2018 NFL Super Bowl Pick: Same Old Story
Last Week: 1-1
After five straight years of home victories in the Conference Championship round, both road teams won last week with the help of some curious officiating and even more curious clock management. Just a few hours after the Rams punched their ticket with a 57-yard overtime field goal, the Patriots won the overtime kickoff and never looked back, much like they did in the 2016 Super Bowl against Atlanta. The resulting matchup is an interesting split: Sean McVay and Jared Goff, with a combined 5 years of head coach/QB experience, going against Bill Belichick and Tom Brady and their combined 36 years. Let’s see how the teams match up!
New England Patriots -1.5 “at” Los Angeles Rams
In (incorrectly) predicting last week’s New England-Kansas City game, I referenced some of New England’s severe home/road splits over the course of the season. Their offensive efficiency wasn’t drastically different, but their defense struggled on the road and nearly let Patrick Mahomes steal the AFC Championship game with 24 points in the fourth quarter. With the Super Bowl in Atlanta, it’s hard to tell what we should expect from the Patriots’ defense. If we get their standard home performance, the Rams will struggle to run the ball and be stuck hoping to keep New England’s offense under 30 points. If they play like the defense we saw in their road games against teams like the Bears, Titans, and Dolphins, Los Angeles won’t have any trouble exceeding their season average of 32.9 points per game. A big chunk of their effectiveness could depend on Todd Gurley, who missed much of the second half of the NFC Championship game with a mysterious injury; the Patriots were 22nd against passes to running backs, and Gurley finished the season with 59 catches for an average of 9.8 yards per catch. If he’s back to 100%, he’ll create a mismatch on third downs and open up the rest of the offense for Jared Goff. A couple of first half touchdowns from the Rams could help them avoid the Chiefs’ fate; Jared Goff is better than some of his critics believe, but he’s not Patrick Mahomes.
With the Patriots’ offense, not much has changed. Tom Brady is still killing teams with 1,000 slant routes and the occasional deep shot, and every third down conversion feels inevitable and far too easy. The quality of their offensive line play sets this team apart from previous New England AFC Champion teams (and there are so many to choose from). Despite a raucous Kansas City crowd, the Patriots kept Tom Brady clean and gave him time when needed, especially on crucial 3rd-and-longs. The Rams, led by Aaron Donald and Ndomakung Suh, will need to do better to have a chance to win. As the Eagles showed last year, you might be better off counting on one or two big plays than hoping to stop Tom Brady consistently. If New England sticks to the same script they’ve used thus far in the playoffs, they’ll be running the ball with heavy personnel early, controlling the clock and churning through first downs while the Rams’ explosive offense watches from the sideline. Los Angeles struggled all year against the run, finishing 28th in rush defense DVOA, but looked strong in their first two playoff games against the Cowboys and Saints. Making Brady throw early would be a huge win for the Rams, as silly as it sounds.
Neither team has a decided advantage on special teams, though Stephen Gostkowski has missed a number of critical kicks in big playoff games over the past few years. Cordarelle Patterson is a great kickoff returner, but Greg Zeurlein rarely allows any return at all. Johnny Hekker is known more for passing than being a spectacular punter, and I doubt the Rams will catch the Patriots napping.
The coaching comparison is very interesting. Sean McVay is a great offensive game planner, and hiring Wade Phillips to coordinate the defense was a fantastic choice. Phillips has done well against New England in recent years, especially during his stint with the Broncos, but he struggled against them when he was the head coach of the Texans, so I don’t think you can say he’s found the magic formula to stopping the Patriots. I don’t need to spend much time on Belichick; apart from the rare odd call (running up the middle last week, letting Gronk play safety against the Dolphins), he consistently makes the right choice in terms of game plan and game management, and gives his team every little advantage available. The only concern I have around coaching on either side is McVay’s conservative approach to fourth downs. He’s been one of the least aggressive coaches in the NFL this year in fourth-and-short situations, and passing up an opportunity to extend a drive and keep Brady off the field could cost the Rams a Super Bowl.
I expect this game to be close throughout, and a couple missteps from Goff early on could be the difference. If McVay settles for a field goal in a dumb spot, the Patriots could gain a slight edge that they never relinquish. For all the talent the Rams have assembled, they’re more likely to make a small mistake than a team with Belichick and Brady at the helm. Both offenses will score early and often, but I’m taking the Patriots, 38-35.
That's all for this week! Kick back, grab a drink, and feel free to blame me if you put money on these picks and come out behind. I won't compensate you, but maybe your significant others will send their wrath in my direction instead of yours.