With the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick partnership, the Patriots have a history of playing in some close Super Bowls. They've won their five Super Bowls by an average margin of 3.8 points. They've lost their three Super Bowls by an average margin of five points. Put together, their eight Super Bowl appearances have been determined by an average margin of 4.3 points.
Their first Super Bowl with Brady-Belichick came back in February 2002 against the Rams. They won on an Adam Vinatieri walk-off field goal. On Sunday, the Patriots will face the Rams in their ninth Super Bowl with Brady-Belichick, and you can stream it right here on CBSSports.com or on CBS All Access. History says the game should be close. And by most measures, the Rams are the better team.
But with my Super Bowl pick, I'm taking the Patriots to win and cover the 2.5-point spread, and I think they'll win by more than a touchdown. I'm not saying it'll be a blowout, but I am saying the Patriots are going to win comfortably over a team that, statistically speaking, is better than them.
The Rams won 13 games this season. The Patriots won 11. The Rams outscored their opposition by 143 points in the regular season. The Patriots outscored their opposition by 111 points. The Rams finished the season ranked second in DVOA. The Patriots finished seventh. When the Super Bowl matchup materialized, the Patriots immediately opened as underdogs (they've since become the favorite). By most measures, the Rams are the better team.
But I think the Patriots will win handily for one reason: Bill Belichick. Give Belichick two weeks to prepare for a matchup and he'll find weaknesses to exploit. And the Rams, despite being one of the league's best teams, have weaknesses. Give Belichick two weeks to prepare for a matchup and he'll devise a way to take away his opponent's strength. And the Rams certainly have their strengths.
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The key to this game might just be how the Patriots deal with interior pressure -- specifically, how they confront the near inevitability of Aaron Donald bursting through the trenches like a superhero.
Sorry, wrong footage. Here you go:
Game. Wrecker.@AaronDonald97's 10 best SACKS from the 2018 regular season! pic.twitter.com/k0VezUZwcn— NFL (@NFL) January 30, 2019
Donald is coming off an insane 20.5-sack season even though he plays on the interior of the line. Brady struggles -- like most quarterbacks -- against interior pressure. According to NFL Research, Brady's passer rating against interior pressure this postseason is 63.1, and the Rams force pressure from the interior at a league-high rate of 16.6 percent.
But the Patriots have the resources to slow down Donald. According to Football Outsiders, the Patriots own the league's best pass-blocking offensive line. It's an offensive line that allowed the third-fewest sacks (21) in the regular season. They surrendered none in their two playoff games against the Chiefs (and their league-high 52 sacks) and the Chargers (with Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram). The Patriots' offensive line might just be the strength of this team.
Tom Brady has been hit just once in the playoffs. One. Time. And it's not because he's had to be super nifty in the pocket countless times. I have him pressured just 11 times in 90 dropbacks. That's 12%. That's staggering #Patriots— Michael Giardi (@MikeGiardi) January 28, 2019
The fact remains that blocking Donald one-on-one is a quick and easy way to get a quarterback killed. So, expect Belichick to neutralize Donald by hitting him with double teams even if that means letting Ndamukong Suh work against only one blocker.
"If I could place one bet this week, I will bet Aaron Donald will not have any impact on this game. The Patriots will take him out. They will double-team him, they will triple-team him," Ben Volin of the Boston Globe told CBS Sports HQ's Pick Six Rundown this week. "They will let Michael Brockers wreck the game. They will let Mark Barron wreck the game. They will not let Aaron Donald wreck the game."
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This is something Belichick does over and over again. He takes away an opponent's strength and he forces someone else to beat his team. We saw it in the AFC title game when he took away Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill, who finished with one 42-yard catch on a season-low three targets and nothing else. At the Pro Bowl, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes complained about the NFC double teaming Hill with a safety over the top, saying "I feel like I'm back in the Patriots game."
"Feel like I'm back in the Patriots game" pic.twitter.com/kdmQK92G1X— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) January 27, 2019
Now, Donald is too good of a player to be completely shut out -- in the same way that Hill managed to break free for one huge play -- but the Patriots are too smart and too strong up front to let Donald completely wreck their game-plan.
Overall, I'm not that worried about the Rams' pass rush affecting this game. I think we're going to see the Patriots neutralize pressure with their quick passing game that doesn't give pass rushers time to threaten Brady.
In the regular season, Brady averaged 2.61 seconds until he released the football, the seventh quickest release time, per NFL Next Gen Stats. Without Josh Gordon, the Patriots don't really have a reliable deep threat. But that's OK. They've got James White, who has caught 19 passes this postseason. They've got Julian Edelman working out of the slot. Most importantly, they've got Brady, who knows where to go with the ball immediately, which neutralizes the pass rush.
Just ask Bosa.
Mutual respect on both sides of the ball.@jbbigbear and Tom Brady recognize each other's game. 🤝@Chargers | #NFLMicdUp pic.twitter.com/6OSIR81IFC— NFL Films (@NFLFilms) January 16, 2019
Expect another game of Brady throwing quickly underneath.
Also expect the Patriots to continue using a run-heavy approach. It worked against the Chargers when they rushed for 155 yards on 34 carries and controlled the ball for 38 minutes and 20 seconds. And it worked against the Chiefs when they rushed for 176 yards on 48 carries and controlled the ball for nearly 44 minutes in an overtime thriller, which prevented Mahomes from taking the field for more than 21 minutes.
The Patriots should go big by using fullback James Develin and turning tight end Rob Gronkowski into a dominant blocker. They should ride running back Sony Michel. The Patriots have the third-best run blocking offensive line, per Football Outsiders' metrics. The Rams' defense allowed 5.1 yards per carry in the regular season, the most in the league. And by DVOA, they ranked 28th against the run. It's worth noting, however, that they've done well to take away the ground game in the playoffs. We'll see if that trend continues on Sunday.
Defensively, the Patriots won't be able to completely stop a Rams offense that scored nearly 33 points per game in the regular season. But I'm not sure the Rams offense, at this very moment, should terrify them. Something might be wrong with Todd Gurley, who dealt with a knee injury at the end of the regular season and barely saw the field in the NFC Championship Game. And something is definitely wrong with quarterback Jared Goff since he lost his favorite target, Cooper Kupp, to a torn ACL.
This is particularly troubling:
Jared Goff has clearly been impacted by the loss of Cooper Kupp but especially under pressure. Here are his under pressure numbers via #NextGenStats. Since the injury, Goff has essentially been Josh Rosen while under pressure pic.twitter.com/CnSF0sHAwq— James Koh (@JamesDKoh) January 30, 2019
So is this: In his first 11 games this season, Goff completed 67.7 percent of his passes, averaged 9.3 yards per attempt, and threw 26 touchdowns and six interceptions. But in his past seven games, he's completed 58.9 percent of his passes, averaged 6.5 yards per pass, and thrown seven touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Don't expect Goff to suddenly fare significantly better against the Patriots. As my colleague Will Brinson pointed out, quarterbacks under the age of 25 are a career 15-75 against Belichick since 2001.
The Rams' offense operates almost exclusively out of 11 personnel (one back, one tight end, three receivers). The Patriots' defense is very good at playing against 11 personnel.
reading @SharpFootball's excellent SB preview and this jumped out: the Pats' pass D ranks #3 in success rate vs 11 personnel, and #26 (!) vs 12. could see the Rams deviating from their formula.....— Mina Kimes (@minakimes) January 30, 2019
Between Goff's recent struggles and Gurley's ... whatever it is that's affecting him right now, I don't think the Rams' offense will be at its peak on Sunday. For as genius of a play-caller and schemer Sean McVay is, he's going up against arguably the greatest coach in the history of football.
None of this is meant to be an insult to the Rams, a tremendous football team. I sincerely hope we get a close game on Sunday. It's the ending this incredible season deserves. Plus, I've been wrong nearly every game this postseason. I've been searching for answers since the regular season ended.
When in doubt, don't bet against Belichick and Brady. I ignored that very simple rule earlier in the playoffs, foolishly thinking the Chargers and Chiefs -- both better teams than the Patriots from September through December -- would beat the Patriots. I was wrong, twice. And so, I'm done picking against the Patriots. Until the empire finally collapses, I'm done doubting them.
I'm taking the Patriots to win by two scores.
The pick: Patriots 34, Rams 24