I used prop-bet sheets from the South Point, Westgate, and William Hill sportsbooks for this column. Lines and odds differ from book to book and are always subject to change.
Super Bowl 53 Matchup
Team Totals: Patriots 29.5, Rams 27
Patriots Passing Game
Tom Brady saved his best football for the stretch run, leading the Patriots to a dominant +86 point differential in eight games since their Week 11 bye on 197-of-289 (68.2%) passing for 2,298 yards (7.95 YPA) and a 14:6 TD-to-INT ratio. New England commits to keeping the ball in its best player’s hands in January and February; Brady’s average of 36.7 pass attempts per game over the last five regular seasons spikes to 46.5 attempts in the last five postseasons, clearing 40 throws in 11-of-13 playoff starts. Brady’s pass-completions prop is only 25.5 (-110) – a number he’s surpassed in seven straight playoff games – and his pass-attempts prop is 37.5 (-110). While Brady’s volume should remain bankable inside Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz dome, his efficiency is fair to question.
Whereas Brady’s quick-pass approach neutralized Chargers and Chiefs defenses built on edge rushers Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, Dee Ford, and Justin Houston – taking zero sacks and three combined hits on 90 dropbacks in the Divisional and Conference Title rounds – the Rams are built in stark contrast, creating sooner-arriving middle pressure via Aaron Donald and white-hot Ndamukong Suh that can potentially counteract Brady’s quick game. At an average of 3.60 seconds, Next Gen Stats clocked Donald with the NFL’s fastest time to sack among defenders with at least five sacks, while Los Angeles has generated interior pressure at a league-high 16.6% rate. The Rams’ pass defense has also improved markedly with top CB Aqib Talib in the lineup, surrendering just 6.5 yards per attempt, a 74.5 passer rating, and an 11:13 TD-to-INT ratio with Talib on the field versus 8.5 YPA with 23 touchdowns, six picks, and a 108.7 rating without him. Further, analytics guru Warren Sharp rates the Rams as the NFL’s stingiest defense versus slot receivers, particularly notable since top weapon Julian Edelman has accounted for 71% of the Patriots’ wide receiver slot targets over the past six weeks and runs 65% of his routes inside. Brady will have to lean on less-efficient pass catchers if the Rams win coverage battles against Edelman like they did Michael Thomas in the NFC Title Game.
Albeit in a tiny two-game sample, the Rams morphed suddenly from a swiss-cheese run defense into a dominant one this postseason. Facing Dallas and New Orleans’ prolific rushing attacks, DC Wade Phillips’ group held Ezekiel Elliott, Alvin Kamara, and Mark Ingram to an anemic 37/93/1 (2.51 YPC) combined rushing line after permitting 100-plus rushing yards in five straight games to close out the regular season. OC Josh McDaniels may envision his run game as opponent proof, however, fueled by an offensive line that ranks No. 3 in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards and No. 1 in tackle for loss rate allowed (11.5%). The Pats have yielded tackles for loss on just 6-of-82 (7.3%) playoff carries. Sony Michel is averaging 20.0 touches per game since New England’s Week 11 bye, while unsung hero FB James Develin averaged 31.5 snaps during that eight-game span, up from 21.5 in Weeks 1-10. The Saints and Cowboys used fullbacks on just 20 snaps combined in Los Angeles’ playoff wins. New England’s power-run game is a major point of emphasis, and there’s little reason to believe that will change on Sunday.
The Rams’ stoutness versus pass-catching backs is sustained in a far bigger sample, giving up the NFL’s third-fewest receiving yards per game (28.3) to running backs this regular season, then holding Kamara, Zeke, and Ingram to 6.05 yards per target in January. Long (6’3/238) with vine-line arms (33 3/8”), Rams WLB Cory Littleton earned PFF’s No. 3 coverage grade among 89 qualified linebackers in 2018, and MLB Mark Barron was a college safety. The Patriots have called pass plays on 90% of James White’s playoff snaps, and he has 19 catches with only six carries this postseason. White is a perennial January-February hero whose on-field participation is in zero doubt, but he is also a player the Rams are theoretically set up well to stop. … Whereas Michel telegraphs run plays and White passes, Rex Burkhead offers New England’s most backfield diversity as a two-way threat coming off a surprise AFC Title Game usage spike, parlaying 16 touches into 64 yards and a pair of TDs, including the game-winning score in overtime. Snaps were distributed near evenly between Michel (34), White (33), and Burkhead (30) at Kansas City, clouding each back’s Super Bowl usage projection after Burkhead was seemingly phased out in previous weeks. On DFS one-game slates, Brady correlates well with White and to a lesser extent Burkhead based on those backs’ receiving skills. Michel is the best standalone play with just three catches since Week 7.
Although New England’s three-headed backfield dampens each member’s box-score reliability, prop bets for White recording at least one rushing attempt of over 6.5 yards (-110) are tempting as a feat he’s accomplished six times in eight games since the Patriots’ bye. White’s two misses occurred when he failed to log a single carry in the Divisional Round and when his longest run gained six yards in Week 15.
Patriots Pass Catchers
The Rams’ slot-coverage stinginess showed up in Conference Championship week as Michael Thomas ran 18 routes in the slot – his most since Week 1 – and emerged with 36 yards, his second fewest all season. Including playoffs, PFF has credited Rams slot CB Nickell Robey-Coleman with just 0.65 yards allowed per slot-coverage snap, fewest in the league among 47 qualified slot defenders. Over his last five games, Robey-Coleman has allowed 12-of-26 (46%) targets against him to be complete for 90 yards (3.5 YPA). In what the Patriots are surely aware is a difficult draw, McDaniels figures to lean heavily on pre-snap motion, bunch, stack, and pick concepts to get Julian Edelman matched up with other Rams defenders. One intriguing prop bet is for Edelman to register at least one rushing attempt (-105). He’s done so in six of New England’s last nine playoff games, while Edelman carries can serve as a means for the Patriots to avoid Robey-Coleman and more easily get the ball into their top playmaker’s hands.
Although the Rams’ length and range at linebacker has kept ordinary tight ends at bay, higher-end athletes Jared Cook (9/180/0), George Kittle (9/149/1, 5/98/1), and Travis Kelce (10/127/1) have had success against Phillips’ defense when fed big-play chances. Even with Rob Gronkowski’s athleticism in obvious decline, he still leads all NFL tight ends in percentage of targets thrown 20-plus yards downfield (18%) and ranks second behind Kelce in yards gained on 20-plus-yard passes (203). Amid retirement rumors, there is a chance this will be Gronkowski’s final NFL game. From a matchup standpoint, Gronk may be freed up to run additional routes because the Rams depend so heavily on interior over edge pressure. Including playoffs, 33.5 of Los Angeles’ 44 sacks (76%) have been come from down linemen and inside linebackers compared to 10.5 (24%) from outside rushers and blitzing defensive backs. Suh does line up on the edge on 24% of his snaps, so we should expect Gronkowski to help block in those instances. Still, overs on Gronk to clear 3.5 catches (-110) and 49.5 yards (-110) stand out on prop-bet sheets in a game where his receiving usage will be crucial, especially if Edelman is at all held in check.
Routes run at wide receiver in New England’s AFC Title win over Kansas City: Edelman 45; Chris Hogan 37; Phillip Dorsett 21; Cordarrelle Patterson 11. … Even as one of the season’s most-frustrating fantasy commodities, Hogan’s role stability hasn’t waned, playing 74% or more of the Patriots’ offensive snaps in four straight games with target counts of 11 – 5 – 7 in the last three. … Albeit on inferior target totals of 5 – 5 – 3, Dorsett has shown more playmaking ability with a touchdown in all three games. As Dorsett runs a team-high 51% of his routes at right corners, he also catches the softest draw in New England’s wideout corps against stationary Rams RCB Marcus Peters, who has 4.53 speed to Dorsett’s 4.33. On the prop-bet circuit, Dorsett has friendly odds to continue his touchdown streak (+210) and exceed 2.5 catches (+150). Dorsett has also beaten his receiving-yardage prop (27.5, -110) in three straight games. An impending free agent set to test a barren receiver market, this will be quite the opportunity for Dorsett to audition for wideout-needy teams. … Patterson has touched the ball on offense more than three times only once in the Patriots’ last seven games and would likely need a kickoff-return score to pay fantasy or sports-betting dividends.
Rams Passing Game
Although Jared Goff did enough to eke out one-score Divisional and NFC Championship wins over the Cowboys and Saints, Goff has remained hit or miss game to game, quarter to quarter, and even down to down. He’s cleared 7.5 yards per pass attempt twice in his last seven starts – versus Arizona and at San Francisco in Weeks 16 and 17 – and Goff’s when-pressured struggles didn’t subside in January. The NFL’s 28th-rated passer under duress (59.8) among 38 qualifiers in 2018, Goff’s 43.2 under-pressure QB rating ranks dead last among 12 playoff QBs. Although New England isn’t widely seen as a pass-rush team, Pats opponents Philip Rivers (45%) and Patrick Mahomes (50%) were the NFL’s most-pressured quarterbacks in the second- and third-postseason rounds. As Goff has thrown seven interceptions in seven games since the Rams’ Week 12 bye – four when pressured – and Brady’s pass attempts tend to spike in the postseason, I like the over on prop bets for 1.5 INTs (+120) combined for the game, Goff to throw an interception at any point (+145), and Goff to throw the first pick (-110). Prop bets for Goff to throw an interception before he throws a touchdown pass provide especially return-friendly odds (+240).
A popular bordering on accepted narrative is that Todd Gurley’s NFC Championship Game touches (5) were limited because Gurley is still injured after missing Weeks 16 and 17 with a sprained left knee, the same knee in which Gurley tore his ACL in college. This theory ignores Gurley turning in his most-explosive game all season the week before, then publicly admitting he got benched for poor play after two early drops and a blown blitz pickup against the Saints. Sean McVay has insisted Gurley is 100%, Gurley has fully practiced for a month, and C.J. Anderson has destroyed on 82/466/4 (5.68 YPC) rushing in four games as a Ram, giving McVay an elite alternative when his starter struggled. Gurley still played 32 snaps at the Superdome – only four fewer than Anderson – and drew three targets on 15 routes run compared to Anderson’s one target on 14 routes. A more trustworthy speaker than most coaches, McVay promised at Super Bowl Media Day that Gurley’s role would be restored against the Patriots.
The Rams need to get Gurley going, especially in the passing game. Patriots MLB Kyle Van Noy and WLB Dont’a Hightower have combined to allow 13-of-19 playoff targets (68.4%) for 131 yards and three touchdowns, including both of Damien Williams’ AFC Title Game scores. Whereas New England held running backs to 55/167/2 (3.04 YPC) rushing over its last four games, Chiefs and Chargers backs touched up the Pats for 7/52/0 and 6/87/2 receiving lines in January after Bill Belichick’s defense allowed the NFL’s 11th-most receiving yards per game to enemy backs (49.1) in 2018. Anderson has drawn targets on just 4.8% of his snaps in four games with the Rams; Gurley’s per-snap target rate is double that (9.6%). Although Anderson has run too well between the tackles to disappear from the Rams’ offense, Gurley’s reemergence is crucial to exploit New England’s primary defensive weakness.
After re-watching Gurley’s 23 playoff touches, I don’t believe he is injured. But it is true that we’ve yet to see Gurley make a sharp cut since he returned. Gurley was incredible in the Cowboys game. He struggled early against the Saints, and the team rallied behind another back. I expect Gurley to rebound as a game-plan focal point against New England. Gurley’s opening MVP odds were set at 12 to 1 by William Hill and a mouth-watering 16 to 1 at Westgate. Gurley to score the Rams’ first touchdown (+275), the first touchdown of the game (+550), and the final touchdown (+550) also offer upside. Gurley topping 3.5 catches (+135) and 29.5 receiving yards (-110) don’t pay out as well but look like sharp bets. Gurley overs correlate well with unders on Anderson rushing for 42.5 yards (-110) and carrying 11.5 times (-110).
Rams Pass Catchers
The Patriots’ likeliest coverage strategy against the Rams’ three-receiver package will assign Stephon Gilmore to Robert Woods with double-team concepts involving Devin McCourty and Jason McCourty on Brandin Cooks, and J.C. Jackson handling Josh Reynolds. Although Gilmore played boundary corner for the vast majority of 2018, he leads New England’s secondary in slot-coverage snaps in the playoffs (37) and has allowed an anemic 57.2 passer rating when targeted inside this season, the NFL’s second-best mark among 47 qualified slot corners (PFF). The Patriots double teamed Tyreek Hill in the AFC Title Game and held him to one catch; their approach to Cooks figures to be similar. Unders on Cooks to clear 75.5 receiving yards (-110) and 5.5 catches (+120) warrant prop-bet mentions. The Patriots are keenly aware of Cooks’ strengths and weaknesses after he spent the 2017 season in New England, and Cooks has managed 65 yards or fewer in 6-of-7 games since the Rams’ bye, catching six balls only twice.
Although Reynolds is not typically Goff’s first read, it would not be surprising if he were forced into a bigger Super Bowl role than usual. An undrafted rookie, Jackson has been thrown at 19 times this postseason, by far most among Patriots corners. Gilmore has been targeted on just ten occasions, and Jason McCourty six. Prop bets for Reynolds’ first reception of the game to exceed 12.5 yards (-110) are enticing; Reynolds’ Average Depth of Target is exactly 12.5 yards, he is averaging 14.6 yards per catch including the playoffs, and Reynolds has at least one reception of 19-plus yards in five straight games. Reynolds’ prop to score a touchdown (+210) offers some upside.
One possible Rams approach would be to dial back their three-receiver reliance and lean more on two-tight end sets, encouraging New England to play more base personnel with two and three linebackers on the field. As Patriots No. 3 LB Elandon Roberts has been phased out due to coverage limitations, Los Angeles forcing him back into the lineup would take the Pats out of their defensive comfort zone and further improve Gurley’s passing-game outlook. Gerald Everett and Tyler Higbee would be playing-time beneficiaries with Everett in the lead receiving role after he ran 28 routes in the NFC Championship Game – his second most all year – out-snapped Higbee 46 to 38, and sparked the second-half offense with a 39-yard catch and run. Everett and Higbee touchdown props offer big payout potential (+330).
Less Player-Specific Props
Team with the most penalty yards: Rams (-125)
The Patriots averaged a league-low 44.6 penalty yards this season. The Rams averaged 53.9. New England’s Super Bowl experience, superb coaching, and comprehensive understanding of the rulebook should give them an edge in this area.
Will the Patriots attempt a fourth down? Yes (-145)
Will the Patriots convert a fourth down? Yes (-110)
These are separate props but obviously go hand in hand. The Patriots have converted nine fourth-down plays in 18 games, although they’ve already converted two this postseason and figure to be more aggressive with a Lombardi Trophy on the line. In last year’s Super Bowl loss, Bill Belichick opted against going for a fourth-and-one at the Eagles’ eight-yard line. Stephen Gostkowski appropriately missed the ensuing 25-yard kick, and the Patriots went on to lose by one score. It should serve as a lesson learned.
Longest made field goal: over 45.5 yards (-130)
Rams K Greg Zuerlein and Patriots K Stephen Gostkowski combined to make at least one field goal of 46-plus yards in ten games this season, despite Zuerlein missing five games due to injury. Super Bowl 53 will be held indoors beneath Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz dome, an optimal kicking environment.
Will both teams have a first-half lead? Yes (+120)
All we need is a Rams field goal followed by a Patriots touchdown, and we’re there. The odds are much less favorable on No (-140).
Will the Patriots score a touchdown in the second quarter? No (+220)
Will the Rams score a touchdown in the second quarter? No (+195)
What stood out about these was the fact that they offered far more odds-based value than touchdown props for each of the other three quarters. The highest-upside strategy is obviously to bet both, giving yourself a shot to more than quadruple your investment on the off chance neither team scores a second-quarter TD, and still come out in the green if one team does but the other doesn’t.
Score Prediction: Rams 24, Patriots 23
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