The Brady/Belichick Patriots will be making their 9th Super Bowl appearance in a matter of hours. The entire point differential over the previous 8 games is +4 New England. Their largest defeat (8 points) and victory (6 points) in a single game were their last two Super Bowl appearances, and still each was a one possession game.
The spread is -2.5 Patriots. FootballOutsiders is giving New England a 50.1% chance at winning, the closest in the history of their Super Bowl projections. FiveThirtyEight has the Patriots at a 53% win probability, while FPI is giving the Rams a 52.4% chance.
It would appear we are guaranteed another close, exciting Super Bowl. Which would be perfect for the story arc that may conclude the Patriots dynasty. 17 years ago Tom Brady won his first ever Super Bowl by defeating the Rams. It was the first of three championships in a four year period. Should the Patriots emerge victorious from Super Bowl LIII, it will mark a third title in five years, bookended by a win over the Rams.
New England was a massive underdog in Super Bowl XXXVI. They’re not this time, but the Rams do appear to be the better team on paper. Los Angeles finished 2018 ranked 2nd on DVOA, while New England finished 7th. The Rams outpaced the Patriots in point differential as well. Los Angeles’ offense is full of fireworks while New England has to churn out yardage and points in workman like fashion. Los Angeles has Aaron Donald. New England does not.
Winning Super Bowl LIII may be the perfect bow on this era ahead of massive potential roster changes in the offseason for the Patriots. But first they need to win, which means we need to determine who has the larger advantage.
Los Angeles has been on an offensive decline since their bye week. Per FootballOutsiders:
Overall, Goff’s numbers have dropped substantially since the Rams’ bye week. Anecdotally, the decline is tied to the loss of slot receiver Cooper Kupp, although Goff was fine in the first game without Kupp (Week 11, the big Monday Night game against Kansas City). It’s since the bye week that he has struggled:
|Jared Goff Stats by Week, 2018|
Jared Goff’s achilles heel is when he faces pressure. This season, when under pressure, Goff posted a passer rating of 59.8. Among quarterbacks that attempted at least 90 passes in 2018, that number ranks 29th. New England finished the regular season 9th in blitz rate. Thus far in the playoffs, the Patriots have posted a pressure rate of 45.3% against the Chargers and 44.4% against the Chiefs.
This smells like advantage Patriots. It is in a vacuum, but the biggest difference between the Rams and New England’s previous two playoff opponents is the offensive line. Los Angeles has a realistic argument as the best offensive line in football. The Patriots may be incapable of pressuring Goff without sending one more than the line can block.
A Belichick Special
The defensive game plan against the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI is famous. Stifle everyone at the line of scrimmage, and do not allow Marshall Faulk to win the game. This seems almost prescient for how New England may approach the 2018 Rams offense.
The Patriots are going to send the 6th rusher when they deem the situation appropriate. And when they do, they will be in press man. New England deployed man coverage at a higher rate than any other team in the NFL this season. It was the game plan in the AFC title game against the Chiefs. Stephon Gilmore spent the first half nearly tackling Sammy Watkins at the line of scrimmage, while blitzing linebackers disrupted Patrick Mahomes’ progressions. Kansas City had 0 points at half time.
For all the talents Goff possesses, throwing under pressure and winning late in the down are his weaknesses. Moving past his first two reads isn’t as comfortable of territory for the young quarterback as getting the ball out quickly. And Goff does hold onto the ball. He has held onto the ball for an average of 2.8 seconds in 15 of 18 games this season.
Part of why he does hold onto the ball for so long is the result of how much play-action passes the Rams run. Goff is significantly better on play-action passes than non play-action passes, which isn’t news worthy as it’s basically the norm. The issue here is play-action against the press man coverage. In order to run play-action, Goff has to turn his back to the defense. By the time he turns back around, Gilmore and the rest of the Patriots defensive backs will have bumped the Rams receivers off their routes and disrupted the rhythm of the play.
This may result in Goff trying to hurry through his first two reads to get to his third or fourth option. This is where he struggles, later in the down, and the longer he waits to release the ball, the longer New England’s rush has to get after him.
Over the past however many years the Patriots defense has struggled in two specific matchups: 1. Covering running backs in pass patterns 2. Mobile quarterbacks.
If Todd Gurley is fully healthy and ready to go, the Rams have a serious weapon against that first weakness. Against running backs as receivers in 2018, New England’s defense ranked 22nd in DVOA. In the AFC title game, Damien Williams and Spencer Ware combined to catch 6 passes on 9 targets for 89 yards and 2 touchdowns. For all the hand wringing about whether or not the Chiefs offense should have had a chance to touch the ball in overtime, had the Patriots defense not given up a 21 yard reception to Spencer Ware on the first play of the eventual game tying drive with 32 seconds remaining in the 4th quarter, there’s a very good chance the game never even reaches overtime.
Before Malcolm Butler ever became a Super Bowl hero, Marshawn Lynch took a wheel route 31 yards on the opening play of that drive. In Super Bowl LII, Corey Clement caught 4 passes on 5 targets for 100 yards and a touchdown. The struggle is real.
The beauty of McVay’s offense isn’t the different looks or personnel he throws on the field. The beauty is the simplicity. The Rams really only run about 10-12 different plays, they’re just packaged a little bit differently from one another and dressed up with misdirections and eye candy.
It’s the misdirections and eye candy that make this whole thing go.
The #LARams wide receivers are constantly getting open, but just how do they do it? @DannyBKelly shows off his Picasso-esque drawing abilities to explain Los Angeles's most dangerous play 💥 the only way he knows how ✍️ pic.twitter.com/oOwngYeiDy
— The Ringer (@ringer) February 3, 2019
My theory is, while not the most talented defense, the Patriots are the best equipped to handle this. The offense is built on getting the defense to bite on the fake. Is any other defense going to come in more prepared, more disciplined, more ready for the window dressing, than the defense coached by Bill Belichick?
Side note: Is any special teams unit going to be more prepared for a fake punt than the one coached by Belichick?
The narrative has become that to disrupt Brady and this offense you have to get interior pressure. Well, the Rams have Aaron Donald, who is a super hero.
A reminder that Aaron Donald is a freak of nature.
This isn't how an NFL Defensive Tackle is supposed to look like. pic.twitter.com/A5VlJgBzeA
— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) January 29, 2019
Change my mind.
While there is truth to Brady being bothered by interior pressure, the concept is ignoring two important factors. To begin, the interior pressure is an issue when it is part of pressure from all angles. Everyone points to the Giants (rightfully) for being the first team to build this blueprint. But the Giants had four pass rushers across the entire defensive line. Fletcher Cox is the closest thing the NFL has to Aaron Donald in terms of a true interior rusher, but even he is flanked by excellent edge rushers in Brandon Graham and Derek Barnett.
While Brady doesn’t like pressure directly in his face, you can’t allow him any area to shift over to and then release the ball.
Yet, perhaps more importantly, New England has what is debatably the best interior of an offensive in the NFL. Joe Thuney, David Andrews, and Shaq Mason have collectively stonewalled all challengers and opponents this year. While no one New England has faced is in the same stratosphere as Donald, the team did as good a job as any against him in a 2016 regular season matchup.
But the Rams also have Ndamukong Suh. If two of the Patriots three interior lineman double Donald, only one will be left to handle Suh. However, New England can bring double teams on Suh with their tackle or new sixth offensive lineman Rob Gronkowski.
Why? Because the Rams don’t complete the four across the board. Michael Brockers is a fine player. Dante Fowler has ability. Still, Wade Phillips doesn’t have a consistent edge threat to put heat on Brady to collapse the entire pocket. In order to do so, Phillips will likely have to bring blitzes, which if Brady recognizes pre-snap, you’ve already lost.
Speaking of Brady vs Phillips, the two have a 9 game history. Brady is 6-3 against a Phillips defense, but most importantly, Phillips doesn’t change the things he does.
“Wade does a great job of utilizing his personnel and putting his players in position to be productive and make plays.” Belichick noted of his defense, “When he had Von Miller, he didn’t change what he did, just the volume and the percentages shifted to accentuate a player like that or Aaron Donald or whoever it happens to be.”
Brady knowing ahead of time what you’re going to do doesn’t sound like the best case scenario.
Yep, James Develin is likely the x-factor in this game. While the entire league is shrinking in player size, getting faster, and spreading out, Belichick has been going full on Belichick and utilizing a classic fullback with 21 personnel. If there is a light box sitting in front of the New England offense, Brady, Develin, and Sony Michel will run the ball down your throat.
Teams know Michel is going to run the ball, yet still no one can stop him. Michel has received a handoff on 69.2% of the offensive snaps he has played. The average of what percentage of snaps a running back receives a handoff in the NFL is 33.7%. The second highest rate this season was Chris Carson at 57%.
Team’s know if Michel is on the field he is going to get the ball. They’re even putting out stacked boxes to counter this. It just isn’t working.
“Michel has faced boxes with eight-plus defenders on an NFL-high 59.6% of his carries since Week 12 (includes postseason). And among the 22 backs with 30-plus carries against loaded boxes in said span, Michel ranks fourth in yards per carry (4.94) and fifth in yards after contact per attempt (2.91).”
In 2018, the Rams finished 28th in run defense DVOA. “Los Angeles has allowed 5.26 yards per carry with seven or fewer defenders lined up in the box pre-snap, ranking 30th in the NFL. With eight-plus guys in the box, they’ve allowed just 3.53 yards per carry, ranking 16th in the NFL.”
But New England will also split Develin out into the slot as well. If the defense makes no adjustment, and Develin is lined up across from a nickel corner, the Patriots will simply run to that side. If the defense does shift, Brady will change the play depending on his new diagnosis.
Patriots Air Attack
The Rams secondary is plenty capable of making life a living hell for the Patriots’ weapons. Los Angeles finished the year 9th in defensive pass DVOA, and Aqib Talib missed half the season. Considering New England’s outside receivers aren’t exactly world beaters, it’s fair to prognosticate that whoever is on Talib’s side of the field will be erased. The Rams also have an elite slot corner in Nickell Robey-Coleman, so Edelman may find it difficult to gain separation out of the slot in this game.
The success of the passing attack may rest largely on Gronk’s shoulders. Gronk is reportedly healthy for the first time since week 5. The Rams were an elite defense this season against tight ends, ranking 5th in DVOA. There just is no defense for vintage Gronk.
Vintage Gronk is perhaps a pipe dream for this game, but he has avoided the injury report in the playoffs, and is coming off 6 catches for 79 yards (admittedly on 11 targets) in the conference championship game.
James White and Rex Burkhead as receivers will be massively important. The Rams finished 2018 with the 4th best pass defense against running backs by DVOA. This is another strength on strength matchup. It will be an entire team effort, which is fitting.
Because the Patriots want it to be a team effort, and it helps round out the story arc of the dynasty. 17 years ago in the first Super Bowl against the Rams, the Patriots bucked the conventional player introductions coming out of the tunnel and emerged as a team as opposed to individuals. They were huge underdogs with few household names. No one player was going to beat the Greatest Show on Turf, it needed to be everyone on the roster.
The Patriots in 2018 are at a talent disadvantage against the Rams this time as well. No one player is going to win this game. It will take an entire team effort. And no one is better equipped to do that than the team coached by Bill Belichick.
The End of a Core?
I really think Gronk walks away from football after this game. A dude with back problems (among plenty others) had a bulging disc most of the season. Yikes.
If Gronk knows he is calling it quits, then there is a decent chance the rest of the team knows. This is all a theory/conjecture, but such a scenario is reminiscent of the 2015 Denver Broncos. Everyone knew Peyton Manning was retiring after the game. The whole team was reportedly crying in the locker room before kickoff. There was no way in hell that defense was going to let Denver lose Manning’s last game.
It’s an inexact parallel, since the Broncos defense that season was an elite unit. The Patriots don’t have such an elite unit. But they might have the emotional unity.
And it’s not just Gronk. The McCourty twins are also considering retirement. Devin McCourty may be a cap casualty if he doesn’t retire. 2019 is the year the Patriots have an out on Dont’a Hightower’s contract, and he hasn’t been the same player in 2018 as he has been in previous seasons. Trey Flowers is a pass rusher that is about to become a free agent. Free agent pass rushers get overpaid. Belichick doesn’t overpay anyone.
Dating back to the 2014 season, the Patriots big name’s of this core, outside of Tom Brady, have been Gronk, Edelman, Devin McCourty, and Hightower. Since 2016 you can add Trey Flowers and James White to that list. We are living in a world where it is a realistic possibility that in week 1 of the 2019 season, only Brady, Edelman, and White are in a Patriots uniform.
It makes you wonder if the #EverythingWeGot hashtag is a show of hand. Does the team know what we don’t know? When you read this article, will the Patriots be in a circle around Gronk and the McCourty’s in the locker room, crying together, knowing this is the final time they’re all playing for the same team at the same time?
Expect the Patriots to give everything they’ve got in an all-for-one, one-for-all effort. The Rams are the better team. It’s entirely possible this offense hangs 35 points on an inferior Patriots defense and Aaron Donald single handedly ruins Tom Brady’s day. The spread and analytics systems are all calling for a tight game. The Brady/Belichick Super Bowl teams only know of tight games.
My brain tells me the Rams are going to win based on the matchup. My gut tells me the Patriots are going to win. The Patriots winning would be the perfect circle for the end of this run. Always go with your gut.