Breaking down Sunday's big game in Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta
The final game of the NFL season will feature the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams facing off in Super Bowl LIII. These two teams last faced each other back in 2016, a game the Patriots won 26-10. Tom Brady became the NFL's career leader in victories with that win, No. 201, outdueling then-rookie Jared Goff, who completed less than half of his passes (14 of 32) for a measly 161 yards with a touchdown but also two interceptions.
These teams are no stranger to the Super Bowl stage either, as they met in 2002 in the Superdome for Super Bowl XXXVI. New England won 20-17 as Bill Belichick and Brady got their first Lombardi Trophy and the Patriots' dynasty was officially launched. Brady's numbers weren't spectacular against the then-St. Louis Rams but outplayed Kurt Warner as the New England's defense held the "Greatest Show on Turf" and Adam Vinatieri kicked the game-winning, 48-yard field goal as time expired.
Fast-forward to today, and the Patriots continue to make it to Super Bowls with Brady leading the way. This marks New England's third straight Super Sunday appearance and fourth in the past five years. This version of the Patriots enters the game riding a four-game winning streak after losing back-to-back games to the Dolphins and Steelers. Brady and company have been rolling recently, putting up 116 points in the last three games with rookie running back Sony Michel doing his part. The defense has played well in its own right, but gave up a combined 59 points to the Chargers and the Chiefs on the way to the Super Bowl.
The offense goes as Brady goes, but I could argue that Michel, along fellow backs Rex Burkhead and James White are more important. Heck, throw James Develin in as well, as he's usually money around the goal line. Each RB plays his role very well and is ready when called upon. White was busy as a pass catcher in the Divisional Round win over the Chargers while Burkhead scored both the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter and the game-winner in overtime against the Chiefs in the AFC Championship. And of course there's Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski as Brady's other primary targets in the passing game.
I do have questions about New England's defense, but we all know that Bill Belichick has had plenty of time to get his guys ready. I really like the secondary, which is led by Stephon Gilmore, one of the best cornerbacks in football. The front seven isn't exactly littered with a ton of household names, but defensive coordinator Brian Flores finds a way to get the job done. The Patriots have given up a total of 60 rushing yards this postseason.
On the other side, you have the Rams who also have won four in a row after losing in Weeks 14 and 15. The defense has risen to the occasion, holding the Cowboys and Rams to 98 rushing yards combined. Los Angeles' defense has plenty of star power including the likes of Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh up front. If there's a weakness on this side of the ball it's with the linebacking corps, which could impact how defensive coordinator Wade Phillips chooses to defend against Gronkowski and New England's pass-catching running backs. The Rams' secondary has plenty of talent, but offseason acquisitions Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters have had inconsistent seasons. Phillips has plenty of experience, however, so expect him to have his unit ready to play.
Regardless of how well the defense fares, Los Angeles' offense will need to hold up its end of the bargain. That starts with how effective Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson are running the ball, which will help the Rams control time of possession. Gurley hasn't looked like himself since early December, which makes Anderson's late-season resurgence even more significant. Jared Goff has had a nice season, but the jury is still out on him as far as getting the job done when the pressure is on and if he's more a product of head coach Sean McVay's play-calling than anything. Goff does have weapons to throw to, starting with Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods, but this could be the game where the offense really misses Cooper Kupp in the slot. Josh Reynolds has been a capable replacement and the tight ends also have stepped up on occasion.
As I've said all along during this postseason, I'm not picking against the Patriots. Yes, they lost to the Eagles last year in the Super Bowl, but it took an unreal performance by Nick Foles. I don't see that kind of effort coming from Goff. New England has covered 39 of its last 56 games including 19 of the last 26 against teams with a winning record. To me, this one shows that the wisdom of Belichick is greater than the potential of McVay. The Rams will be back, but the Patriots win this one.
With regards to the total, I like the under, but I think you can wait and get a little bit of value closer to kickoff. It's widely believed that people blindly bet the over because no one wants to go to their Super Bowl party and root against points. It's around 56.5 and 57 right now, but you could get a little bit more movement as more of the public gets its mitts on it. I'd consider waiting till Thursday for the total.
SELECTIONS: Patriots -2.5 & Under 56.5 (Patriots 31-20)
Record: 49-36-3 (6-4 in the playoffs)
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Josephs prefers non-Power 5 college football and may be the only one wagering on the Sun Belt. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.