The quiet postseason excellence of Julian Edelman
If you list the greatest postseason performers of all time, you probably don’t immediately think about the Patriots slot receiver, a former quarterback from Kent State. You should. Brady’s favorite target trails only Jerry Rice in postseason receptions. Yes, THAT Jerry Rice. He’s the only other pass catcher to haul in over one-hundred catches in the playoffs. It’s not just bulk though. Edelman’s ability to make catches in high pressure situations has kept the Patriots in business year after year. He leads all targets in this postseason with 247 yards thus far, with four receptions of more than twenty yards. He’s also been responsible for a staggering fourteen first downs this postseason. That’s an insane number, no other receiver has more than ten. He records a first down on a preposterous 87.5% of his catches. Put simply, if the Rams want to get New England off the field, they must find a way to stop Edelman. That’s asking a lot of the Rams secondary, which is built well to stop vertical threats, not pesky and sure-handed slot receivers. Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib will have to negate Edelman and hold him to under 100 yards, otherwise, the Patriots will roll.
Quick- name the best rushing defense in this year’s playoffs. Bears? Ravens? Cowboys? Nope. It’s the super stingy Patriots unit, which has allowed only 30 yards per game on the ground. That’s a steep improvement for a unit that struggled to control rushers on first down this season. In the Rams back-to-back losses against the Bears and Eagles, they were held below 100 yards rushing, and the offense sputtered accordingly. The Patriots front has become as fearsome as any in the league, utterly stifling the Chargers and Chiefs in the two previous rounds. It will be strength against strength, as the Rams are the only unit that has more rushing yards than the Patriots this postseason. Something’s got to give. With Todd Gurley as an uncertain factor after his ten-yard performance in the NFC Championship game, the scales might well tip towards New England. If the Rams can’t rush for well over 100 yards, the Patriots will have them right where they want them.
Gronk is loose
I’m not the only who’s noticed, either. As the rumors swirl that this might be the Hall of Fame tight end’s last season, he looks more comfortable and relaxed than he has in years. That should scare the living crap out of Los Angeles and their DC Wade Phillips. Gronk has been injury prone for years, and he limped through the playoffs last year, but after a lighter load this season, he’s fresh. More importantly, doubling Gronkowski is particularly dangerous for the Rams, who don’t have a coverage linebacker that can handle him. This will lead to big opportunities for both Chris Hogan and Philip Dorsett in space for large gains. It’s also important to remember Gronk’s dominance as a run blocking TE. He’s a beast, and at full strength, he will move bodies and create lanes for the Patriots trio of backs. I have a hunch that the Patriots have used Gronk sparingly thus far, but it ends Sunday. Mark my words. Gronkowski is still capable of taking over a game. The Rams defense, even with Aaron Donald, was the second-worst unit in the playoffs. Only the Chiefs were worse in terms of points allowed. If Gronkowski goes full Gronk, there might not be anything the Rams can do to stop him.
The bulletin board
Rumors of the Patriots demise seem to have been greatly exaggerated, no? NFL scribes everywhere have buried New England all season long. From a sluggish start just like their 2017 campaign, to the decrease in aerial stats that accompany a robust rushing attack, to a constant disregard for the quality of this defense, soothsayers have turned this perennial favorite into an underdog. That’s dangerous. Because Tom Brady has fueled his engine for damn near two decades on the slight of having six quarterbacks taken before him in the draft. Ask the only two of those guys that anyone has heard of, Chad Pennington and Marc Bulger how that worked out. This week, Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman decided that his uncalled pass interference last week wasn’t enough, so he decided to tell the world that “Age has definitely taken a toll” on Brady. He’s since backtracked on the comments, but there’s really nowhere to go when you’ve put yourself in a corner. In front of packed Gillette Stadium crowd, Brady led the crowd in a chant of “We’re still here” before tossing the mic like a pissed-off battle rapper. With that, the Patriots are “on to Los Angeles”. The Rams will need some breaks to beat a hyped-up Patriots team that has way more experience than them at almost every position, a slip of the tongue might have just cost them dearly. Belichick wants to prove that wunderkind McVay isn’t anywhere close to his equal, yet, so I’m expecting to see the Hoodie in rare form in the lead up to Sunday.
This might play out any number of ways, but it’s going to be a factor. The Patriots have been here before. The Rams haven’t been to the big show since Brady 1.0 dethroned the “Greatest Show on Turf”. For all of Sean McVay’s offensive acumen and the skill of his balanced offense, there will be nerves. Maybe McVay will overthink a simple decision in a critical moment, like Pete Carroll did, letting Beast Mode rest and making Malcolm Butler famous. Maybe the flashy offense will bog down late in the game like Atlanta did, allowing Brady and crew to launch an impossible comeback. Maybe Belichick and his defense will do to Goff what the hoodie does to young quarterbacks. Maybe Matthew Slater will spook a kick returner into a fatal mistake. Maybe Marcus Peters will overanxiously jump a route and let Chris Hogan streak down the sideline. Maybe it will be an unnecessary roughing penalty on Ndamukong Suh that prolongs a New England drive. Prop bet pro tip: it’s a virtual certainty that the last two WILL happen…Point is, there’s a million ways that the Patriots are more experienced than the Rams, and when the lights shine the brightest, it will all become clear.
Image Source: USA Today