Rams-Patriots showdown could be a running sensation

There are some characteristics that this year’s Los Angeles Rams team has in common with the unit that played in Super Bowl LIII. Aaron Donald leads the NFL in sacks as he did during the 2018 regular season. Quarterback Jared Goff is playing football at a high rate. Wide receiver Robert Woods is shaking and baking people all over the field as he typically does.

So what’s the big deal about the Rams and their bygone Super Bowl miss for a championship? Well, the Rams get a chance to knock off the rust of their painful defeat when they play the Patriots Thursday night. It won’t be the Super Bowl, but it’s a primetime game that should not be missed.

It was just 2019 when the Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots hooked up in Super Bowl LIII. It was not a good day for the Rams as Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the rest of the Patriots left the ballgame high on a rush of a 13-3 victory. The two teams will entertain one another on Thursday Night Football at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood.

“Clearly it was a big game,” Rams coach Sean McVay said. “It was something that didn’t go according to plan. A lot of things that I know that you try to use to be able to learn and move forward from. But what I think the most important thing that you can apply is there’s a lot of continuity on their coaching staff, same thing with ours.”

The Los Angeles Rams have the No. 2 defense in the NFL. Photo credit: Los Angeles Rams
The Los Angeles Rams have the No. 2 defense in the NFL. Photo credit: Los Angeles Rams

“And you always look at that, because that was the last time that we played them,” McVay added. “Specifically, when you look at just our offense and their defense. We’ve obviously got some different systems that were running special teams wise and defensively, but that’s definitely relevant. It’s something that you have to be aware of. You have to understand what the success that they had, that it’s something that they’ll probably try to replicate.”

Both head coaches then will be on the sidelines doing their thing once again. The Patriots have Belichick, a future Hall of Fame coach. The Rams counter with Sean McVay. Both the Rams and Patriots have had personnel changes since that Super Bowl showdown. Running back Todd Gurley II, who rushed for just 35 yards on 10 carries in the Super Bowl, has moved on to the Atlanta Falcons.

The Patriots, a model of consistency since the Belichick era, has been anything but that for this season. That’s because COVID-19 has altered a lot of things for everyone. Due to concerns of the pandemic, more than a handful of New England players decided to opt-out of the season.

When quarterback Tom Brady decided to walk away from the organization after 20 years of service and six Super Bowl rings, that seemed to signal that the show was over. While Brady’s departure knocked the breath out of the New England faithful, Belichick replaced his longtime quarterback with one of his peers that plays with a different set of drums unlike the rest of us.

His name is Cam Newton aka Superman. After spending the first nine of his 10 seasons with the Carolina Panthers, the former NFL regular season MVP (2015), Newton is playing in his first year with the Patriots, taking over for the departed Brady. While he is no Brady, Newton presents the Rams with a different set of challenges.

The New England Patriots defeated the Los Angeles Charger, 45-0, on Sunday at SoFi Stadium. Photo credit: Los Angeles Chargers

“He’s a guy that can beat you in a variety of ways,” McVay said. “He is such a physical presence. I think, (Offensive Coordinator) Coach (Josh) McDaniels and (Quarterbacks) Coach (Jedd) Fisch have done an excellent job of being able to accommodate his skillset and make their offense mold to what he does best. that changes by the week based on how they feel like it’s the best way to attack the opponent. And certainly, that’ll present a great challenge for our defense, but looking forward to seeing how these guys answer the bell.”

Newton has the same zip on his passes that helped him throw for over 4,000 yards in a season (4,051 yards in 2011) and at 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, is every bit the nightmare running the football as he has been in the past except he knows to get down on the turf a lot more than trying to run over people.

Because New England has the No. 3 rushing offense in the league, the Patriots have not had to rely on Newton just letting it fly all over the field. Up to this point, Newton has only thrown for 2,053 yards. He’s also rushed for 435 yards on 106 carries. His flexibility as a dual-threat quarterback gives Belichick options he never had with Brady. And if he needs to get physical, Newton won’t hesitate to do that if the situation calls on it.

“Just be the hammer, not the nail,” said Newton after rushing for two touchdowns and passing for a score in the Patriots’ 45-0 win against the Los Angeles Chargers. “God has blessed me with the stature that I have and anytime that I have an opportunity to create some type of force or momentum, then I’m going to do it. But at the same time, I have to be cognizant of the position that I play and when I need to get down I have to get down.”

The matchup between the Rams defense and Newton and the Patriots running game will be an interesting watch. The Patriots average 150 yards on the ground per game. The Rams defense, ranked No. 2 overall in the league, gives up less than 100 yards (93.1 yards).  Los Angeles is ranked No. 3 against the run in the NFL.

It probably helps McVay to sleep a little better at night knowing he has the No. 1 offense disrupter in the relentless Donald and a guy in the defensive backfield (cornerback Jalen Ramsey) who can shut down opposing wide receivers.

Los Angeles Rams playing defense
Mr. Outside. The Los Angeles Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey (20) has helped the team’s defense become an elite unit. Photo credit: Los Angeles Rams

“Yeah, those are the two dynamic players,” Belichick said. “They’re good. You need to know where they are on every play. They can ruin a game and do ruin games. So, we’ll have to do a good job on them. It’ll be challenging. (Rams Defensive Coordinator) Coach (Brandon) Staley does a good job of disguising their defenses and changing things up. It’s kind of hard to know exactly what you’re going to get, a lot of times you don’t know until the ball is snapped. So, that’ll be a challenge for us.”

So what’s on the line? For both teams, it’s the playoffs. The Rams, first place in the NFC West Division, has the same identical 8-4 record as the Seattle Seahawks. They’ll need a win against the Patriots to stay ahead of Russell Wilson and his crew up in Seattle. The Patriots can ill-afford another defeat in their chase to play in the postseason.

After starting the season slowly, New England has won four of their last five games. With division games against Seattle and Arizona remaining on their schedule, McVay and the Rams are trying to stay the course. They’ll need Goff to be at his best to do that. So far, Goff has answered the bell this season.

The No. 7 passer in the NFL with 3,372 yards and 17 touchdowns, Goff is on pace to throw for more than 4,000 yards. In the Rams’ 38-28 win against Arizona the first time Los Angeles played the Cardinals, Goff passed for 351 yards and a touchdown. Numbers are fine., but what McVay wants out of Goff in the team’s last four games is a steady flow in his game performances.

“I think consistency is the biggest thing,” McVay said. “I know it’s like a broken record, but it is the truth. If he plays like he did yesterday, that’s indicative of really good quarterback play, exactly what we’re looking for. I thought he got through progressions really well. There’s a lot of things too, that don’t show up on the stats for him that I think are a real reflection of playing well, and that’s managing the run game. Some of the things where we were able to get some clean looks were a reflection of his command at the line of scrimmage and a lot of the things that we’re looking for. So, there’s so much that goes on from a mental perspective. I thought physically through football really well. I thought he made some accurate throws.”

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