Ahead of the biggest game of the NFL season, it would be easy to talk about the spectre of Tom Brady playing in his almost unfathomable 9th Super Bowl or how Jared Goff has skyrocketed from a potential draft bust under Jeff Fisher to leading his team to the big game under the tutelage of Sean McVay. But, in recent weeks especially, the running game has been a huge factor (in different ways) for both teams and will have a decisive impact in the outcome of this game.
The Patriots have put up huge rushing numbers in their last two games, at home to the Chargers and then on the road against the Chiefs. Against LA, they ran the ball 32 times for 156 yards, dominating time of possession statistics with their offence spending over 38 minutes on the field. A week later against the Chiefs, they ran the ball a monstrous 47 times for 177 yards and put up even bigger time of possession numbers, clocking nearly 44 minutes.
Brady hasn’t been spectacular, but he’s been incredibly efficient. This is largely down to the fact that the running game has taken a weight off his shoulders. Beyond that, it gave opposing quarterbacks Philip Rivers and Patrick Mahomes limited time to go to work on the Patriots D.
Mahomes very nearly pulled it off, to a point where you think that had it not been for the running game allowing the Pats to control the clock, they likely would have lost. As long as they have Brady under centre, you wouldn’t call the Patriots a running team. But it is abundantly clear that Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels are using the running game as another weapon against their opponents, almost as a defensive tactic.
The Chargers and Chiefs possess more offensive talents, as do the Rams, but keeping them off the field is a big part of the battle for the perennial AFC champs. The Rams pose a tougher challenge for the Pats, boasting a defensive line interior of terrifying proportions – Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh.
Despite ranking last in the league in yards per attempt conceded, the Rams have stepped up in the postseason, shutting down formidable opponents such as Ezekiel Elliot, Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram. McDaniels will have to be clever in drawing up plays for Sony Michel, James White and Rex Burkhead.
Donald is a freak, the best defensive player in the league. Suh is one of the best run stoppers in the game. But the Patriots have shown over repeatedly during the Belichick era that they won’t run from a challenge. Look for them to double Donald at the point of attack and run at him, taking away his ability to blast through gaps and blow run plays up from behind and also to wear him down early. According to Pro Football Focus, Donald unsurprisingly led the league in fourth quarter and overtime pressures. So, although the tactic to wear him down may not work, it is absolutely worth a try to slow him down late in the game.
The Rams have evolved as a running team in a much different way. The Patriots evolved as a product of their coaching, but the Rams evolved due to their personnel.
In their NFC Championship Game win over the Saints, Todd Gurley did not look like the player who was made the highest paid running back in the game last offseason. The month prior to that, he’s had to play second fiddle to a reinvigorated C.J. Anderson – who would have seen that coming? In his 4 games as a Ram, Anderson has racked up 466 yards (116.5ypg) on 82 carries. 5.5ypa is a mark that will worry the Patriots D to say the least.
If the Rams can get Gurley going off the back of the battering ram like work of Anderson, it will take a tonne of pressure off the shoulders of young quarterback Goff and further fuel a potent offence that also boasts the talents of Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods and Tyler Higbee. The Rams will need everyone firing to give them options against a Patriots defence that will undoubtedly give them multiple looks and challenges. If they do have everyone on song, putting all of this at the fingertips of one of the most exciting young playcallers of the modern age in McVay makes for a frightening prospect for the legendary defensive mind of Bill Belichick.
So, whilst the odds favour the MVP going to the likes of Brady, Goff or even Donald, do not be surprised if one of Michel, White, Gurley or Anderson take home the honour after running their team to victory.