By 10 p.m. ET on Feb. 3, Tom Brady will have played in nine Super Bowls in his historic career — more than 31 NFL franchises. His longtime coach, Bill Belichick will be making his 11th appearance in the big game. At Super Bowl 53, that pair will face a third-year quarterback making only his fourth playoff start and a head coach young enough to have played against New England’s top wide receiver in college.
The Patriots’ unstoppable juggernaut of success — this is their third straight Super Bowl appearance — found a way to shut down the Chargers and outscore the Chiefs, but now they’ve got an entirely different challenge on their hands. Sean McVay’s spread offense has been so impressive it’s changed the way NFL teams hire their leaders, forcing the world to repeat phrases from an unsanctioned Cards Against Humanity knockoff like “Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury” or “the Vikings are interviewing Hue Jackson.”
There are a million numbers you could crunch to analyze a matchup between Belichick’s chameleon of a dynasty and McVay’s attempt to turn the NFL into the Big 12. There are 26 letters, too. We’re gonna do the latter today.
is for Aaron Donald, who will face the toughest assignment of a superlative season Sunday night. The supercharged defensive lineman led the league with 20.5 sacks this season, but he’s been shut out in the postseason to date. He’ll have his hands full with a Patriots offensive line that’s been amazing in protection in January; Tom Brady hasn’t been sacked once and he’s been hit just three times through two playoff games.
is for Bill Belichick, in search for his eighth Super Bowl ring. This will allow him to cover all eight of his fingers (thumbs don’t count) and make him borderline unstoppable in a fist fight. The 66-year-old is the league’s second-oldest head coach, behind only Pete Carroll. While normally that would make it a reasonable time to question whether this will be his last Super Bowl, it’s become abundantly clear the confines of time don’t apply in Foxborough.
is for Cooks. Brandin Cooks spent 2017 as a Patriot before being traded to the Rams in exchange for a 2018 first-round draft pick. Los Angeles quickly extended him in its quest to surround Jared Goff with a superteam, and that $81 million decision ... worked out pretty well!
Cooks posted a career-high 1,204 receiving yards this fall, providing a blast-off scoring threat to an offense loaded with targets like Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, and Todd Gurley. Now he’ll get the chance to make New England pay for not paying him by torching a talented-but-uneven Patriots secondary in the biggest game of the year.
These rematches have gone well for the moving player in the past. 2016 Patriots Chris Long and LeGarrette Blount joined the Eagles in 2017 as free agents. They made it back-to-back championships by ousting their former team in Super Bowl 52.
is for Danny Amendola, the oft-overlooked hero of the Patriots’ recent Super Bowls. In three NFL championship games, he had 21 catches for 278 yards, two touchdowns, and a two-point conversion. Those are better averages than Julian Edelman — the second-most prolific wide receiver in postseason history — has recorded with Tom Brady.
But Amendola’s season’s been over since December after ditching New England for a lucrative $12 million contract with Miami. Can Brady overcome the loss of his hidden hero? Will Phillip Dorsett (another fine D for our alphabet) or Cordarrelle Patterson fill the gap he left behind?
is for Samson Ebukam, whose breakout 2018 season didn’t quite come to fruition. The still-developing linebacker made his presence felt in fits and starts for an occasionally smothering defense — most notably when he turned two different Chiefs turnovers into Rams touchdowns in the greatest Monday Night Football game ever played.
is for “f&#* this game,” which will be a common reply west of Connecticut if the Patriots manage to win their third Super Bowl in five years.
is for G.O.A.T., because we already used “B” for Bill Belichick and not Tom Brady. The 41-year-old unlocks an extra level in the Super Bowl:
Tom Brady in his 8 Super Bowls, scaled up to a 16-game season:— Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) January 21, 2019
5,152 passing yards
36 touchdown passes
65.8% completion rate
7.2 yards per pass
98.0 passer rating
But his 505 passing yards and 115.4 rating last February weren’t enough to push New England to victory.
G is also for “Gronk,” the tight end who remains Brady’s reliable engine through the playoffs. Though he only had one reception against the Chargers, his blocking established the powerful running game that paced a comfortable victory in the Divisional Round. He re-emerged as a receiving threat in the AFC title game, making the Chiefs look foolish for lining him up against single coverage, even when the coverer was All-Pro safety Eric Berry.
The Patriots haven’t turned to their game-changing tight end as often as in years past, but the numbers show he’s as dominant as ever when his number is called.
is for Dont’a Hightower, the Patriots’ star inside linebacker who hasn’t quite been the same since suffering a torn pectoral muscle in 2017. The former All-Pro has been anonymous through much of 2018, averaging a career-low 3.2 tackles per game. While he still made his share of plays, that effort wasn’t enough to turn around one of the league’s least reliable rushing defenses:
This is problematic with Todd Gurley up next in his assignment sheet. At his best, Hightower is a rangy, massive presence who can clog holes at the line of scrimmage or chase down tailbacks from sideline to sideline. That’s the player New England needs to set the tone against the Rams and their top-three rushing offense.
is for identical twins. Jason and Devin McCourty spent 2018 on the same sideline for the first time since they were both at Rutgers in 2008. Jason’s pro career was defined by strong performances for a mediocre team when he spent his first eight seasons missing the postseason with the Titans, then one season that made all that seem like a vacation as his Browns went winless in 2017.
Devin, on the other hand, developed into an All-Pro safety for the Patriots, missing the playoffs zero times and winning a pair of Super Bowls in the process. It looked like more heartbreak could be in store for Jason as he sat firmly on the team’s roster bubble late in the preseason, but he turned that doubt around to regain his status as one of the league’s most dependable veteran corners. He’s been solid in the first two playoff games of his career (which came at the ripe old age of 31), knocking down a pair of passes against two of the league’s top quarterbacks.
He’ll have his hands full Sunday, because ...
is for Jared Goff, the upstart quarterback trying to follow in Eli Manning’s and Nick Foles’ footsteps by upending a favored Patriots team in the Super Bowl. Goff has gone from replacement-level rookie to MVP candidate as a starter, but his playoff numbers haven’t yet caught up. He can shred any doubt about his postseason seaworthiness by eating up the Patriots’ top 10 passing defense in the biggest game of his career.
is for Johnny HeKKer, the punter who can be called upon to throw a momentum-changing pass in a pinch. The four-time All-Pro has been masterful with his kicks, but had a career-low 43 punts this season thanks to Sean McVay’s finely tuned offense. No matter — Hekker’s been a pretty solid quarterback when his team has needed him, as well. Like in the NFC Championship Game, when Los Angeles trailed 13-0 in the second quarter and needed a jolt to jump-start its comeback effort in New Orleans:
MOVE THOSE CHAINS‼️@JHekker to Shields! pic.twitter.com/Id1tFRmKqN— Los Angeles Rams (@RamsNFL) January 20, 2019
Hekker’s career passer rating is 102.1 Tom Brady’s is 97.6. New England can’t afford to get too comfortable on fourth downs in Atlanta, as Bill Belichick is entirely aware.
“He’s a weapon on the field. He can change field position and he’s a good situational punter and obviously he’s very athletic.”
“You have to respect his ability to handle the ball... I think the main thing when you send your punt return team out there is you want to make sure you get the ball at the end of the play. That’s not always that difficult but with these guys it’s pretty challenging.”
is for launching the damn ball, which is how the Rams can take advantage of one of New England’s most exploitable weaknesses. The Patriots have a steady secondary, but they’ve been vulnerable to big plays downfield — especially on first or second down in non-obvious passing situations:
That’s a statistic that makes Sean McVay’s pupils turn into dollar signs like a 1940s cartoon. Jared Goff’s 13.9 yards per completion ranked third in the league in 2018, trailing only Ryan Fitzpatrick (who was controlled by an 8-year-old playing Madden this entire season) and Patrick Mahomes. With Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods in the lineup, Goff will have several opportunities to pick his spots downfield. The question isn’t whether he’ll complete a deep pass in Super Bowl 53, but how many.
is for Maroon 5, who will undoubtedly be the worst part of a halftime show headlined by Maroon 5.
In Canada, they’re referred to as “America’s Nickelback.”
is for no-call. You know, the one about which Saints fans are still extremely angry:
is for offense, of which there should be plenty. The Rams are the league’s second-ranked scoring offense at 32.9 points per game. The Patriots ranked fourth at 27.3. The early betting total was set at 57 points — and if that line doesn’t move, that would give Sunday’s championship game the second-highest over/under line in NFL history.
is for pass protection. For the Rams, that means getting a big performance from 37-year-old Andrew Whitworth, who has proven to be worth every penny of the three-year, $33.75-million deal signed back in 2017. That deal rescued him from Cincinnati and made him the anchor of an offensive line that’s kept Jared Goff upright long enough to become an MVP candidate.
On Sunday he’ll deal with Trey Flowers and a Patriots pass rush that was instrumental in keeping Patrick Mahomes just uncomfortable enough to escape Kansas City with a win. New England has racked up six sacks and 17 quarterback hits through two playoff games — and that’s the type of pressure that can overwhelm a 24-year-old passer making his Super Bowl debut.
Is for ShaQ Mason and AQib Talib, the two most important players on the field with Qs in their names. Mason, Pro Football Focus’s No. 1-rated offensive guard, will lead a unit tasked with keeping probable NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald away from Tom Brady. Talib, who started four playoff games with the Patriots in 2012 and 2013, will be counted on to shut Brady down through the air — like he did in the 2016 AFC title game as a member of the Denver Broncos.
is for rematch. These teams met in 2002 for Brady’s first Super Bowl, a showdown that capped a season the Patriots started with Drew Bledsoe as their starting quarterback. Brady finished that year, his second in the league, averaging a meager 189 passing yards per game. He had only 145 in Super Bowl 36, but 53 of those yards came in a frenzied final drive that ended when Adam Vinatieri kicked a game-winning field goal as the clock ran out, giving a 14-point underdog New England team its first NFL title.
is for Sony Michel, the best Patriots’ lead back since Corey Dillon. Michel has been instrumental to the New England offense this postseason, establishing the club’s ground game early to create the passing lanes through which Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski have thrived. After gaining 931 yards in 13 regular season games (eight starts), the rookie has been electric in the postseason — 242 rushing yards, a 4.6 yards per carry average, and five rushing touchdowns in two games.
His position as the lead back in the Pats’ multi-talented stable has helped push the New England running game to new heights while opening up the rest of his offense:
Michel owes much of his success to the brilliant work of his offensive line in front of him. He’ll have his skill put to the test on Sunday when he squares off against a defensive front that includes scheme-wrecking runaway boulders in Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh, and Michael Brockers.
is for Todd Gurley, whose disappearance in the NFC Championship Game was conspicuous. The two-time All-Pro has gained more than 3,900 total yards the past two seasons and led the league with 21 total touchdowns in only 14 games this season, but his impact against the Saints was ... limited.
Gurley played fewer snaps than fellow back C.J. Anderson despite the fact Anderson averaged just 2.8 yards per carry in New Orleans. If this was due to injury, the fourth-year back wasn’t letting on. He told the press his lack of playing time was because he was playing “sorry as hell” in the NFC title game. A quick look at his highlight reel bears that out:
Gurley ran for an important touchdown that kicked off his team’s comeback, but he also gained only 10 yards on four carries, dropped two passes — including the Demario Davis interception above — and struggled as a pass blocker. This was the first time in his career he’d failed to gain 100+ rushing yards in a postseason game, and Los Angeles will have to hope he can shake off his Louisiana malaise and return to his peak in a game where the Rams will need every bit of firepower they can muster.
is for underdog. The Patriots aren’t one, but they’re doing their best to believe that’s the case. It’s easy to understand why; New England is 9-1 in the last 10 games its closed as a betting underdog.
is for Kyle Van Noy, whose ability to harass Patrick Mahomes in the AFC title game helped propel the Patriots into the Super Bowl. Van Noy is one of the most “Belichick” players ever, a defensive stalwart who stalled out with his original team and then thrived in New England after being acquired for a late-round draft swap. He had 10 tackles, two sacks, one fumble forced, and accounted for -24 Kansas City yards in possibly his best performance as a Patriot to date.
is for wide receivers, which could be New England’s Achilles’ heel Sunday. The teams who beat the Patriots in 2018 — with the exception of the Dolphins, because any game ending on a 69-yard play that involves multiple laterals is an outlier among outliers — did so by shutting down Brady’s passing attack. The veteran quarterback had only 225 passing yards per game in those losses, a 4:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and an 83.6 passer rating, turning him into the rough equivalent of 2018 Joe Flacco in the process.
The Rams’ lineup of boom-or-bust defensive backs will have the opportunity to create a similar effect. With Josh Gordon suspended indefinitely by the league (again), the New England wide receiver depth chart will throw a rotating cycle of Phillip Dorsett, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Chris Hogan behind Julian Edelman. On paper, that’s a group Los Angeles should be able to handle. In practice — and against a quarterback known for turning mediocre wideouts into stars — it’ll be much tougher.
is for ReX Burkhead, who earned the call as the Patriots’ short-yardage back against the Chiefs. The results were ... uneven. Burkhead crashed into the end zone twice, including a 2-yard dive that won the game for New England in overtime:
But he also had 12 carries for just 41 yards and got famously upended on a fourth-and-1 attempt in Chiefs territory that squashed a budding scoring drive and handed a giant box of momentum to Kansas City and its electric home crowd. Burkhead only averaged 3.3 yards per carry in 2018, so he’s probably not going to scare the Rams much on the ground — but his ability to catch passes out of the backfield and turn checkdown plays into first downs means he’ll still find a way to frustrate Sean McVay at Super Bowl 53.
is for young and hungry, which is the edge the Rams will take into Sunday’s contest. The entire Rams roster has fewer career Super Bowl appearances (five) than Brady (eight). There’s no sense of championship malaise for Los Angeles, who is back in the big game for the first time since the Pats shut down the Greatest Show on Turf 17 years ago. While there’s always a chance they’ll freeze up under the bright lights of football’s biggest game, the Rams already ironed out some jitters to earn a comeback victory on a massive stage against the Saints.
Y is also for Garo Yepremian, who has nothing to do with this Super Bowl, but is still fun to think about sometimes.
is for Greg Zuerlein who, thank god, has a last name that begins with “Z.” Zuerlein was the hero of Los Angeles’ NFC title game comeback (non-referee category) after drilling a 48-yard kick to tie the game late in the fourth quarter and then parting the uprights with a 57-yard attempt — the longest game-winning kick in postseason history. “Greg the Leg” is an absolute weapon who extends the Rams’ field goal range out to the 40-yard line, and he’ll have favorable conditions in the climate-controlled environment of Mercedes-Benz Stadium Sunday.