Well, here we are again. The New England Patriots are back in the Super Bowl.
For the third straight year, and the fourth time in five years, we’ll be talking about Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and their supporting cast for yet another February. The story lines around this team feel like they’ve been told before, leading some to wonder if paint drying would be more compelling to watch. However, this Patriots team is more intriguing than some in recent memories, considering many thought this team wouldn’t make it back.
The Patriots started the season out in a 1-2 hole, dropping back to back road games against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Detroit Lions. Then, almost like clockwork, the Patriots rattled off six straight victories, including victories over the Kansas City Chiefs, Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers. Then came another bump in the road, getting blown out by the Tennessee Titans in Nashville. Couple that with a miracle loss in Miami and the Steelers finally exercising their demons to beat the Patriots, and New England seemed like it wasn’t even going to get a bye in the playoffs.
But the identity of the team changed in the last few weeks of the year. There was more emphasis on the run game, with running backs Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead taking on a bulk of the carries. Michel, a first-round rookie drafted out of Georgia, has five rushing touchdowns and a little more than 250 rushing yards in two postseason games. Defensively, the combination of Trey Flowers and Kyle Van Noy have tortured quarterbacks up front after the team finished the regular season with the second fewest sacks in the league. It has led to four straight victories since their loss in Pittsburgh and a berth to the franchise’s eleventh Super Bowl.
Standing in their way to a sixth title is the youthful Los Angeles Rams and their innovative head coach Sean McVay. Since arriving in southern California in 2017, 33-year old McVay turned a newly-relocated Rams team from a 31-48-1 dumpster fire the previous five seasons to a 24-8 juggernaut that has been the factory of offensive greatness in the NFL for the last two seasons. With big trades and key free agent acquisitions in the offseason, the Rams are destined to lift the trophy.
The team started the season with the best record in the NFL, sitting at 8-0 including massive wins over the Los Angeles Chargers, Minnesota Vikings, and Seattle Seahawks. However, when December arrived, the team started to face some issues. After their best game on Monday Night Football in Week 11, the Rams offensive juggernaut began to collapse with the absence of wideout Cooper Kupp. Quarterback Jared Goff started having a drop off in play and star running back Todd Gurley also began dealing with injury. The team ended up losing back-to-back games to the Bears and Philadelphia Eagles and were close to losing a grip on the second seed.
Luckily for them, they held on. Aaron Donald, the likely defensive player of the year, has been a main factor in shutting down opposing offenses. Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters, both trade acquisitions, were crucial in stopping wide receivers down the stretch. Late season acquisition C.J. Anderson ran in Gurley’s place and barreled the team into the divisional round of the playoffs.
Once there, Goff steadily improved with the help of his strong offensive line to win the NFC Championship. Yes, many people believe their last win was tainted due to a pass interference that should’ve been called, but saying the Rams don’t deserve to be here is disrespectful to the foundation McVay and general manager Les Snead built over the last few seasons.
When the Super Bowl is played on Sunday, the Patriots will be looking to put pressure on Goff through their newly found pass rush. Patriots cornerback Stephon Gillmore, who had an all-pro season, will have to choose which of the many receivers the Rams have to shut down and hope the rest of the secondary follows. Tom Brady needs to get the ball out quicker than usual with Donald and Ndamukong Suh hunting him down. For the Rams, they need to get the running game going with Anderson and a hopefully healthy Gurley. The defense will have to shut down a lot of weapons, including running backs looking to catch passes from Brady. But at its core, this battle will be a coaching clinic of the legend in Belichick and the new kid in McVay.
So will the foundation of the Patriots extend their dynasty to six titles or will the Rams reach their destiny to capture their second championship, and the first of potentially many in the McVay era? Kickoff can’t come soon enough.