Welcome to Season 9, Episode 13 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.
The symmetry was always so fitting, and it’s become only easier to appreciate over the past two seasons.
The 2001 Patriots won the franchise’s first Super Bowl with some timely offense and a brilliant defensive game plan that stalled a supposedly unstoppable Rams offense.
The 2018 Patriots won the franchise’s sixth Super Bowl — and their last with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick applying their unprecedented genius in tandem — with some timely offense and a brilliant defensive game plan that stalled a — where have we heard this before? — supposedly unstoppable Rams offense.
The circumstances will be different, of course, when the teams collide Thursday night for the first time since that February 2019 matchup in Super Bowl LIII. Brady is a scowling Buccaneer now (I’ll assume you’ve heard), while Belichick’s Patriots are proving that a season can be compelling and even satisfying even when the Lombardi Trophy appears to be well out of reach.
The Patriots are 6-6 and in 10th place in the AFC standings, yet they are nothing short of fascinating. They’ve won four of their last five games, most recently Sunday’s 45-0 throttling of the Chargers on the same SoFi Stadium turf on which that they’ll face the Rams.
The Patriots prevailed Sunday in rough-and-tumble style that probably made practiced Grinch Belichick’s heart grow 3½ sizes. The Patriots dominated in the running game, on defense, and on special teams, too. Gunnar Olszewski returned a punt for a touchdown, Devin McCourty returned a blocked field goal attempt for another score, and recollections to another happy chapter in the early days — the 2001 AFC Championship game, when Troy Brown returned a punt for a TD and lateraled to Antwan Harris for a score after, yes, a blocked field goal — were impossible to resist.
These Rams present the toughest test the Patriots will face the rest of this season. They’ve won three of four, including Sunday’s 38-28 win over the Cardinals, feature the league’s No. 2 defense (291.3 yards allowed per game) and No. 3 offense (395.3 yards per game), and lead the loaded NFC West with an 8-4 record. If the Patriots can win this one, they might run the table. But it won’t be easy.
Kick it off, Bailey, and let’s get this thing started …
3 players I’ll be watching
Robert Woods: A second-round pick of the Bills in 2013, Woods was probably a better receiver than you remember with Buffalo. He averaged a competent 51 catches for 613 yards and 3 touchdowns in his four seasons there while playing with a scatter-armed cast of quarterbacks that included Kyle Orton, E.J. Manuel, Thaddeus Lewis, and the comparatively excellent Tyrod Taylor. But Woods has really come into his own since signing as a free agent with the Rams before the 2017 season. During his first three seasons with the Rams, he averaged 77 catches for 1,045 yards and 4 touchdowns. Woods already has 71 catches for 764 yards and 5 touchdowns this season. With Woods, Cooper Kupp, Josh Reynolds, and Van (son of Shawn) Jefferson, the Rams have enviable quality and depth at receiver. But quarterback Jared Goff relies on Woods more than ever, targeting him 38 times (with 29 catches) over the last three weeks. The Patriots are dealing with some injuries in the defensive backfield — J.C. Jackson and Jonathan Jones got nicked up in the rout of the Chargers — but it would make sense even if the unit was in the best of health that Stephon Gilmore would be assigned to Goff’s most trusted option.
Josh Uche: Belichick’s 2020 draft is shaping up to be a heck of a rebuttal to the silly Bill The GM Hurts Bill The Coach narrative. Sixth-round Michael Onwenu has been a bulldozer for the offensive line. Third-round linebacker Anfernee Jennings and sixth-round lineman Justin Herron have contributed. Second-rounder Kyle Dugger, the Patriots’ first selection, earned an early-season comparison to Derwin James from teammate Adrian Phillips (who played with James with the Chargers), and the big, rangy safety is living up to it more and more each week. And now fellow second-round pick Josh Uche, a speedy linebacker with some Chris Slade/Rosevelt Colvin flashes, is standing out more and more each week. Uche played a career-high 36 snaps against the Chargers Sunday and was credited with three hits of quarterback Justin Herbert. Had Herbert not been wise enough to get rid of the ball, Uche could easily have picked up a couple of sacks. Uche should see similar time Thursday given that Goff can be pressured into bad decisions.
Aaron Donald: The five-time All-Pro and two-time AP Defensive Player of the Year isn’t just the best defensive lineman in the NFL. He’s the best defensive player, and an argument can be made that he’s the best player, period, though anyone arguing on behalf of Patrick Mahomes certainly will be heard. Donald is having his typically dominating season — Belichick described him as someone who can “wreck a game,’’ which is the perfect way of putting it — with 22 quarterback hits, 11 sacks, 9 tackles for loss, and 4 forced fumbles. The Patriots did a fine job on Chargers force Joey Bosa Sunday, limiting him to one QB hit and one tackle. But keeping Donald out of the backfield is an even more daunting challenge.
Grievance of the week
The topic here is clear — undefeated NFL seasons fulfilled and unfulfilled. But I can’t decide quite where to aim the grievance. Should it be at the Pittsburgh Steelers, who blew their chance at a perfect season with Monday’s loss to Washington? Nah, no one around here was rooting for them, and it was pretty clear all along that they weren’t good enough to go 16-0, let alone roll right through the Super Bowl without a loss. But at least a smidgen of annoyance should be aimed their way since their loss formally allowed those who remain from the obnoxious 1972 Dolphins to pop champagne, smoke a cigar (as Larry Csonka did on Instagram), and remind everyone of their perfect season — still the only one in NFL history. The largest portion of the grievance pie, however, goes to those who dismiss the 2007 Patriots from the conversation of the greatest teams in NFL history simply because they ended up 18-1, losing the Super Bowl to a Giants team that was tough, prepared, and very, very lucky. That Patriots team might be the single best in league history. I think it is. But they didn’t go unbeaten, and so the majority won’t regard them this way. The Dolphins’ champagne should have remained corked 13 years ago.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick vs. Rams quarterback Jared Goff
There are a couple of ways we could have looked at this to make the same point about the possibility (or perhaps likelihood) that the Patriots’ defense will bewilder Goff. Goff vs. Gilmore and the Patriots cornerbacks that outwitted him in Super Bowl LIII are one element of the matchup. So, too, is Belichick vs. Rams coach and offensive wiz Sean McVay.
But Belichick vs. Goff is the most interesting aspect of this matchup, particularly if you recall what happened in the Super Bowl two seasons ago.
The Rams came in with an electrifying offense, one that scored 527 points (32.9 per game) in the regular season, and scored 56 points in playoff wins over the Cowboys and Saints. The Patriots held them to 3 points and Goff to 229 passing yards, and if the game had gone to a fifth quarter, Goff probably wouldn’t have led them anywhere near a touchdown then, either.
How did Belichick and defensive coordinator Brian Flores do it? If you’ll recall, they exploited Goff’s reliance on McVay to help him identify the defense and call the play via the headset before communication shut off with 15 seconds on the play clock. When the headset shut off, the Patriots would change their look, essentially calling a second defense once the play clock was under 15 seconds after giving Goff and McVay a look at one they never intended to run. It was genius.
I’m fascinated to see whether the Patriots take a similar approach Thursday, whether McVay has cooked up a way to combat the Patriots’ previous exploitation of his quarterback’s flaws, and most of all, I’m curious whether Goff has grown as a reader of defenses (Google “Goff” and “slow processor” and you’ll find some in-depth studies on why he struggles against aggressive defense) or remains the same talented but easily outwitted quarterback at age 26 as he was at 24.
Or, we all know Ty Law was the real MVP of Super Bowl XXXVI
As compelling as it will be to see how the Patriots’ defense fares against Goff and the Rams’ passing game, the outcome of this game will be decided by how well the Patriots run the ball. The Patriots set the tone in their thumping of the Chargers on the ground, with Damien Harris picking up 36 of his 80 rushing yards on the Patriots’ first drive (he added another 15 yards on a short catch-and-run). They finished with 43 carries for 165 yards against the Chargers, and currently feature the league’s third-ranked rushing attack (150.9 yards per game). But it won’t come easy against the incomparable Donald and his supporting cast, which permits just 93.1 rushing yards per game, third in the league. Cam Newton’s ability to make plays with his legs — he has 435 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns — is as important as it has been all season. It is unlikely that this will be a week for Newton — who has thrown for 84 and 69 yards in the last two games — to break out in the passing game; the Rams’ pass defense, led by lockdown cornerback Jalen Ramsey, is the league’s best (198.3 yards per game). The Rams are a complete team. Beating them will not be easy. But there’s something palpably good brewing with the Patriots. They’re finding a way. They’ll find a way again. Patriots 20, Rams 17.