I think most of us hardened, borderline cynical NFL observers expect the Patriots to win this one. They've been there before -- many times -- so have the huge experience edge, while the Rams might be just happy to be there, as they say. But similar things were said about Eagles-Patriots a year ago, and we know how that turned out. So better to keep an open mind.
The Patriots are favored by 2.5 points with an over-under of 57, suggesting a 30-27 type of game. These teams last faced each other in Week 13 of the 2016 season, a 26-10 Patriots win in Foxborough. Tom Brady threw for 269 yards and 1 TD in that game, with Julian Edelman (8 for 101) his main receiver. But the Rams were coached by Jeff Fisher back then and had Jared Goff making his third NFL start; they're completely different now.
The far more famous meeting between these teams came in Super Bowl XXXVI, when the upstart Patriots stunned the heavily favored Rams, winning 20-17. That was the beginning of one of the more impressive dynasties in sports, with the Patriots going on to play in seven more Super Bowls since then (they're 5-5 all time; the Rams are 1-2). Also no real relevance to this one, aside from serving as a reminder that favorites don't always win.
QUARTERBACK: The Rams had a below-average pass defense during the regular season (19th), allowing 257 yards per game. Only six teams allowed more touchdown passes than the Rams (31), and most of them were awful defenses: Bengals, Raiders, Falcons, Bucs, 49ers and Panthers. With Tom Brady widely considered to be the best quarterback ever to play in the league, some will anticipate huge numbers. And that's possible: there were a lot of big games by top quarterbacks against this defense, like Patrick Mahomes (478 yards, 6 TDs), Drew Brees (346 and 4) and Kirk Cousins (422 and 3).
All of those games, though, came with top cornerback Aqib Talib sidelined (he missed Weeks 4-11). The defense was a lot better after he returned, with none of the team's last seven opponents (including 2 playoff games) reaching 300 yards, and only two of them throwing multiple touchdowns. Drew Brees (249 and 2) was well below what most expected from him in the NFC Championship. And Brady put up very good numbers during the season, but not a knockout performance, averaging 275 yards with 31 total touchdowns; essentially 2 per game. He’s thrown for over 340 in both playoff games, but with just 1 TD in each. New England scored 4 TDs on runs in each of those games. That looks less likely against this opponent (the Rams allowed only 12 rushing TDs during the season), but it’s a balanced Patriots offense.
There’s been a stat going around showing Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ career record versus Bill Belichick (nearly .500, going back to their first meeting in 1981), during Phillips’ time as head coach or defensive coordinator for various franchises. I didn’t want to get too historical, but thought I’d look at Brady vs. Phillips over the past decade (with Phillips coach or coordinator for the Texans and Broncos, which included a pair of a playoff meetings, marked with an asterisk). Brady has won and/or put up good numbers in most of those games, although Phillips did own the most recent meaningful encounter: the playoff game in Denver after the 2015 season, when the Broncos went on to win Super Bowl 50.
|BRADY VERSUS PHILLIPS, 2012-PRESENT|
Phillips’ most recent work in this matchup while with Denver is promising, and maybe the Rams’ best chance for pulling the upset. But we’re expecting typical numbers out of Brady (which should be the better of the two quarterbacks). Brady, of course, threw for a Super Bowl record 505 yards just last year, so he's certainly capable of huge numbers. But the Patriots fell behind 17-3 and he threw the ball 46 times against a very tough run defense. Not what we're expecting this time around.
RUNNING BACK: The Rams had a bottom-10 run defense during the season, and they allowed a league-worst 5.1 yards per attempt. An appealing matchup, it seems, for New England’s 5th-ranked ground game, but we said similar kinds of things about Dallas and New Orleans (also with top-10 rushing offenses), and the Cowboys carried 22 times for 50 yards (2.3) and the Saints carried 21 times for 48 yards (also 2.3). So no one should be expecting New England to just run all over this group, which has tightened things up in the postseason to say the least.
While New England has averaged 166 yards and scored 4 TDs on the ground in its first two playoff games, that type of production is probably unrealistic. One of those games was in Foxborough and the Patriots dominated throughout, while the other was against a worse Kansas City defense (27th, and only two teams allowed more rushing touchdowns than they did). We’re expecting good rushing numbers, but probably only slightly above-average; say 120 yards and 1-2 TDs. The way the Rams controlled Ezekiel Elliott and the Ingram/Kamara tandem, even that might be too generous.
A bigger issue is that three different backs will play, and potentially each will get about a third of the snaps (as happened in the AFC Championship). That’s not certain; it was an even split between main ballcarrier Sony Michel and pass catcher James White in the divisional round, with Rex Burkhead getting just 5 touches. But Burkhead got most of the work in crunch time of the title game, probably due to his versatility – with Michel or White on the field, defenses know what to expect, while Burkhead contributes as both a runner and a receiver.
Michel will definitely be the main runner, averaging 27 carries, 121 yards and scoring 5 TDs the last two games. White should be the primary receiver, catching 15 passes for 97 yards against the Chargers. But Burkhead caught just as many passes at Kansas City (4), and he’s outcarried (16-6) and outscored (3-0) White in those contests.
We’re ranking White higher, based on his favorable history (he caught 14 passes for 110 yards and 1 TD in New England’s last Super Bowl win, over Atlanta) and the matchup (Alvin Kamara caught 11 passes for 96 yards in the Rams’ last game), with White likely to be the main receiving back. The Rams allowed 6 TD receptions by running backs during the season, tied for most in the league. But Burkhead must also be factored in as a candidate for a sizable role, cutting into White’s potential. Additionally, James Develin could handle it near the goal line. He had just 8 carries this season (including 2 in the playoffs), but scored 4 TDs, all since Week 10.
WIDE RECEIVER: When the games get bigger, Tom Brady looks for Julian Edelman. The slot receiver has had double-digit targets in 11 straight playoff games, and caught at least 7 passes in 10 of those.
|EDELMAN IN THE PLAYOFFS, 2013-PRESENT|
|2013||at DEN||L 16-26||15||10||89||1|
|2015||at DEN||L 18-20||13||7||53||0|
|2018||at KAN||W 37-31||10||7||96||0|
Note that includes a pair of games against Wade Phillips defenses (2015-2016); he caught 15 passes for 190 yards in those two games. Just 3 TDs in his last 12 playoff games, so not as appealing in basic formats, but he should lead the team – both teams – in catches. Chris Hogan will play the 2nd-most snaps; that’s been the case in the other two playoff games. He’s caught 8 passes for 58 yards in those contests. Phillip Dorsett isn’t playing quite as often, but has generally been the better receiving option (in games without Josh Gordon). He had three 5-catch games during the season, all either before Gordon joined the team or after he was suspended. He’s gone 5 for 70 in the postseason, with touchdowns in both contests. We’re ranking him higher than Hogan. About two-thirds (20 of 31) of the touchdowns thrown against the Rams have gone to wide receivers. Cordarrelle Patterson hasn’t played much on offense, save for a stretch of games where he was being used at running back (when neither Michel nor Burkhead was available). He caught 21 passes during the season and just 2 more in the postseason.
TIGHT END: Rob Gronkowski disappointed for most of the regular season, then operated mainly as a blocker against the Chargers. But he stepped up in a huge way at Kansas City (6 for 79 on a team-high 11 targets), and in what might well be the final game of his Hall of Fame career, very possible he puts up good numbers again. He went for 116 yards in last year's Super Bowl, a record for a tight end, with a pair of touchdowns. Just 5 TDs by tight ends against the Rams this season, however, and Gronkowski himself isn’t the uncoverable force around the goal line he once was. He caught just 3 TDs this season. He had a huge game the last time he faced a Wade Phillips defense (8 for 144 and a touchdown in the championship game at Denver), but that was three years ago.
KICKER: Stephen Gostkowski looks like the better of the two kicking options. New England is favored, and kickers typically do better in wins, plus Greg Zuerlein has a foot injury that might bother him (assuming he’s able to play at all). Gostkowski has 18 kicking points in the first two playoff games.
DEFENSE: Jared Goff is certainly a more favorable mark than Tom Brady. Nowhere near as much experience, of course, and he was also more fantasy friendly during the regular season: 33 sacks and 17 turnovers, compared to just 21 and 13 for Brady. But give Goff (or perhaps Sean McVay) credit for playing very clean football in the postseason. Goff has been sacked only once in each game, and his lone turnover was an interception that bounced off Todd Gurley’s hands. New England was one of the best defenses at getting interceptions (18 during the season) but has a lesser pass rush (30 sacks). The matchup favors them, but we’re not expecting huge production. Cordarrelle Patterson is one of the league’s very best kick returners, though the Rams haven’t allowed a touchdown on a return in any of the last three seasons.
Rankings for Patriots players are below. We’ll do the Rams tomorrow, then merge the rankings for an overall board.
|NEW ENGLAND PLAYER PROJECTIONS|