By Sterling Pingree
3 for 3. 3 years on The Drive and in all 3 years, I’ve been blessed to be able to write a Super Bowl preview column for a Patriots Super Bowl appearance. I debuted on the show during tourney week 2016, just a couple of days after the Broncos beat the Panthers in Super Bowl 50. The last two games have been incredibly memorable and for the days leading up to the game I’ve struggled to put my thoughts and feelings into coherent sentences so I’ve gone on a charmingly meandering walk-about of thoughts and musings about the big game. 3 for 3, why break with tradition now?
- The Rams are really good, especially on paper. That’s not a knock on a team, which through October pundits thought might go undefeated, I’m just saying that as you match up two teams (which is generally done on paper) the Rams look very good. The Rams have a pass rush up the middle, name brand cornerbacks that you’ve heard of from AFC teams that have given the Patriots trouble (besides the Bills but more on Nickell Robey-Coleman in a bit) a sizzling new coach and an high flying offense that is revolutionizing the NFL. More disturbingly, experts are all picking the Patriots because they’re afraid of being burned yet again by betting against Brady & Belichick. (That is of course besides Max Kellerman, who will invariably double down on his anti-Patriot rhetoric. Established 2014.)
- The game will be determined in the trenches, namely how the Patriots offensive line, coming off its two best performances, can neutralize the Rams front 4. Aaron Donald is the reigning, defending, undisputed NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and he’s a giant problem for the Patriots. New England will need Shaq Mason (Georgia Tech alum) to come up huge in slowing down a player who had 20.5 sacks during the regular season. That is all to say nothing about Suh, Brockers and Fowler who are all very capable of getting to the quarterback. Dante’s offensive line is going to have to play flawlessly like they did vs the Chargers and Chiefs, which means giving Brady time, keeping Brady upright, opening up holes for the running game and perhaps most importantly, not taking penalties.
- With the Patriots on defense, they have to stop the run, especially on first down. The Rams are the best team in the NFL on first down, averaging just over 7 yards per play, the best in the league. Of course what this does is set the Rams up for success on short 2nd and 3rd If the Patriots can disrupt the Rams script and put them behind the 8-ball and get them in some 3rd and long situations it could put some fear into the heart of Jared Goff.
- The x-factor is Todd Gurley. How healthy is he? Did he really get benched in the NFC title game or is he legitimately hurt? If Gurley is ineffective or limited in the passing game that is a major aspect of the Rams’ offense that they will be missing because back up CJ Anderson has been effective in the passing game.
- The Patriots script will look a lot like it did against the Chiefs: controlling the clock and running the football effectively. In April, when the Patriots took running back Sony Michel in the first round, people were immediately perplexed and critical. Why would the Patriots take a back in the first round when they’ve been so successful in finding high quality running back talent from everywhere but the sandlots. Michel has fairly quietly been a major piece of the Patriots offense and aside from pass catching is the most devastating piece of the Patriots the 4-headed attack out of the back field. Michel, White, Burkhead and Develin has turned the Patriots into the kind of power rushing attack that would make Bill Parcells burst with pride. The Patriots can dictate the pace of the game if they can efficiently run the ball against the Rams and make the young Rams QB press and try to do too much to get his team back into the game.
- Whoever makes mistakes WILL lose. Ill-timed penalties, turnovers and broken coverages will decide Super Bowl LIII. Penalties can come from anywhere but my guess is that they will be in coverage and look for conference championship game culprits JC Jackson of New England and Nickell Robey-Coleman as the prime suspects. We saw in Super Bowl LI how Blount’s fumble turned the tables in the first half, a fumble at the wrong time can create such a momentum swing in a game like this, especially with an inexperienced team like the Rams, that an early turn over or a rough start could be too much to overcome. Broken coverages worry me as a Patriots fan because of the offensive sets that Sean McVay likes to run his offense through, which features receivers lined up tight which can congest passing lanes but has also been a bugaboo for the Patriots. We saw in early 2017 especially vs Kansas City, Carolina and Houston that the Patriots secondary with Stephon Gilmore are susceptible to stacked wide receivers. How the Patriots are able to sort out the Rams pass catchers close to the line of scrimmage will be fascinating to see.
- Who tries to get fancier? Sean McVay or Josh McDaniels? McD is having a tremendous stretch of games this postseason and one more will solidify his anointing as the next HC of the NEP.
- Nickell Robey-Coleman may have run back his opinions of Tom Brady’s age being a factor as apparently people think he is aging or something? Run it back all you want, claim to have been misquoted, that stuff is out there Nickell and Tom Brady has never been the kind of guy to forgive and forget. Especially in the week leading up to a Super Bowl.
For the first time in my life, I will not be watching the Super Bowl live on television. I have the good fortune to be traveling to Atlanta this weekend to see the game in person. Will the spectacle live up to the hype? Will Cardi B do “Girls Like You” with Maroon 5? Will Tom Brady and the Patriots hoist their 6th Lombardi trophy?
I’ll be back early next week with a complete recap from Atlanta. Go Pats.
Patriots 31 Rams 30
Sterling Pingree (@SterlingPingree on Twitter) is a co-host on The Drive, weekdays 4pm to 6pm on 92.9fm The Ticket and streaming live at DriveShowMaine.com. Follow us on Twitter, @DriveShowMaine and “Like Us” on Facebook, Drive Show Maine.