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The Game Manager, Super Bowl preview: The end of an era

Win or lose, this has to be the way the Patriots epic run ends, right? Right?! RIGHT?!

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NFL: AFC Championship Game-New England Patriots at Kansas City Chiefs
Brady: “You never close your eyes anymore when I kiss your lips...” Belichick: “And there’s no tenderness like before in your fingertips...”
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Hello, friends. Welcome to the end of the New England Patriots dynasty.

It has to be. I mean, they’re playing 17 years to the day after it began, against the same team, in another domed stadium in the south.

Not into symbolism? Here’s a fact: Age is taking its toll on Tom Brady. Eight straight appearances in conference championship games can’t hide that. Even a referee from California can see it. Hell, Brady himself readily admits it.

Also, Bill Belichick is clearly getting soft in his old age. Why else would he be texting Sean McVay after games like some love-sick teenybopper.

Or maybe I’m just bored and making up storylines like everybody else. It’s been a long two weeks without football — real football anyway — but there’s still a game left, so we need something to talk about. And this year’s Super Week hasn’t provided anything truly noteworthy, like Jim McMahon mooning a helicopter and calling New Orleans women “sluts.” There’s no obvious injury which might affect a star player in the game, like Jerry Rice 30 years ago or Terrell Owens 14 years ago (against this same damn quarterback/coach combo!). Of course, sometimes you have to wait until the night before the game for the big story to break. Until then, let’s find a little meat on this bone.

  • Fashion police: The Rams will be the first team to wear throwbacks in the Super Bowl since the 49ers in 1995.
  • Two words: Male cheerleaders.
  • Odd statistical trend: In the Wild Card round, road teams ran wild (three won, all four covered). In the Divisional round, home teams dominated (all four won, three covered). In the Championship games, it was the road teams turn to shine again (both winning and covering). That means in the Super Bowl, it should be the home team turn again. Except it’s at a neutral site, so... hmmm.

These storylines are tougher than they look. Maybe I should just talk about the game. How about the seven people I think will matter most on Sunday. That doesn’t feel random at all!

7. Wade Phillips

That’s right, this son of a Bum:

He won a Super Bowl three years ago by getting after league MVP Cam Newton and shutting down a 15-1 team. And they had to beat the Patriots in the AFC championship to get there, holding them to 18 points, and forcing Brady into one of the worst performances of his career (48.2 completion percentage, two interceptions, four sacks, and a 56.4 rating). That was with a different team, and he had Von Miller, but now he has Aaron Donald and he’s already conceived a genius strategy.

6. Aaron Donald

Speaking of Donald, nobody is better at their position. And while that’s not as vital as having a great quarterback, Donald can own a game. We’ve seen pass rushers dominate Super Bowls before -- from Miller to the Giants rush in both their upsets of the Patriots. New England knows this, of course, and will do everything possible to keep Donald off Brady, who has a 65 QB rating this postseason when pressured up the middle. But with Ndamukong Suh playing well, they may not be able to focus solely on Donald. If they do, chaos may N. Suh.

5. Todd Gurley

Gurley barely showed up for last week’s game. What little impact he had was mostly negative. He had two huge drops early, the first becoming an interception — and gifting New Orleans three points, the second potentially costing the Rams four points as it killed a drive and forced a field goal.

Though he would later score a TD, he was largely used as C.J. Anderson’s backup. Most of his highlights consisted of him stretching on the sideline to stay loose.

If Gurley’s really hurt, which he’s denied, that would seem to violate the NFL’s rules regarding the injury report. That Gurley was also behind Anderson in caries (23-16) the week prior vs. Dallas lends credence to that. Especially since it wasn’t a blowout, and Gurley was very productive, gaining 115 yards, including a 35-yard TD. Why ration his carries in the playoffs when he’s going off?

In either case, Gurley’s health/performance will be critical. One of the best receiving backs in the league, he provides an advantage against New England’s notoriously slow linebackers in a way C.J. Anderson can’t. Gurley’s presence has also allowed Goff to become a play-action superstar, and it’s no secret the key to stopping the Rams is to stifle their robust play action game.

4. Sean McVay

Last week, I talked about McVay not going on 4th and goal against the Saints, and how it was surprising for a guy known as a risk-taker. After all, he just taken a huge one with the Rams down 13-0 in the 2nd quarter. At the time, the Rams were DOA in NOLA -- no first downs, and only five yards -- until McVay called for a fake punt by fake punt specialist Johnny Hekker.

On the face of it, it’s a risky call, asking for a completion from a punter to a cornerback. But for Hekker, a former high school quarterback, it was his 12th NFL completion, and his pass went to Sam Shields, who was a wide receiver at the University of Miami before converting to defense. That call was McVay taking a page out of Sean Payton’s book from the previous week, calling a fake punt from his own 30, down two scores early. It led to three more first downs and the Rams first score, halting the Saints momentum and getting Jared Goff into a rhythm he wouldn’t lose for the rest of the game.

But that 4th down FG attempt from inside the 1-yard line with a chance to take the lead wasn’t McVay’s only conservative call. Moments earlier, he caught flak for giving up on a 3rd and 15 deep in own territory, and calling a draw. That led to the Saints getting ball in Rams territory.

But this one I get. The risk/reward ratio was not in his favor. Only down 3, can afford giving up a FG, but can’t afford giving up a TD. McVay didn’t want to force Goff into risky throw in tough spot against an all-out rush when it probably wouldn’t lead to points even if they got the first down.

It shows McVay can be a swashbuckling risk-taker, or conservative and patient depending on game situation. That’s a good thing. Sometimes you need to make something happen, and sometimes you need top let the game come to you. Knowing the difference is one of the things that separates good coaches from championship coaches (See: Reid, Andy). McVay will need every bit of that aggressiveness/restraint balance when he faces the master on Sunday.

3. Jared Goff

With all the talk about the blown call in New Orleans last week, a fairly large development was skimmed over. Jared Goff really ascended late in that game, under the utmost pressure.

I’ve never been completely sold on Goff. Actually, I’ve been all over the map. He seemed like a bust his first year, then his success his second season seemed more a product of McVay, and to lesser extent Todd Gurley. This year alone, he’s been all over the map -- amazing in primetime against Minnesota to the point I wondered how I’d doubted him, and so bad in primetime against the Bears to make me start doubting him all over again.

It was a crazy atmosphere in the Superdome all day -- ridiculously loud, and echoing with whistles during every play the Rams ran, making it sound like the play was constantly being blown dead. It even forced them to make unorthodox changes to Goff’s helmet.

Goff found himself down 13-0, ears ringing, and no Gurley to lean on, and all the pressure on him. So what did he do? Start hitting big plays down the field. After a field goal drive, he hit two huge pass plays on the Rams last drive of 1st half. The first was a 3rd and 10 conversion to reach the edge of FG range, where a stop would’ve enabled the Saints to get the ball back already up seven or 10 with a chance to tack on before halftime. But a long completion to Brandin Cooks moved the ball to the Saints goal line. The Rams scored to draw within 13-10 at half.

After two huge pass plays gave the Rams a 1st and goal with a chance to take the lead with under eight minutes left in the game, Goff made his lone high-profile error. Goff failed to recognize he had an easy TD run to the corner after rolling out, costing them the go-ahead TD and left them with a 4th and goal inside the 1-yard line. Because McVay got conservative and chose not to go, Goff’s choice not to run cost L.A. the lead — and nearly the game.

But after the Saints scored, he quickly led the Rams down the field for the game-tying FG at the end of regulation, then made two huge throws in OT. Twice he had a free rusher in his face for what looked like a sure sack, didn’t panic, wheeled quickly and hit TE Tyler Higbee in the flat for a total of 18 crucial yards to get them into range for the game-winning FG.

If he can play in that atmosphere, under those conditions, why can’t he succeed against the Patriots defense at a neutral site?

1 (tie). Tom Brady/Bill Belichick

There’s nothing to say about the Patriots that hasn’t already been written. They’ve engendered a level of animus and respect we’ve never seen before. The closest I can come up with is the 49ers, during their run in the 80s and 90s.

49ers 1981-1998: 18 seasons, 16 playoff appearances, 10 championship games, five Super Bowl titles (5-0)

Patriots 2001-2018: 18 seasons, 16 playoff appearances, 13 championship games, five Super Bowl titles (5-3) — so far

There’s one big difference between the two runs — besides the fact the Patriots have made almost twice as many Super Bowls, and that the 49ers weren’t nearly as reviled in their day. The 49ers used two Hall of Fame quarterbacks and two coaches to win their Super Bowls, and were on to coach number three by the 18th year of their run. The Patriots have used one QB and one head coach.

New England has had all sorts of helpful offensive weapons over the years -- Rob Gronkowski, Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Corey Dillon, etc. Not to mention this little guy who always comes up big when it matters:

But they’ve also had a lot of years where their receiver corps was full of ordinary talents, and they used a combination of journeymen at running back. No matter who the supporting cast has been, Tom Brady has made it work.

Brady may get all the calls. He may get all the breaks, and he may even be a cheater (proved by science!). But when he has the ball at the end of game and needs a score to win, you expect it to happen. Last week, he did it three times in a row. He was so good, it spawned conspiracy theories.

Meanwhile, Bill Belichick’s talent evaluation and ability to coach ‘em up is legendary, but his defenses have slipped as the team has relied more and more on Brady and the offense over the years. What was once a strength of the team is now just good enough to hold on while Brady wins big games. A huge part of that is Belichick, who might be the best in-game strategist in the league. You can’t overestimate the advantage of having the better coach in every matchup, especially in the playoffs.

Last week, the Chiefs probably had the better overall talent, and gave the Pats all they could handle, but in the end Andy Reid did what he does best: Lose in the conference championship game. Just ask Eagles fans. Meanwhile, Belichick did what he does best: Come up with game plans to take advantage of good teams’ weaknesses in big games. His teams are now 5-1 in postseason games where they face the No. 1 offense from the regular season. (The Rams were second in yards and third in points.)

Brady and Belichick are the two most accomplished people at the two most important jobs on the field. They make the Patriots the favorite going into every game as far as I’m concerned. Regardless of the talent elsewhere on the field, having the best QB and coach is enough to sway any game. So they are always my pick.

Prediction: Patriots 30, Rams 27*

*Their 20-17 score from 17 years ago after inflation, but I know it’s wrong because Romo already told us the score.

Poll

Who will win the Super Bowl?

This poll is closed

  • 51%
    Patriots
    (56 votes)
  • 9%
    Rams
    (10 votes)
  • 39%
    Isn’t there some way they can both lose?
    (43 votes)
109 votes total Vote Now