Top storylines heading into Super Bowl LIII


Sean Loftin/Biloxi Sun Herald/TNS

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) hands the ball off to Antowain Smith (32) during Super Bowl XXXVI at the Louisiana Superdome.

By Andrew Kelly, Staff Writer

Sunday’s Super Bowl LIII matchup between the Los Angeles Rams and the New England Patriots rightfully features two of the NFL’s most successful teams from this season, with the Rams’ high-flying offense averaging a league second-best 32.4 points per game and the Patriots being, well, the typical Patriots.

The game, featuring two of the league’s most highly touted coaches and some of its most prominent players, is sure to make headlines around the globe. Heading into Sunday, let’s take a look at some storylines surrounding both teams and their players.

Super Bowl XXXVI rematch

The Rams and Patriots faced off in 2002’s Super Bowl XXXVI, marking the first Super Bowl won by the duo of quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick. Through that victory, the Patriots dynasty was born and the Rams’ exciting run as “The Greatest Show on Turf” began spiraling downward.

Now, many fans and media members wonder if the Patriots dynasty will end against the same team that it started against, should the Rams win. But this just isn’t logical, as Brady — often considered the greatest quarterback of all time — has made it clear he has no plans to retire any time soon. New England will continue to be dynamic and dangerous as long as they have Brady, especially in an AFC East division that they’ve won for 10 consecutive seasons.

Belichick vs. Sean McVay

You can’t talk about the Rams without mentioning 33-year-old head coach Sean McVay. His turnaround of the organization has received praise from all directions, and McVay disciples Matt LaFleur and Zac Taylor have already secured themselves head coaching jobs for this coming season with Green Bay and Cincinnati, respectively.

While McVay is the new, exciting thing going on in the league, Belichick and his team are in Super Bowl contention every single season. Arguably the greatest coach of all time, he remains nearly unbeatable after having two weeks to prepare for a game. With a background rooted in defense and special teams, he represents the “old school” variety of NFL head coaches.

Meanwhile, McVay represents the new brand of NFL head coaches — a young, offensive mind known for the ability to scheme his team’s way to victory by lighting up the scoreboard. So, will the youngest head coach in NFL history be able to take down one of the greatest coaches ever in his first Super Bowl appearance? It will surely be a battle of wits, and an uphill battle for McVay to outduel the crafty Belichick.

Rams D-Line, Aaron Donald will be crucial

The best way to defeat Brady is to get him off his spot and make him uncomfortable in the pocket. The most important part of the Rams’ ability to create pressure will be their defensive line, led by Pittsburgh native and Pitt alum Aaron Donald. Donald, sure to win his second consecutive NFL Defensive Player of the Year this Saturday night, is the most dominant defensive player in the game.

New England surely knows that its offensive success begins with stopping Donald, which will be much easier said than done. They’ll likely try to give Brady short options to get the ball out of his hands quickly, while sending two offensive linemen Donald’s way in order to slow him down. But if the Patriots key too much on Donald, they could leave Brady and their rushing attack prone to an onslaught from Rams defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who has had his two best performances of the season in LA’s two playoff games.

Can Goff finally prove his doubters wrong?

When the Rams selected Jared Goff first overall in the 2016 NFL Draft, expectations were understandably very high. The young quarterback failed to live up to the hype early on, thanks in large part to the “middle school offense” that former Rams head coach Jeff Fisher implemented in Los Angeles. After only seven starts and as many losses, pundits hurried to label Goff as a bust, and fans weren’t far behind in those claims.

Those who cried bust were clearly too quick to the trigger, as Goff’s career underwent a complete turnaround after nestling himself under Sean McVay’s wing. Over the past two seasons, Goff has posted back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons and just recently played one of the best games of his career in the NFC Championship to propel the Rams into the Super Bowl. On Sunday, he’ll have the rare opportunity to steal a Lombardi Trophy from Brady and Belichick.

Game outlook

If there’s any certainty about Sunday’s game, it’s that it will come down to the wire. The Patriots have shown that they like to give fans their money’s worth when it comes to Super Bowl entertainment — they’ve been to eight Super Bowls in the Brady-Belichick era, and seven of them were decided by fewer than six points. Last year’s 41-33 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles was the closest thing to a blowout we’ve ever seen in a New England Super Bowl.

Sunday’s game will come down to the performance of the Rams defensive line and the ability of Belichick to take away the Rams rushing attack. Even with two of the most prolific offensive teams in the league on display this Sunday, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a relatively low-scoring game thanks to the likelihood that both teams will look to run the ball early and often.

For the Patriots, their rushing attack is the logical first option, as the Rams run defense allows a friendly 4.8 yards per rush, sixth worst in the league. Meanwhile, LA will need to get its best offensive player, All-Pro running back Todd Gurley, far more involved than he was in the NFC Championship game, when he tallied four rushes for 10 yards. Aside from rare occasions like last Sunday, the Rams often go as far as Gurley can take them, as his effectiveness on the ground opens up their attack through the air. All things considered, I’m predicting a Rams victory, 30-24.