Rams vs. Patriots—what is this, 2002?
Sunday’s Super Bowl sequel may lend credence to Rust Cohle’s flat circle theory, though in truth, Rams/Patriots Part II bears little resemblance to its epic predecessor. For starters, only Tom Brady and Bill Belichick remain from that game (it’s not hard to envision a graying Brady slinging darts to Julian Edelman Jr. 20 years from now against Coach Larry Fitzgerald and the London Cardinals in the first Moon Super Bowl). The Greatest Show on Turf led by Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk closed shop about 400 Tom Brady miracles ago. Adam Vinatieri, aka Football Mariano Rivera, was the hero of that year’s big game. He turned his Patriots badge in before any of us even knew who Wes Welker was and long before Rex Burkhead blew out the candles on Patrick Mahomes’ majestic debut season. To top it off, the Rams don’t even play in St. Louis anymore!
Countless Jeff Fisher GIFs and half-baked Patriots battle cries (cringe-worthy as the “We’re still here” movement is, it’s a noticeable improvement on Belichick’s ill-fated “No days off” chant from the last Super Bowl parade) have come and gone since New England’s dynasty opened its doors on February 3, 2002. Back then, John Madden and Pat Summerall were calling games for ABC while Sean McVay, then a 16-year-old sophomore at Marist School in Brookhaven, Georgia, was still a year away from taking the SATs. Those were the days when the Patriots were lovable underdogs, not the antagonists they’d soon become.
Troy Brown and Ricky Proehl won’t be in uniform this time around (though Ricky’s son, Austin, is on the Rams’ practice squad), but Sunday’s showdown in Atlanta still has all the makings of an instant classic. So while we’re waiting for the big game and everything it entails—loaded nachos, prop bets, Super Bowl grids, beer commercials, Tony Romo’s psychic abilities and hopefully a SpongeBob tribute from Maroon 5—here are a few plotlines to chew on before kickoff.
Emperor Bill vs. the Boy Genius
No need to beat around the bush. Aside from Brady’s quest for an unprecedented sixth Lombardi Trophy, the most compelling plot point of Super Bowl LIII is undoubtedly the coaching matchup, which pits the old bull Bill Belichick against the young calf, Sean McVay. In one corner of the ring is Belichick, a seven-time Super Bowl winner (including five victories as a head coach) and one of the most revered coaches, not just in football, but in the history of professional sports. A stoic disciplinarian, Belichick has built his football empire on unpredictability (the Patriots have achieved chameleon status, altering their approach on a week-to-week basis), a strict adherence to fundamentals, unearthing hidden talents and overlooked stars and most importantly, drafting anyone who has ever stepped foot on Rutgers’ campus.
While Belichick has opted for the heartless curmudgeon aesthetic, McVay’s instant success shows not all coaches are aloof, media-detesting mopes. McVay is a young (he’s only four months older than Julian Edelman) offensive prodigy in the mold of Jon Gruden, a brilliant play-caller with a steel-trap memory and a vibrant personality to match his fun-loving, no-holds-barred brand of football. The most recent batch of coaching hires was dominated by names either straight from McVay’s coaching tree—Matt LaFleur and Zac Taylor—or built in his image (air-raid apologist Kliff Kingsbury fits the bill). We all know who the more likeable coach is, but Belichick has never been in it for the popularity. Rings are the only currency that matters in the coaching realm and nobody has more of them than Emperor Bill. McVay cleaned up Jeff Fisher’s mess in record time, but taking Belichick to school would be his biggest accomplishment to date. Does he have it in him? Sunday we’ll find out.
Cooks’ Revenge Game
A staple of my Narrative Street columns is the #RevengeGame and that will certainly be a talking point this week as Brandin Cooks and Aqib Talib prepare to do battle against their old mates. Despite his defection to Denver in free agency (the Broncos would later trade Talib to Los Angeles, reuniting him with former Broncos DC Wade Phillips), the ex-Patriot appears to be on good terms with Tom Brady, who showered the five-time Pro Bowler with compliments during Monday’s media session. It’s clear that Talib and Brady respect one another and by all accounts, enjoyed their time spent as teammates together in 2012-13. But don’t expect either of these fierce competitors to let their guard down Sunday under the bright lights at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Injuries have hampered Talib throughout his debut season in Los Angeles, but the 32-year-old remains a difference-maker when healthy. His presence was felt in the NFC title game as the stud corner limited Michael Thomas, who obliterated the Rams for 211 yards in Week 11 (Talib was on injured reserve at the time), to a meager 36 yards on four catches.
Talib has seen the view from the top of the mountain—he climbed that hill with Denver in 2015—but Cooks is still searching for that elusive first championship. He couldn’t finish the deed with New England last season, bowing out of Super Bowl LII with a concussion. That abbreviated Super Bowl appearance would end up being Cooks’ final game as a Patriot as New England shipped him cross-country to the Rams in exchange for first and sixth-round picks in 2018 (Los Angeles also received a fourth-rounder in the deal). The Cooks injury presents an interesting what-if scenario. If he hadn’t been concussed against the Eagles, would New England have captured its sixth Super Bowl and more importantly, would Cooks still be a Patriot?
Both are fascinating hypotheticals and Cooks has surely been missed in Foxboro as the Patriots have lacked a true deep threat since troubled star Josh Gordon was lost to a season-ending suspension. Cooks’ downfield expertise will be put to the test against ace corner Stephon Gilmore, who has silenced Tyreek Hill and Keenan Allen in recent weeks.
Cooks is obviously only one piece of the Rams’ offensive puzzle—Todd Gurley, C.J. Anderson and Robert Woods are equally important ingredients in L.A.’s championship stew. But Cooks’ performance Sunday will go a long way toward solidifying his place in the hierarchy of NFL wide receivers. The 25-year-old has topped 1,000 yards in four straight seasons, though his winding career arc—playing for three teams in a three-year span—has understandably created some skeptics. Besting his former quarterback in the biggest game of his career would be a way for Cooks to convert those skeptics into believers.
Gronk’s Last Stand
Rob Gronkowski continues to be coy about his intentions beyond this season, but one thing is certain—this isn’t the same player who revolutionized the tight end position while tormenting opposing defenses for much of the past decade. His resurgence against the Chiefs may have thrown some of his doubters off the trail, but it’s clear that No. 87’s career is on a steep downhill trajectory. Gronk showed glimpses of his past greatness against Kansas City and he remains one of the league’s better blockers at his position. But years of injuries have undoubtedly taken their toll on the formerly elite tight end, leading many to wonder if Sunday’s finale in Atlanta will be the last time we see him on an NFL field.
Gronkowski entertained retirement rumors last offseason and those same rumblings are sure to follow him into 2019, especially coming off arguably the worst season of his nine-year NFL career. If this is it for Gronkowski—a very real possibility given his deteriorating skill set and injury history—we’ll be saying so long, not only to one of the best all-around tight ends in league history (he was uncoverable during his prime), but also to one of the game’s biggest personalities. There’s no shortage of adjectives to describe Gronk’s career—record-shattering, thrilling, breathtaking—but at his core, the five-time Pro Bowler just wanted to have fun. I hope this isn’t the last we see of Gronk, but if it is, perhaps he’ll grace our television screens with one last touchdown spike, for old time’s sake.
Aaron Donald vs. the Pats’ O line
Tom Brady has been an assassin this postseason, which should come as no surprise given his rich playoff pedigree. So how has Brady, the most prolific playoff performer the NFL has ever witnessed, been able to age so gracefully? It’s not just his workout regimen or strict diet, both diagrammed in the best-selling TB12 Method. The reason Brady has stayed so fresh is because he rarely gets hit.
The Patriots don’t boast a star-studded offensive line, but they work well as a unit and, thanks to the wisdom instilled by long-time position coach Dante Scarnecchia, they’ve been at their best during the postseason. Despite facing a litany of top pass-rushers ranging from Joey Bosa to Dee Ford, New England’s offensive line has yet to allow a sack this postseason.
The Patriots’ stout O line has passed every test this postseason, but they also haven’t faced anyone as dominant as Aaron Donald. After posting a league-high 20.5 sacks during the regular season (the most ever by an interior lineman), the 27-year-old should be a shoe-in for his second straight Defensive Player of the Year Award. The Pats enter Sunday with a lengthy to-do list but for them to have any chance against the Rams, the offensive line will need to protect Brady from the evil clutches of Donald and his rugged co-conspirator, the notoriously volatile Ndamukong Suh. If New England’s line wins the battle, plenty of kids from Boston will be playing hooky when the Patriots host their victory parade next week.
Will Gurley Show?
Offensive depth has been a key component of L.A.’s success this year, but Todd Gurley has always been the Rams’ pulse. The beating heart of the Rams’ offense delivered his usual heroics this year, torching the league en route to a career-best 21 touchdowns, a number that surely would have been higher had he not missed the final two games of the regular season due to knee inflammation. So naturally, Touchdown Todd spent the NFC Championship Game riding the pine while street free-agent C.J. Anderson carried the load in a victory over New Orleans. Just how they drew it up.
While some theorized that Gurley’s knee wasn’t right—the usually sure-handed running back made a pair of uncharacteristic drops—the 25-year-old had no problem ripping the Cowboys to shreds a week earlier (118 yards and a touchdown on 18 touches). Maybe Gurley wasn’t 100 percent—nobody is this time of year—but he’s been notoriously absent from the team’s injury report, suggesting that his conference championship flop was exactly that—a rare misstep for a player accustomed to pressing all the right buttons. Gurley himself admitted he just didn’t have it against the Saints. Obviously McVay recognized that Gurley was having an off day and chose to ride the hot hand rather than forcing the issue with a player who was clearly struggling.
McVay remarked Tuesday that Gurley will be “a big part” of the team’s game plan against New England and there’s nothing to suggest that won’t be the case. After all, the Georgia alum was the most productive running back in football during the regular season. But if Gurley comes out flat like he did against New Orleans, we know now that McVay won’t hesitate to hand the backfield keys to Anderson, a proven playoff performer who has carried the Rams on his back since arriving in mid-December.
Pats Devil Magic
The Patriots haven’t left many stones unturned throughout their reign of dominance, but consider this—they’ve never won a Super Bowl by more than a touchdown. They’ve also never lost by more than a touchdown. As automatic as New England has been over the past two decades, most of its big games have come down to the wire. And that’s what separates them from everyone else—no organization in sports history has navigated chaos as effectively as the cardiac Pats, the team that brought us the iconic Tuck Rule game, Malcolm Butler’s Super Bowl-sealing interception, a comeback for the ages against Atlanta and a novel-length list of other close calls. The Patriots died a million deaths against Kansas City but kept coming back to life, because that’s what they do.
All these years, you’ve been lied to. The Patriot Way isn’t about falling into line and surrendering to Bill Belichick’s iron will. The Patriot Way is being down to your final breath and pulling one last miracle out of thin air. At this point, the Pats are more a group of traveling football magicians than professional athletes.
I don’t think it would surprise many people to see Los Angeles take home Sunday’s ultimate prize. Most of the top players from this year’s Super Bowl—Aaron Donald, Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks, Aqib Talib, Ndamukong Suh and Marcus Peters to name a few—reside on the Rams. But I’ve seen enough Patriots games to know that when the stakes are highest, New England’s signature brand of devil magic is always at its most potent.
Enjoy the Super Bowl, everyone.
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