The creativity of Sean McVay
Just take a look around the NFL’s coaching carousel this season and the trend is clear. Every down-on-their-luck team is looking for the next Sean McVay. He took the withered carcass of the Rams left in Jeff Fisher’s wake, and immediately turned them into a contender. From the scrap heap to the Super Bowl in two seasons flat is a hell of a trick for a young head coach, so how can you blame owners for wanting to find their own limb off of his as-yet tiny coaching tree. Despite making marks in the win column, McVay is still a short-timer in the league and that’s to his advantage. The more time that Bill Belichick has to study an opponent, the better he is. And there just isn’t a mountain of tape on McVay’s tendencies yet. His use of misdirection off their third-ranked run game (best in the playoffs) has been nothing short of magical, leaving defensive coordinators baffled. The Rams can outscore Brady and company if they catch the Patriots off guard enough in the early going to make them think too much.
The relentlessness of Aaron Donald
The Patriots have been exceptional this year at protecting Tom Brady from the league’s most dangerous edge rushers, allowing a league-low 9.9% of edge rushers to pressure their signal caller. That’s great for them, but the Rams Aaron Donald, the reigning and presumed defensive player of the year, isn’t an edge rusher. He’s an inside rusher, and his ability to create pressure there, coupled with the need to double team him at the line will do two things. It will stop Brady from stepping up into the pocket, where he’s been extremely effective, and it will create opportunities for Ndamukong Suh, as Brady is forced side to side. Teams that come with interior pressure from only three rushers while dropping linebackers into pass coverage have troubled Brady and the Patriots for the past few seasons, so I expect to see that pressure take a toll on Brady in passing situations as the game goes on. If Aaron Donald is penetrating up the middle with little resistance, the Patriots will struggle mightily to move the ball.
The knowledge of Aqib Talib and Brandin Cooks
Two unexpected losses for the Patriots this season came at the hands of Belichick protégés, the Lions Matt Patricia and the Titans Mike Vrabel. Having a window into the mind of the Hoodie is certainly an advantage, but both of those teams also featured multiple former Patriots on the field as well as the sidelines. An understanding of how the Patriots prepare for a game is key, and that starts on the practice fields. Wide receiver Brandin Cooks and cornerback Aqib Talib both played in Super Bowls with New England, and now look to tilt the scales towards their new team, explaining tendencies and helping the coaches understand the process in Foxboro. The Eagles had success in last year’s big game with two notable New England castoffs, DE Chris Long and RB LeGarrette Blount. In a game of inches, knowledge is king, and this year is no exception. It might come in the form of a play that the Rams see coming (a la Tony Romo) or just a defender’s weakness or tendency to exploit. In any case, expect to see those two guys make some important plays. I fully expect that if Tom Brady throws an interception, it will beTalib that jumps a route.
The tandem of Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson
Much has been made of Gurley’s light load in the NFC Championship game (four carries, ten yards, one TD), and he has been dinged up as the season wore on, but don’t be fooled. Gurley will very likely be ready for Sunday, and he’ll be as healthy as he’s been all season following the rest week. That will pose a particularly imposing challenge on the Patriots defense. The two runners have very different styles, Gurley makes people miss, while Anderson is a bowling ball who can run over and through defenders to make yards. Preparing for both will take a lot of extra study for New England’s defensive front. The Patriots allowed 112 yards per game in the regular season, good for eleventh in the league, but they allowed it in chunks, at almost five yards per carry. If Gurley and Anderson can average that much, the Rams will control the game and be able to create opportunities on play action, where Goff has been deadly all season long.
Jared Goff’s early maturity
Before the arrival of Sean McVay, there were grumblings that Jared Goff might be a bust. Under Jeff Fisher in 2016, he threw more interceptions than touchdowns, completed less than 55% of his passes and averaged only 5.3 yards per completion. He lost all seven games that he played that year. Since the arrival of the Rams new coach, Goff has been a revelation, and one of the game’s brightest young stars. He’s completing just under 65% of his passes and has thrown 60 TDs to only nineteen interceptions and averages over eight yards per pass play. That’s a huge swing, and it speaks to two things, Goff’s maturity and his trust in the coach. In the Rams run-heavy scheme, Goff takes advantage of opportunities as they come, but was still the league’s fourth-leading passer this season, throwing for almost 4,700 yards in 2018. It’s that trust in the scheme that makes Goff an unusually mature young quarterback. He might not have the flair and electricity of a Patrick Mahomes, but the Patriots have beaten the Chiefs young MVP twice this season, capitalizing on Mahomes low completion percentage on both occasions. Goff has shown an ability to stay on target and within the game plan. That will keep the Rams moving, avoid costly mistakes and give the Rams the best chance to win.
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