Super Bowl LIII Prediction: Our Pick Against the Spread
This Super Bowl is a matchup of old and new: The 66-year-old Bill Belichick will be coaching against the 33-year-old Sean McVay. The 41-year-old Tom Brady will be starting his ninth Super Bowl, while the 24-year-old Jared Goff will play in his first.
A year after being upset in a Super Bowl that set an N.F.L. record for total yards, the Patriots will be looking for a record-tying sixth Lombardi Trophy, while the Rams, having only recently moved back to Los Angeles, will be looking to earn the franchise’s second.
New England Patriots vs. Los Angeles Rams
Kickoff: 6:30 p.m. | Television: CBS | Streaming: Free on CBSSports.com
When the Rams Have the Ball
There is more uncertainty to the Rams’ approach to this game than you would expect, and that uncertainty centers on the readiness of running back Todd Gurley.
No single player has benefited more from McVay’s tenure in Los Angeles than Gurley — not even Goff. Gurley, a former Georgia star, went from the verge of being called a bust for averaging an ugly 3.2 yards a carry in 2016 to becoming perhaps the N.F.L.’s most well-rounded running back.
In 29 games under McVay, Gurley has 3,924 yards from scrimmage and 40 touchdowns. A lot of that is Gurley’s versatility as a runner and pass-catcher, but he also benefits from a system in which plays are cleverly disguised. Gurley is surrounded by a solid group of skill players, and that helped him face eight men in the box on only 8.2 percent of his carries this season, which was the third-lowest figure among qualified running backs, according to the N.F.L.’s Next Gen Stats database.
But Gurley sustained some knee inflammation in Week 15. That forced him to miss two games and most likely torpedoed his chance to be named the N.F.L.’s most valuable player. The Rams had to adjust on the fly in the playoffs, relying a great deal on C.J. Anderson, a veteran backup who was cut by both the Carolina Panthers and the Oakland Raiders this season.
Anderson, often running the ball with protection from two tight ends, has already far exceeded expectations, and in the divisional round, both he and Gurley thrived. In the N.F.C. championship game, however, Gurley essentially disappeared, blaming his lack of reps on his “sorry” play rather than his balky knee.
The Patriots’ disciplined approach does not lead to a lot of mistakes, so for Los Angeles to be productive on offense, its success will probably have to come in large part from the running game. That makes Gurley’s health even more important.
Belichick has been known to focus his defense on eliminating the player he sees as the biggest threat, but with the uncertainty surrounding Gurley, the Patriots could go in a different direction and work on shutting down the Rams’ top wide receivers. New England is intimately familiar with both of them: Brandin Cooks played for the Patriots last season, and Robert Woods began his career in the A.F.C. East playing for the Buffalo Bills.
The Patriots’ defense played with fire a bit this season, allowing an average of 359.1 yards a game, which was 23rd in the N.F.L. But they were able to prevent teams from turning yards into points, allowing opponents just 20.3 points, which ranked seventh. That could be a very dangerous formula against Los Angeles when one considers both Gurley and Anderson’s ability to punch the ball into the end zone.
When the Patriots Have the Ball
In these playoffs, the Patriots have made a point of starting strong. They scored on their opening drive against the Chiefs in the A.F.C. championship game, and on their first four possessions against the Chargers in the divisional round.
New England’s formula for success is not hard to decipher, but it has proved mostly impossible to stop. It all centers on moving remarkably fast, with Tom Brady alternating between short throws and handoffs in an approach best described as death by a thousand cuts.
Numerous times per game an opposing defense will appear to have New England stopped, only to have a swing pass to James White or a second-effort by Julian Edelman keep things going. Depending on one’s perspective, it is either infuriating or inspiring, but either way it works.
The differences from last season to this one are Brady’s having cooled off some in terms of throwing the ball deep (that’s largely a personnel issue rather than an indication that Brady’s arm has aged) and the Patriots’ having developed Sony Michel, a rookie running back, into a player who would be an every-down back on any team that didn’t like to mix things up as much as New England does.
That familiar approach will be going up against a Rams defense that produces a lot of game-changing turnovers but also has a propensity for giving up huge amounts of yards and points. Wade Phillips, the Rams’ defensive coordinator, has often proven to have a magic touch, and he certainly has a talented group of players, but there is a sense that they have yet to reach their potential. The unit’s reliance on exploiting mistakes could be an issue against an opponent not known for making them.
How It Will Play Out
Thanks to the extended rest, Gurley should be ready to go, and that could make all the difference for Los Angeles. Establishing his versatility early in the game will open up everything else and allow Goff to get points on the scoreboard. That should keep the Rams from falling into the same hole the Chiefs and the Chargers did.
It is tempting to believe Brady can keep up even if the game turns into a shootout, but Aaron Donald, the Rams’ standout defensive tackle, is perhaps the perfect disrupter for New England’s offense. If Donald can generate consistent pressure up the middle, forcing even mild mistakes from Brady, then McVay, a coaching mind who has already been hailed as the future of the N.F.L., would be ready to be crowned king of the league’s present. The game will undoubtedly be close — the Patriots always seem to make it close — but the Rams should win.