Tom Brady -- Super Bowl LIII

Seventh Heaven? Brady, Belichick make attempt at record seventh title

This week marks the beginning of yet another season for Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the once-again defending Super Bowl champions. Few could have predicted their still-dominant place in the league at this time just five years ago, after the team was steamrolled on a Monday night in Kansas City. Yet, the Patriots remain at the top of the league, with more success since that Fall night in 2014 than perhaps any five-year stretch of their greatest-of-all-time dynasty.

Per usual, the team has gotten a makeover consisting of several wrinkles — some are smaller (Patriots shifting to more two and three-man fronts along the defensive line) and some are larger (Rob Gronkowski’s retirement)  — that will help shape their 2019 season and it’s end result.

The two constants — Brady and Belichick — can be addressed without too much of a deep dive. Belichick returns for his 20th season as the Patriots head coach, implementing new trends and defensive schemes to help keep his team at the top.

Brady returns for his 19th season as the franchise’s key player and leader. After signing a two-year extension masked as a one-year deal, it’s officially fair to assume Brady is now on a year-by-year basis despite insisting that he’d still like to play until the age of 45. Can he play that long at a fairly-high level? Almost certainly. Will he? Especially if New England does indeed pull ahead as the only franchise to win Super Bowl titles in 2019? That’s a question to be addressed six months from now.

Brady has certainly reached uncharted territory — as has 40-year-old New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees  — but anyone doubting him would be a fool to do so, and there are many doubters.

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It’s well-known that New England’s offense (and defense) adjust on the fly better than any other franchise over the better part of the last two decades. In 2019, the team will likely retain their chameleon approach to their opponents, which is something that has been more prominent in recent seasons with Josh McDaniels’ offenses.

“We were adaptable” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said on NFL Network’s ‘Do Your Job Part 3’ special. “You know, Tom [Brady}, if he’s supposed to hand it off 37 times and win that way, then he’ll do it. If we need him to throw it 52 times, then he’ll do that too. It’s the same way Bill [Belichick] is. Bill doesn’t care if we win 43-40 or 13-10. The willingness to be able to do that is a special trait.”

Last December and January, the Patriots relied heavily on a power-running game featuring rookie rusher Sony Michel and lead-blocking fullback James Develin. Expect that to carry over into the 2019 season as a staple of the offense with Rex Burkhead and rookie Damien Harris spelling Michel.

But with the subtraction of the game’s all-time greatest tight end, New England will have to rely on either Broncos castoff Matt LaCosse or 2018 seventh-round pick Ryan Izzo — and later Benjamin Watson — to provide support in the running game.

Neither of these players is Gronkowski, who is perhaps the greatest receiving threat and blocking threat at his position in the history of the sport. With a lackluster group at tight end, expect the position to be deemphasized in the passing game. To make up for the absence of Gronkowski, the Patriots will turn to an array of larger-bodied receivers to assist Brady. The newest Belichick trend has brought in former Broncos All-Pro Demaryius Thomas (6-foot-3, 229 pounds) and rookie first-round pick N’Keal Harry (6-foot-4, 225 pounds) to join the team’s top option on the permitter, Josh Gordon (6-foot-3, 225 pounds).

Gordon projects to be the on-the-line ‘X’-type wide receiver, while Thomas and veteran Phillip Dorsett will likely split time at the ‘Z’ receiver. The Patriots placed Harry on injured reserve with a designation to return earlier in the week, which opened up the door for Thomas to return. Later in the season, Harry may snatch away snaps from Thomas and Dorsett to become a starter in three-receiver sets (’11’ personnel). But for this entire season, Brady will likely rely on Gordon as the team’s stalwart on the outside with any consistent success coming from Harry, Thomas, Dorsett or undrafted rookie Jacoby Meyers being a treat.

This means the GOAT will rely heavily on old friends Julian Edelman and James White.

At age 33,  Edelman is now two years removed from his brutal ACL injury, but is also pressing up against Father Time, like his quarterback. Still, the tenacious Super Bowl LIII MVP projects to have the most targets of any pass catcher on the Patriots roster, working in the middle of the field in three-receiver sets, and as the flanker (‘Z’) with the option of going in motion in two-receiver sets with Gordon.

White returns as perhaps the NFL’s best pure situational scatback. Last season, he hauled in 55 receptions in the team’s first eight games before the team turned to Michel and the running game in the Winter months. Still, White caught 15 passes in the team’s AFC Divisional Playoff smackdown over the Chargers, and made several crucial catches in the AFC Championship Game win in Kansas City.

Every player in the Patriots’ projected Week 1 ’11’ personnel for the passing game brings something different to the table. Thomas has excelled in wide receiver screens, while Dorsett is speedy enough to be an occasional deep threat. Gordon is a physical specimen who excels at slants, jump balls and posts, while Edelman and White can run a variety of option routes from anywhere along the line of scrimmage, or in the backfield. In undrafted rookies Meyers and Gunner Olszewski, the team hs a flaker/slot hybrid and a slot receiver and punt returner capable of being groomed behind Edelman. When Harry hits the field, Brady will have a jump ball specialist who can line up on the outside and as a ‘big slot’ receiver capable of replacing Gronkowski as a seam-route runner operating out of the slot in shotgun situations.

But knowing the Patriots, they’ll change their offensive philosophy and strategy depending on the opponent. But sometime during the stretch run of the season, the team will likely look to employ a power-running game as their base offense. Last year, the team alternated between two-tight end sets with Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen, I-formation sets with Gronkowski or James Develin, or sometimes an I-formation with Develin and both tight ends.

“Our strengths this year will be different than some of our strengths last year” McDaniels said. 

With their uneventful tight end group at the moment, expect Develin to see the field more often, and possibly even as a H-back or blocking tight end at times. One of the last few full-tine lead-blocking full backs, Develin is an integral part of the Patriots offense.

Sony Michel vs Chargers
Sony Michel is set up for a monster sophomore campaign. (Screenshot: NFL Films)

He’ll pave the way for Sony Michel’s potential breakout sophomore season. After a slow start to his rookie campaign, Michel cruised for 336 yards and six touchdowns in three playoff games. A projected stat line of 15 touchdowns and over 1,100 yards is not out the question. But expect Michel to be spelled by rookie Damien Harris and do-it-all back Rex Burkhead as rushers that may seem time carrying the ball between the tackles. White will also spend time as a feature back depending on the opponent.

Still, all facets of the offense won’t have much success if the Patriots can’t keep up their own pace as one of the game’s best offensive lines. Dante Scarnecchia is unquestionably the greatest offensive line coach of all-time. His teaching skills will be put to the test once more as New England will work with a change at left tackle for the third straight year, and the season-long absence of team captain and starting center David Andrews.

2018 first-round pick Isaiah Wynn should fill in nicely as Trent Brown’s replacement. Although smaller for an NFL tackle (6-foot-2, 311 pounds), Wynn has much more potential than Brown. Plus, Wynn was the best blocker for Sony Michel while the two played at the University of Georgia. In Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason, the Patriots likely have the bets combo of guards in the AFC, if not the NFL. Thuney, a solid all-around lineman, is due for a big pay day this offseason when his rookie contract expires. Mason, who already received his payday last offseason, is arguably the best run-blocking guard in football. The Georgia Tech product came from a run-heavy triple-option offense in college. But it was his improvement as a pass-blocking guard in 2018 that vaulted him into the top-five discussion. Mason worked vigorously to improve at that aspect after allowing Eagles rusher Brandon Graham to run past him and cause the game-changing turnover in Super Bowl LII. On the right side of the line sits former All-Pro right tackle Marcus Cannon, who still has some juice left.

With Andrews out, New England will rely on veteran Ted Karras, the team’s top backup interior offensive lineman, to fill in as a quality starting center. Karras will be monitored closely. If Karras proves incapable, James Ferentz, who recently re-joined the team after Russell Bodine was released, may get a chance to shine.

In all, the Patriots will likely mix-and-match, shifting the identity of their offense to match their personnel, as well as their opponent’s defensive personnel and schemes. While many will be worried about the absences of Gronkowski and Andrews, as well as the turnover at left tackle and center, the Patriots should find a way to do what they always do on offense — score enough points to win 12 games en-route to at least the AFC Championship Game.

Week 1 Projected offense:

QB — Tom Brady

RB — Sony Michel 

‘X’ WR — Josh Gordon 

Slot WR — Julian Edelman

‘Z’ WR — Demaryius Thomas (Phillip Dorsett will likely split time with Thomas here) 

TE — Matt LaCosse (Ben Watson will replace LaCosse after serving his four-game suspension) 

LT — Isaiah Wynn

LG — Joe Thuney 

C — Ted Karras 

RG — Shaq Mason 

RT — Marcus Cannon

Situational positions:

FB — James Devlin

Scatback — James White

WR4 — Phillip Dorsett 

WR5 — Jakobi Meyers 

RB2/Scatback — Rex Burkhead 

RB3 — Damien Harris 

Blocking TE — Ryan Izzo 

Swing Tackle — Korey Cunningham 

 

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If Brady, the power running game and New England’s offense is good enough for a routine trip to the AFC Championship Game, it’ll be Bill Belichick and the defense that finishes the job.

On a Monday night contest in Los Angeles last November, the Chiefs and Rams, the two highest-scoring teams of last season, combined for 105 points in a 54-51 Rams victory. With the exception of Patrick Mahomes’ fourth quarter outburst in the AFC title game, the Patriots allowed just 10 total points in seven quarters to those two clubs, in the two biggest games of the 2018 NFL season.

To win Super Bowl LIV, New England may very well see the Chiefs again, in the NFL’s version of the final four, followed by a prolific NFC offense like the Rams, Saints or Eagles in the big game in Miami.

Luckily for New England, Belichick has readied a unique and versatile defensive roster capable of carrying out complex schemes that Belichick seems set to employ in 2019.

A ‘base’ defense is a relative term in 2019, seeing as base usually pertains to a 4-3 or 3-4 defense, and not a nickel defense, which is the personnel teams usually use the most in today’s pass-heavy NFL. But a seven-man front is still sometimes used on early downs. And this season, the Patriots will shift for more of a 3-4 approach, moving away from their four-man fronts of last season.

In that front, Danny Shelton is slotted as the run-stuffing nose tackle, with Lawrence Guy and rookie fifith-round pick Byron Cowart projecting to be the team’s big-bodied, 3-4 defensive ends. Guy’s versatility as both a 3-4 defensive end and 4-3 defensive tackle is what Belichick values in his defensive lineman. He was the best defensive lineman outside of Trey Flowers in 2018, and should play up to that level this season. Cowart, a former top recruit of out high school, has the potential to thrive under Belichick’s tutelage.

But New England should spend most of their time with five or more defensive backs on the field. In doing this, the Patriots will go to more exotic fronts with just one or two defensive lineman. This is where they’ll turn to their prize offseason acquisition and best defensive lineman, Michael Bennett.

Bennett, who will turn 34 in November, quietly had a productive campaign (9.5 sacks) with the Eagles last season before being shipped to New England, along with a seventh-round draft pick, for a fifth-round draft choice. Like his brother Martellus in 2016 (and briefly in 2017), Bennett is slated to make an immediate impact as a possible replacement for Flowers, who joined Matt Patricia and the Lions on a mega-deal.

Of course, Bennett and Flowers are different players. Both are versatile, but Flowers serves as a more complete player across the board in 4-3 and 3-4 schemes, where as Bennett’s versatility stems from his ability to rush the passer both from the edge and the interior. Bennett is still productive as a run stuffer, but not as well as Flowers at this stage of his career. But despite his veteran status, Bennett will be a much better pass rusher than Flowers, especially in Belichick’s schemes.

Michael Bennett - Patriots Training Camp
Michael Bennett will bring his versatile pass-rushing skills to a defensive front that should up their sack total in 2019. (Screenshot: New England Patriots)

At one point in NFL Network’s original ‘Do Your Job’ special, Patriots director of research Ernie Adams mentions how Bennett disrupted New England’s entire offensive game plan in Super Bowl XLIX versus the Seahawks. Before Cliff Avril left in concussion protocol, Bennett had gotten to Brady on numerous occasions. But the absence of Avril allowed New England to key on Bennett via double teams. Expect Bennett to disrupt many opponents’ game plans in favor of the Patriots this season.

In two-man fronts, Bennett will mostly be joined by Guy along the interior, as he’s their next best defensive lineman. On obvious passing downs, Guy may be subbed out for Adam Butler, who is purely a sub-package rusher.

The edge should be occupied by a mix of Bennett and a few of the Patriots’ stacked linebacking core. John Simon and rookie Chase Winovich project as stand-up edge rushers in a 3-4 scheme. In New England’s third preseason contest, which is usually the week of dress rehearsals for the regular season, Winovich started along the edge. He’s a diminutive, Tasmanian Devil on the outside, capable of wrecking havoc on tasing downs. The third-round pick out of Michigan is a sleeper pick for the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year award.

Don’ta Hightower and Kyle Van Noy return as two of New England’s most important players. Their versatility has already been showcased in the preseason, as they’ve been moved all around the defense. Despite slimming down this offseason, Hightower still projects as more of an off-the-ball linebacker, despite the initial notion that he may move to the edge full-time. Although Van Noy will be moved around the formation, it appears he’s due for a new role as a 3-4 outside linebacker or stand-up edge rusher in most cases. This seems like the perfect fit for Van Noy, who may be in for a career year.

Then there’s the return of Jamie Collins. A second-round pick by the Patriots in 2013, Collins blossomed as one of the league’s most athletic players before his rookie contract timed out, and he was shipped to Cleveland midway through the 2016 season. After making some money in Cleveland for two-and-a-half years of uneventful football, Collins returns and he’ll project as linebacker that will spend time as an edge rusher, as well as off the ball. Like Hightower and Van Noy, Collins’ versatility is what makes him valuable. But he’s also much more athletic than those two defensive cogs, even though he’s been burned often in man coverage by tight ends (Owen Daniels in the 2015 AFC Championship Game) and running backs (Marshawn Lych in Super Bowl XLIX). If Collins can keep his freelancing in zone coverage to a minimum, he should make it more difficult for opponents’ quarterbacks to dump the ball off to their own version of a James White.

Recently-named team captain Elandon Roberts and Ja’Whaun Bentley will battle for the role of the ‘thumper’ linebacker, which is a bigger inside linebacker who is mostly in to stop the run on early downs. They should each see time next to Hightower as inside linebackers in the Patriots’ 3-4 formations.

In the secondary, New England trots out perhaps the deepest group of cornerbacks in the league, led by the NFL’s very best at the position in Stephon Gilmore. Gilmore is perhaps the best in man coverage since Darrelle Revis’ heyday and figures to follow opposing team’s No. 1 receiver in most situations. But Belichick often likes to matchup his top cover player one-on-one with an opposing team’s No. 2 receiver, if that player is enough of a threat. This leaves another cornerback covering a team’s No. 1, with help over the top from safety Devin McCourty.

J.C. Jackson and Jason McCourty will battle it out for snaps as the team’s No. 2 guy, but both should see significant playing time. Jon Jones projects to start as a slot cornerback who can also see time at safety, a position he started and played most of the game at in Super Bowl LIII. To revisit Belichick’s scheme of putting Gilmore on a team’s secondary pass catcher, the Patriots employed Gilmore on Watkins, Kansas City’s No. 2 receiver and No. 3 pass catcher, but best traditional receiver, in the AFC title game. They did this because of Tyreek Hill’s speed and downfield ability. New England then stuck it’s fastest player, Jon Jones, on Hill with Devin McCourty shading overtop. J.C. Jackson’s ability as a bigger press-man cover corner made him a suitable match for the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce, a psuedo receiver disguised as a top-tier tight end. Expect Belichick to employ different strategies against different offenses.

The Patriots’ deep group of cornerbacks ends with rookie Joejuan Williams. The second-round pick is a cornerback with massive size (6-foot-4, 208 pounds) capable of playing press man coverage on tight ends and bigger wide receivers. Williams will fight Jackson and Jason McCourty for playing time, but he projects as more of a situational matchup piece in his rookie season, while being groomed to be the team’s No. 2 cornerback of the future, or even as a replacement for Patrick Chung as a Kam Chancellor-type at strong safety.

With Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon and Patrick Chung, the Patriots will employ an aging-yet-affective trio of safeties capable of playin in three-safety sets, like they’ve done often over the past few seasons. In two-safety sets, Devin McCourty plays his usually role of free safety while Chung plays in the box. On clear-passing downs with all three on the field, Chung serves as a presss man coverage option on tight ends, while McCourty tends to play all over the field, leaving Duron Harmon as the free safety, or center fielder, on third-and-long situations. This could be the last season for both Chung and the McCourty brothers, but they still have enough left in the tank for a very good season.

Like the Patriots’ offense, Belichick will have a different game plan for each opponent. But the team’s deep group of cornerbacks and seemingly revitalized group of pass rushers have fans excited for what could be an exceptional season on this side of the ball.

Week 1 Projected defense:

Interior — Michael Bennett 

Interior — Lawrence Guy

EDGE/LB — Kyle Van Noy

EDGE/LB — Jamie Collins

LB — Dont’a Hightower

‘Thumper’ ILB — Elandon Roberts 

CB1 — Stephon Gilmore

CB2 — J.C. Jackson 

Slot CB — Jonathan Jones

SS/Nickelback — Patrick Chung

S — Devin McCourty

Situational positions:

3-4 Nose Tackle — Danny Shelton 

3-4 DE  — Bryan Cowart

‘Thumper’ ILB — Ja’Whaun Bentley 

EDGE/LB — Chase Winovich 

EDGE/LB — John Simon 

S (FS in ‘Big Nickel’ and three-safety packages) — Duron Harmon

CB3 — Jason McCourty

CB4 (‘Big’ TE, ‘X’ WR matchup CB) — Joejuan Williams

Sub Interior Rusher — Adam Butler

 

Projected record: 12-4 (AFC’s No. 1 seed)

The Patriots should revert to their knack for producing 12-plus win seasons after an 11-5 campaign in 2018. Their schedule is pretty easy throughout, but there is a potential murderer’s row from weeks 8-to-14, as the team will face Browns out home before visiting the Ravens and Eagles before returning home to face the Cowboys, playing the Texans in Houston , then ending with a home bout with the Chiefs.

With Andrew Luck’s retirement, and Derwin James’ injury the Chiefs serve as the only real threat at this point, with the Steelers, Jaguars and Browns looming as just potential threats before they prove otherwise. New England will fend off the upstarts and experienced teams to beat the Chiefs at home in the AFC Title Game. Their home-field advantage will be won when they beat the Chiefs in Week 14.

Then in Miami for Super Bowl LIV, the Patriots will break a tie with the Steelers by winning their seventh Super Bowl, while exacting revenge on the Eagles in the process.

At least for one more year, the NFL will belong to Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, Robert Kraft and the New England Patriots.

Patriots celebrate Super Bowl LIII

Belichick, Patriots halt Rams with defensive masterpiece

With just over eight minutes remaining in Super Bowl LIII, and the score tied, the crowd of fans overwhelming run by Patriots’ backers began their chant.

“Brady! Brady! Brady!”

Tom Brady delivered a 29-yard pass to Rob Gronkowski up the seam, setting up a two-yard, eventual game-winning touchdown by Sony Michel.

Tom Brady - Super Bowl LIII
Tom Brady celebrates the go-ahead score in Super Bowl LIII. (Screenshot: NFLPA/Disney)

As always, Brady calmly came through in the fourth quarter of football’s biggest stage, helping the Patriots win yet another Super Bowl. But that’s about all he did. In fact, that was the only touchdown scored by any team, the entire game.

“Yeah, it was tough,” Brady said. “We just couldn’t make the big play. We just couldn’t stay on the field on third down. We just knew we had a whole half to go. Defense set the tone. . . . They held them and we broke through in the fourth quarter.”

This game was mostly won by Bill Belichick, Brian Flores and their hungry defense. It was an ode to Patriots teams of the past. Like the one that stopped the Rams of St. Louis in their tracks in Super Bowl XXXVI. But this was more than that. This was an ass-whooping of the umpteenth degree. This was 66-year-old Belichick schooling 33-year-old Rams head coach Sean McVay, and 24-year-old Jared Goff, the quarterback that was taken with the first pick of the 2016 draft.

The tone of the defense was especially set to pristine edge-setting, effective interior pass-rushing, blanketed coverage and a warrior-like attitude from a unit that was counted out more times than once during their trek toward yet another championship.

Few other plays (and players) exemplified the Patriots’ attitude then Patrick Chung’s tenacity in attempting to make a tackle, on a play where he reportedly broke his arm. After a TV timeout where staff tended to Chung, which led to the cart being rolled out, the 10-year veteran corralled his emotions and pulled himself up, to walk to the sideline, on his own volition.

“When you see a guy like that put it all on the line, put his body on the line, not caring, it makes you want to fight more for your teammates,” Stephon Gilmore said.

Chung watched the rest of the game from the sidelines in an arm cast. But even he realized that his teammates were more than capable of picking up the slack, to finish off the wide-eyed Rams.

“I was on the ground crying,” Chung told The Athletic. “They said, ‘Stop crying, bro we got you.’ I heard it. I felt it. I had no doubt in my mind we would be good.”

New England had already confused the Rams with a heavy dose of zone coverage, which contradicted their season’s story, as they ran more man coverage than any other team in the NFL.

Jonathan Jones, a backup cornerback, and special teams player, played 64 of 65 snaps as a safety opposite Devin McCourty, while Stephon Gilmore and Jason McCourty played every defensive snap as the team’s top two cornerbacks.

New England employed a quarters coverage for most of the game. That’s essentially a Cover 4, with two cornerbacks and two safeties each taking away one-fourth of the field in deep zone coverage.

“We anticipated that we would see some unscouted stuff,” Rams center John Sullivan told Sports Illustrated. “Playing Cover-4 was unscouted. Or it was different from them, let’s put it that way.”

Ironically, it was ex-Patriots defensive coordinator, and current Detroit Lions head coach Matt Patricia, who successfully slowed down the Rams’ offense with this style in a 30-16 loss to Los Angeles in December.

Belichick saw that and utilized this coverage, while also taking away the Rams’ patented outside zone running scheme by often putting linebackers on the edge of the line of scrimmage, giving the feel of six-man fronts to limit the Rams aggressiveness with their usual rushing style.

Of course, the curious case of Todd Gurley (34 total yards), the NFL’s touchdown leader in the regular season with 21, helped in preventing the Rams usually-explosive offense from doing heavy damage, but the Patriots certainly played their part in limiting him when McVay looked his way.

A front seven that was inconsistent for much of the year was masterful on Sunday, holding the Rams to 62 rushing yards and sacking Goff four times, flustering him to the point where never gained a rhythm.

Trey Flowers had a monster tackle for a loss, Adrian Clayborn consistently applied pressure, Kyle Van Noy added a key third-down sack, and Dont’a Hightower added to his Super Bowl lore.

Famous for his game-saving tackle on Marshawn Lynch in Super Bowl XLIX, and his sack-fumble on Matt Ryan in Super Bowl LI, Hightower had his best overall performance in any of his three Super Bowl appearances on Sunday.

He was flying around the field with his pre-2017 speed, using his experience in big games to outsmart Goff, and pummel the Rams’ offensive line and running game.

Clearly missed in last year’s 41-33, Super Bowl loss to the Eagles, Hightower’s two sacks, and near-interception, put him a hair above Gilmore as the team’s best defensive player on the night.

“Whenever you work as hard as we do,” Hightower said, “and you’re as dedicated, and you’ve got guys who come in and work hard and who are willing to sacrifice their time away from their family and their loved ones, who are willing to do whatever each and every week in a hard, demanding place, you expect that. You expect to win whenever you practice, whenever you put that much hard work into the game plans every week.”

As the pass rush got to Goff, the secondary limited the Rams receivers. Former Patriot deep-threat Brandin Cooks, traded to Los Angeles a year ago for a first-round pick, hauled in eight catches for 120 yards, but failed to reel in two of the biggest targets of the game.

Goff looked his way late for a would-be touchdown in the third quarter, that was knocked away by Jason McCourty, after a herculean effort to sprint from his zone assignment to break up the play. Then, in the fourth quarter, Goff’s best throw of the night fell right into Cooks’ hands, but Duron Harmon got a hand in there, which was just enough to stop the play.

Stephon Gilmore - Super Bowl LIII
Stephon Gilmore’s interception of Goff in the fourth quarter put Super Bowl LIII on ice
(Screenshot: NFL on CBS)

On the very next play, the Patriots sent Harmon on a delayed-blitz. As he came screaming in untouched, Goff panicked, and threw up a jackpot-style pass to the same spot, where Stephon Gilmore, the NFL’s premier shutdown cornerback, was waiting in his quarters coverage.

“I saw it the whole time,” Gilmore said. “I never took my eyes off it. I looked it in. I can’t believe he threw it.”

It’s true. In replays, Gilmore clearly had his eyes on Goff the entire time. His interception came after a vintage game-winning drive by Brady, his sixth in Super Bowls (he’s won every one that way), virtually sealing the game.

Finally coming alive, Brady went 4-for-4 with 67 yards to put the Patriots up 10-3, finding eventual Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman (10 catches, 141 yards) on his zillionth dig route of the game, matched up against Rams linebacker Corey Littleton, who gave up the ensuing deep seam route to Gronk, two plays later.

Rob Gronkowski - Super Bowl LIII
Rob Gronkowski reels in a 29-yard catch on the Patriots game-winning drive in Super Bowl LIII. (Screenshot: NFL on CBS)

After the game, Gronkowski punted away retirement questions, stating that he would take a week or two to decide. Instead, perhaps the greatest tight end ever, fresh off his big fourth quarter, embraced the moment.

“Bill (Belichick) told me he’s partying tonight,” said Gronkowski, who was also seen in a hilarious Instagram video with Brady after the game, seemingly taunting any and all of their detractors to the tune of the outro in Eminem’s Without Me.

New England even finally broke free in the running game late, as James Develin plowed over defenders as a lead-blocking fullback, helping clear lanes for Michel (18 carries, 94 yards) and the Patriots backs in general (154 rushing yards) on a night where the Rams not only took away the outside-the-numbers passing routes, but also usual Super Bowl safety net James White (nine total yards).

But as always, the Patriots adapted. And despite a shaky effort early, Brady found his rhythm late. He was given way too many chances.

Brady was already at or past Michael Jordan’s level of overarching greatness in North American professional team sports. And this season was about Brady, Belichick and the Patriots resilience in the face of more moments of adversity than even they have been accustomed to.

But this game in particular was about something else. It was another masterful Belichick blueprint on the game’s biggest stage. It was Flores’ swan song before heading to Miami to coach the Dolphins. And it was the Patriots’ defense, the group that let the team down in Super Bowl LII last February, emphatically making their mark with one of the great performances as an overall unit in the history of the Super Bowl.

Super Bowl LIII Preview

Super Bowl LIII Preview: Brady’s second shot at ring No. 6 comes versus ‘all-in’ Rams

By now the storylines have reached a point of exhaustion. The hate for the Patriots’ self-contrived ‘underdog’ status has been well-documented. The Rams’ aggressive team-building approach and wunderkind head coach, well-profiled.

But this should come as a sigh of relief — here is a FOOTBALL preview of Super Bowl LIII. That’s right — matchups, x-factors and what each team needs to do to be victorious. Enjoy.

Patriots offense vs Rams defense

Despite being anchored by the greatest quarterback that ever lived, the Patriots have transitioned to more of an old-school ground-and-pound offense for a significant portion of the team’s last four victories.

Behind perhaps the league’s best offensive line since December, and the best lead-blocking fullback in pro football in James Develin, rookie workhorse back Sony Michel has rushed for 242 yards and five touchdowns in New England’s two postseason wins.

Still, the offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is famous for adopting a chameleon-type approach to attacking defenses. Depending on the opponent, the Patriots may opt for Brady to line up in shotgun and sling the football 50-60 times, or they may opt to bulk up and run over opponents with ’21’ or 12′ personnel.

The Rams were ranked 31st in rush yards per attempt allowed in the regular season (Chiefs were 32nd), but they’ve hunkered down in the postseason. First, they bottled up Ezekiel Elliott, the NFL’s leading rusher, then stymied the two-back attack of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, allowing those three to just 93 yards on 37 carries in their two postseason wins.

But what the Rams did fall susceptible to (early on) in their thrilling overtime win over the Saints, is the halfback running out into the flats.

Targeted 13 times, Kamara reeled in 11 passes for 96 yards, often in the flats with Rams linebacker Corey Littleton trailing in coverage.

This bodes well for James White, who is the Patriots’ X-factor on offense this Sunday. 

Expect White to haul in anywhere from 10 to 15 passes running shallow flat, angle and option routes matched up against Rams linebackers.

With an excellent cornerback duo of Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, Brady will have trouble throwing outside the numbers to the likes of Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett.

But with just Hogan, Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski on the field most of the time for New England, expect Talib to get his share of duties against Gronk in man coverage, even lined up as a traditional tight end.

Brady will shy away from Talib and Peters mostly, looking for White, Rex Burkhead and you guessed it….Julian Edelman lined up against Rams slot cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman.

Robey-Coleman walked back his ‘taken-out-of-context’ comments referring to Brady’s old age, which is good, because TB12 has had his fair share of success targeting him from his days as a member of the Buffalo Bills. According to Pro Football Focus, Brady has a 130.6 passer rating when targeting Robey-Coleman, which is good for his third highest against any defender in the he has targeted at least 20 times.

So it’s understandable that Brady and Edelman, perhaps the best QB-to-slot receiver tandems of all-time, would have their way with the Rams’ CB3.

But in a season-defining game such as this, look for defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to have various plans in slowing down the Patriots’ passing game. With age catching up to Gronkowski, it’s possible Phillips places Talib on Edelman, but Talib will turn 33 years old 10 days after Sunday’s game, meaning he’s not quite the player he once was. Still a solid man-coverage cornerback, Talib would be up for the challenge, with the press coverage skills to slow down Edelman at times, but Edelman is not your average 32-year-old receiver. His affinity for clutch play and relentless grit, combined with his quickness and rapport with Brady, actually make him one of the league’s hardest receivers to cover, certainly at this time of the year.

In that case, the Rams might opt for more zone coverage, but knowing Brady decimates teams that play soft zone coverage as their primary defense (see: Brady vs. Steelers), Phillips will have to disguise his looks to full Brady, ultimately mixing in well-designed blitzes at the proper times to fool the GOAT.

But that can prove risky, with quick outlets such as White and Burkhead (who also can be utilized in running draws) available as quick-passing targets for Brady.

Which means the Rams’ blueprint success doesn’t necessarily rely on perfect coverage, but instead being the old adage of pressuring the quarterback, which works on any passer, not just Brady.

Yet, it’s a very specific type of pressure that will slow down this Patriots offense, and the Rams have the perfect players to do so.

Michael Brockers and Dante Fowler Jr. are capable on the edge, but Trent Brown and Marcus Cannon should be able to slow them down. And even if they don’t at times, Brady’s all-time pocket presence is perhaps his best tangible attribute, meaning stepping up and around edge pressure is something he can and will do.

Instead, it’s the interior where the Rams will need to excel.

Luckily for Los Angeles, they sport the greatest interior rushing threat — and eventually, maybe greatest defensive tackle ever— in Aaron Donald.

With a league-high 20.5 sacks and 41 knockdowns, Donald is primed for to win his second consecutive Defensive Player of the Year award on Saturday.

The behemoth has the ability to wreck any team’s game plan, but the interior of the Patriots’ offensive line has been stout. From left guard to right, Joe Thuney, David Andrews (center) and Shaq Mason have brutalized defenses in the run game, and along with tackles Brown and Cannon, they have kept Brady upright the entire postseason thus far. Zero sacks allowed by this group. The only other time a Super Bowl-winning quarterback went unscathed for no sacks in a postseason run was Brady in the 2003 Patriots’ path to glory.

With the ability to double-team Donald, the Patriots will limit him SOME, but expect Donald to have at least three or more clean pressures on Brady from the interior, due to his sheer dominance.

But if New England can limit Donald with a double team, the Rams’ success, and possibly chances of winning, may lie with their X-factor on defense, Ndamukong Suh.

Once a dominant interior player on his own with the Lions, Suh is not quite the same player, but is still formidable enough to take over a game if need be. Although not indicative of the effectiveness of an interior rusher, Suh has just 4.5 sacks this season, meaning he could do better as a rusher, which is part of the reason the Rams snagged Fowler from the Jaguars midseason, to generate more pressure.

But matched up solo against Thuney or Mason, Suh may be a game-wrecker for the Patriots in both the pass and the run game, if he steps up for the challenge.

But this is a tough matchup for the Rams. The Patriots will likely employ a mix of everything, which includes things like Burkhead running routes from the slot, and Cordarrelle Patterson acting as an ‘athlete’ by lining up in the backfield, and taking his fair share of end-arounds.

But ultimately, the Patriots want to control the tempo, and the clock, by pounding Michel behind their stout offensive line, lead-blocking extraordinaire Develin and monster-blocking by Gronk and Dwayne Allen. If they can break the Rams that way, then the play-action will come, and the Rams will likely falter, no matter what they do on offense. But if Donald and Suh can generate consistent interior pressure, against both the run and the pass, a la the 2007 and 2011 Giants, then the Rams may have their recipe for success.

Rams defense vs Patriots offense

The Rams have fond success under wunderkind, offensive-minded Sean McVay, a 33-year-old head coach that has used futuristic concepts to riddle opposing defenses.

Running McVay’s offense is 24-year-old Jared Goff, a third-year quarterback (and former No. 1 overall pick) who has vastly improved since his NFL debut.

The Rams heavily employ ’11’ personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) and often use these pieces in a bunch formation, with three receivers playing tightly within each other, and close to their offensive line. There, McVay relies upon Todd Gurley, one of the league’s best backs, on outside zones, while also utilizing Gurley as a receiver, and as a decoy, in play-action passes where the team’s bunch formations makes it hard to decipher routes, and where their receivers are going.

But because many of the Rams’ passing plays are long-developing, with routes such as deep-comebacks to Brandin Cooks, Goff holds onto the ball longer, giving a much-improved Patriots pass rush, led by Trey Flowers, a chance pressure Goff, as they did Patrick Mahomes in the AFC championship game.

The Patriots front seven in general had a rough go for much of the regular season, but they’ve allowed just 60 yards on 22 carries in their postseason wins over the Chargers and Chiefs. And while December-acquisition, and postseason hero C.J. Anderson had a successful outing versus the Cowboys, he was held to 2.8 yards per carry versus the Saints, meaning Gurley HAS to get it going in some form, for the Rams to have a chance.

The 2017 NFL Offensive Player of the Year garnered a putrid 13 yards on five touches, which included a drop-turned interception early on, which helped put the Rams in a 13-0 hole. That can’t happen versus the Patriots.

Gurley looked discouraged and flustered, but he’s been given another opportunity, and should have a better go-round than his NFC championship game performance.

But Bill Belichick specializes in taking away his opponents’ best offensive weapon. And although Gurley may seem like that guy on paper, the real weapon in this offense is McVay, through Goff. It’s the perfectly-ingrained system. With possession receiver, turned-bonafide-stud WR1 Robert Woods, speedy, deep threat Brandin Cooks and the young, sure-handed Josh Reynolds, the Rams have a nice trio of receivers, even with the loss of slot receiver Cooper Kupp earlier in the season.

Mentioned earlier, the Rams’ Aqib Talib was perhaps the league’s best man coverage cornerback a few seasons ago (think: 2015). That title now belongs to Patriots CB1 Stephon Gilmore. Not only is Gilmore the best man coverage corner, he’s the best cornerback in the league overall right now, period.

Although the Patriots may mix in some zone concepts, they just love to play man coverage, meaning that’s primarily what they’ll start with.

Cooks is a dangerous threat, but his route tree is limited to deep comebacks, drags, slants and flies. He isn’t a uber-precise route-runner, or a receiver who hangs onto balls consistently in traffic.

Woods isn’t as much of a home-run threat as Cooks is, but he’s the better overall receiver, meaning he’ll likely draw Gilmore for most of the game.

The Patriots will likely use a combination of Jason McCourty or undrafted rookie J.C. Jackson on Cooks, with safety Duron Harmon moving over from his usual ‘center fielder’ type role to shad overtop Cooks. The guess is the veteran McCourty draws Cooks (with help), while Jackson gets a shot at Reynolds. Because of his likely opportunity in one-on-one coverage, Reynolds is one of two X-factor(s) on the Rams’ offense. 

If Reynolds can beat his man consistently, Goff will be able to find his second and third read, while the Patriots key on more-known targets like Woods, Cooks and Gurley.

But with a much-improved pass rush, the Patriots have been able to get pressure with fronts containing Flowers, Adrian Clayborn, and interior sub-rusher Adam Butler. New England has also sent Kyle Van Noy from the edge with much success in recent weeks, specifically in the first half against Kansas City.

If the Patriots are able to play press man coverage tightly to delay (and knock off) the routes of Rams receivers, New England may make things difficult for Goff. That’s where McVay will have to lean on the ’12’ personel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2WR) groupings he used in the team’s comeback win over the Saints (16 snaps.)

In that case, the Rams would replace Reynolds with another tight end to pair with Tyler Higbee. That would be the team’s second X-factor on offense, Gerald Everett. 

Everett is a move tight end capable of giving the Patriots fits. He’s nimble and athletic, and can block just well enough to not be a liability in the run game. If the Rams can find some success running Gurley or Anderson here, that will set up Everett matched up agains the likes of Van Noy, Dont’a Hightower and possibly Devin McCourty or Patrick Chung. The latter of those four would likely be the best matchup for the Patriots, meaning Chung is the Patriots’ X-factor on defense, providing Belichick with a good piece in man coverage against tight ends from the slot. 

In the run game, Chung can be used in the box and up front as a pseudo-linebacker capable of stopping Gurley and Anderson, while also not surrendering speed and coverage ability to the team’s personnel. This may also include the occasional man coverage assignment on Gurley lined up as a receiver, when motioning out of the backfield.

The Rams have the pieces to make things awfully difficult on the Patriots here, but New England’s experience and recent mojo suggest they’ll have their moments, too.

Prediction

On paper, the Rams are not only vastly more talented, but they seemingly have the pieces and the aggressive approach to take down the Patriots, much like the Eagles did last year.

But New England has their swagger back this postseason. Missing in Super Bowl LII were the likes of Julian Edelman and Don’t Hightower, both of whom provide championship pedigree to a team that feeds off mental toughness and momentum. This Patriots team feeds off doubters, more so than any of the teams they’ve harnessed in the past decade.

The stage won’t be ‘too big’ for the Rams, but I believe they’ll get caught napping early, as the Patriots get out to a lead behind a fiery Tom Brady, who will look for James White early and often (I mean it…10-15 catches from him, and two touchdowns — one rushing, one receiving).

The Rams will figure things out both offensively and defensively in the second half, and like all past Brady-Belichick Super Bowls, this will be close, but nowhere near like the  nail-biters in their past few bouts.

New England will switch up their offensive approach from drive to drive, as they won’t be able to run 45 times against this improved Rams defense, but they’ll have enough success running to set up a few downfield throws by Brady on play-action.

And when the Patriots aren’t running behind Develin and the offensive line, they’ll spread things out and Brady will look to the short and intermediate areas in between the numbers.

The Rams will have some success with Gurley before he’s taken out of the game, leaving Goff alone, looking for his secondary weapons.

Give me Brady, Belichick and these hungry Patriots to complete the full circle of their dynasty that spans over 18 years. They’ll beat the Rams again, for what might be their last Super Bowl together.

Patriots 31, Rams 26

Super Bowl MVP: James White

Patriots go ‘once more into the fray’ in quest for sixth ring

193 days removed from one of the most painful losses of his career, Tom Brady took the field against the Philadelphia Eagles with something to prove. The contrast in importance from Super Bowl LII and this home preseason tilt can’t be overstated, but for Brady, this was a chance to damper the over-analyzed noise of ‘discord’ between he and Bill Belichick during the offseason, as seen and heard on sports television and sports talk radio.

The GOAT’s performance (19/26, 172 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT) was sharp. An A-minus level of quarterbacking against the team that thwarted his attempt at a sixth ring. With WR1 Brandin Cooks, do-everything back Dion Lewis and uber-clutch slot weapon Danny Amendola all gone, Brady will carry a heavier load this season. That’s something he’s done in past years, but as he enters his age-41 campaign, that’s certainly not ideal.

Still, the Patriots possess the ultimate mismatch-creator in tight end Rob Gronkowski, and will welcome back trusty slot receiver Julian Edelman in October after his four-game suspension for who knows what. In September bouts versus the Texans, Jaguars, Lions and Dolphins, Brady will have to rely on Chris Hogan as his WR1 with scatback James White and two former first-round picks Phillip Dorsett and Cordarrelle Patterson to fill the void. Patterson is the ultimate ‘gadget’ weapon capable of creating big gains off screens, reverses and the deep fly. Dorsett is a smaller target with blazing speed a la Brandin Cooks, but not as polished. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will likely try Dorsett in a variety of roles including in Cooks’ and Edelman’s spot for the first month of the season.

But what will the offense look like in general? McDaniels is known for creating a chameleon-type mentality within the Patriots’ complex offense run by Brady. One game New England might pound the rock in two-tight end sets (with the occasional play-action pass) while another matchup may bring out a spread set for much of the game, asking Brady to beat a top-end defense by throwing 50 or more passes — which he surely can do. It’s been documented many times before, but the Patriots use short passes to RBs and slot receivers as bonafide runs in that scenario. They move players like James Devlin out wide in no-huddle base-switched-to-spread formations and move receivers in motion to identify the coverage, and then Brady assess.

Many call it ‘dinking and dunking’ but what Brady does with timed and small window throws is a thing of beauty. As opposed to consistently looking deep to Cooks, Hogan and Gronkowski like last season, Brady will attack the short and middle spots of the defense before he attacks downfield with what can be described as the ‘jugular.’ This is reserved for when Brady looks downfield on either a play-action pass or unexpected bomb to hit the defense where and when it least expects it. The best example of this is Brady’s deep touchdown pass to Chris Hogan to defeat the Ravens on a Monday Night Football game during the 2016 season:

New England’s team-building philosophy allows them to find obscure or mid-level available targets to fit their system, without having to battle other teams for their services. These players are hired on affordable contracts, or traded for assets with slim value to the franchise. The latest example being Patterson, who may very well enjoy a career year in New England despite being dealt there, along with a sixth-round pick in exchange for a fifth-round pick. That’s practically nothing.

Likewise, the Patriots retained Burkhead on a three-year deal with $5.5 million guaranteed. With the Patriots handling of Michel’s injury and Lewis in Tenneseee, Burkhead may too, have a career year as the presumed feature back to start the season.

But the running back corps should rely on perhaps their best bargain of all, scatback James White. The trusty offensive weapon will be heavily relied on to start the season, and even may lead the team in catches. The player who has scored six touchdowns in his last four postseason games quietly signed a three-year extension last offseason that nets him just $12 million (not guaranteed) through 2020. The Patriots win in this scenario again.

But enough contract talk. Expect the unexpected when it comes to the Patriots attempt to score points on four familiar, stingy defensive foes in September, but after that Brady and company should find their rythmn with a mix of gameplans derived generated to attack opponents’ weaknesses.

In short, as long as Brady is running the show, and Gronkowski and Edelman remain healthy, New England should remain one of the league’s consistent scoring machines in 2018.

Week 1 Projected offense:

QB — Tom Brady

RB — Rex Burkhead 

WR — Chris Hogan

WR — Cordarrelle Patterson 

Slot WR — Phillip Dorsett (Edelman will replace Dorsett after his four-game suspension; Dorsett would move back outside)

TE — Rob Gronkowski

LT — Trent Brown 

LG — Joe Thuney 

C — David Andrews

RG — Shaq Mason 

RT — Marcus Cannon

Situational positions:

FB — James Devlin

Scatback — James White

‘Move’ TE — Jacob Hollister

Blocking TE — Dwayne Allen

Gadget — Cordarrelle Patterson (Patterson projected to start in three WR sets Weeks 1-4)

Swing Tackle — LaAdrian Waddle

 

* * * * *

For the Patriots defense, the 2017 season ended just as it began, with the unit being thumped by a more talented offensive unit.. The ominous Week 1 loss to the Chiefs sparked early trouble, but as always the Patriots trekked along with the ‘bend-but-don’t-break’ defense for the rest of the season leading up to Super Bowl LII. Then, the wheels came off.

Now, Brian Flores takes over, filling in for Matt Patricia’s shoes. In two preseason games, Flores has appeared to mix in more exotic blitzes than the conservative preseason. But again, it’s preseason so that means little. The Patriots major hole in 2017 was a lack of a pass rush, and a below-average front seven in general. Players like Eric Lee and Marquis Flowers were thrust into starting roles down the stretch. Both Lee and Flowers were released Saturday, failing to make the 53-man roster. With the return of Dont’a Hightower and the additions of Adrian Clayborn, Danny Shelton and Derek Rivers, the team should see somewhat of a boost in those categories.

In the secondary, the Patriots again will have the experienced safety trio of Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon, but the group’s most important piece will be CB1 Stephon Gilmore. With a full season in New England under his belt, Gilmore should elevate into a top five cornerback in 2018. Belichick will utilize the former Buffalo Bill as a man-to-man piece with the ability to stymie opponents’ No. 1 pass catcher. Generally, Belichick’s defenses work well with a shutdown CB1 anchoring the backend — think Ty Law, Asante Samuel, Aqib Talib and Darrelle Revis. With the exception of Samuel, who was smaller and excelled in zone coverage, the players on that list are elite, physical man-to-man defenders. Gilmore will be that.

The major question comes at CB2, where Eric Rowe will need to step up and provide solid play in man-to-man situations. Between Gilmore (6-foot-1, 202 pounds) and Rowe (6-foot-1, 205 pounds) the Patriots hope to lock up outside receivers with their lengthy, athletic cornerbacks, with less pressure on Rowe, as he’d be asked to cover the team’s No. 2 WR. In the slot, the Patriots will look to Jonathan Jones or rookie Duke Dawson at some point, but their often-used ‘big nickel’ package may be the most used. The formation employs the aforementioned safety trio with both Harmon and McCourty playing a traditional free-ranging safety position, and Chung playing in the as a nickel back who is able to jam receivers and tight ends who line up in the slot.

With Flores at the helm, the Patriots will still employ a mostly-conservative approach to their defense, as similar to recent years. But expect the young play caller to mix a few exotic blitzes into the mix, without leaving the defense vulnerable to getting beat deep by a running back in the passing game, like Cassius Marsh’s coverage assignment versus Kareem Hunt in last season’s Week 1 loss to the Chiefs.

To sum it all up, the defense should improve.

Week 1 Projected defense:

EDGE — Trey Flowers

Interior — Danny Shelton

Interior — Lawrence Guy

EDGE — Adrian Clayborn

LB — Kyle Van Noy

LB — Dont’a Hightower

CB — Stephon Gilmore

CB — Eric Rowe

Nickelback — Patrick Chung

S — Devin McCourty

S — Duron Harmon

Situational positions:

Rotational Interior  — Malcom Brown

Sub Interior Rusher — Adam Butler

Sub Edge Rusher — Derek Rivers

Sub Edge Rusher — Deatrich Wise Jr. 

Slot CB — Jonathan Jones

Slot CB — Duke Dawson Jr. 

 

Projected record: 12-4 (AFC’s No. 2 seed)

With the AFC’s (and AFC East’s) failure to keep up with the NFC’s level of emerging talent-heavy teams, only the Patriots, Jaguars and Steelers hold a legitimate chance at making Super Bowl LIII, with the Chargers, Chiefs and Texans being the conference’s sleepers. The Patriots will miss out on the AFC’s No. 1 seed via a Week 2 loss in Jacksonville. But with a season-long worth of meshing, and Edelman back in the mix, the Patriots will defeat the Jaguars on the road in the AFC Championship Game to advance to their third Super Bowl in a row, and fourth in five years.