In one of the most memorable conference championship weekends in the history of the sport, the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams both survived overtime to reach Super Bowl LIII.
It will be a rematch of Tom Brady's first Super Bowl, in which he helped take down Hall of Famer Kurt Warner and the then-St. Louis Rams 20-17 on a last-second field goal by Adam Vinatieri in 2002. Current Rams quarterback Jared Goff was just seven years old at the time.
The Rams are returning to the Super Bowl for the first time since that game, and they will be representing the city of Los Angeles in the game for the first time since the Los Angeles Raiders won Super Bowl XVIII in 1984.
Matchup: New England Patriots vs. Los Angeles Rams
Where: Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta, GA
When: 6:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Patriots -2, via OddsShark.com
One of the storylines to follow over the next two weeks will be the health of Rams running back Todd Gurley, who had just four carries for 10 yards against the Saints. Gurley missed the final two games of the Rams' season with a knee injury, which led to speculation that Gurley's lack of playing time was tied to an injury. After the game, however, McVay claimed it was a strategic decision to limit Gurley's usage:
With Gurley sidelined for a significant portion of the game, the Rams leaned more heavily on Goff, who proved he was up for the challenge on the big stage. Goff attempted 40 passes for just the fifth time this year.
One of the challenges the Rams will face in the Super Bowl is figuring out how to get to Brady.
It's not easy to rattle Brady, especially due to his ability to react to the defense and get the ball out quickly when necessary. According to Next Gen Stats, Brady was pressured on just 19.6 percent of his dropbacks against the Chiefs:
Next Gen Stats @NextGenStats
Tom Brady's quick-passing style (2.51 seconds) led to a low pressure rate against (19.6%) despite throwing all 46 passes from inside the pocket. Relative to expectation, Brady was at his best on 3rd down (+24.4%) and when targeting the intermediate (+10.7%). #NEvsKC | #GoPats https://t.co/Ha1QQ8Sb1H
The Rams generated 41 sacks during the regular season, but 20 came from Aaron Donald. Their reliance on Donald—a defensive tackle who will be lining up in clear view of Brady at all times—may make it easier for Brady to avoid pressure. A defense known for more exotic blitzes, with pressure coming from any direction, would be more difficult for Brady to predict and avoid, but that doesn't describe the Rams' scheme.
On the other side of the ball, the Patriots will have to deal with a Rams offense that has become more unpredictable in recent weeks.
According to Sports Info Solutions (via Sports Illustrated's Robert Klemko), the Rams ran the ball 96 percent of the time Goff was lined up under center during the regular season. However, that changed dramatically against the Saints, as Goff attempted 13 passes from under center:
McVay, who will be the youngest head coach in Super Bowl history, has become a master at self-scouting and changing up his tendencies to keep defenses off balance. This will create a unique challenge for the Patriots in their preparation, as the Rams offense has now shown different strategies throughout the year.
This Super Bowl matchup features arguably the two most innovative and unpredictable coaches in the NFL, and the game is sure to become a chess match between the two. Given the history of Bill Belichick and McVay, we should expect to see some trick plays and aggressive play-calling mixed in throughout the game, which could swing momentum toward either side.
With two elite coaches and great players on both sides, it's easy to make an argument for either squad. No outcome in this game would be shocking. However, McVay has put fewer tricks on film than Belichick at this stage of his career. That may increase the chances of him catching the Patriots off guard and give the Rams enough of an edge to pull out a tight victory.
Prediction: Rams 28, Patriots 27