As far as Super Bowl matchups go, this Sunday’s Big Game between the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams is as great a matchup us NFL fans could get. Though it was an upset victory over the favored Rams in the Super Bowl in 2002 that started a Patriots’ dynasty that still hasn’t died off, the roles are flipped with the up-and-coming Rams pitted against the league’s reigning power for the past two decades. New England is currently favored by 2.5 points, but the game seems to be a virtual toss-up, with two capable, exciting teams that are undoubtedly the best two teams in the league right now. Super Bowl LIII is not defined by one storyline, either. These are the five intriguing matchups that will define which team stands victorious on Sunday night in Atlanta.
Matchup 1: Sean McVay’s offensive schemes against Bill Belichick’s defensive gameplan
Age versus experience is the most prominent storyline in this game, with the Los Angeles’ 33-year-old head coach Sean McVay up against his 66-year-old counterpart in New England. The Rams’ roster is also new to the big stage, while the Patriots have played in three of the past four Super Bowls and return many of the same faces. Out of this narrative, the best matchup is the battle between the two coaches’ strengths. McVay is renowned as one of, if not the most innovative offensive mind in the NFL, while the defensive-minded Belichick has made a habit of shutting down his opponents’ best weapons. The Rams have a significant talent advantage with a trio of dangerous receivers and the rushing tandem of All Pro Todd Gurley and postseason hero C.J. Anderson. But the Patriots have had success against other top offensive units in the NFL, and Belichick’s defenses never back down in the championship.
Edge: Rams, marginally
Matchup 2: Wade Phillips’ pass rush against New England’s offensive line
One of the few coaches to have success against the New England Patriots in the playoffs, Los Angeles defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has built a potent defense that has the chance to break the game open. The defensive line is the Rams’ defensive strength, with the nearly unblockable Aaron Donald bringing the pressure from the middle and talented rushers Ndamukong Suh and Dante Fowler coming in from the outside. Brady’s weakest playoff performances have come when defenses are in his face, and the Rams certainly have the potential to force Brady into uncharacteristic errors. That would be a huge problem for the Patriots at the beginning of the season, but their much-maligned offensive line has rounded into form and has yet to allow a postseason sack. Stopping Tom Brady in the playoffs is a tough task, and the Rams will need to win their battles in the trenches to topple the giant.
Edge: Rams, marginally
Matchup 3: Todd Gurley against “the game flow”
Los Angeles running back Todd Gurley is one of the premier players in the NFL and arguably the best player on the Rams, which makes his lack of playoff action all the more baffling. Backup C.J. Anderson has given Los Angeles unexpected offensive production against the Cowboys and Saints, but the Rams need Gurley to make plays to take the pressure off third-year quarterback Jared Goff and exploit the Patriots’ defense. Gurley’s lack of action could be explained by his late-season injuries or, as McVay put it, “the game flow” of the previous playoff games, but a two-week break between games and the chance for McVay to gameplan Gurley back into the offense could provide the boost Gurley needs to get back to form.
Matchup 4: Los Angeles’ big-play secondary against Gronk and the Patriots’ receivers
Much of this battle will be influenced by the effectiveness of the L.A. pass rush, but either way it will factor significantly into the game. Rams general manager Les Snead made huge waves in free agency by signing corner Aqib Talib from Denver (where he won a Super Bowl with Wade Phillips) and trading for the volatile corner Marcus Peters. Neither corner backs down from a fight, and their wild personalities are mirrored perfectly by their wild playing styles. They’re equally likely to get burned as they are to pick off a Brady pass, but against Brady, mistakes cannot be made. Talib’s veteran presence and overall impact on this defense should be encouraging for Rams fans, but unless the Rams can generate pressure against the New England offense and throw off the Patriots’ clutch receiving corps, the bust is a lot more likely than the boom
Matchup 5: Los Angeles’ red-zone offense against New England’s front seven
This matchup is what I consider to be the most underrated matchups in this game, but one that will determine the winner. The Rams’ offense has moved at will against defenses much more talented than New England’s, but they haven’t always been able to convert their opportunities near the goal line into seven points. Against the Dallas Cowboys, the Rams beat down the Cowboys’ top-ranked defense, but they were unable to break open the game because their lack of red-zone efficiency forced them to settle for field goals and leave points on the board. Sean McVay’s well-documented risk-averse approach to 4th-and-short situations is another reason for concern. The Patriots have never been in a Super Bowl determined by more than a touchdown. In these close games, every point matters, and the Rams must be ready to fight for every one of them.
My Pick: Picking between these two powerhouse teams is extremely difficult. I expect this to be a close game decided in the final minutes, and in games this close, any and every edge matters. To me, this game is more about whether the Rams are up to the challenge and can capitalize on their talent advantage, despite their inexperience. That means quarterback Jared Goff must make Super Bowl-level throws. That means Todd Gurley must break out of his slump and wreak havoc on the New England defense. That means the Rams’ young defensive players must play excellent, mistake-free football for four whole quarters. Are these young Rams up to the task? Rams 26, Patriots 24