New England Patriots @ LA Rams
Sunday, February 3, 23:30 GMT
TV - Live on Sky Sports Main Event, USA, Mix, and BBC One
The Rams have delivered on their preseason expectations. Last year, Sean McVay's first as coach of a team liberated from the yoke of Jeff Fisher, they put together a promising 11-5 regular season and picked up home field advantage for the Wild Card round of the playoffs. They couldn't make the most of it though, losing to Atlanta in early January and missing out on a real opportunity to effect one of the swiftest turns from basket case to champs in NFL history.
Two extra wins this year were good enough for second seed in the NFC. The LA Coliseum proved daunting enough for the Cowboys, LA comfortably handling Jason Garrett's limited team, but their performance in the NFC title game, going to New Orleans, did show the Rams' real Lombardi credentials.
Down 13 early in the Superdome, and fortunate not to be trailing by more, the Rams rallied where others would've accepted their fate. Plenty's been said about the break they got towards the end of regulation, the Saints deprived of multiple foul calls on a play that would've all-but sealed the win for them, but LA had to fight back to make that call matter. They did, caught a break at a crucial moment, and now the franchise will play in its first Super Bowl since 2002.
What's made the difference this year?
Jared forging ahead
One thing going for them is Jared Goff's continued progress under coach Sean McVay. With the previous regime in situ, the decision LA made back in 2016 to trade up in the draft to take Goff first looked to be a bona fide franchise killer.
They'd tossed their 2017 first and third rounders to get the QB, he'd failed to beat out Case Keenum for starting duties, and then went and lost all seven games he started when he finally took the reins in week nine. Five touchdowns, seven interceptions and a QBR of 63.9 had everyone sweating.
But the arrival of the new coach turned it all around. There remain doubts about how much his play is dependent on McVay's system and abilities, but his highlight reel for the past two seasons will show him making plenty of perfectly placed throws and some huge statistical performances.
Head-to-head with Tom Brady, there's no comparison in terms of achievements, but Goff can lead this offence capably and makes plays when it matter - just go back and wach the conference championship drives late in New Orleans for all the evidence you need - and he's still so young this could be the first of several title games. Are McVay and Goff the new Belichick and Brady? It's tempting to think so.
Rams attack from all angles
Offensively though, the real fulcrum of this team for most of the season, and for the last few years, has been Todd Gurley. The running back was drafted the year before Goff as the fourth overall pick, a decision that goes against much of the received wisdom around the league about the value of backs.
He's repaid their risk-taking with years of strong production, even when the rest of the team was a spluttering mess. Though Fisher's final year in charge of the formerly St Louis Rams saw Gurley's output dip to under 900 yards rushing - the only season in his four-year pro career where he failed to hit four-figure yardage - the fact that he saw twice as many receptions in that campaign tells you something about his value to the team, even in just his second year.
He was injured towards the end of the regular season this year, and former Bronco Super Bowl winner CJ Anderson, deemed not good enough for Carolina and Oakland this season, slotted in perfectly. So well in fact that last week, with Gurley playing but not at his best, Anderson dominated backfield snaps.
The Rams have also invested in blocking, which makes the backs' job a little easier. Andrew Whitworth was the tackle man every team wanted when he quit Cincy two years ago. The Rams got him, and since then they've barely altered their starters up front.
There has been turnover at receiver though. Brandin Cooks' speed was brought in from the Pats last season, Robert Woods is the former Bill teams should've wanted when they traded for Sammy Watkins, while Goff's most reliable receiver, Cooper Kupp, has been much missed since injury ended his season in early November. It has presented opportunities for others - Josh Reynolds, Tyler Higbee, Gerald Everett - but Goff still misses his safe-pair-of-hands at times.
This offence was the second-highest scoring in the league this season, getting over 32 points per game on average. They weren't as explosive closing the season, though maybe we're just taking for granted all the good stuff they do. If the Rams win, it'll most likely be down to the diversity of their attacking options.
Donald won't duck on defence
The offensive powerhouse look makes for a striking contrast with their team of a few years ago. If you'd asked anyone how the Rams could win a Super Bowl prior to the turgid final days of Fisher's tenure, they'd have said it'll have to be through defence.
It shows how much they've changed in the last two years that Wade Phillips' defence has been the weaker link in their efforts this season. It's not been for the want of money.
Ndamukong Suh was brought in to beef up their run defence, Marcus Peters arrived from KC in the secondary and, most importantly of all, they finally sorted out a contract for pass-rushing phenomenon Aaron Donald.
If defence got as much attention as offence, Donald would be a perennial MVP contender. As it is, he'll have to make do with the credit he gets from his team mates and those who have to try to play against him. He had 20.5 sacks for the season and causes havoc for opposition lines. If the Rams are to win here, Donald will be central to it.
Their secondary has shown weakness though, and Peters has not played anywhere near expectations. They may be fortunate that New England does not have a true outside receiving threat unless they push Gronk out there, but if there's any team capable of exploiting a weakness it's Brady, Belichick and McDaniels.
McVay family values
It's been difficult to write this much without focusing too heavily on McVay. The change he's brought about in this team is as massive as the swap from Missouri to California his arrival coincided with.
The Rams looked to be going nowhere two years ago. They were still trying to scheme for first round bust Tavon Austin and had mortgaged their future on a QB who really didn't look that great.
McVay turned all that around in a preseason. Some have compared his work with Jared Goff to that of someone playing Madden - the coach reading defensive personnel and movement prior to the snap and relaying what he sees to his quarterback up until rules allow. With this, Goff gets the benefit of McVay's photo-like recall of plays and situations, while the coach can control the less reliable aspects of the 24-year-old's play.
He's a coaching phenom. Coming from Washington at just 30 to take over LA, he'd taken the 'Skins offence to third best in the league as their OC in 2016. The grandson of 49ers General Manager Tim McVay, who worked with Bill Walsh through their five Super Bowl titles, McVay will expect to add to his family's football lore and title haul.
That could start on Sunday.
Coaches battle will be decisive
There's no doubt the Rams are good enough to beat the Patriots - but so were the Chiefs and Chargers. The Rams present a more diverse receiving threat than New England, if Gurley is healthy they've most destructive back in the game, their defence has the league's best defensive player in Aaron Donald, and his fellow line man Suh isn't bad either.
Even Goff can outplay the 41-year-old Brady on his day.
The most fascinating face off is between the coaches though. If McVay is the coming genius, the vanguard of the league's future, there's no better way to announce it than by taking down the great master on the biggest stage. Games can come down to luck - just look at the Rams win last week - but assuming things break evenly, this should be a very closely fought game, and the chess match between Belichick and McVay will decide it.
Can the young upstart outwit the five-time champion? The Rams franchise will pick up its second Lombardi trophy if he does.
If you're inclined to think the Rams win this game it makes sense to look at the team over. The line is set at 27.5 points on the Sportsbook and, while the Rams will plan to get to Brady with their pass rush, it's on offence that their real strength lies. Of course, conservatism could set in given the stakes, but McVay's generally shown himself to be willing to take calculated risks, and they've so many scoring options that, if they're on top in Atlanta, points should accrue.
For Rams touchdown scorers, Josh Reynolds appeals as a first TD option at 14/1. He had five scores in 11 games through the regular season. He hasn't scored against Dallas or the Saints, so the law of averages says there's a good chance he gets on the board here. In addition, he had a big game in New Orleans, 74 yards on four receptions from seven targets, and looked great doing it. He's available as an any time option at 17/10 if you'd prefer to play it safer.
And purely from a value perspective, the likelihood of Aaron Donald having a monstrous impact on the game seems better than 20/1 to me, so his MVP candidacy looks viable even if the award generally goes to quarterbacks.