This article is part of Vs. – a series examining all the best matchups of Super Bowl LIII. Read all of the coverage here.
This article is part of Vs. – a series examining all the best matchups of Super Bowl LIII. Read all of the coverage here.
This week, writers from Patriots Wire, Rams Wire and For The Win have collaborated on several posts breaking down how Super Bowl LIII might unfold. We gathered them together for one last pre-game discussion. With us today are Patriots Wire editor Henry McKenna, Rams Wire editor Cameron DaSilva, For The Win’s football writer Steven Ruiz and his editor, Chris Korman.
Introducing the Wire site editors
Chris: Let’s get some introductions out of the way: Cameron, how did you end up running Rams Wire? And what were you doing before that?
Cameron: Prior to running Rams Wire, I was writing for FOX Sports before the pivot to video, covering the NFL and a few other sports. After the cancellation of all written content, my former colleague at FOX Sports, Bryan Kalbrosky, asked if I was interested in taking over Rams Wire from him. At the time, the Rams were coming off a 4-12 season and Sean McVay had just been hired, so I had no idea what to expect. Turns out, I – not Sean McVay – led them to 11 wins and an NFC West title in my first year.
Joking aside, it’s been great covering the Rams. They’ve become one of the most exciting teams in the NFL and there’s never a shortage of hot topics – from this Super Bowl run to their whirlwind of trades.
Chris: Henry, how’d you end up working for the Patriots Wire?
Henry: I started my career in TV production, but realized that I really loved writing and wanted to figure out how to make that work. I started that stage of my career editing copy and blogging before I started selling freelance feature stories to bigger outlets like The Atlantic, Boston Magazine and VICE. Eventually I landed with Boston.com, which is owned by The Boston Globe. When I found out USA TODAY Sports Mexia Group was launching the NFL Wire Network, I wanted to be a part of it, so I joined as the first (and so far only) editor of Patriots Wire.
That Patriots motivational ploy
Chris: Turning to the game, let’s start with Henry, since he’s covering the greatest underdog team in sports history. Nobody could have seen this coming, and it must have been such a wild ride for you watching it unfold.
But seriously, how did this particular Patriots team find a way and where do you see it fitting with the rest of the Brady/Belichick teams?
Henry: Oddly enough, the Patriots always find ways to feel like underdogs. Bill Belichick is a master of spin. While those outside the building look at the Patriots and think they’re an unstoppable force, Belichick finds ways to remind them that they are doubted, that the rest of the country wants them to lose and that those haters believe this is the year New England fails. And to be fair, that’s generally the narrative on ESPN’s “First Take” and on Boston sports radio. Negative columnists, local and national, will also take shots at the Patriots, because it’s easy early in the season when they fall to 2-2, which they’ve made a recent tendency. Belichick takes these narratives and inject them into the locker room. In the past, he has posted negative headlines on TV screens in the locker room. Belichick will use bulletin board material. And it works. So this year, the Patriots have heard the criticism, even if it’s coming from disingenuous talking heads. And this Super Bowl run has been their response.
Chris: Man, I sure am glad that, uh, we never ran anything that, you know, cast any doubt on the Patriots or anything, right Steven?
Steven: I like to imagine that Tom Brady saw my post and it made him spit his avocado-infused water (great for preventing sunburns!) all over his laptop screen. But, yes, I was one of those analysts saying Brady wasn’t the same, and, well, it seems like the Patriots also believe that is true based on the run-first approach they’ve adopted over the last two months. And while I did suggest that Brady might be on the downside of his career (he is), that did not stop me from picking the Patriots as my Super Bowl favorite throughout the season — even when things didn’t look great.
How are Rams fans feeling? (And who are they?)
Chris: Cameron, we all figured the Rams would have a good shot at making the Super Bowl this year, given that they have one of the league’s brightest young coaches and perhaps the best defensive player on the planet. So what I’m wondering is: What has this meant to Rams fans? And more to the point, who are Rams fans? I don’t know that I have a great sense of who the people are who root for this team and how they feel about it given the move a few years ago.
Cameron: Los Angeles is often viewed as a fair-weather city when it comes to its fans, and that was accurate for the Rams’ first two years back on the West Coast. The 2016 preseason opener against the Cowboys set attendance records, while the number of fans going to games in 2017 was a huge talking point throughout the season. As the year went on and the Rams reached the playoffs, the Coliseum began to fill more than it had down the stretch in 2016 and early in 2017.
This year, there’s no doubt about the support the Rams have from their fans. The Coliseum has been packed all season long and it provided a nice home-field advantage against the Cowboys in the divisional round, despite people thinking it would be a 50-50 split. Fans are ecstatic about the team’s trip to the Super Bowl, given how long it’s been since the team was relevant. From 2005-16, few teams were less successful than the Rams, who never had a single postseason appearance or winning record in that span.
Rams fans have waited a long time for this and the way it came about so quickly after the hiring of Sean McVay makes it even more exciting. The city is all-in on the Rams, much like the team was all-in on the 2018 season.
Chris: How about fans in St. Louis? Do you sense much connection with people there or have they tuned out?
Cameron: I haven’t gotten a strong sense either way of how fans in St. Louis feel, but the television ratings definitely suggest they’re still tuning in. For the team’s playoff game last year against Atlanta, the game drew a 13.3 rating in St. Louis and only 10.9 in Los Angeles. This year, ratings in L.A. have been far stronger, as evidenced by the Rams’ win over Dallas in the divisional round. Los Angeles drew a rating of 23.4, while St. Louis was at 18.5 – still strong numbers in both cities.
I don’t think fans in St. Louis are tuning out as I’m sure there are still plenty of supporters in the Rams’ former home. If anything, some might be watching to see them lose after the franchise up-and-left their city.
The year of the coach matchup!
Chris: There’s a natural focus in this game on the coaches. One happens to be the greatest of all time whose speciality is coming up with unique defensive game plans. The other is the league’s most precocious offensive genius.
What’s one thing the national media and football fans at large don’t understand (or flat out get wrong) about Bill Belichick and Sean McVay?
Henry: What is there to say about Belichick that hasn’t been said? I’ll give you two fun facts. The first is based off a feature I wrote this year: Patriots players can read Belichick’s mind. The coach beats phrases, expressions and coaching points into players. He teaches them how to think about football with such vigor that they hear him while they’re watching games for fun. He’s so thorough in preparing them for situations in a game that when those situations occur, they can hear his coaching point in the moment. When they make a mistake, they know exactly what they’ll get scolded for.
The second fun fact is that Belichick isn’t always a scrooge. His players will tell you that he laughs, jokes around and can be a softy. (I’ve never really seen it.) I have witnessed his abilities as a historian, whether about football or the military. For some reason, he tends to be in a good mood for Friday press conferences, which is when you can get him to speak at length about topics, particularly if they are historical or pertaining to special teams. (I once sent him on a 5-minute rant on punt protection. And I’m not the only one to do that)
Cameron: One thing fans don’t understand is that Sean McVay is not just an offensive guru. Yes, he deservingly gets a ton of credit for his scheme on offense and the way he elevated the play of Todd Gurley and Jared Goff, but he’s so much more than just a bright offensive mind. He’s the complete package as a head coach. Players have spoken at length about how he holds everyone accountable, which is something Jeff Fisher didn’t do. Players respect him despite the fact that he’s only 33, and while he has a close relationship with a lot of guys, they still view him as their coach, not just a friend.
His leadership qualities rub off on everyone in the locker room, from rookies and veterans to other coaches on the staff. McVay’s not just a “quarterback whisperer” or “offensive guru.” He’s a phenomenal head coach.
The stories that explain the season so far
Chris: We collaborated on this fascinating series this week called “Vs.” It featured incredible Street Fighter-inspired artwork from Steven but also insights from you three as well as the great Doug Farrar. It covered every question about this game, while you guys wrote about everything that’s been said this week and how things might go when the ball is kicked.
But I’m wondering: What are the one or two posts you guys most enjoyed writing earlier this season that would also help fans understand the Patriots and the Rams? Point us to your greatest hits and tell us how they explain these teams, please.
Cameron: One of my favorite pieces was breaking down Aaron Donald’s performance against the 49ers this season. It was arguably the best game of his career with four sacks, nine tackles, six tackles for loss and a forced fumble (and recovery). Watching him play is a joy, mainly because it’s terrifying to think about what it’s like to block him. To understand the Rams, you must first realize that Donald might be the best player on the planet. This post gives a little glimpse of that.
Another one was more recent and will give fans a bit more insight on the team as its currently constructed. The Rams made countless moves to get to the Super Bowl, from trades to free agent signings like Ndamukong Suh. I did my best to pick the eight biggest decisions from the last two years that helped them reach the pinnacle after going 4-12 in 2016.
Henry: I already pointed to one of my favorites about Belchick’s telekinetic connection with his players. That weird facet of being a Patriots player — and having the ability to read Belichick’s mind — shows just how good of a coach he is. He’s incredibly thorough. He gets his players thinking exactly what he’s thinking.
And then there’s the story about Tom Brady’s famous introduction to new players: “Hi, I’m Tom.” Everyone’s reaction is: I know. You’re Tom-freaking-Brady. But that’s just the kind of guy Brady is: humble and hungry. He’s an excellent leader who would never assume you know who he is (even though he probably should). It’s moments like his introduction that inspire his teammates. And of course, I picked features about Belichick and Brady because these nine Super Bowl appearances are all about Belichick and Brady.
Steven: My favorite Patriots-centric post was probably my last: I took a look at how Bill Belichick used an unorthodox game plan to slow down the Chiefs’ historic offense. I doubt anybody expected Belichick to ask Jonathan Jones (with help from safety Devin McCourty) to shadow Tyreek Hill, but that’s what happened. And it worked! Belichick has been doing that all season. This isn’t his most talented Patriots team, but he’s figured out how to use the pieces he does have to cobble together a team good enough to make it to the Super Bowl.
As for the Rams, I’ll say my post on how they’ve built a system that makes Jared Goff’s job much easier, both with X’s and O’s and by loading up on star players while he’s still on his rookie deal. That could complicate things when it comes time to negotiate his next deal. When L.A. has to pay Goff, it will be hard to keep the rest of the roster in tact, especially for a team that already lacks depth on the defensive side of the ball.
That leads to my question for Cam: How is Goff viewed by Rams fans and will giving him a big contract be viewed as a no-brainer in L.A.?
Is Jared Goff the long-term solution?
Cameron: He’s beloved by fans. He’s the perfect fit in L.A., being a California kid with that classic laid-back West Coast demeanor. There’s never a shortage of fans coming to his defense when critics call him out for being a “system quarterback” or that he’s only good because of Sean McVay. He’s clearly shown he’s a talented player after making the Pro Bowl the last two years, looking every bit like a former No. 1 overall pick.
Signing him to a massive contract will most likely be a no-brainer, but some have speculated whether the Rams will take an unconventional approach by using Goff for five years and just drafting someone to take over the reins. I don’t believe that will happen because finding a franchise quarterback is far easier said than done. (see: Browns, Cleveland)
How will New England try to defend Los Angeles’ receivers?
Steven: And for Henry, matchups were obviously a significant factor in Belichick’s game plan for Kansas City. How do you think he will match-up with the Rams’ talented receiving corps?
Henry: I’ve been puzzling over this for days. It’s a weird matchup for New England, because Cooks is probably the No. 1 wideout. But the Patriots have avoided putting their No. 1 cornerback, Stephon Gilmore, on speed-demon types like Cooks. Gilmore matches nicely against DeAndre Hopkins and Davante Adams. Against Tyreek Hill or Cooks, Gilmore might be too long and thus not quite agile enough. So I’d guess the Patriots put Gilmore on Robert Woods, Jason McCourty on Josh Reynolds and rookie JC Jackson will take Cooks with help Devin McCourty for almost the entire game.
Cam, what do you think about Gronk this year? Production was down — but then he helped the Patriots put a hurt on the Chiefs in the fourth quarter and in overtime of the AFC championship. Do the Rams make Gronk a defensive priority? What will their game plan be for him?
Cameron: He may have had a down year, but he’s still dangerous and someone the Rams definitely have to be cognizant of. As we saw against the Chiefs, he can burn defenses when left in single coverage, as evidenced by his third-down grab against Eric Berry and another catch in traffic. The Rams have a lot of guys to cover and I think Julian Edelman will probably be their top priority, but Gronk will receive plenty of attention. Expect John Johnson to cover him the majority of the time because 5-foot-8 Lamarcus Joyner doesn’t have the size at the other safety spot to handle him. Mark Barron, a former safety, and Cory Littleton could also bracket him underneath, but typically, the Rams put Johnson on dangerous tight ends like Gronk.
Henry, the Rams are almost always in 11 personnel, so do you expect Belichick to match that with a heavy dosage of nickel packages? Or will he stay in base to stop the run?
Henry: I think he believes in the tackling ability of his nickel packages and will rely upon that grouping for a great deal of the game. But unlike Sean McVay, Belichick loves providing multiple looks. The fact that McVay relies largely upon one look will not stop Belichick from mixing up personnel to disguise the defense throughout the game.
Cam: Steven, what do you view as the Patriots’ biggest weakness on defense that the Rams can exploit?
Steven: Athleticism on the second level. I think we’ll see McVay do everything in his power to get his receivers and Todd Gurley matched up with a linebacker, whether that’s through formation, personnel groupings or a combination of both. He was able to do this against another defensive wizard in Mike Zimmer. If he can do it against Belichick, the Rams will score a lot of points.
Predicting the hero of Super Bowl LIII
Chris: Wrapping this up … I don’t want to entirely give away your predictions because we’ll have a post on that later today but quickly tell me: Who’s the hero of Super Bowl LIII and why?
Cameron: I’ll go out on a limb and say Dante Fowler Jr. has a big performance. He’s riding a hot streak with 1.5 sacks and two tackles for loss in his last two games and has good history against the Patriots. In the AFC championship last year, he sacked Brady twice and had another hit. In Week 2 this year, he sacked him again. New England’s offensive tackles have changed, but with all eyes on Donald and Ndamukong Suh, Fowler is going to be left alone on the edge. He’s going to make a key play like he did against the Saints to cause that overtime interception.
Henry: Brian Flores will be the man no one can stop talking about, if he can slow the Rams in a Patriots’ win. Super Bowls tend to be lower scoring, which should work in Flores’ favor. Flores has also done an excellent job coaching this team and developing game plans throughout the season, his first as the teams defensive play-caller and de-facto defensive coordinator. His swan song, before he departs for Miami, could be an impressive display of his intellect, if he outsmarts football’s Einstein-of-the-Week, Sean McVay.
Steven: I’ll go with James White as the hero, because he’s going to have a field day against the Rams linebackers in the passing game. I could see him catching 10 balls for a 100 yards in a win. Not only will the Patriots win, but I don’t think it will be particularly close. Belichick will figure out a way to slow down the Rams’ running game. He’ll figure out the matchups for their receivers. And Brady and the offense will have no problem controlling the clock and wearing out a thin L.A. defense. After the matchup was set, I had the Patriots winning comfortably, and studying these teams on film over the last few weeks hasn’t changed that prediction. If anything, I’m more confident in it now.
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