Tom Brady has faced defenses of all shapes and sizes through his first eight Super Bowl appearances.
Defenses with playmakers in the secondary, defenses with impossible to contain pass rushers, defenses with stout linemen and linebackers in the running game, and everything in between.
But throughout all of those games, there may not have been a force as capable of destruction as Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald.
A fifth-year player who dates back to the Rams’ days in St. Louis, Donald is a four-time First Team All-Pro and the reigning Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year. He’s the frontrunner to earn that honor again this year, after recording a league-best 20.5 sacks for LA.
The Rams have a number of other quality players scattered about the defense of coordinator Wade Phillips, including tackle Ndamukong Suh, cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters and safety Lamarcus Joyner. None of those players are quite as capable of changing the game as Donald can be, and he’s the No. 1 cause for concern for the Patriots entering Super Bowl LIII.
The good news for New England is that its offensive line, ranked fourth in the league this season by Pro Football Focus, has raised its game to an even greater level in the playoffs. The unit decreased the number of sacks allowed on Tom Brady from 35 in 2017 to just 21 this year, and through two rounds of the postseason, has kept their 41-year-old superstar upright entirely.
That’s been against elite edge rushers such as Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram of the Los Angeles Chargers and Justin Houston and Dee Ford of the Kansas City Chiefs. Again, Donald is in a stratosphere unto his own, but if there’s one group that feels capable of containing him, it’s these Patriots.
Pass rushers have ruined Super Bowls for New England in the past (see: Tuck, Justin and Strahan, Michael), so if the group of Trent Brown, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason and Marcus Cannon can do their best to limit the damage on Brady, it’ll go a long way towards ensuring a sixth Super Bowl title.
The Patriots neutralized Bosa and Ingram in particular by utilizing short passes to James White and Julian Edelman, something that’s sure to be a necessity again for the Patriots vs. the Rams. It remains to be seen how LA will unleash Talib and Peters, whether one will be assigned to Edelman or whether they’ll both be glued to whomever is lining up on the outside in Phillip Dorsett or Chris Hogan.
Granted, very few corners have shown their capable of slowing down Edelman anyways, but if Talib in particular is assigned to Dorsett along the perimeter, that’s a massive advantage for New England.
The X-factor for the Patriots offensively is which Rob Gronkowski shows up, for what could well be his final game in the NFL. Arguably the best tight end to ever take the field, Gronk turned back the clock in the AFC Championship Game with six catches for 79 yards, including a number on third-and-long.
Do we get what could be one or two final Gronk spikes in Atlanta? Gronkowski, who’ll be playing in his fourth Super Bowl, scored a touchdown in Super Bowl XLIX vs. the Seattle Seahawks and two more in Super Bowl LII vs. the Philadelphia Eagles. Anything the Patriots get from Gronkowski at this point is a luxury rather than a necessity, but a facet of the game that could tip things even more in New England’s favor.
There’s also no reason to think that Sony Michel, coming off back-to-back games of over 100 yards on the ground – not to mention five total touchdowns – can’t continue to spell Brady and the passing attack when called up. The Rams were 23rd in the league in rushing defense in the regular season while allowing an atrocious 5.1 yards per carry – dead last in the NFL.
New England’s defense left plenty to be desired at Kansas City, allowing the Chiefs to get within Harrison Butker’s field goal range to send it to overtime just 31 seconds after Rex Burkhead’s go-ahead 4-yard touchdown. That probably says as much about Patrick Mahomes II as it does the Patriots’ defense, who is lightyears ahead of LA quarterback Jared Goff.
That’s not to say Goff is a liability, but he’s been downright pedestrian for the Rams in the postseason with a 79.4 passer rating. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 draft morphed into a completely different passer once Sean McVay took over for Jeff Fisher, but he seems to have hit a bit of a wall: since Week 14, he’s thrown as many touchdown passes as interceptions (seven).
Think a Bill Belichick coached team is going to lose to an inferior quarterback in back-to-back Super Bowls?
The Patriots seem laser-focused this week in Atlanta, with the drama that permeated the group through much of last year’s game in Minneapolis having subsided. New England knows it left a ring on the table last year, something which is undoubtedly a driving factor for this year’s team – however much the players tend to downplay it.
The Patriots can’t lose this game, and they won’t lose this game. It certainly won’t be a runaway, keeping in line with the first eight Super Bowls the century, but count on Brady to make at least one more play than Goff. Prediction: New England 28, Los Angeles 24.