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The fall of Rome, special teams superstars, and your Super Bowl LIII preview

All good things must come to an end, but do the Patriots have one last fight in them asks Steve O’Rourke.

Tom Brady celebrates with Stephon Gilmore after defeating the Kansas City Chiefs.
Tom Brady celebrates with Stephon Gilmore after defeating the Kansas City Chiefs.
Image: Jeff Roberson

Super Bowl LIII – New England Patriots @ LA Rams

Sunday, 11.30pm

ON 3 February 2002, the Rams — then of the Saint Louis parish — were getting set to face the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI at the Louisiana Superdome, New Orleans.

The Rams went into the game as heavy favourites after leading the league in passing, scoring, and total yards that season. They were a team feeling themselves, and that confidence spilled over just before kick off when wide receiver Ricky Proehl turned to the NFL Films’ cameras during warmups and infamously declared:

“Tonight, a dynasty is born!”

Proehl was right, of course, except that it was to be a New England Patriots dynasty; a reign of brilliance unlike anything we’ve ever seen in the NFL.

NFL: Super Bowl LIII-New England Patriots Press Conference New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick addresses the media. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

And while everybody knows the Roman Empire wasn’t built in a day, it didn’t fall quickly either. Instead it grew comfortable in its position on top of the world and let the grass grow beneath its feet until it just stopped existing.

The same can’t be said for the Patriots, a team that has evolved its style of play so much over the years that the 2019 side is unrecognisable from the one that took the field in New Orleans 17 years ago.

Except for Tom Brady and Bill Belichick , of course.

But will two Super Bowl losses in as many years hasten the decline of the Patriots dynasty or will a third championship in five seasons only embolden their desire to keep on dominating the NFL?

And how might Super Bowl LIII be won or lost?

Watch the clock

The Rams’ offence is built on chunk passing plays downfield that come from teams biting on play action. But play action only works if teams are defending the run.

So far this postseason, New England hasn’t had to worry about the opposition’s ground game as they have dominated time of possession. They were on offence for 23 minutes more than the Chiefs in the AFC championship game, and nearly 17 minutes more than the Chargers the week before. Because of that, Damien Williams gained only 30 yards on 10 carries for the Chiefs and the Chargers had just 19 as a team in the divisional round.

If New England dominates the clock again, LA will have to score quickly through the air but without the use of their best passing weapon, the threat of the third best rushing attack in the NFL.

Under pressure

On the other side of the ball, if I had a Euro for every time I heard or read someone say “Tom Brady hates pressure up the middle” this week, I’d have exactly €47. Here’s the thing though, all quarterbacks hate pressure up the middle.

That said, the Rams happen to have the best player in football, Aaron Donald, whose speciality is getting pressure up the middle. He and Ndamukong Suh will have to be quick though, exceptionally quick. That’s partly because of his offensive line and partly because of a playbook designed to get the ball out of Brady’s hands quickly.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Los Angeles Rams LA Rams' Aaron Donald, Michael Brockers and Ndamukong Suh. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Indeed, the Patriots’ quarterback has yet to be sacked in this postseason, has been hit only once and his throws have been under pressure just 11 times in 90 dropbacks. Stopping Brady making those quick completions, extending drives and killing the clock won’t be easy, but the Rams will have to find a way to do it to have a chance of lifting the Vince Lombardi trophy.

Fine Lions

In December, LA lost back-to-back ugly games to the Bears and Eagles. The following week they secured, on paper at least, a comfortable 30-16 win in Detroit to get back on track. But the game tape tells a different story than the box score.

Midway through the fourth quarter, the Rams led 16-13 having been outwitted by a Lions defence that, under former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, happens to run the same system that Bill Belichick does in New England.

But that night, the Lions changed their defence from predominantly man coverage with a single safety — exactly what the Patriots run — to quarters coverage which means that each defensive back is responsible for 25% of the field.

This not only forced the Rams to check into a run more often than they’d like on first down, but it also made it really difficult for Sean McVay to call the kind of outside run plays he prefers. And when they did run up the middle, his side were faced with an eight-man box more often than not.

That night, the Lions also showed one defensive look up to 15 seconds — at which point Sean McVay’s communication with Jared Goff is cut off — and another afterwards which did appear to cause the young quarterback some confusion.

Something special

The truth is, Super Bowls are rarely blowouts so there may be so little between these teams that Super Bowl LIII could well come down to what happens on fourth down.

In Johnny Hekker, the Rams have the best punter in the game and someone who can — as he proved in the NFC championship game — be a weapon in the passing game too. A quarterback in high school, Hekker has completed 12 of his 20 passing attempts in the NFL for 168 yards and a touchdown. Since he entered the league in 2012, the other 31 franchises have combined for just 39 passing attempts by punters.

NFL: AUG 18 Preseason - Raiders at Rams Johnny Hekker in action against the Oakland Raiders. Source: Chris Williams

Greg Zuerlein, the Rams kicker whose 57 yard effort in overtime against the Saints put his team in the Super Bowl in the first place must be confident going into the game. However, his 83.49% field goal accuracy is actually only 19th among current kickers, with the Patriots’ Stephen Gostkowski ranking third with 87.38% accuracy.

And then there’s Matthew Slater. A Patriots player officially listed as wide receiver but who has caught one pass and ran with the ball twice in his 11 seasons in the league.

Despite this, Slater has been named to the Pro Bowl seven times and selected as a first team All-Pro four times, that’s once more than Tom Brady. But, apart from always calling heads when it comes to a coin toss, what exactly does Slater do?

He is the epitome of the Patriot Way. He does his job, he puts his team’s achievements ahead of his own, and he rarely talks to the media. He is, in short, the perfect Patriots player and just the latest in a long line of special teams superstars developed by Bill Belichick.

Super Bowl pick (season record 168-96-2)

At the height of its power, the Roman Empire stretched from Armenia to the west coast of Africa. It’s scope, power, and stability is unmatched in the brief history of civilisation.

As it slowly fell apart, it couldn’t count on the same army that once terrified everyone from the middle east to the north of England. But it was still good enough to take some decisive victories, notably during the four-year reign of Majorian when it re-conquered most of the Iberian peninsula and what is now France.

Twice this year, on this very website, I have written off New England as being the worst version of the Patriots we’ve seen under Belichick. That was true, but what they’ve done in the postseason shows they’re still better than at least 30 other teams in the league.

New England’s dynasty will fall someday, but it probably won’t be with a loss in Super Bowl LIII.

Pick: New England Patriots

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About the author:

Steve O'Rourke

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