The New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams will meet on Sunday, Feb. 3 in Super Bowl 53.
Before you settle in to watch the Super Bowl, here are seven things you need to know about this year's matchup.
Youth vs. experience
Hop in a time machine and travel back to the year 2002. The second-gen iPod is released with a touch-sensitive scroll wheel. A new music festival called Bonnaroo takes place in Tennessee. Kelly Clarkson wins the first American Idol contest. Two sequels hit theaters, Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. In February, the Winter Olympics start in Salt Lake City, and a young Tom Brady leads the New England Patriots to their first Super Bowl title over the then St. Louis Rams.
It was the start of the Patriots dynasty, which shows no sign of slowing 17 years later. In the years between, quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick have played in eight Super Bowls, winning five. On the Patriots' 53-man roster, 38 players have played in a Super Bowl. The Rams have only four players with Super Bowl experience.
Sean McVay, coach of the Rams, turned 33 years old this week. Bill Belichick is 66. Tom Brady is 41 and played in his first Super Bowl when Sean McVay was wearing his varsity jacket in high school. If my math is correct, 24-year old Rams QB Jared Goff was in the second grade when Tom Brady beat the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI.
Experience favors the Patriots, while the Rams have youth on their side. And football, it should be noted for anyone residing outside of New England and suffering from Patriots fatigue, is a young man's game.
Super Sartorial Bowl
The Rams had first pick for which uniform they wanted to wear, and they wisely selected their sweet blue-and-yellow throwbacks. The Rams normal uniform has a darker blue, gold and white and isn't nearly as eye-popping on TV as the royal blue and bright yellow of the uniform the team wore from 1973 to 1999.
The Patriots, meanwhile, will don their road whites. In the Brady-Belichick era, the Patriots have worn their white jerseys four times and blue jerseys four times in the Super Bowl. The team is 3-1 in their whites, defeating the Philadelphia Eagles, Seattle Seahawks and Atlanta Falcons, and losing to the Eagles last year). The team is 2-2 in their blue uniforms, defeating the St. Louis Rams and Carolina Panthers and losing twice to the New York Giants.
The line opened with the Rams favored by a point, but early money has come in on the Patriots so Vegas has shifted the line to where the Patriots are currently a 2.5-point favorite.
What's up with Todd Gurley?
The last time we saw the Rams' superstar running back Todd Gurley, he was riding a stationary bike on the sidelines in New Orleans. The Rams ended up beating the Saints to get to the Super Bowl, but did so with little help from Gurley. He carried the ball only four times for 10 yards and had one catch for 3 yards. He dropped two passes, one of which went through his hands and into the arms of a Saints defender. Journeyman running back C.J. Anderson led the ground attack with 16 carries against the Saints.
The Rams insist Gurley is healthy, but what will his role be against the Patriots? Will he regain his lead back status or do more peddling on the sidelines than running between the tackles? It'll be interesting to monitor Gurley's usage in the early going of Super Bowl 53.
Can Aaron Donald get to Tom Brady?
Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald is the best defensive player in the NFL. He might be the best overall player in the NFL. He led the league with 20.5 sacks and is a constant presence in the opposing team's backfield despite seeing regular double teams. Can Donald get to Brady to disrupt the Patriots' precision passing attack? Or will Brady have time to dissect the Rams defense and find Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski and James White for big gains? Los Angeles needs a big game from Donald to have a chance to top the Patriots.
What will the Pats take away?
Belichick is a master at taking away the strength of his opponent each week and attacking its weakness. The Patriots' game plan varies from week to week more than any other team in the NFL. Have a poor run defense? Then expect the Pats to run and run and run some more. Have a speedy wide receiver -- like the Chiefs' Tyreek Hill -- who makes huge plays downfield? Expect him to be double covered so you're forced to throw the ball elsewhere. Have slow linebackers who can't cover tight ends? Expect Gronk to be targeted early and often. Have a nickleback who has trouble keeping up with slot receivers? Expect Edelman to have a big day. The Patriots don't care how they beat you. They will find your weakness and exploit it all game long while refusing to let you do the thing you do best.
The Rams present a challenge because they are a well balanced team. On offense, they run the ball well, and they throw the ball well. And because they do both of these things effectively, they use play action more than other team to set up big pass plays. What plan will Belichick and his defense devise to slow down the Rams' explosive offense? And how will they keep Brady clean and out of the clutches of Donald and his linemate Ndamukong Suh?
I predict the Patriots will continue with their quick passing attack that lets Brady get the ball out fast to his receivers, running backs and Gronk and let them get yards after the catch. And should they find a hole in the Rams' run defense, expect running back Sony Michel to be called on to establish the run game to keep the Rams' pass rushers honest, paying attention to defending against the run.
On defense, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Patriots play a lot of zone coverage to try to confuse Goff, despite predominantly playing man coverage for most of the year. The Rams run a lot of motion before the snap, and playing zone will simplify the Patriots' presnap defensive alignments. Also expect a variety of blitzes from the Pats to prevent Goff from getting comfortable and into a rhythm.
Madden simulation predicts Pats
Super Bowl LIII has already been played in one respect. The CBS Sports Madden Super Bowl simulation predicts a 38-31 Pats win. This sim picked the wrong team last year, going with the Pats over the Eagles, but it did get it right that the game would be bonkers. And two years ago, the sim was eerily prescient in predicting a second-half comeback from the Pats to take down the Falcons.
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