No tears yet, no tears. We still have one more game to be played, and it is for all the marbles. Super Bowl LIII (53 to save a google search): The New England Patriots vs The Los Angeles Rams. Both 2 seeds have moved on after what very well could have been the best conference championship weekend we have ever seen, as both games went into overtime. Come to think of it, just diving right into the super bowl just doesn’t seem right, does it? Let’s review the Conference Championships games.
Los Angeles Rams @ New Orleans Saints (Saints -3, O/U 56.5):
Prediction: 27-20, Saints
Actual: 26-23, Rams
To our credit, the Saints had the ball at the Rams’ 13 yard line with 1:58 left in the game and the score tied 20-20 . 27-20 looked GOOD. The Saints got Alvin Kamara involved early (We had him over 40.5 receiving yards, which he passed…with 3:05 left in the first quarter (!!!)), and jumped out to an early lead of 13-0 after a costly Jared Goff INT. But the Saints never got the second one we asked for, and the Rams front 7, for the second week in a row, made base at the line of scrimmage. They limited the Saints to just 48 rushing yards on 21 carries, and Drew Brees looked human (26/40, 249 yards, 2 TD/1INT), as Suh and Donald were in his lap all game long. Goff started the game 7/11, 33 yards and an INT in the first quarter, as the Saints were bringing pressure, and the noise was causing havoc. It was clear that pressuring Goff would be key, and the Saints themselves had stuffed the run, only allowing 77 yards on 26 tries. At 13-0 after the first quarter, with Todd Gurley struggling, and no signs of life from the Rams, it seemed a runaway was imminent.
That all changed on a 4th and 5, when Rams punter John Hekker threw the Rams longest pass of the day at the time – 12 yards – to the all-but-forgotten corner Sam Shields, and the switch flipped. The Saints’ defensively got passive; they started playing coverage instead of pressuring. When playing against such a creative and innovative Sean McVay offense, bringing pressure and getting hands-on receivers is key to disrupting timing and getting Goff off his spot, and it showed. Give him time to make reads and move through his progressions? Well we can forget about his first quarter performance, as he finished the rest of the game going 18/29 for 264 yards and a touchdown. It wasn’t the shootout we got in the first meeting, but Goff made ENOUGH plays to get it done and charge the comeback. Oh, and I’m not sure if you saw, but there may have just been a semi-large missed call at the end of regulation to give the rams one more chance to tie it up before overtime, and Goff came up big again. “I HATE free football,” said no one. Ever. Well, except maybe a Saints fan or two.
In overtime, I am of the opinion that Michael Thomas got interfered with on the Brees interception. Was Brees hit? Yes. Was the ball tipped? No. So, technically, the “tipped ball” rule, where a defender, if the ball is tipped in the air after being thrown by the quarterback can then play the man, was not in effect yet, and there was more than normal contact from John Johnson on the play. But it isn’t a play that can be reviewed. Goff gets 15 yards on 2 passes, and set up Greg the Leg for the 57-yard dagger, sending the Superdome into a loud silence. As Marcus Peters would say, “I THINK WE AIN’T DONE YET.”
New England Patriots @ Kansas City Chiefs (Chiefs -3, O/U 55.5):
Prediction: Pats 26 – Chiefs 24
Actual: Pats 37 – Chiefs 31
So, we had the Under 55.5. So, it was 17-7 going into the 4th quarter. So, what? Just your typical 44 points were scored in the next 19 minutes and 50 seconds of game time, as we got free football: DOUBLE TIME. The Patriots must have read our preview, because they ran, ran, and then ran some more. Over 8 MINUTES were taken off the clock on the first drive, as the 15 plays, 80-yard excursion ended in 7 points for the visitors. Sony Michel hit the over yards prop for the 2nd straight playoff week in the first half, as the o-line was as good as its been all year. At half, total yards favored New England 245 – 32, and yet the score only showed 14-0 with Mahomes getting the ball first. It seemed as though we were still in for a game.
Pat didn’t let us down, as he went 74 yards in 4 plays and all the sudden it was 14-7, and we had a game. But we had to wait until the 4th quarter for the fireworks to begin. Damien Williams, who we wrote had to have a day were the Chiefs to complete in this one, scored his first of 3 touchdowns in the quarter 2 plays in, and it was 17-14. The Chiefs crowd came to life, and so did the defense. After a stop on 4th and 1, the Chiefs turned Tom Brady over on a classic, “Ball don’t lie” pass that bounced off the hands of Julian Edelman into the arms of Daniel Sorensen (the ball did not touch him, for what it’s worth). 2 plays later, the Reid/Belichick chess match came to life, as Reid dialed up a beautiful backside screen to Williams, who could have walked his way into the end zone. The Chiefs lead. One small problem: Tom Brady. Facing a 4-point deficit with 7:45 left in the 4th quarter, Brady went 11/18 for 147 yards, scoring 3 touchdowns, and converting 5 of 6 3rd downs. The one he didn’t convert? He audibled out of a QB sneak, reading the defense and instead, handing the ball to Sony Michel off the right end for a touchdown.
We said in the preview that Hill would see double teams, and that may have downplayed the attention Belichick gave him. 1 catch for 42 yards on 3 targets. The catch was between 2 defenders, and after that it was so apparent that Mahomes stopped looking his way almost completely. Williams had a total of 93 yards and 3 touchdowns, and the Chiefs played well enough to win. The play of the game may be one that doesn’t show up in the stat sheet, as Dee Ford lined up well offsides on a pass that hit Gronk in the hands and was intercepted, all but ending the game. With the flag, however, Brady got his second chance, and Gronk wasn’t letting this one slip. 1 on 1 coverage, we almost got our Gronk spike, as it set up the last touchdown of regulation, and the Pats would never look back. Still Here.
And so, without further ado…
New England Patriots Vs. Los Angeles Rams
Sunday, February 3rd 5:30 PM on CBS. Jim Nantz and Tony Romo in the booth.
Game being played at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia
Patriots -2.5, O/U 56.5 *Monday 1/28/19 4:15*
When the Patriots have the ball:
In the 2 playoff games leading up to the Super bowl, the Patriots have run the ball for 166 yards a game against the personnel of 7 defensive backs from the Chargers, and the sieve that is the Chiefs defense. Fitting the script, we have gone to lengths about the Rams dead last rush defense during the regular season, giving up 5.1 yards per carry. However, in the last two battles against the Saints and Cowboys, they have given up a TOTAL of 98 rushing yards to Ezekiel Elliot, Alvin Kamara, and Mark Ingram. So, what do we make of this? First, I think some credit belongs to Aqib Talib. With his #1 coverage guy back – and a hall of famer at that – defensive coordinator Wade Philips can get more creative in terms of the box and making sure it is more sound on the front. You don’t need as many players in coverage, and can focus on strengthening your weakness. More men in the box, more men for the opponent to block. So what gives? Enter play action gawd Tom Brady. I expect the Patriots to use play action early and often to soften this box, and do so with a lot of Rob Gronkowski. In games against Kyle Rudolph, George Kittle, Travis Kelce, and Zach Ertz, the Rams gave up an average of 6 catches for 76 yards, and for all games during the regular season, they gave up an average of 8 catches for 67 yards. The rams have been adamant that Gronk has indeed NOT lost a step, and they should pay close attention to him. We can’t talk about the Patriots and not mention that this offensive line has been nothing short of magnificent. On top of the dominance on the ground, Tom Brady has not been sacked all playoff long, and has only been hit 3 times. You can’t have variance in your game plan if you don’t control the line of scrimmage, and the Patriots front have done that thus far.
Now, this doesn’t mean that the Patriots will abandon the run game, and I think this game may set up differently than the Chiefs game. In that game, our appetizer was all of Sony Michel, and our main course was Tom Brady. This Sunday, I expect a lot of Tom early and Sony late. Here are some stats for you: when the Patriots were leading at the end of the 1st quarter this year, they were a perfect 11-0. Tied or down? Just a mere 2-5. How about those 5 losses? The Patriots only average 72 rushing yards, and averaged a very pedestrian 3.1 YPC. When they win? An average of 153 yards on the ground, more than double of their losses. Maybe the most compelling stat, the Patriots have scored a total of 3 points in the 1st quarter of their previous 8 Super bowls. So, going against a team that has been able to stack the line of scrimmage now that they are healthy, knowing that the lead is crucial for the success of the team, and being able to give the ball to the greatest quarterback of all time? Yes, I think Tom Brady will be throwing early and often, and will be using a ton of play action. I expect Gronk and James White to have big days receiving, and will throw 1 more name at you: Chris Hogan. The Rams gave up 44 touchdowns during the regular season, and 14 of those were completions over 20 yards. The Patriots shot taking wide out should have multiple opportunities for the big play, as Talib will probably shadow Julian Edelman. It is always tough to game plan for the Patriots, because they seem to always have the answer to the tests, and this offensive line makes it extra hard. Good luck, Rams.
When the Rams have the ball:
I hate to déjà vu from last week, but it really is about Todd Gurley. The narrative is a little different this week, as people are writing him off after his abysmal game against the Saints: 13 TOTAL yards. 13. Some will point to his health, but I think the Saints did a good job of taking him away, and after 2 bad and uncharacteristic drops by Gurley in the first quarter, McVay simply went with the hot and in CJ Anderson. With two more weeks to get healthy, I expect all of Todd Gurley to show up on Sunday. It also plays into the hands of the Patriots weakness, as they were the 3rd worst rushing defense in the league this year. Now the Chiefs, once again, abandoned the run game early against the Patriots and clawed their way back. But the Rams are not the Chiefs, and Jared Goff is not Patrick Mahomes. Todd Gurley has been the man all year, and needs to be on Sunday. If I mention the Patriots offensive line, let me bring in the Rams offensive line: they have allowed Goff to be sacked once all postseason, and was ranked as the very best offensive line in the running game by FootballOutsiders.com. I expect CJ Anderson to get his too, but let’s not all pretend that 44 yards on 16 carries is some superhero stat line. McVay will ride his horse all day Sunday, on the ground or in the air.
He may not be Patrick Mahomes, but Jared Goff has been solid in these playoffs. But solid against the Patriots, especially if Bill does everything in his power to take Gurley away, won’t be enough. What is Jared Goff? Well, the Saints helped us with that answer. If you pressure Goff, you can get him off his spot and pressure him, his tap dancing routine begins. Sit back and play coverage? McVay’s complex and systematic offense can develop, and Goff – the former #1 draft pick – has the time and comfort level to break down plays and deliver strikes. Against Bill Belichick defenses, however, it is a different beast. As we saw last week with Hill and Kelce, Bill is still the best at taking away your top targets. This week, that is Cooks and Woods. I think Woods is a better matchup for Gilmore, and expect him to welcome Woods to his Island all day long. That leaves Cooks, who Bill knows and respects after getting him from New Orleans, to receive the double team coverage from a corner and a safety. I’m sure all of Ram nation would love to see Cooper Kupp in this one, as he would have no less than 600 targets, but he was sidelined for the season with a knee injury. So who steps up? Well the easy answer is Gurley. But further, I want to bring up Josh Reynolds. Since week 10 since Kupp went down, Reynolds has averaged 6.5 targets a game. I think he could be in for a big play or two. The key to this game for the Rams is ball control: you cannot turn the ball over, and you cannot let Tom Brady kill you by 1,000 cuts like he did the Chiefs early. This offense, as explosive as it is, is not the Chiefs. Todd Gurley needs the keys to the car, and McVay will let him drive.
Prediction: Usually the Patriots always have the edge in the special team phase of the game, but the Rams are just as good this time around, as was on display at the end of the Saints game. The narrative of experience has been hammered on: Tom Brady has more Super bowl appearances than the entire Rams roster combined. Tom Brady also has more Super bowl wins then the entire Rams roster combined. But make no mistake, the Rams are good enough to be here. Will they be able to turn Tom over? Will they settle for field goals as they did against the Saints, or will they be aggressive like the Eagles were last year? Does McVay’s youth and impatience show up when the Patriots offense plays time control? We know the Patriots situationally will be sharp, and as much as we want to ignore the experience, they HAVE been there before. The Rams have more talent, but again, you want me to pick against Tom Brady? No thanks. TB6!
Patriots 27 – Rams 23
What a year of football it has been! Stay tuned for my Top 10 Bets of the Super Bowl article. Cheers.
– Frank Laterza