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

Greg Zuerlein kick

No matter what happens next, Rams’ aggressive offseason paid off

Greg Zuerlein’s 57-yard, walk-off boot sent the Los Angeles Rams to the Super Bowl, but the path to franchise’s first league championship bout since 2001 started roughly 10 months ago.

Last March, the team most noted for its offensive transcendence and aggressiveness on the field in 2017, geared up for their 2018 campaign by vigorously searching for (and adding) talent.

They acquired disgruntled Chiefs No. 1 cornerback Marcus Peters via a trade. They traded a first-round pick (no. 23 overall) to the Patriots for Brandin Cooks. They plucked Aqib Talib in a trade with the Broncos. They placed Ndamukong Suh from free agency on a one-year, ‘rental’ deal for this moment.

At one point, before the Cooks trade, there was rumored interest between the Rams and Giants star receiver Odell Beckham Jr.

After watching the Eagles roll to a championship via going after players in trades and free agency, rather than waiting and developing their own prospects, the Rams assertively one-upped last year’s Super Bowl champions by digging for talent via every avenue possible.

The Rams embraced the ultimate, ‘win-now’ mode, but also made progress in solidifying their nucleus for seasons to come.

The team opted to extend Todd Gurley’s contract on a four-year, $60 million deal. Upon trading for Cooks, who had one year left on his rookie contract, the team gave him a five-year, $81 million extension.

Then, after a stare down that saw Aaron Donald, the NFL’s best defensive player, skip their training camp and preseason, Los Angeles obliged Donald with a 6-year, $135 million extension.

Aaron Donald
Aaron Donald should win a second consecutive NFL Defensive Player of the Year award, come Feb. 2. (Screenshot: NFL Films)

As an interior force, Donald is perhaps the most disruptive to offenses than any other player in history at his position. Pairing him with Suh has helped produce a formidable duo, but the team still struggled to defend the run in the regular season, rating as the worst team in football against yards per attempt (5.1).

But like the 2006 Colts (who won Super Bowl XLI), they’ve buckled down in the postseason, corralling the NFL’s leading rusher, Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (20 carries, 47 yards), then stymieing the NFL’s best running back duo, Saints’ Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara (21 carries, 48 yards).

Although the Rams are thin at the linebacker spot, their talented secondary has one of the league’s best duos of playmaking cornerbacks in Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, who are both newcomers.

But even with a vast collection of talent on defense, and a wizard defensive coordinator in Wade Phillips, the Rams haven’t been as effective as they hoped on defense. But by cracking down on their usual mistakes in the postseason, they’ve done just enough to balance out an offense that has been virtually transcendent under mastermind, 33-year-old head coach Sean McVay, and third-year quarterback Jared Goff.

After a minor injury to Gurley and a season-ending injury to trust receiver Cooper Kupp, the Rams offense hit a wall in December, as most (including me) fitted them for an early postseason exit to regroup for next year.

But McVay’s futuristic offensive scheming adapted to more of an almost-old school vibe of pounding C.J. Anderson, a Super Bowl 50 hero, and journeyman running back, acquired in December. Anderson ran wild versus a tough Cowboys defense in an NFC divisional round matchup. And on Sunday, when Gurley had perhaps the worst game of his career, and Anderson was corralled to just 2.8 yards per carry, Goff led the Rams on a 13-point comeback on the road in the NFC championship game.

Goff has improved dramatically in each of his first three seasons, and in just two years, McVay has become a top-five coach, taking home Coach of the Year honors last year, and leading his team to an NFC title in his second season.

While utilizing a heavy attack of tight-bunch formations and inside zone running plays out of the shotgun formation, the Rams have built up a high-scoring offense. On defense, the Rams have finally started to figure things out as a team, rather than a collection of talent.

So when Zuerlein’s kick sailed through the uprights in New Orleans, the Rams were going to the Super Bowl. But they knew this all along. They went all-in on this season, while still hedging for the future, and it worked out.

Gerald Everett vs Chiefs

NFL Monday Morning Madness (Tuesday Edition): Rams outlast Chiefs + NFL MVP race

They share explosive, transcendent offenses. They share prolific young quarterbacks. They’ve literally shared players (Marcus Peters, Sammy Watkins). And yes, they even used to share states (Missouri).

On Monday night the Chiefs and Rams put on a show to the fullest extent at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. With an expected litany of points scored, millions of viewers still should be wowed by the insanity that transpired in the Rams’ 54-51 victory.

Is this the beginning of a diehard Rams fanbase building up in LA?

If so, it begins with Jared Goff’s cool-as-ever game-winning drive in the final minutes — with no timeouts — to send Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs (9-2) home, with their second loss of the season.

“It felt like Texas Tech and Cal,” Goff said he told Mahomes after the game.

Mahomes was brilliant on his own, notching nearly 500 passing yards and throwing for six scores. But he had five turnovers, including two interceptions on his final two possessions, in the game’s final two minutes.

In the first game in NFL history that featured both teams scoring at least 50 points, there did happen to be seven turnovers, and three defensive touchdowns.

Aaron Donald strips Patrick Mahomes
Aaron Donald recorded two strip-sacks of Patrick Mahomes in Monday’s win over the Chiefs. (Screenshot: NFL on ESPN)

But it was the Rams (10-1) who received the biggest boost from their defense, no matter how little. Aaron Donald — the NFL’s best non-quarterback — and Samson Ebukam – two defensive touchdowns — helped separate the two squads by making their mark in three different Mahomes turnovers, with two resulting in scores.

The league has obviously been shifting to become more offensive-centric for the past few decades, but something happened in the Eagles’ 41-33 victory over the Patriots in Super Bowl LII.

Where is the defense? Is it even needed anymore to win a championship. The answer is yes, but only sort of. Brandon Graham’s strip sack of Tom Brady last February was virtually the only big defensive play made in the contest, and it won the Eagles the game.

The NFL sure seems like it’s ushering in a new era. For however long that lasts, Super Bowl-caliber teams have offenses such as the Rams, Chiefs and Saints — and to a lesser extent, the Steelers and Patriots.

And the team with the most consistent offense, experienced head coach and quarterback, and/or closest to average defense wins. Last season, the Eagles played their part. This season, the Saints look like a much better version of last year’s Eagles. Especially after their 48-7 drubbing of Philadelphia on Sunday. They’re the Super Bowl LIII favorite. But in Pittsburgh and New England, two teams with the potential to run rampant on offense, and mightily improve on defense, are lying in the weeds.

But for tonight, the Rams and Chiefs put on a spectacular show for the ages. Or perhaps one of the inaugural shows of a new age. Time will tell, and our first example begins in the post-Thanksgiving push to Super Bowl LIII.

NFL MVP Race

1. Drew Brees — Brees is on pace to have perhaps the most efficient season a quarterback has ever had, at age 39. Where have we heard that before? (See: Tom Brady’s 2016 season at age 39).

2. Patrick Mahomes — Consider this, the Chiefs have averaged 45.5 points per game in their two LOSSES. Nonetheless, Mahomes’ five turnovers in the loss to the Rams puts him here for now. He may be battling Todd Gurley for the Offensive Player of the Year award at this point, if Brees keeps up his pace.

3. Jared Goff — Goff passes Gurley with his extraordinary performance to lift the Rams over the Chiefs. The quarterback position is clearly more important, as Gurley had a forgettable performance in a game where the Rams scored 54 points.

4. Todd Gurley — Yes, QBs are more important. But that doesn’t mean you can’t marvel at Gurley’s incredible season. He’s the best non-QB OFFENSIVE player in football. Aaron Donald, his teammate on defense, would be the best non-QB overall.

5. Andrew Luck — The Colts have risen from the dead, winning four straight games after starting 1-5, to pull even at .500. Luck is back, and the Colts are a force to be reckoned with in 2019 and beyond. And perhaps, the rest of this season.

Honorable mention: Aaron Donald, Antonio Brown, Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas, Ben Roethlisberger

Tom Brady vs Lions

NFL Monday Morning Madness (Friday Edition): For Patriots, this too shall pass (again)

It appears the mind-boggling dynastic run of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick is over, again. Finshed, again. Gone in a blink of the eye this time.

Three games into a 2018 season that may be one of the last for two greats with a closing window, and the end result has already been decided. The AFC East will be surrendered to the Dolphins, the AFC title belt passed on to the Chiefs or Jaguars, and the label of the league’s model franchise now passed on to the Eagles of Philadelphia.

With a 66-year-old head coach and general manager, and a 41-year-old QB, we all could have seen this coming, right?

This was going to end abruptly, Right?

Except this isn’t the end. The Patriots will rally to win home games versus the Dolphins, Colts, and Chiefs in the next 18 days to pull to 4-2. They’ll win the AFC East, clinch one of the conference’s top two seeds, and at the very least, compete in their eighth straight AFC Championship Game come January 2019.

Admittedly, this is their bleakest start since 2014. Sitting at 1-2, with what looks to be their thinnest roster (in terms of talent) in some time taking the field, it’s logical to be extremely concerned with the 2018 Patriots. Concerned, but not panicked. As advertised in the past seasons of 2003, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016 and 2017, this too shall pass.

Adversity builds character, and each and every time this team has been challenged during the Brady-Belichick era, they’ve climbed out of their funk and delivered.

At some point, this will end. There’s no denying that. But with two offensive saviors on the way, and the return of two of their three best defensive players imminent, the team hated from New York City to Seattle (and everywhere in between) will start rolling like a downhill tire, whether it seems logical or not at the moment.

The saviors — Julian Edelman and Josh Gordon — won’t fix this offense by themselves. It’s foolish to completely lean on a 32-year-old receiver coming back from an ACL tear, and another with off-the-field issues as serious as such.

But for a team relying on Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett at WR1 and WR2 at the moment, the addition of the trusty Edelman in the slot, and outside-the-numbers Gordon will lift this offense tremendously.

The group is dormant, not broken. With superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski doing his best to deflect double coverage on the field, and news of his almost-departure (via a proposed trade to the Lions) last spring, no other pass catcher has been able to get consistently open. Only the reliant James White, a scatback, has earned Brady’s trust outside of Gronk.

“Guys who can make plays are the ones who should be involved,” Brady told the media after the loss. The quote seemed to be a shot at offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ apparent force-feeding of rookie running back Sony Michel, which has limited White’s snaps. White hauled in a 10-yard score from Brady on a third-and-8 (the only touchdown of the night)

With news of Rex Burkhead heading to injured reserve with a neck injury, the role of the team’s traditional RB1 now lies with the rookie. Michel will improve, but Brady would certainly like to see more of White on the field, and he’ll love to have Edelman back, and for Gordon to contribute.

Edelman will add an immediate presence in the middle of the field. Before his suspension kicked in, the slot receiver looked quick in his preseason snaps. The numbers for Brady with and without Edelman are glaring (see tweet above) and to have one of his best friends back to create separation from man coverage, and finding holes in zone coverage on third down will dramatically change this offense for the better.

In Gordon, the potential is there for a legitimate WR1 capable of stretching the field. If he can quickly acclimate to McDaniels’ system, the former Brown will draw defenses’ focus away from Gronk. Additionally, Gordon gives Brady an option to throw jump balls to the 6-foot-3, 225-pound athletic freak. That’s something they haven’t had since Moss, outside of Gronk in the red zone.

With Gordon and Edelman set to push others down the depth chart, expect Phillip Dorsett and Cordarrelle Patterson to be pushed down the depth chart to WR4 and WR5. Hogan will also return to the outside. He has been in his usual spot in two-WR sets but he’s also been out of place in the absence of Edelman, as McDaniels has had him in the slot. It’s apparent he’s not very affective in that role. With Gronk, Edelman and Gordon set to take attention away from Hogan, the third-year Patriot now goes from the No. 2 pass catcher to the No. 4 slot. Hogan should be able to win some of those matchups, as opposed to struggling against CB1’s.

The most important thing in favor of the offense turning this around, is the fact that Brady will have Gronkowski, Edelman and White back together for the first time in almost two years.

*****

Defensively, the team looks admittedly slow with a lack of talent. Once looked at as a two-out-of-four decision, the Patriots have retained only Dont’a Hightower and have jettisoned Chandler Jones, Jamie Collins and Malcolm Butler.

Hightower looks gimpy, but the vitriol put on him by Patriots twitter is unnecessary. The 28-year-old is a Super Bowl hero on two different occasions. He’ll ease back into it, and will serve better as either a full-time edge rusher or back at middle linebacker now that rookie Ja’Whaun Bentley is on injured reserve.

With Trey Flowers and Patrick Chung scheduled to return the defense should get a much-needed boost, in time for a very important three game home stretch ahead.

While Stephon Gilmore has still allowed a few scores, he’s a legitimate CB1. The issue is on the other side, where the team needs Eric Rowe back, and even then, they are in some trouble. As of now, Jason McCourty, J.C. Jackson and others have not been able to fill that role. But Belichick (and de facto defensive coordinator Brian Flores) will figure out a plan to cover up that deficiency, and others, en route to fixing things in the back end.

Conclusively, the defense will tighten up, but talent is missing. They’ll go through a run in November and December where the bend-but-dont-break mentality makes fans wonder if their defense is back. But like Super Bowl LII has shown, they don’t currently have the talent to shut down a team with superior talent such as the Rams, Chiefs, Eagles and Vikings.

Still, all is not lost, as Belichick can coach the unit just well enough to remain sturdy, as opposed to completely breaking like last February.

*****

In terms of team morale and personnel, they seem to be at their lowest point. But brighter times will come soon for these Patriots. Edelman will walk through that door (or run out of the tunnel). Gordon will provide an offensive presence on the outside.  Hightower will return to his former self, and the Patriots will return to their winning ways. For it is not over for this great empire. This too, shall pass.

Rams roll, are they Super Bowl LIII bound?

The tour de force that is the 2018 Los Angeles Rams continued on Thursday night, with a 38-31 win over the Vikings. One could argue the Vikings are the second-most talented team in the NFL — behind the Rams — and the Rams absolutely crushed them.

Jared Goff has clearly made an astounding leap in Year 3, and the addition of Brandin Cooks (who’s sorely missed in New England) as the team’s new WR1 has been a smart one. Sean McVay is on another level in terms of offensive scheming right now. Everyone has a major role. Robert Woods is the perfect possession-type WR2, while Cooper Kupp is the league’s best slot receiver at the moment, until Julian Edelman returns next Thursday for the Patriots.

Then there’s Todd Gurley. NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks listed every team’s ‘offensive engine‘ this summer, and he had Todd Gurley as the Rams’ ambassador. Gurley can score from the backfield or as a receiver running pristine routes versus linebackers and safeties. He’s virtually a combination of a RB1 and WR2.

NFL.com’s Adam Rank said the 2018 Rams are the most complete team since the 2007 Patriots. After watching tonight, I may have to agree. This team has the look of a team that should dominate from start to finish this season. They are the overwhelming Super Bowl LIII favorites as of now, in my opinion.