The New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams are all set to square off on the NFL's biggest stage in Super Bowl LIII on Sunday in Atlanta. Marquee players such as Tom Brady, Jared Goff, Todd Gurley, Aaron Donald, and Rob Gronkowski (to name a few) will command most of the attention heading into Super Sunday. And justifiably so, as one of these star players will most likely exit Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Feb. 3 with the MVP trophy in hand. Most of the storylines this week will center around the head-coaching chess match between Bill Belichick and Sean McVay, or the Brady vs. Goff QB battle, or the youth vs. experience factor. Others will feature the scenarios most likely to play out on Super Sunday.
But what about the underlying scenarios and variables? Or the under-the-radar player(s) that could play a significant role in deciding the outcome of Sunday’s game? Such anomalies are often referred to as x-factors. And Super Bowl LIII has no shortage of candidates that could fit the bill. Here are five x-factors that have the potential to dominate the headlines following the big game.
Rams' kicking game (Johnny Hekker and Greg Zuerlein)
The kicking game is often undervalued in football, despite the fact that it can change the complexion and/or outcome of a game in an instant. The New Orleans Saints know this all too well after watching Greg Zuerlein end their season with a 57-yard field goal in overtime. Zuerlein also came up big with a game-tying, 47-yarder at the end of regulation. Johnny Hekker left a lasting impression on the Saints as well. The big-legged punter averaged almost 46 yards per punt in the NFC title game. But it was Hekker’s arm that proved to be the x-factor. His 12-yard pass to Sam Shields on a fake punt allowed the Rams to convert a crucial fourth down in the second quarter, ultimately leading to a 36-yard Zuerlein field goal.
The kicking game will likely loom large in Super Bowl LIII as well. We already know that if the game comes down to a clutch field goal, Zuerlein won’t be rattled. He has ice water in his veins and a big leg to boot. Hekker’s big leg will go a long way in dictating field position, while his athleticism and passing ability pose an additional threat. And don’t be surprised if the always aggressive Sean McVay has another trick up his sleeve for Hekker on Super Sunday. Even if he doesn’t, the threat alone should force the Patriots' punt team to play it very safe. Bill Belichick is well aware of the potential impact Zuerlein and Hekker can have on Sunday, referring to the kicking duo as "weapons." And that’s exactly what they are.
Patriots RB James White
Sony Michel will be the Patriots running back that garners most of the media attention and hype leading into Super Bowl LIII. And with good reason - the rookie has been red-hot during the postseason with 242 rushing yards and five touchdowns in two playoff games. That said, White may be the New England back best equipped to steal the show on Sunday. White’s three-touchdown performance proved to be the x-factor against the Falcons in Super Bowl LI. And his versatility as a runner and standout pass catcher bodes well for another big performance in Sunday’s matchup against the Rams.
Los Angeles has been stingy against the run in the postseason, but generous to pass catchers out of the backfield. Saints running back Alvin Kamara hauled in 11 passes for 96 yards in the NFC title game. And much like Kamara, White should be able to feast on mismatches against Rams linebackers. In two playoff games, he has quietly racked up 19 catches for 146 yards. However, White has yet to find the end zone this postseason, something he is more than capable of doing on Sunday. He will definitely be a factor in Super Bowl LIII.
New England's offensive line
Without the stellar postseason play of Trent Brown, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, and Marcus Cannon, there’s a very good chance that the Patriots would be watching instead of playing in Super Bowl LIII. Collectively, the quintet has been nothing short of elite during the playoff run, paving the way for 331 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. More importantly, this group hasn’t yielded a single sack, facing some of the top pass rushers in the league in two postseason games.
Life won’t get easier for the Pats’ O-line on Super Sunday. The daunting challenge that lies ahead - keep Aaron Donald (league-leading 20.5 sacks in the regular season) and Ndamukong Suh (1.5 sacks, 4 QB hits during the postseason) away from Tom Brady and keep the ground game rolling. If successful, this group may finally get the credit it deserves, and an argument could be made that New England’s offensive line will end up as the true MVP of Super Bowl LIII.
Rams OLB/DE Dante Fowler Jr.
Donald and Suh may be the biggest threat to Brady and his offensive line on Sunday, but they certainly aren’t the only one. And while New England focuses most of its attention on stopping the imposing duo, it could very well open the door for an edge rusher like Fowler. The 2015 first-round pick has had his struggles since arriving in the NFL, but a midseason trade from Jacksonville to Los Angeles has given Fowler’s career new life, particularly in the postseason, where his presence has paid big dividends for the Rams' defense.
In addition to eight tackles (3 TFL), 1.5 sacks and three QB hits in two playoff games, Fowler was instrumental in setting up the game-winning drive for the Rams in the NFC Championship game with a hit that forced a misguided Drew Brees pass into the hands of safety John Johnson in overtime. Fowler also is quite familiar with the Patriots. In a Week 2 while he was still with the Jaguars, Fowler’s fourth-quarter strip-sack of Brady and ensuing fumble recovery proved pivotal in putting the Pats away in a 31-20 Jacksonville victory. Fowler could be a key cog for Los Angeles on Super Sunday, and with his confidence soaring, it wouldn’t come as a complete surprise if he winds up the hero.
Which team wins on third down?
Success on third down on both sides of the ball has been crucial for both teams during the playoffs. New England has thrived in this situation, converting 20 of 33 attempts (60.6 percent). The Patriots' offense proved particularly effective on third down against the Chiefs in the AFC title game, converting a ridiculous 14 of 19 (73.7 percent), including a string of critical conversions that ultimately paved the way to victory in overtime.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles' defense has been equally effective in shutting down the opposition on third down. The Cowboys only managed to move the chains once in 10 attempts and the Saints (6-for-14) weren't much more successful. Whether it's New England's offense of the Rams' defense, one of these units will have to give on Sunday. The battle on third down could go a long way in deciding Super Bowl LIII.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.