeat their game plan against the Chiefs by putting Stephon Gilmore not on the opponent’s number-one receiver but on their number-two guy to effectively remove him from consideration.
What is less appreciated is McVay’s ability to do the same. He was effective in switching defensive schemes from one week to the next so far in the playoffs, and he had a lot of success in shutting down elite running backs such as Ezekiel Elliott, Mark Ingram II and Alvin Kamara after struggling to shut down the run in the regular season.
Sunday’s battle can be described as a game of contrasts. The young upstart that is Jared Goff and Todd Gurley against the old, wily foxes of Tom Brady, Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski. The freshness that is the LA Rams offense faces off against the experience embodied by the number of Super Bowl trips this Patriots team has made. The supposedly offense-minded nature of McVay against Belichick’s reputation as a defensive mastermind. But if the shifting Vegas odds were anything to go by, one can expect a game that will be fought by two well-coached teams, which will hopefully go down to the wire.