While there are multiple paths to victory for each team, I’m going to focus on two keys of the game. These are the two main storylines to watch Sunday night.
Matchup No. 1: Sean McVay vs. Bill Belichick
Belichick is a defensive mastermind, even going back to Super Bowl XXV. As the Giants’ defensive coordinator, Belichick engineered a nickel defensive package, which was extremely rare at the time, to stop the high-powered Buffalo Bills’ K Gun offense. The Bills had an explosive no-huddle offense that relied on the legs of Thurman Thomas but also the run after the catch. Belichick determined limiting the run after the catch was the best way to limit big plays. The Giants’ defense focused on that while “allowing” Thomas to get his on the ground. It worked.
That’s what Belichick has done best throughout his career: design a plan to take away your best option.
Look at the Patriots’ last two games. Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen had six targets and two catches. The following week, Tyreek Hill had four targets and one reception for the Chiefs. To defeat a Belichick defense, your offense must be multiple. It must have many options, formations, and ways to generate points. It can’t be predictable with formations and personnel groupings.
Just study what the Eagles did last Super Bowl as the game plan. It’s why Andy Reid has been successful against the Patriots in recent years, despite the loss in the AFC Championship Game. Even with that loss, the Chiefs have scored 30+ in four of their last five meetings against the Patriots. They are multiple.
The Rams, while having a high-powered offense, aren’t very multiple with formations, personnel, and run plays. From Weeks 1-15, the Rams were in 11 personnel (one tight end, one running back, and three wide receivers) 99 percent of the game! And we saw toward the end of the season that the Rams’ offense got bogged down.
Since Week 15, the Rams have “only” used 11 personnel 76 percent of the time, opting to bring in an extra tight end to run 12 personnel the rest of their snaps.
This change was welcomed because it broke the Rams’ tendencies.
It also coincided with C.J. Anderson entering the lineup the last three games of the season. With Anderson, the Rams became a more downhill running team, ditching their use of outside zone to run more inside zone and “quicker” hitting run plays. While the Patriots are a multi-run scheme team, the Rams major in just one scheme: the zone. They run inside and outside zone, and then mix it with some toss plays.
The Rams don’t vary much with formations. They stay in close formations and use fly sweeps, jet motions, and other formational advantages to run the ball and set up their play-action passing. It’s clearly working, and I’m not in any way saying the Rams need to be any different. However …
This is where Bill Belichick has been outstanding.
Since 2001, the Patriots have faced a top-five scoring offense in the playoffs 13 times. They are 10-3, only allowing 21.3 points per game while forcing 21 turnovers.
So, that was a long-winded way of saying I’m fascinated to see how, or if, McVay does things differently in this game. Belichick can look at the game plan of former defensive coordinator and current Lions head coach Matt Patricia. The Lions played well against the Rams earlier in the season, even in a loss. They were able to keep the Rams in check for most of the game, and it could be the blueprint for success on Sunday for the Patriots.
The Rams have to know the Patriots will attempt to stop Brandin Cooks and find ways to limit the Rams run game. Again, it doesn’t mean they will, but they will try. What does McVay do to counter that?
This is by far what I’m looking forward to most in this game. A young offensive wizard against the grizzled old defensive wizard! Can’t wait to watch this matchup!
Matchup No. 2: Ndamukong Suh vs. Tom Brady
We all know what Aaron Donald can do. The Patriots know this. Every offensive line knows it. The Patriots will double Donald in pass pro and find every which way to eliminate him in the run game. They will wham, whack, trap, cut, and double-team him in the run game. They will send help toward him in the pass game.
So that leaves Suh one-on-one most of the game. That’s nothing new. It’s been that way most of the season.
And while Suh played well this season, he’s taken it to another level in the playoffs.
Against the Cowboys, he made the fourth-down stop that clinched the game. Against the Saints, he had 1.5 sacks and was a force all game. The Rams MUST have Suh play well this weekend because we know Tom Brady’s kryptonite is pressure up the middle.
In Brady’s three Super Bowl losses, he’s been beaten up. Brady is completing only 35 percent of passes when hit in the big game compared to 64 percent when not hit. Taking it a step further, in 2018 when Brady was pressured up the middle his passer rating was 63. Against all other pressure it was 118. So clearly the Rams need to pressure Brady up the middle.
It’s on Suh if Donald will be doubled. Suh winning his one-on-one matchups is the single biggest key to victory for the Rams.