Tom Brady might want to hold off on getting fitted for his sixth ring.
While the Patriots are slight favorites in their Super Bowl LIII matchup with the Rams, there are several reasons to believe Los Angeles will upset New England and hoist the Lombardi Trophy when the dust settles this Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
There’s definitely no shortage of intrigue storylines surrounding this year’s winner-take-all showdown, which pits the NFL’s greatest dynasty against a star-studded squad that perfectly fits the glitz and glamour of LA. Each team took down the No. 1 seed in its respective conference to reach this point, as the Patriots defeated the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game while the Rams beat the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Championship Game (albeit with some controversy).
So, why should you believe the Rams have what it takes to overcome the Patriots, who are playing in their third consecutive Super Bowl and their ninth with Brady and Bill Belichick leading the way? Here are seven reasons.
1. Rams’ ground attack
Our own Mike Cole wrote an excellent breakdown last week about the Rams’ extensive use of the “11” personnel and how the Patriots have had trouble defending the run against that particular grouping: one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers.
Here’s a snapshot of New England’s struggles, per NFL analytics guru Warren Sharp, who predicted last year the Patriots would struggle against the Philadelphia Eagles’ offense, which also leaned heavily on “11” personnel:
The Rams run the football better than most teams, personnel groupings aside. Such is life when you put Todd Gurley (one of the best backs in the NFL) and C.J. Anderson (a catalyst since being signed in December) behind Los Angeles’ offensive line, which ranked first in run blocking this season according to both Pro Football Focus and Football Outsiders.
The Patriots, while much improved in the postseason, have struggled to contain opposing rushing attacks at times, ranking 19th in DVOA against the run, per Football Outsiders. Don’t be surprised if the Rams aim right for the heart of the Patriots’ defense. Los Angeles’ offense led the NFL in adjusted line yards up the middle while New England’s defense ranked 26th in adjusted line yards allowed up the middle, per Football Outsiders.
2. Sean McVay’s offensive creativity
By now, you probably know all about the Rams head coach. Just 33 years old, Los Angeles’ wunderkind is known largely for his offensive ingenuity — and handsome looks, obviously — and it’s fair to assume he’ll pull out all the stops this Sunday, much like Eagles head coach Doug Pederson did last year when Philadelphia hung 41 points on New England in Super Bowl LII.
We already touched on the Rams’ rushing attack, which is sensational at its peak and potentially problematic for the Patriots. But that’s only part of what makes Los Angeles’ offense tick. McVay is a master at manipulating defenders pre- and post-snap. Watching the line of scrimmage Sunday should be fascinating, especially considering New England’s ability to disguise its blitzes.
It should be noted the Rams used play-action passes more frequently than any team in the NFL this season — Rams quarterback Jared Goff went 10-for-12 with 108 yards and a touchdown on play-action against the Saints in the NFC Championship Game — and averaged a third-best 9.0 yards per play with play-action. The Patriots, meanwhile, ranked 17th in yards per play allowed (7.8) to play-action.
3. Jared Goff’s poise
Say what you want about Goff, who struggled down the stretch in the regular season, but he’s shown an ability to make big throws in key spots. The 2016 No. 1 pick was nails in the Rams’ 54-51 win over the Chiefs in November — what many believed was a Super Bowl preview — and he outplayed Drew Brees in the NFC Championship Game, particularly late in clutch moments.
Brady is the greatest of all time, largely because of his ability to deliver time and time again when the lights shine brightest. But there is evidence to suggest the moment won’t be too big for Goff, and that ultimately could be the difference if this turns into a shootout and the Rams hold the ball last.
Goff led five game-winning drives this season. According to Football Outsiders, the Rams are No. 1 in DVOA in late and close situations (second half, score within eight points).
4. Rams’ pass rush
Aaron Donald is the best football player on the planet right now. He led the NFL with 20.5 sacks — J.J. Watt finished second with 16 — despite playing along the interior of Los Angeles’ defensive line. And unfortunately for the Patriots, he’s not just a one-man wrecking crew. Donald has some defensive buddies, including Ndamukong Suh and Dante Fowler Jr., who are more than capable of wreaking havoc on opposing quarterbacks.
The Patriots’ offensive line has been amazing this postseason, keeping Brady clean in both of New England’s wins thus far. The Rams’ defensive line is a whole different beast, though, thanks in part to Donald, who’s a generational talent. And we’ve seen what can happen when opposing defenses rush just four and create pressure on Brady — it’s the most effective way to slow New England’s offense.
5. Wade Phillips’ familiarity
The Rams’ 71-year-old defensive coordinator has been around for a while, which means he has seen plenty of Brady and Belichick over the years, for better or worse.
Phillips, formerly of the Denver Broncos and Houston Texans, among others, has had mixed results against the Patriots. But who can forget the 2015 AFC Championship Game in which Phillips and the Broncos threw Brady off his game by pretty much beating the crap out of the Patriots quarterback?
Sure, it’ll be difficult — perhaps even impossible — for the Rams to replicate that effort. That Broncos pass rush — led by Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware and Derek Wolfe — was special. But Phillips knows the value in being able to create pressure up front by rushing four and dropping seven into coverage, and that’s a recipe the Rams are more than capable of executing given their defensive strengths.
6. Rams’ discipline
The Chiefs entered their AFC Championship Game against the Patriots ranked 31st and 32nd, respectively, in penalties and penalty yards per game. As fate would have it, a huge offsides penalty on Chiefs linebacker Dee Ford cost Kansas City the game.
The Rams, however, are much more disciplined. They rank sixth and 11th, respectively, in penalties and penalty yards per game. Los Angeles had the least-penalized offense in the NFL.
No team is better at capitalizing on its opponent’s mistakes than New England, meaning Los Angeles can’t afford to shoot itself in the foot Sunday. Fortunately for the Rams, they typically do a solid job of not beating themselves.
7. Rams’ special teams
You obviously saw Greg Zuerlein’s 57-yard field goal to beat the Saints in overtime. That’s about as clutch as it gets, and it wasn’t entirely shocking given Zuerlein’s track record. He earned a Pro Bowl nod in 2017 while converting 38 of 40 field-goal attempts, and then converted 27 of 31 attempts during the 2018 regular season before stepping up in the playoffs.
But what about Johnny Hekker? Don’t sleep on the Rams punter, who’s drawn effusive praise from Belichick over the years. It’s not an exaggeration to say the four-time All-Pro is one of the best punters in NFL history.
In a game featuring explosive offenses and talented defenses, a special teams play could swing momentum. And the Rams, who earned Pro Football Focus’ sixth-best special teams grade this season, are equipped to thrive in the oft-overlooked facet of football.
Thumbnail photo via Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports Images