ATLANTA – Super Bowl hype is all the same. Let’s just play the game.
Super Bowl LIII has been sliced, diced, dissected, looked at under a microscope, you name it. The Patriots will win because of this. The Los Angeles Rams will win because of that. Bets are being made on everything from what the first score will be to what the first song will be during the halftime show.
By now, it’s time to declare that enough is enough. The famous old Boston bartender, Mike McGreevey, had it down pat: “Nuf ced!”
Nuf’ said. Time to play football.
The Patriots and Rams will meet for the second time in the Super Bowl. Seventeen years ago, the Patriots launched their dynasty with an upset win for the ages. Adam Vinatieri’s walkoff 48-yard field goal gave the Patriots a 20-17 win despite being 14 to 17-point underdogs. This time, the Patriots are 2.5-point favorites and nowhere near the dogs they were in 2001.
But they face a strong Rams team, one that was for a while the top seed in the NFC until the New Orleans Saints jumped ahead of them late in the season. Both the Rams and Patriots got to this game with memorable wins over the respective conference top playoff seeds on the road. The Patriots benefitted from a critical offsides call and a fortuitous coin toss call to beat the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead, 37-31 in overtime. Meanwhile, the Rams were the benefactor of a blatant non-call of pass interference (and other things) against cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman (although New Orleans had chances to win in regulation and overtime), and a 57-yard walkoff field goal by Greg Zuerlein gave the Rams a 26-23 overtime win at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Now, both teams are here in Atlanta. Both teams have completed their practices. Both teams are ready for Sunday night’s 6:30 PM EST kickoff at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
And for the Patriots, it basically comes down to one of the most time-honored clichés in the history of the NFL.
Run the ball. Stop the run.
If the Patriots can do both, they win the game.
First of all, the Patriots have been showing a propensity for the run not seen since the days of Craig James and Tony Collins. You can go back further and bring up Sam (Bam) Cunningham, Andy Johnson and Don Calhoun. The 1978 Patriots still hold the NFL record for most team yards rushing in a season. In 1985, turnovers helped a great deal, but James gaining 100-plus yards in playoff games made up for the anemic passing yards put up by Tony Eason as the Patriots won three road postseason games on their way to Super Bowl XX.
This year, the Patriots have been featuring rookie Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead and James White out of the backfield. Add to that the blocking skills of fullback James Develin, who is making all of Patriot Nation forget about Sam Gash, and the Patriot running game is the real deal.
The benefits of establishing the run against the Rams is obvious. You run clock and keep Jared Goff, Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods and all the Rams’ offense off the field, much like the offenses of the Los Angeles Chargers and the Chiefs in the previous playoff games. A potent run game opens up the passing game for Tom Brady, especially in play action. Any way to take physical pressure off Brady, Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski helps the Patriots.
Michel has gained over 100 yards rushing in his first two playoff games. Burkhead was the power back down the stretch and scored two key touchdowns at Kansas City, one of them the overtime game-winner. White is a proven Super Bowl commodity who can catch passes and provide third down flexibility, either by rushing or receiving. White was a first down machine two weeks ago at Kansas City, with his first six touches resulting in first downs for the Patriots.
The key man here is probably Michel. If he can squirt through the line and move the chains, and be around 60-80 yards rushing by halftime, the Patriots will take that and might likely be ahead at the time.
That is, assuming someone named Gurley doesn’t gash the Patriots.
Bill Belichick will take one key offensive player out of the game for the Rams. That one player will likely be Gurley, or C.J. Anderson if Gurley is either less than one hundred percent or simply ineffective. But Gurley, with apologies to Goff, is the most dangerous offensive player the Rams have. Goff is young, the Patriots know Cooks, and the Rams’ tight ends will never be confused with Gronk. Gurley is the key.
Gurley, who like Michel is a former Bulldog from the University of Georgia, is a dangerous threat out of the backfield in both rushing and receiving. He is the top draft pick in many fantasy leagues across the country. He alone can take over a game for the Rams and dictate how Belichick and Brian Flores run the defensive side of the ball.
If the Patriots can sell out and stop Gurley, or Denver castoff Anderson, they believe they can stop Goff and the Rams passing game, or else hold it down so that it doesn’t turn out to be problematic. Cooks, who spent last season as a Patriot, is fast but brittle, and can be taken out of the game by a physical cornerback. If Stephon Gilmore draws Cooks in coverage, for example, that won’t be a problem. If Woods gets the better of J.C. Jackson (assuming Jackson isn’t called for a ton of holding or interference calls), the Patriots will have to adjust like they did against Seattle in Super Bowl XLIX. In that game, Chris Matthews was torching Kyle Arrington, but all that stopped when they put Brandon Browner on him in the second half. Belichick will be ready for such adjustments, assuming no defensive back gets benched for this game.
So if the Patriots can get a big game from Michel, and a big stop on Gurley, chances are that duck boats will be needed (again) next week. The fleet was broken out on Halloween to celebrate another Boston area conquest over a Los Angeles team. It can happen again
If the Patriots run the ball and stop the run. It’s a cliché that, for the Patriots, can have super consequences.