Back in 2002, the Los Angeles Rams lived in St. Louis, seeking their second Super Bowl title in three years against an upstart New England Patriots team. It was a group of no-name players from the AFC seemingly sent to be sacrificed against one of the best NFC teams fielded this century.
The Patriots' head coach, Bill Belichick, was a prodigy who’d failed to deliver in six previous NFL seasons. He had as many playoff victories, one, that equaled what he was really known for: days as head coach of the New York Jets before quitting the job. His quarterback, Tom Brady, was a sixth-round draft pick who had thrown a total of three career NFL passes entering the year; he was pressed into service when longtime starter Drew Bledsoe got hurt.
That left the AFC champs as heavy underdogs against the "Greatest Show On Turf," a Rams group who had cruised to a 14-2 record and the NFC’s top seed. The offensive juggernaut was favored by 14 points; Kurt Warner and Rams head coach Mike Martz were the ones fit to be football kings.
But something happened on the way to their coronation; the Patriots refused to cede the crown. A late drive by Brady led to a game-winning field goal, producing a 20-17 upset that snuffed out the Rams' dynasty and started his. Seven more Super Bowls would follow, producing four more wins and turning the Patriots into arguably the greatest NFL team of all time.
So here we are, 17 years later, with the script flipped on Brady and Belichick. It’s a group of young upstarts in the Rams who aren’t supposed to be here yet, led by the league's youngest head coach, 33-year-old Sean McVay. The quarterback is 24-year-old Jared Goff; he was in second grade when Brady won his first Super Bowl. The Rams come in as the second seed, like the Patriots in 2002, peaking at the right time while persevering through a few lucky breaks. A timely interception preserved a victory against the Eagles, the league’s defending Super Bowl champs. One week later, a no-call on pass interference boosted the Rams in an upset of the NFC’s top seed, the New Orleans Saints.
Now back in Los Angeles, the Rams have a chance to bring the city their first Super Bowl victory since 1984. The Patriots and Brady, meanwhile, are looking to cement their legendary status. A 6-3 record in Super Bowls looks a whole lot better than 5-4; a win also would tie Brady with Michael Jordan’s six NBA titles and break one with Charles Haley for the most rings ever won by an NFL player.
Historically, it would also put a bow on a Brady career most believed would never still be active at age 41. He is the only player remaining from that game on the Patriots, outlasting everyone who stepped foot on the field in Super Bowl XXXVI except kicker Adam Vinatieri. It’s a quarterback that gutted it out on that fateful night, willed his team to the win and hasn’t looked back... for 17 years.
Will Brady refuse to give up, yet again? Or can the Rams usher in a new generation through their collection of young talent?
Super Bowl 53: New England vs. Los Angeles
Kickoff: Sunday, Feb. 3 at 6:30 p.m. ET
Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome (Atlanta)
Spread: Patriots -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Brady’s big game experience vs. Goff's biggest moment
There’s not much to say about Tom Brady that hasn’t already been said. His postseason experience includes more playoff wins (29) than Jared Goff’s actual age (24). He enters his ninth Super Bowl with the highest playoff completion percentage of his NFL career (71.1) through two games and a healthy 7.7 yards per attempt. And his three straight third-down conversions on a touchdown-winning overtime drive against the Chiefs? Yet another chapter in a book growing too large for your shelf at home. If you’re looking for Brady to slip Sunday, don’t; it’s a man who’s as battle-tested as they come.
Instead, this Super Bowl becomes all about Goff and his ability to carry the Rams. The first pick in the 2016 NFL Draft took a major step toward stardom this season. His 8.4 yards per attempt ranked fourth in the NFL; a 101.1 QB rating ranked eighth, four notches higher than Brady. And only Patrick Mahomes, Ben Roethlisberger, and Matt Ryan threw for more yards than Goff (4,688).
For much of the year, Goff lurked in the shadows behind young Mahomes, who set the league on fire with 5,097 passing yards and 50 touchdowns. But Goff has had success of his own, in particular in big games. He outdueled Mahomes in a 54-51 win for the Rams in the regular season, throwing for 413 yards, four touchdowns and no picks. He also calmly led the Rams on both the game-tying and game-winning drives last week in the NFC Championship, succeeding in one of the sport’s most hostile road environments: the Superdome.
Through it all, Goff maintained a calm, even-keeled demeanor that’s drawn comparisons to his Super Bowl rival. The question is whether he can continue that in the biggest game of his NFL career. He’s shown inconsistency late in the year, in particular after the loss of slot receiver Cooper Kupp to a torn ACL. He’s failed to throw a touchdown in three of the last five games and had a career-worst four interceptions against the Bears last month.
You shouldn’t expect that many turnovers against the Patriots. But all it takes is one fumble or a pick-six and suddenly momentum turns against you. Goff can’t make that type of mistake against this opponent.
2. Is Todd Gurley healthy? If not, who becomes the star of the Rams' offense?
Gurley remains the biggest x-factor in a running game that’s been carried most of the postseason by C.J. Anderson. Anderson isn’t a full-time back for a reason; he averaged just 2.8 yards per carry in the NFC Championship against the Saints.
But despite Anderson’s ineffectiveness and claims that Gurley was healthy, the Pro Bowl running back rarely spent time in the backfield. Just four carries for 10 yards have everyone scratching their head as to how much time Gurley will play on Super Bowl Sunday.
He was on the field for less than half the snaps, touching the ball just five times for his lowest output of the season. Even worse, the first pass targeted his way bounced right through his hands and into the arms of a Saints defender for an interception. That's not the way you'd expect a guy who has a league-leading 3,924 yards from scrimmage the last two seasons to perform in your biggest game.
So is a knee injury suffered back in December hobbling Gurley?
“C’mon man,” he said to reporters Friday, adamantly denying it. “If there was an issue with my knee, it would be on the injury report. I’m at practice. I’m playing.”
"You just have to feed off what we are doing, and C.J. was running the ball well," added Goff to FOX's Chris Myers after the NFC Championship. "I expect Todd to have a hell of a game in the Super Bowl."
But will he play well? The Patriots have allowed just 30 rushing yards per game in the postseason, redeeming themselves after an inconsistent regular season. It’s difficult to see Gurley breaking through if he’s less than 100 percent, putting even more pressure on both Anderson and Goff. Gurley’s reduced presence could also hurt in the passing game; he had 59 receptions for 580 yards during the regular season, good for third on the team.
Compare Gurley’s ailment to Sony Michel’s accomplishments over the past two weeks. He’s posted 242 yards and five touchdowns on the ground in the postseason, averaging 4.6 yards per carry and allowing the Patriots to spread the field and open up passing windows for Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski. Rams All-Pro defensive lineman Aaron Donald must take charge here and stop Michel or Rex Burkhead from establishing a rhythm.
3. Trench warfare
The Patriots’ offensive line has been the unsung heroes of these playoffs. With a 41-year-old quarterback who’s not as mobile they’ve given up a grand total of zero sacks. The offensive line of the Rams is close behind; just one sack in two games.
So what now? Both teams have used defensive penetration to their advantage; they’ve racked up nine sacks between the two of them. Something’s got to give, somewhere and you have to figure the Patriots have the edge despite the Rams’ Donald. Kyle Van Noy and Trey Flowers have formed an effective 1-2 punch with two sacks apiece. Dont'a Hightower, despite just four tackles in the postseason, has proved generally disruptive.
The key for the Rams is simply to get Donald going. He has just four tackles during the postseason and no major plays of note, at least on paper. Can those three postseason quarterback hits turn into sacks? Contact is more likely to hobble Brady based on his age and current mobility. Getting to Brady is key to getting the Lombardi trophy.
X-Factor: A tale of two coaches
Bill Belichick has done it all. Sean McVay? He’s just getting started. But both coaches benefit from unconventional styles and a penchant for doing things their own way.
The two men met at the NFL Scouting Combine and have texted since, with Belichick taking his time to congratulate McVay after games. The normally tight-lipped Patriots head coach was even willing to compliment the prodigy half his age during Super Bowl media festivities.
“I have a ton of respect for Sean,” he said. “He’s done a great job in the two years he’s been with the Rams. His teams have performed at an extremely high level. They’re very consistent. They’re well-coached. The players execute on a consistent basis on a very high level.”
But for all the confidence Belichick shows in McVay, he also has the experience earned from Super Bowl victories. The Patriots are also coming off a Super Bowl in which the aggressive, youngish coaching style of Doug Pederson kept them off guard. He pushed down on the accelerator and never relented, taking high-risk approaches and offensive gambles that paid off.
One thing about great coaches, they don’t get fooled by the same method twice. Expect Belichick to have learned from that experience and for McVay to be the innocent victim of last year’s frustration.
This year’s Super Bowl line opened with the Rams favored by one. But as game time inches closer, the Patriots have edged back on top and seem to be regaining respect. They’re presenting themselves as a healthy, loose team in position to avenge their narrow loss to the Eagles a season ago.
The Rams, meanwhile, have seen some clouds roll in. The news stories surrounding the pass interference call won’t die; a local New Orleans car dealership has bought billboards all over Atlanta claiming the Saints got robbed. Calls have come from their owner, other NFL players and even Congress itself to change the rules going forward. (Had the penalty been called, the Saints would have run down the clock and attempted a chip shot field goal for the win.)
It leaves the Rams, well, a bit off balance while the Patriots enter the Super Bowl playing at their peak. A motivated Brady is on a mission; one year after losing a step from his MVP status at age 40, he’s out to reinforce his top-tier status at age 41. Add in another week of rest for Gronkowski, the emergence of a rushing star in Michel and it makes the Patriots' offense seemingly impossible to beat.
Athlon Editors' Super Bowl 53 Predictions
AthlonSports.com NFL/Fantasy Contributors' Super Bowl 53 Predictions