Everyone seems to be in agreement on what type of game Super Bowl 53 will be: It will be close, and there should be lots of scoring.
The video game Madden 19 did its simulation, and had the Los Angeles Rams beating the New England Patriots, 30-27. CBS analyst Tony Romo, who anticipates more correct play calls on his broadcast than anyone else in the business, said the final score will be 28-24, but didn’t pick a winner. He predicted that the team that loses will have the ball last.
The type of game is easy to predict. Picking the winner isn’t. On paper, the Rams have more talent. In reality, the Patriots have Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. The Patriots’ dynasty that includes nine Super Bowl appearances over 18 years is remarkable. But it also must be noted that their five Super Bowl wins have all been close games: margins of six points, four points and three points (three times).
In what figures to be another very close matchup of two great teams, what will be the deciding factors? Here are the six keys that should determine who wins:
Bill Belichick’s game plan on defense
New England’s head coach often gets credited for his ability to identify his opponent’s biggest threat on offense, and create a game plan to shut it down.
What’s interesting ahead of this matchup is the Rams’ biggest threat is running back Todd Gurley, who was the centerpiece of the L.A. offense all season long as a runner and pass-catcher but has struggled in the playoffs since returning from a knee injury.
But if Gurley is indeed back to his old form, Belichick can look to his former defensive coordinator for the blueprint on how to slow him down. In early December, the Rams beat the Lions 30-16, but Detroit head coach Matt Patricia, a Belichick disciple, crafted a game plan to limit the potent L.A. offense by sealing the edge in the running game, keeping Gurley from breaking off big plays on the outside runs that are a staple of the Rams’ offense. In the passing game, the Lions matched L.A.’s three wide receiver sets by deploying zone coverage and blitzing the middle linebacker to rattle quarterback Jared Goff, who threw for just 207 yards, with one touchdown and one interception.
The Patriots will likely play more man coverage than the Lions, but Belichick will have had two weeks to install a mix of zone and man-to-man to confuse Goff, who hasn’t been the same quarterback since wide receiver Cooper Kupp suffered a season-ending injury.
|Goff stats with Kupp||Without Kupp|
|Completion rate||69.6 percent||60.1 percent|
|Yards per attempt||9.7||7.1|
The Rams’ offense got more attention all season long, but L.A.’s defense has shown up in the playoffs.
“Our whole defense is playing well,” said Wade Phillips, the team’s defensive coordinator. “You play the leading rusher in the league,” he said, referring to Cowboys star Ezekiel Elliott in L.A.’s divisional-round win, “then you play a top rushing team like the Saints where you hold [New Orleans running backs Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram] both under 50 yards. … We emphasized the run, and Ndamukong played his best two games, I think, the past two games. When you have him playing well and Aaron Donald playing really well and Michael Brockers playing really well, that’s a tough front.
“We’ve gotta play like we did the last two weeks on run defense,” Phillips said. “That’s really what it comes down to.”
Some coaches I’d spoken to around the league this season said they didn’t think Suh was playing particularly hard in his first year with the Rams, and his pedestrian stats (4.5 sacks) backed up the assertion. That seems to have changed significantly the last two games, and it could make a big difference Sunday. Just as important as L.A.'s run defense will be the ability of Suh and Donald — who is the best interior lineman in the game — to generate an inside pass rush that throws Tom Brady off his game.
Who knows what the Rams have in Gurley this late in the season? L.A. has insisted that Gurley’s knee injury is behind him and wasn’t the reason for what some considered the benching of the best running back in football during the NFC championship game, when Gurley had only four carries for 10 yards and was on the field for just 32 plays. C.J. Anderson, signed off the street in December, has been the Rams’ No. 1 back in the postseason.
As great as Anderson has been, the Rams need the Gurley of the last two regular seasons to show up Sunday. The more effective Gurley is on the ground, which includes breaking off big plays, the more effective Coach Sean McVay can be in distracting New England defenders with his jet sweeps and constant pre-snap motion.
Goff, Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods and Anderson are all very good players, but Gurley is this offense’s lone MVP-caliber talent. The Rams need at least 80 percent of Gurley’s usual level to win this one.
The Patriots’ running game
Belichick’s offenses at New England have ranged from the Oregon rushing attack, to the Texas Tech Air Raid passing offense, to two tight end sets to three-receiver schemes. This year, they’ve gone old school, as a two-back, two-receiver team.
“We never thought we would [use a fullback] that much because so few teams are doing that,” said Dante Scarnecchia, the team’s offensive line coach. “But we gravitated to it more than any time in the past. We are what’s called a regular team: fullback, halfback, two receivers. . . . That truly is our base.”
The Patriots made the decision to become a run-heavy team due to issues at wide receiver, and in two playoff games, they have run 82 times for 331 yards. Scarnecchia said the Patriots have such a deep playbook from close to two decades in the same system that they were able to reach into the archives for plays that feature the “wham” blocking of fullback James Develin and tight end Rob Gronkowski.
New England was able to effectively control the clock in wins over the Chargers and Chiefs due to their running game, and the Rams will have to limit them to fewer than 120 rushing yards in Super Bowl 53.
“They don’t make many mistakes,” Phillips said. “Part of it is they don’t take any losses. In the running game they’re going forward all the time. … In the pass game they don’t take any sacks. … Good teams, great teams are like that.”
The Rams’ secondary
The media often jokes about Belichick not saying much in his news conferences, but you have to listen closely. The Thursday before the AFC championship game against the Chiefs, he hinted at one of the keys to the game: that Kansas City had a plus-91 point differential in the first quarters of games during the season.
Translation: The Patriots couldn’t let the Chiefs get off to a fast start. Once the game started, New England dominated possessions and built a 14-0 first-half lead.
What’s he saying ahead of the Rams’ matchup? That L.A. has played mostly zone defense the second half of the season. He’s right, of course, as injuries to Aqib Talib and struggles by Marcus Peters have created coverage issues for the secondary, leading Phillips to dial up a lot of zone.
But Talib is back healthy, Peters is a very talented player, and the Patriots don’t have great options at wide receiver. Could Phillips revert to the game plan he used as Broncos defensive coordinator in the 2015 AFC championship game, when he had Talib and Chris Harris Jr. at corner and played mostly man coverage? Phillips said Denver’s effective pass rush was key in that win, in which Tom Brady threw for 310 yards and a touchdown but New England was limited to 18 points. The Rams might choose to trust their corners to hold up in man, rather than letting Brady pick apart zone coverage.
The Super Bowl can be distracting, and early mistakes are common. The difference between these two teams is that the Patriots have been there before. They’ve overcome double-digit deficits and won.
The Rams don’t have that same championship seasoning. If they don’t make mistakes, they can win. The Patriots can make mistakes and still win. That’s a big difference.
More Super Bowl coverage: