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Super Bowl LIII preview: Patriots pursue record sixth Super Bowl title

The Rams aim to avenge the last championship loss, which came at the hands of Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and New England 17 years ago.

Tom Brady will make his ninth career Super

Tom Brady will make his ninth career Super Bowl appearance on Sunday, when the Patriots face the Rams in a rematch of Super Bowl XXXVI. Photo Credit: Getty Images/Jamie Squire

Much has changed since the New England Patriots first met the Rams in the Super Bowl, 17 years ago. 

Back then, the now-Los Angeles Rams played in St. Louis. During the 2001 season, only two quarterbacks surpassed 4,000 passing yards; 12 QBs reached that mark this season. At the time, New England was a heavy underdog led by a quarterback who wasn't the Week 1 starter. 

But that young passer, Tom Brady, and his head coach, Bill Belichick, are a constant as the two franchises square off again in Super Bowl LIII on Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Some things don't change.

How they got here

This season was, more or less, business as usual for the Patriots (13-5), who are set to play in their ninth Super Bowl out of the last 18 and in pursuit of their record sixth title. After beginning the season at 1-2, Belichick refocused his team to engineer a six-game winning streak that left little doubt they would win their 10th consecutive AFC East drown; their 15th in 16 years. 

Having locked up the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye, the Pats overwhelmed the visiting Los Angeles Chargers early in their Divisional Round matchup. Led by an effective Brady and a three-touchdown running back Sony Michel, they led 38-7 with just under 7 minutes to play in the third quarter before coasting to a 41-28 win.

In the AFC Championship Game against the host Kansas City Chiefs, the Patriots jumped out to a 14-0 first-half lead before Kansas City roared back to take a 21-17 advantage midway through the fourth quarter. Defense quickly dissipated, with three touchdowns and a field goal scored over the final 3:32 of regulation to force overtime. After winning the coin toss, New England methodically marched downfield before Rex Burkhead punched in a two-yard run for the game-winning touchdown to reach the Super Bowl.

The Rams (15-3), led by the youngest coach in Super Bowl history in 33-year-old Sean McVay, hit the throttle early in 2018, winning their first eight games and moving to 11-1 after the first weekend of December. A pair of consecutive losses to the Chicago Bears and Philadelphia Eagles cost them the top seed in the NFC, but L.A. nonetheless secured a first-round bye.

With the Dallas Cowboys in town, the Rams opened their postseason run with a dominant rushing effort. Split fairly even between star running back Todd Gurley and veteran C.J. Anderson, they dashed past Dallas to the tune of 273 rushing yards and punched their NFC Championship Game ticket with a 30-22 victory.

Returning to New Orleans to face the Saints meant avenging the Rams' first loss of the season. Los Angeles started slow, with New Orleans opening up a 13-0 lead after the first quarter. Steadily, the Rams crept up as the game wore on and tied it at 20 apiece with 5:03 left in regulation.

As the Saints marched into scoring range, Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman appeared to clearly commit pass interference on opposing receiver Tommylee Lewis, but no penalty flag was thrown. New Orleans settled for a field goal, which was matched by L.A. with 19 seconds to go and forced overtime. After the Rams picked off Saints quarterback Drew Brees on their first possession, kicker Greg Zuerlein sent a kick 57 yards through the uprights for the game-winning field goal and their first Super Bowl berth since losing to the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI.

How they match up

Although both possess talented quarterbacks in Brady and the Rams' Jared Goff, these teams were a cut above thanks to their dominant ground attack. Gurley powered his way to a league-leading 21 touchdowns this season, with the bulk of them coming on carries. Behind him and Anderson, L.A. ranked third in the NFL in rushing yards, and first among teams without a mobile quarterback. New England was fifth in team rushing yards largely thanks to rookie Sony Michel and James White, a hero of the Pats' last Super Bowl victory two years ago.

Don't be surprised if both teams continue to put up gaudy rushing numbers. The Rams allowed 5.1 yards per carry this season, a league high. New England, at 4.9 per attempt, wasn't much better; however, they surrendered the second-fewest rushing TDs (7) compared to the Rams' 12th-ranked total of 12. 

But, this being the modern NFL, passing is still the name of the game for both teams. Goff and the Rams were fifth in passing yards, while Brady and the Pats ranked eighth as a team. Brady benefited from some of the best pass protection in the league, as his offensive line allowed the third-fewest sacks (21). Goff's own blockers held their own with 33 sacks allowed, tied for eighth.

However, Goff has a troubling tendency to fumble, a stat in which he tied for the league lead with 12. Counting the postseason, he has fumbled in each of his last eight games, with multiple bungles in a pair of games.

Brady could take more hits than usual if the line can't contain NFL sack leader Aaron Donald. But even Donald's presence wasn't enough to dramatically hamper opposing quarterbacks' effectiveness. The Rams allowed a 65.1 completion percentage this season, 20th in the league. and more touchdown passes (31) than any other playoff team this year. Much of their defensive troubles, both against the pass and the run, are linked to lackluster linebackers, rather than so-so play from the secondary.

The Pats' defense fared significantly better despite a deceptively effective pass rush. Their 30 sacks tied for second-worst in the league, but they still held quarterbacks to a 61.2 completion percentage that ranked No. 2 in the NFL. That's a credit to their defensive backfield, headlined by All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore.

Who will win

In victory and defeat, every Patriots' Super Bowl appearance of the Brady/Belichick era has been decided by one score. Each of the Rams' big game appearances the past two decades was decided by a touchdown or less. Both teams needed overtime to win their respective conference crowns on Jan. 20. Conventional wisdom dictates another down-to-the-wire championship matchup is on the horizon Sunday.

If that's the case, limiting mistakes are as crucial as ever. In that respect, Los Angeles may be more likely than New England to lose through their own miscues. The specters of Goff's ball security issues and the team's inability to slow down the run loom large as potentially damning issues. Just don't expect a ton of penalties in this game, as both teams were among the league leaders in fewest flags drawn.

Conversely, the Rams are just as likely to maximize their opportunities. Gurley, at his best, is a transcendent talent who can break off big plays both as a runner and weapon in the passing attack. As long as his lackluster NFC title game effort was just a blip, there's a good chance he feasts on the Pats' soft run defense. They also possess the more reliable placekicker in Greg Zuerlein, who has one of the strongest legs in the sport; in a close game, that's an invaluable asset.

While Goff isn't perfect, he's a good passer most of the time with a bevy of useful options at his disposal. Gilmore will hamper either Brandin Cooks or Robert Woods, but he can't cover both at once. And that doesn't account for Gurley, receiver Josh Reynolds or tight ends Gerald Everett and Tyler Higbee, all of whom can make plays.

Brady's path to victory will look a lot like it did against the other Los Angeles team earlier in the AFC playoffs. He'll want to limit mistakes and let Michel, White and Burkhead do as much of the work as possible. Receiver Julian Edelman surely will see his fair share of looks, but they'll need tight end Rob Gronkowski to play at the elite level he achieved against the Chiefs instead of his substandard contributions seen throughout much of the last two months.

One expects the Patriots will bring their usual high level of play, but it remains to be seen of Brady can elevate as a savior-level playmaker at this stage. He's been more solid than spectacular this postseason, and his heroics have bailed out his team more than once. He tallied more interceptions than touchdown passes against the Chiefs, something that hasn't happened since losing the AFC Championship Game three years ago. He'll also have to contend with Donald and nose tackle Ndamukong Suh bearing down on him, bringing the kind of inside pressure that has put him off his game in the past. 

Again, this one should come down to the wire. But, as long as Goff limits turnovers and Gurley and Donald play the way he have most of the season, the Rams have what it takes to avenge their last Super Bowl loss to New England and bring L.A. its first championship since the NFL returned to Tinseltown three years ago.

Scott's prediction

Rams 31, Patriots 27

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