As the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams prepare for Super Bowl LIII, STATS looks at some crucial factors that could decide this year’s champion.
For the vast majority of this decade, February in New England has been governed by two equal, evident axioms; it is bitterly cold and the Patriots are in the Super Bowl.
Despite what was a relatively lackluster (by their standards) regular season campaign that saw New England go 11-5, the Patriots advanced to their fourth Super Bowl in the last five seasons after traveling to Kansas City and defeating the top-seeded Chiefs in thrilling overtime fashion.
This time around, the Los Angeles Rams appear the perfect foil in every regard, an upstart contender with the league’s youngest head coach ready to take on one of the greatest dynasties in NFL history.
The Patriots (2nd) and Rams (4th) each finished among the league’s best for most plays run on offense during the regular season. Other than their dynamic offenses, what factors stand out when it comes time to crown this season’s champion? Will Tom Brady and Bill Belichick further cement their legacies as possibly the greatest quarterback and coach tandem of all time, or will the torch finally be passed to the younger generation as the Rams seek their first title since returning to Los Angeles in 2016? With the offensive prowess of each side a given, STATS looked at three additional factors that could decide who takes home the Lombardi Trophy in this year’s big game.
Time of Possession
It’s a simple truth; there’s a direct correlation between time of possession and winning in the NFL. In each of this season’s 10 playoff games, the team that won time of possession additionally won the game. In last year’s Super Bowl, when the Eagles defeated the Patriots 41-33, the Eagles won the time of possession battle 34:04 to 25:56. With Philadelphia holding a slim 29-26 lead entering the fourth quarter, the Eagles had the ball for nearly 60 percent of the quarter. Just ask the Chiefs how important taking the ball out of Tom Brady’s hands is after New England dominated possession to the tune of 43:59 to 20:53 in the 37-31 AFC Championship game win.
During the regular season, New England had the majority of the possession in 10 of its 16 games and went 1-4 in the ToP battle in its five losses. Their lone game defeat while winning time of possession came against Miami, when the Dolphins won on the final play of the game on a couple of laterals for a walk-off touchdown. Additionally, New England lost time of possession but won the game outright in victories over Green Bay and Indianapolis.
When New England defeated the Los Angeles Chargers in the Divisional Round they again dominated time of possession by nearly 17 minutes. If the Rams want to avoid a similar fate as their AFC counterparts, they must find a way to cut those numbers down to something more favorable. Getting key defensive stops and running a balanced yet unpredictable offense should provide the opportunities they need.
In the three defeats the Rams suffered during the regular season, they lost the time of possession battle in each game, while additionally losing time of possession in victories over Seattle twice and Minnesota.
Quarterback Pressures and Team Defense
Line play in the NFL isn’t sexy or flashy for the average viewer, but more often than not a highlight-reel play made by a skill position player downfield can be traced back to a battle won along the line of scrimmage.
STATS has graded the offensive lines for the Rams and Patriots among the league’s best, but the Rams have a slight advantage. Our metrics had them as the fourth best in pass protection this season as well as seventh best in run blocking; New England ranks seventh and ninth in those categories, respectively. The Patriots yielded just 21 sacks during the regular season, third best in the league, and have yet to allow one in the postseason. Los Angeles allowed 33 during the regular season, tied for eighth best, and has allowed one for a loss of eight yards in the postseason.
New England found a way to neutralize Kansas City’s Chris Jones in the AFC title game. Jones, who had 40 tackles and 15.5 sacks (third best in the NFL) during the regular season, did not record a single tackle in the loss against New England. The Patriots will attempt to do the same with Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who led the league in sacks this season with 20.5 and has been a nightmare for opposing fronts in a campaign that will likely net him Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Part of the success the Patriots have had in keeping Brady clean can be attributed to the gunslinger himself. Brady’s average time of release in the playoffs has dropped to just 2.34 seconds this postseason, lowest by a wide margin among the 12 participating starting quarterbacks.
Brady was quick in the regular season as well, averaging 2.52 seconds before release, but has taken it to another level in the postseason, where faster release times have been the norm. At 2.52 seconds, Brady would be slower than Nick Foles (2.48) and Mitchell Trubisky (2.50) this postseason, with Drew Brees (2.57) right behind him. In addition to Brees, the Rams saw one of the slower release times in Dak Prescott’s 2.92 seconds in their first playoff test.
On the other side of the ball, preventing the Rams from scoring points via the deep ball will be paramount to any success the Patriots defense has. Jared Goff had 40 big play passes (> 25 yards) during the regular season, second most in the NFL behind only Mahomes.
The Patriots were 21st in yards allowed but seventh best in points against in 2018 and will hope to contain Goff and the Rams once they reach the red zone. Goff posted a QBR of 101.1 this season, but that number fell to 96.5 inside the opponent’s 20-yard line and 88.4 inside the opponent’s 10.
Like Brady, Goff has had to get the ball out earlier this postseason, but his numbers aren’t much different. He average 2.87 seconds before release in the regular season, down now to 2.80, which ranks slightly behind Patriots opponents Philip Rivers (2.73) and slightly ahead of Patrick Mahomes (2.91).
Todd Gurley’s Health
If you’re looking for an X-factor in what’s expected to be a close game between two great offenses, look no further than Todd Gurley. The reigning Offensive Player of the Year had an explosive 2018 regular season, but a late-season injury forced him to sit out LA’s final two games. After what appeared to be a return to form in the divisional round win over Dallas when he rushed 16 times for 115 yards and a touchdown, Gurley received just four carries for 10 yards in the NFC Championship win over New Orleans and played just three snaps in the third quarter. Head coach Sean McVay said that Gurley’s lack of usage came down to game flow reasons.
During the 14 games Gurley played in the regular season, he outperformed his 2017 accolade-strewn campaign, finishing with more four more rushing touchdowns and just 51 fewer rushing yards, despite appearing in one less game. In 2018, Gurley had 580 yards receiving and four touchdowns, and while his rushing success translated to the playoffs in the win over Dallas, he hasn’t been a factor in the passing game in either of LA’s wins yet. He has accrued just three receptions for a total of six yards this postseason, with several catches for negative gain.
During the regular season, part of Gurley’s success can be contributed to his natural fit within McVay’s offensive scheme, which relies on heavy usage of 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers). The Rams ran 11 personnel on offense 90 percent of the time during the regular season, with that number dipping to 83 percent of the time on run plays.
Los Angeles was dominant in its first 11 games this season with a creative, balanced offense that thrived on zone rushing and play action passing. The Rams finished the regular season averaging 12.4 yards per attempt on play action plays, best in the league, and 5.2 YPA on zone rushes, tied for first. Establishing the run in order to set up play action and targeting the weak link of the Patriots defense–their linebackers in coverage–are all made easier when a healthy dual-threat Gurley is on the field.