While these players aren't as well known as some of their teammates, they'll still play a deciding role on Sunday
Super Bowl LIII will be a rematch of Super Bowl XXXVI from 17 years ago. The New England Patriots and the once-again Los Angeles Rams (they were in St. Louis back in 2002 after relocating from L.A. in 1995) have gone through some interesting journeys since then.
Super Bowl XXXVI was the game that launched the Patriots' dynasty as it was the first of now five Lombardi Trophies that head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady have won together. Since winning Super Bowl XXXVI, the dup has won eight AFC titles and made 15 playoff appearances, including their current run of 10 straight.
On the other hand, the Rams have gone through some significant changes. "The Greatest Show on Turf" that led the Rams 17 years ago, and won Super Bowl XXXIV before that, is now a memory as everyone involved with that era has either retired or otherwise moved on. In 2016, the Rams returned home to Los Angeles and have made two straight playoff appearances (first since 2004) under 33-year-old head coach Sean McVay. The young Rams are looking to avenge that loss from 17 years ago and bring the Lombardi Trophy back to Los Angeles for the first time since the Raiders beat the Redskins in Super Bowl XVIII back in 1984.
While most of the talk headed into the game will be about the head coaches or Brady and his counterpart Jared Goff, or the other superstar players such as Todd Gurley, Aaron Donald, Rob Gronkowski or Julian Edelman, it's entirely possible that one of their less-heralded teammates could be the one that makes the biggest impact on Super Sunday. In that respect, here are some names to keep an eye on.
Kyle Van Noy, LB, Patriots
The fifth-year player has been the defensive MVP for the Pats during the postseason. He leads the team with 14 tackles, two sacks, two tackles for a loss, and has both a pass deflection and a forced fumble to his credit. During the AFC Championship game against Kansas City, Van Noy was all over the field and was practically unblockable at times. If the Rams don’t know where Van Noy is at all times, then it could be a long night for Los Angeles' offense.
C.J. Anderson, RB, Rams
With Todd Gurley battling a knee injury since December, Anderson has become the focal point of the Rams' ground attack. And so far he hasn’t disappointed with 167 rushing yards and two touchdowns in the playoffs thus far. With a healthy Gurley the Rams could have a two-headed monster on Sunday. Either way, the Patriots shouldn’t underestimate this part of Sean McVay’s offense.
Dont'a Hightower, LB, Patriots
While his postseason stat sheet has been modest (four tackles, one QB hit), it’s what doesn’t show up in the box score that makes Hightower such a threat. With his speed and athleticism, he can rush the passer, play the run, and drop into pass coverage. He draws a bit of attention from opposing teams and when that happens it can open up opportunities for his teammates, such as the aforementioned Van Noy. So one way or another, Hightower will affect the Super Bowl outcome. The Rams will need to keep a hat on him at all times.
When it comes to the Los Angeles defense all of the focus is usually on the defensive line and the secondary. But it’s been the men in the middle of their defense that have kept this unit stable during the postseason after a somewhat difficult regular season. Dante Fowler Jr., Cory Littleton, Mark Barron, Samson Ebukam, Bryce Hager, and Micah Kiser have combined for 53 tackles, 12.5 tackles for a loss, 1.5 sacks, two passes defended, and a forced fumble in the playoff wins over the Cowboys and Saints.
With Tom Brady continuing to play at a high level, and the Patriots' running game getting the job done as well, it will take a complete effort from all three levels of Los Angeles' defense to put the Rams in the best position to win Super Bowl LIII.
Patriots running backs
In the Tom Brady era, the running back position can be an afterthought at times. But this season, and especially in the playoffs, this group has made its presence known. Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead and James White, along with fullback James Devlin, have accounted for 323 rushing yards, 194 receiving, and eight total touchdowns in New England's two postseason wins. The Rams will obviously place plenty of focus on getting to Brady and disrupting the passing game, but they can't forget about the guys in the backfield either. The Chargers and Chiefs found this out the hard way.
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.