The Rams and Patriots are set to battle for the right to call themselves NFL champions this Sunday at Super Bowl 53 in Atlanta.
The game will be a rematch of Super Bowl 36 after the 2001 season when a 24-year old Tom Brady and an aggressive New England defense upset the heavily favored St. Louis Rams in New Orleans.
The 20-17 victory ignited the most dominant dynasty in league history under Brady and Head Coach Bill Belichick, who will try to ensure their sixth Lombardi Trophy in 17 seasons. The Rams, meanwhile, are seeking their first championship since moving back to Los Angeles and will rely on 33-year-old Head Coach Sean McVay and third-year quarterback Jared Goff to take down Brady in his ninth Super Bowl.
The modern L.A. Rams as we know them bursted onto the scene during the 2017 season with their first playoff appearance in 13 years. McVay got the most out of a young Goff, who struggled in his rookie season, and the Rams led the league in points per game behind star running back Todd Gurley.
An 11-5 finish in 2017 resulted in an NFC West title and a home playoff game for the Rams. They lost to the Falcons in the Wildcard Round, but the entire league was ready to count the up and coming Rams as contenders in 2018.
This was bolstered by a number of offseason acquisitions including wide receiver Brandin Cooks, defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh and cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib. They did not disappoint. The Rams began the year with a record of 8-0 before losing their first game of the year to the New Orleans Saints by a score of 45-35 on the road. They would also fall in Chicago to the Bears and at home to the Philadelphia Eagles, but scored the second most points in the NFL behind only Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs.
Their record of 13-3 earned them another division title and the conference’s two seed. They would overwhelm the Dallas Cowboys on the ground in the Divisional Round with running backs Gurley and newly-acquired C.J. Anderson. Goff did not have to do much as L.A. held off Dallas 30-22 to advance to a rematch in New Orleans.
There has understandably been a lot of talk surrounding this year’s NFC Championship and the legitimacy of the outcome. In short, the referees should have thrown a flag for pass interference on a critical third down play in the final two minutes of a tie game. This would have allowed the Saints to run out the remainder of the game and win it with a last second touchdown or field goal.
It was not called and Goff was able to set up kicker Greg Zuerlein to send the game into overtime and ultimately win it. This was an egregious officiating error, but many question why the Saints were throwing in that situation at all. Drew Brees would also get a chance to win the game with overtime’s first possession but was intercepted.
The Saints were undeniably robbed in a sense, but their high-octane offense only generated 43 points in two home games this postseason. It was the Rams defense that impressed me most throughout the NFC Championship along with Goff’s ability to stay poised when trailing 13-0 after the first quarter. He was able to hit the right throws at the right time without much help from Gurley down the stretch.
Despite historic dominance, the Patriots were questioned throughout the majority of their 11-5 season while pundits prepared for the annual downfall that never seems to come to fruition. It is true, 11-5 was the team’s worst record since they won 10 games in 2009. They were also held to 10 points on three separate occasions and Brady’s stats seemed much more down to earth than usual.
But New England still brought it when it mattered most. All five of their losses came on the road to teams that would not qualify for the postseason, but they were perfect against playoff teams with wins over Houston, Indianapolis and Kansas City at home and Chicago on the road,
New England’s 11 wins earned them the two seed in the AFC and a first round bye. They quickly erased any idea of a much anticipated letdown when they jumped out to a 35-7 lead over the Los Angeles Chargers in the first half of the Divisional Round. Brady was surgical and the running game dominant in the 41-28 win.
Despite defeating Mahomes and the Chiefs in the regular season, the Patriots would have to travel to Kansas City for the AFC Championship. After a slow first half controlled by New England, Mahomes fought back and matched Brady blow for blow to force overtime. It seemingly came down to a coin toss.
The Patriots received the kickoff to start the extra period and Brady converted on three third-and-ten throws to set up a two-yard touchdown run by Rex Burkhead to send New England to Atlanta with a 37-31 victory.
The fact that Mahomes did not touch the ball in overtime did not sit well with many. You can certainly make the case that it would be the Chiefs going to the Super Bowl had they won the coin toss, but that is just the way it goes.
Personally, I like the rule the way it is. The fact of the matter is that it simply is not easy to lead a 13-play, 75-yard drive such as Brady did. The defense had three chances to make New England punt or settle for a field goal, but could not get off the field. Besides, losing the coin toss is not necessarily a death sentence, even against a future hall-of-fame quarterback. Just ask the Rams.
I predict that the Patriots will keep on pushing forward in Super Bowl 53 to earn their sixth championship with a 31-27 win over the Rams. But regardless of experience, it is always important to keep an open mind entering the big game. I would be less surprised by a Rams victory on Sunday than I was when the Eagles knocked off the Patriots last year.