NFL 2019 - Super Bowl
NFL 2018-19 – Super Bowl LIII
So, we made it! Made it, unscathed, to the end of another bruising NFL season. Just one game to go, the big one, Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta. The Conference Championship games may seem a lifetime ago already, but the season – like every other – seems to have flown by. It wasn’t that long ago that we were gearing up for the reigning champion Philadelphia Eagles to kick things off against the Atlanta Falcons and, here we are, about to watch the last meaningful NFL game for the best part of eight months! Super Bowl LIII might not feature your team, the pre-playoff favourites or the ones you wanted to win through from that initial dozen, but you can’t say it isn’t an intriguing match-up, as the stalwart New England Patriots – yes, them again – take on the upstart Los Angeles Rams in the magnificent Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Both teams needed overtime to reach Super Bowl Sunday, the Patriots to see off another young team on the rise in Kansas City, and the Rams to complete their fightback against Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints. New England’s post-season form has been nigh-on imperious, while LA needed a large degree of luck (and controversy) to complete their journey to the big game. And now we’re all set for a rematch of Super Bowl XXXVI….
Game of the Week
Of course, there is only one choice this week, the game that by far the biggest NFL audience of the year will tune in for. Shown on both the BBC and Sky in the UK, an expected 100 million viewers will catch the spectacle worldwide.
New England Patriots @ Los Angeles Rams
Paid pundits and armchair experts alike have been trying to write the Patriots off in recent years, but they simply refuse to comply, reinventing themselves on an annual basis and bouncing back from any hiccups in the regular season to at least be in contention for a Super Bowl berth. Eight straight AFC Conference Championship games and counting, they are now into their fifth Super Bowl in as many years and a third in succession. Only two other teams have achieved that latter feat – the 1970s Dolphins and ‘90s Bills – and there’s nothing to say that New England can’t go on to equal Buffalo’s four in a row, even if their key players are supposedly nearing the end of their careers.
The Pats made light of the sub-zero conditions at Arrowhead Stadium to pull out an early lead and then weather a high-scoring fourth-quarter storm to take the game into overtime. Winning the toss, they also won the game, with QB Tom Brady throwing for 348 yards and a touchdown and rookie running back Sony Michel adding two more scores on the ground.
The Patriots’ time of possession was almost double that of their opponent and, while Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes kept his team in the game, was unable to see the comeback through.
The Rams, meanwhile, had to travel to New Orleans for their championship showdown, having already suffered one of their three regular season losses at the Superdome. That Week 9 encounter was not only one of our Game of the Week nominees, but also proved to be one of the games of the season. Sadly, the rematch could not live up to the same offensive expectations, with defense in charge for much of the night. The Saints jumped out to an early lead, but could not build on it, allowing Los Angeles back into the game. With the game all-square and New Orleans in possession late in the final quarter, a controversial non-call from the referees allowed the Rams to get the ball back, now down by three, with enough time on the clock for a tying field goal. Both sides had possession in overtime, but a Brees interception gave Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein another chance to prove the strength of his leg as he nailed a 57-yarder for the win.
Players to watch?
This one isn’t just about the players, with both head coaches making headlines too. Taciturn Patriots head man Bill Belichick lets his resumé to do the talking for him, winning five Super Bowls as a head coach and two more as defensive co-ordinator for the New York Giants, while Sean McVay – at 33, the youngest Super Bowl head coach and just half Belichick's age – has lit up the league with his own brand of football. Now, just about every team is looking for the ‘next McVay’... And, while Sunday's game is being billed at a battle between new and old off the field, a similar storyline will play out between the hashmarks. Despite being picked off twice by the Kansas City defense, Tom Brady still orchestrated the Patriots’ fifth Conference Championship win in eight years, underlining just why he is considered the best ever by so many. The now 41-year old knows he can rely on the new batch of players around him - like running backs Michel, James White and Rex Burkhead and wide receivers Phillip Dorsett and Chris Hogan – but can also fall back on fellow veterans, such Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman. Gronkowski’s return has helped the offense, and he enjoyed possibly his best game of the season in KC, even if his numbers had previously dipped below what he usually produces. Edelman, having missed last season with injury and the start of this one to suspension, continues to be the leader of the receiving corps, Brady’s go-to guy in times of trouble, while the run game, whilst shared between a four-strong platoon, is benefiting from an improved offensive line.
Cordarelle Patterson may be seen by most as a special teams expert, and his return numbers bear out that belief, but he also provides another option for Brady - and has also featured as a running back on occasion this year. Such is the Patriot Way, with master tactician Belichick moulding his team to exploit the weakness of each and every individual opponent. New England’s defense is equally capable of adapting by the game and, even if it couldn’t prevent Mahomes and the Chiefs from piling up the points, at least contained that offense for the entire first half. While other players may be better known, there may be fewer on the roster that better exemplify Belichick’s method than Trey Flowers, the disciplined defensive end who has shone in these playoffs. Like Dont’a Hightower, Kyle van Noy, Malcolm Brown and others, Flowers is going to his third straight Super Bowl, while Adrian Clayborn returns with the team that ended his Lombardi dreams as a Falcon two years ago. Stephon Gilmore and Patrick Chung are also Patriots Super Bowl veteran and lead an ever-improving secondary into battle with the Rams offense.
That passing attack shrugged off the loss of slot receiver Cooper Kupp, despite the second-year player being a favourite target for QB Jared Goff, but the signal-caller still has Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods and Josh Reynolds to throw to, as well as the tight end tandem of Gerald Everett and Tyler Higbee, so he’s hardly short of options. If the coaching staff can return pass-catching running back Todd Gurley to the rotation, the Rams might also have a path to beating the Patriots dilatory linebackers. Gurley was the team’s workhorse through the regular season, before being slowed by injury in the final couple of weeks. While he put up MVP-calibre numbers early on, he was surprisingly under-used in the championship game against New Orleans, with the recently acquired CJ Anderson getting the most work out of the backfield. As both proved against Dallas, however, leave them unleashed and they can do equal damage. Gurley, especially, will be raring to go behind an O-line headed by veteran Andrew Whitworth on Sunday.
On defence, Ndamukong Suh continues to play like a man who realises his Super Bowl window could be closing. Having joined the Rams to pursue a ring, he was largely anonymous during the regular season, before returning to prominence in the Dallas game, adding to the threat already offered by fellow interior lineman Aaron Donald. With Michael Brockers as consistent as ever, and former Jaguar Dante Fowler showing flashes of form in the post-season, the Rams D line will need to be watched closely by the Patriots. Despite playing two seasons in New England, cornerback Aqib Talib didn’t feature in a Super Bowl until he moved on to Denver, winning his first Lombardi against Carolina. Now he returns with the Rams, heading up a dangerous secondary alongside the mercurial Marcus Peters and an impressive pair of safeties in John Johnson and Lamarcus Joyner. Of course, if this is anything like the Conference Championship games, it could come down to the kickers to settle things. While the Patriots have Super Bowl veteran Stephen Gostkowski to call on, few showed calmer nerves when it mattered than the Rams’ Greg Zuerlein. Both teams should be in good hands (or is that feet?).
So, there we are. Rams vs Patriots, just as it was in January 2002. The Rams with a high-powered offense and impressive defense, the Patriots with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick at the controls, just as it was in 2002.
On that occasion, New England won despite being the underdog, kick-starting a dynasty that has stretched fully 17 years. Is this a fitting end to that run, or merely a continuation? Whoever you’re cheering for this weekend, or even if you’re entirely neutral hoping for a great Super Bowl…. Enjoy!