Michael Pellegrino Staff Writer
In a year full of twists and turns for the NFL, we end with a Super Bowl between two diverse teams. The young, inexperienced, exciting Los Angeles Rams, and the New England Patriots with perhaps the greatest Quarterback-Head Coach duo in the history of football. This season was not a great one for the NFL; new rule changes, such as roughing the passer, began to ruin certain games throughout the year, plus there were multiple off-the-field incidents that the NFL did not handle in the best ways. With all this, we have a high-profile matchup between New England and L.A. in Atlanta, to crown the champion.
Starting with the AFC, it is the third year in a row and the fourth out of the last five years that the representative is the New England Patriots. This season started out badly for New England, going 2-2 with road losses to Detroit and Jacksonville. Their star receiver, Julian Edelman, was suspended, Rob Gronkowski wasn’t looking like himself, and Tom Brady teetered, almost falling off the so-called cliff , an event that has been coming for years. As the season progressed, one of the brightest spots for the Patriots was a first-round pick, Sony Michel. He has given Tom Brady something that has not been around for a while, a true running back.
Brady is able to offload a good part of the offense to Michel, while still using his other star running back, James White, in the passing game. The season then started to turn around for the Patriots, as they hit a four-game win streak, including games against Kansas City and in Chicago. They would then go on to struggle slightly down the stretch, dropping their last two road games in Miami and Pittsburgh, but winning their last two at home secured them the second seed, and led to a divisional-round matchup at home against the Chargers.
Brady and the Patriots steam-rolled the Chargers at home, led by Michel’s three touchdowns and 129 yards. This game was an intriguing one, with an offensive attack that was led by Julian Edelman’s 151 receiving yards. In this game, what stood out to me was how they used Rob Gronkowski, he was a power-blocker, opening holes for Michel to operate within. This kept him stable and healthy, ready for next week in Kansas City.
The AFC championship was one for the ages, with a combined thirty-eight points scored in the fourth quarter alone. Brady and the Patriots controlled the first-half, leaving Kansas City scoreless. The Chiefs fought back in the second half, eventually taking the lead 28-24, giving Brady one last chance to win the game with around two minutes to go. The biggest change of the game came in this drive, with Brady threw the ball a little high, and it slipped through Gronk’s hands, intercepted, however, Kansas City’s Dee Ford lined up offside allowing the drive to continue. Brady led the team down to take a 31-28 lead, but Patrick Mahomes had some of his own magic in him and led the Chiefs to a game-tying field goal, which sent the game into overtime. In overtime, the Patriots had the ball first and converted three third and longs to lead to a game-winning touchdown from Rex Burkhead and send the Patriots to Atlanta.
The key factor in this game for New England is the offensive line. They have played great so far in the playoffs but have not come up against a pass rush as lethal as Los Angeles’. If this offensive line can give Brady time, and open holes for Sony Michel to operate, New England could score a high number of points come Feb. 3. Belichick and the coaches will draw up a good game-plan, it is about the offense executing and the defense not giving up the big play. Do these things, and we could be seeing a sixth title head to One Patriot Place in Massachusetts.
On the other side is the NFC champion, the Los Angeles Rams, led by the youngest coach to ever coach a Super Bowl and the youngest in the NFL, Sean McVay. The Rams came right out of the gate this year and started strong, going 8-0 before eventually dropping a game down in New Orleans. Finishing the year with a 13-3 record, they won key games against Seattle and Kansas City, matching that by losing two key games in Chicago and against Philadelphia. Led by Jared Goff and Todd Gurley on offense, and one of the best pass rushers, Aaron Donald, on defense, Los Angeles, (similar to New England) won their last two games to secure the second seed and earned a date with the Dallas Cowboys at home in the divisional round.
This game was one where the Rams just ran the ball through the entire Cowboy’s defense. Todd Gurley ran for 115 yards and a touchdown, with the big surprise being C.J. Anderson getting seven more carries with 123 yards and two touchdowns. Jared Goff did his job by not turning over the ball, and having a respectable game. This game could have gotten out of hand more quickly if the Rams had converted their field-goal opportunities into touchdowns, but they still walked away with a 30-22 win at home, and a matchup against Drew Brees and the Saints.
The NFC championship started off badly for Los Angeles, going down 13-0 after the first quarter, with the offense looking out of sorts. The key was that the defense held the Saints to field goals in the red zone, and kept the Rams within striking distance. A bounce-back second quarter highlighted by a fake-punt saw L.A. score 10 points and hold the Saints scoreless. One of the lingering questions in this game was the health of Todd Gurley, who ended the day with only four carries for ten yards. This led C.J. Anderson to carry the workload, but he still only had forty-four yards on sixteen carries. Regardless, we headed into the fourth with both teams trading a touchdown, so the Rams still trailed by three. In the fourth, a nine-play eighty-five-yard drive led the Rams to tie the game, but with Drew Brees behind the ball for the Saints, he led them into the red zone, and then came perhaps the most infamous no-call in NFL history. On third down, all the Saints needed was one first down, take three knees, kick a field goal and win the game.
Brees throws up the sideline to Tommylee Lewis, then Nickell Robey-Coleman flattened Lewis and no Pass Interference was called. New Orleans settled with three points and time left on the clock. Los Angeles gets the ball back, marches down the field and kicks a field goal to send the game into OT where they eventually won after a Drew Brees interception.
While, yes, the officials absolutely missed the most pivotal call in the game, give credit to the Rams for fighting back from thirteen down, drawing up a great defensive scheme in the second half, and playing well. This Rams team is not afraid to take risks, as shown by their fake punt, and with a young head coach in his first Super Bowl, anything can happen. The biggest question is still Todd Gurley’s health. Anderson has done well over the past few weeks but cannot replace the talent of Gurley. L.A.’s defense boasts some absolute talent as well. Aaron Donald, Michael Brockers, and Ndamukong Suh leading the pass rush, with Aqib Talib, Marcus Peters and Lamarcus Joyner in the secondary. The key for L.A. is the same key for any team that plays New England, and that is getting pressure to Brady, and get to him quickly. Do not give the Patriots time on offense to operate and wear your defense down, and do not turn the ball over. With Brady’s legacy starting against the Rams, who knows, maybe a new dynasty starts with the Rams beating the Patriots.
Overall, an electric match-up in Atlanta sees two high-market teams do battle in the Super Bowl for the second time. Seasoned veterans Brady and Belichick against the young minds of Goff and McVay. In this case, it is very tough to predict. The Super Bowl always gives us crazy moments such as Malcolm Butler’s interception to the Saints coming out of halftime and kicking an offside kick, and countless others. Whatever happens, we are sure to be in for one wild ride come Feb. 3. Prediction: Patriots 38 Rams 27