The Patriots built a dynasty in a league that plots against it. Like every other NFL team, the salary cap and free agency churns their roster. Unlike any other team, the Patriots have been consistent Super Bowl contenders for nearly 20 years. (Related: Quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick are the constants.)
After Sunday’s game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Patriots will have played in nine Super Bowls since the 2001 season. Only one team, Seattle, has played in more than two over that span. The AFC champion Patriots will play in their fourth Super Bowl in five years, a time when no NFC team made it more than once.
Clearly, there is nothing fluky about New England making it to the Big Game. Yet the Brady-Belichick Pats have been a little lucky in the Big Game. All five Super Bowl titles won by the duo were by a one-score margin, including three by a field goal.
Statistically speaking, winning close games over the long haul is a matter of luck. That’s why scoring margin is a good measure of true team quality. It’s one reason I like the Rams to beat the Patriots in Super Bowl 53.
Admittedly, I’m biased toward underdogs -- the Patriots are favored by 2-1/2 points -- but I think the Rams wouldn’t be ’dogs if not for New England’s aura.
During the season the Rams had the third-best point differential (plus-143) behind the Saints (plus-151) and Chiefs (plus-144). The Pats (plus-111) were a tier below, ranked fifth. The Rams also were much better and more consistent than the Pats during the season, according to their respective ranks (No. 2 vs. No. 7) and week-to-week variance in the Football Outsiders DVOA efficiency metric.
The Rams, like the Chiefs, have an explosive offense. Contrary to KC, the Rams have a defense that’s good enough to slow New England without relying on takeaways, though they’ve also generated plenty of those.
The Rams also have a game-wrecker at a crucial position, defensive tackle Aaron Donald. Per Pro Football Focus he had more than 100 quarterback pressures this season, amazing production for an interior lineman. Alongside Donald is nose tackle Ndamukong Suh, who has come alive in the playoffs following a so-so season by his standards.
“The best defensive line we’ve played all season,” Brady said more than once this week.
That’s key for the Rams. So is ball-hawking cornerback Aqib Talib, who returned to their lineup Dec. 2 after missing 10 weeks because of injury. The Rams can consistently get to Brady and make him throw into small windows.
Belichick is famous for springing surprises on his Super Bowl opponents at the right time (the Seattle pass fail was one such occasion). But, really, the impressive thing about the Patriots is their ability to be effective even when opponents know what’s coming. On offense, these Patriots thrive on rushing the ball, even against eight-man fronts, to set up Brady’s surgical passing.
The Rams are built to counter that approach. On their way to the Super Bowl they limited two good rushing teams, the Cowboys and Saints, to a combined 98 yards on 43 attempts (2.3 yards average). In the NFC Championship game, the Rams held Drew Brees to 6.07 yards per pass attempt. In overtime Rams linebacker Dante Fowler hit Brees as he passed, and John Johnson picked off the fluttering ball.
Both Super Bowl teams needed good luck to make it this far, as all good teams do at some point. The Rams beat the Saints in the NFC Championship game with the benefit of an egregious no-call. The Pats beat the Chiefs in the AFC Championship game by the skin of Julian Edelman’s thumb.
As mentioned, the outcome of close games comes down to luck over the long term. The Pats have had good fortune in the Super Bowl.
The Patriots won Super Bowl 38 after the Panthers sent a kickoff out of bounds for a penalty, putting the New England in good position for the game-winning field-goal drive. New England’s victory in Super Bowl 49 was secured by an interception on Seattle’s goal-line pass fail. As for Super Bowl 51, well, all that needs to be said is 28-3.
The Patriots lost Super Bowls by three and four points to the Giants (Eli Manning apparently has some weird hex on them). The Pats lost Super Bowl 52 by eight points when they were bested by another unlikely quarterback, Nick Foles.
Still, the Patriots win close Super Bowls more than they lose them, and sometimes when winning looks impossible. Maybe they really do have a close-game edge that can’t be measured. It’s that certain something about the Pats that makes it difficult to pick against them in the Super Bowl, even if the Rams appear to be the superior team on paper.
That’s especially the case because the Rams have a first-time Super Bowl coach (Sean McVay) and quarterback (Jared Goff). Then again, weren’t the Patriots favored to win Super Bowl 52 but lost by eight to a first-time coach (Doug Pederson) and QB (Nick Foles)? Didn’t the Eagles stop Brady on New England’s two final drives, the first ending with a strip-sack that set up a field goal and the other with five incomplete passes by Brady on eight attempts?
It’s possible that game signaled the end of New England’s Super Bowl mystique. Even if it didn’t, I’m thinking the Rams are so good they’ll have enough cushion near the end of Super Bowl 53 to make the mystique not matter. I’m taking the Rams to win by six.