Less than two years ago, the New England Patriots defeated the Los Angeles Rams 13-3 in Super Bowl LIII. Tom Brady won his sixth NFL championship and appeared set to win a few more. On the far sideline, young head coach Sean McVay seemed to have the Rams set up for some NFC dominance of their own.
Oh, how much has changed since then.
The Patriots are 12 games into their first season without Brady, stumbling through the first portion of it 2-5 after an ugly first-round playoff exit last season. COVID-19 opt-outs by top defensive players combined with offensive upheaval to make an extended rebuilding period seem likely. Brady's replacement at quarterback, Cam Newton, tested positive for coronavirus, then failed to throw a touchdown pass for four straight games upon his return.
Despite those headwinds, head coach Bill Belichick has figured out how to make this team click. Winners of four out of their past five games, the Pats thrashed the Chargers 45-0 last Sunday and have shown some fight, clawing back to 6-6. Four straight wins to close the season should get them in the postseason, especially with three divisional foes (Bills, Dolphins, Jets) left dangling on the schedule.
Step one is to beat the Rams, an enigma all their own despite leading the NFC West at 8-4. Failing to make the playoffs last season, they've been inconsistent in this one, winning no more than two games in a row at any point. Just two of their eight victories are against teams with winning records as the run game lacks consistency and quarterback Jared Goff undergoes increasing scrutiny for mistakes. McVay, at 34, remains the NFL's youngest head coach but his honeymoon period ended long ago.
Yet McVay's team, despite back in the shadows, is well-positioned for a second Super Bowl in three years. They hold the tiebreaker over their closest division rivals and could put the NFC West away with a win against the Pats, then a victory on the road at Seattle in two weeks. In a conference filled with parity, there's even a scenario they earn the top seed.
That means plenty of playoff implications are on the line Thursday night. Expect a hard-fought, hard-nosed game in the first rematch between these two teams since Super Bowl LIII.
Thursday Night Football: New England at Los Angeles
Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 10 at 8:20 p.m. ET
TV: FOX/NFL Network
Spread: Rams -5
Three Things to Watch
1. How do the Rams stop Cam Newton?
Fun fact: during the Patriots' recent 4-1 surge, Newton has had more than 300 passing yards just once. And that's actually in a game the Patriots lost, 27-20 against the Houston Texans. On paper, he's thrown for fewer touchdowns (five) than the Patriots have wins this season while tossing nine interceptions.
So how is Newton spearheading this Patriots comeback? Through smart, sustained offensive drives where he's using those legs as much as his arm. Five rushing touchdowns in the past five games don't tell the whole story; it's knowing when to turn on the jets. The past five games, the Pats have converted 47.6 percent of their third downs, a rate that would leave them fifth in the NFL if stretched over an entire season.
Newton also is minimizing losses and embracing the Patriot way of mistake-free football. He's been sacked an average of 1.4 times during the past five games; the team's turned over the ball just twice in that span (two INTs) and converted four of five fourth-down opportunities. It's the leadership the Pats expected when picking up the 31-year-old former NFL MVP off the scrap heap this summer.
Can the Rams stop the run? Their defense ranks second in the NFL in total yards allowed, leads in yards per play (4.62), and is ranked third against the run. But the team has struggled at times against mobile QBs capable of making things happen outside the pocket. The Cardinals' Kyler Murray put up 28 points in a losing effort; Josh Allen's Bills racked up 35 in a winning one. The Rams need a game plan to contain Newton and force some three-and-outs, putting pressure on the defense.
2. Can the Rams kick it up a notch on offense?
A closer look at the Rams' four losses reveals a common thread: inconsistent play on offense. There was Jared Goff's interception early against the Bills, a turnover that led to seven points ultimately proved too much to overcome. A straight-up pick-six against the 49ers two weeks ago was a key moment in San Francisco's season sweep. And a Rams defeat against the Dolphins featured a Goff fumble returned 78 yards for a touchdown.
Overall, the Rams have 20 giveaways this season, tying them for 26th in the NFL and hardly a number you'd expect from a team competing to be a potential No. 1 seed. The Patriots have fewer giveaways and a slightly better turnover margin (+1 vs. even) despite that 6-6 record.
That bodes well for them, even with this game on the road. Goff has lost four fumbles this season, tied for fourth in the NFL, while throwing six interceptions in his last five games. Admittedly, there's been more pressure under center as the Rams have produced just one 100-yard rushing effort on the season (Darrell Henderson Jr. in Week 3).
Running back Cam Akers has looked promising, putting up 156 yards and two touchdowns the past two weeks. But he's nursing a shoulder injury and is questionable to suit up. If Akers doesn't, the Patriots and their 3.79 percent interception rate (second in the NFL) can focus on riling up Goff and forcing a mistake. Top receiving targets Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp could also struggle to get open with the Patriots' secondary overachieving as of late.
3. The X-factor of special teams
The Rams are on their third kicker this season after working through rookie Samuel Sloman and veteran Kai Forbath. Matt Gay has already missed two field goals and his long thus far with his new team is 48 yards.
Compare that to the Patriots, who have had just two missed field goals all season in an impressive year for Nick Folk. More importantly, they've established themselves in the return game, as Gunner Olszewski returned a punt 70 yards for a touchdown against the Chargers last Sunday. Devin McCourty also blocked a field goal attempt as the Pats did all the little things right.
The Rams' longest punt or kick return, by comparison, this season is 41 yards. So keep an eye on Bill Belichick's bag of tricks as he's an expert at exploiting an opponent's top weakness. It'll only take one field goal miss or a blocked punt to tip the scales in this type of matchup.
The Patriots just finished thrashing the other team from L.A.; why not two in a row? This game will be much closer and much tougher considering the strength of the Rams' defense. But the Patriots' offense, believe it or not, is putting the better players on the field right now.
A fourth-quarter turnover by Jared Goff (or lack of one) will probably be the deciding factor here. Can he step up and avenge old demons from a three-point offensive performance in Super Bowl LIII?
Prediction: Patriots 17, Rams 13
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.