The Super Bowl is upon us, and that means it’s time for our final SkyBet Pick Six/Pick The Playoffs column of 2018-19. It’s been an enjoyable first season for me here in a new home for this column at Gridiron, so I hope it has been for you too.
We go into this final game with first place still up for grabs in both Pick The Playoffs and our overall standings. WEST COAST OFFENSE leads the way in the former contest with an impressive eight correct calls from nine games so far. That run has also moved him up to within one point of KEVIN JACKSON in the combined table. You can find full details at the bottom of this article.
Since we might need a tie-breaker, I’m going to invite you to not only predict the winner of this game but also whether there will be more or less than 61.5 points scored between the two teams (the over/under line). The latter will not count towards your main score but will be used as a tie-breaker, if required.
New England Patriots @ St Louis Rams (Sunday, 11.30pm GMT)
Since we only have one game this week, I’ll separate the game out into its three main phases and get into a little bit more detail.
When the Patriots have the ball
The Patriots have overcome two quality opponents in this postseason by establishing the run early, building long drives and dominating the time of possession. But the Rams have restricted Ezekiel Elliott, Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara to a combined 2.51 yards per carry. Which is surprising, when you consider that LA gave up a league-worst 5.1 per carry during the regular season.
What changed? Lots of subtle things, but certainly the Rams have been bringing eight men down into the box more often. They moved Ndamukong Suh around more too, swapping him out of his usual position at nose tackle and lining him up with surprising regularity on the outside shoulder of an offensive tackle.
This wrinkle created problems for both the Cowboys and Saints, allowing the Rams to overwhelm one side of the line by stationing Aaron Donald inside him. Suh also proved himself surprisingly adept at getting clean hits on backs running passing routes, a noteworthy point given how often Tom Brady likes to throw the ball this way.
We should not necessarily expect the same approach against New England – the Rams’ staff knows Bill Belichick has been studying tape this past fortnight – but Suh’s use across those games is a handy illustration of how defensive co-ordinator Wade Phillips can adjust his approach even late in a year.
And Phillips has done better than most against the Patriots down the years. In nine games against his defences, Brady has completed a modest 58.1% of his passes. The last time the Patriots failed to score 20 points in a playoff game was against a Phillips-coached Broncos team in 2016.
One way or another, much will be decided by the impact of Donald and Suh. New England’s offensive line blocking has been astonishingly good through this postseason, paving the way for successive 100-yard games from Sony Michel whilst giving up no sacks and only three quarterback hits on 90 Brady dropbacks. This against some of the very best pass rushers in the league.
The theory goes that this game could be different because Donald brings heat up the middle instead of off the edge. Brady certainly struggles more when this happens – his passer rating dropping all the way to 63.1 when he faces interior pressure. And Donald is the best in the NFL at what he does.
It helps his cause further that Suh, wherever he lines up, is playing his best football of the season. The pass rush has also been aided by the return of top cornerback, and former Patriot, Aqib Talib. Better coverage in the secondary means fewer options for a quarterback to make a quick release.
New England, though, have so many different options, from James White and Rex Burkhead coming out of the backfield to Rob Gronkowksi, Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan downfield. And then there is Brady, still playing out of his skin at 41 years old.
When the Rams have the ball
Will we see the real Todd Gurley in Atlanta? The one who piled up a combined 1,831 yards and 21 touchdowns in 14 regular season games, rather than the one who got just four carries against the Saints and let a catch slip through his hands to become an easy New Orleans interception?
CJ Anderson’s glorious late season cameo put the Rams in a position where they could beat New Orleans without Gurley at his best, but the ideal scenario for LA would be to have both players firing on all cylinders. They are, on paper, brilliantly suited to working in tandem. Anderson the wrecking ball to soften defences up on the inside and Gurley the elite runner carving them up on the edges.
New England have given up just 60 rushing yards in two postseason games, but that is because they have built early leads and forced their opponents to abandon the run altogether. Even with Kyle Van Noy on fire, this is still a team that let Jaylen Samuels run for 142 yards on 19 carries in December, after the Dolphins had rushed for a combined 189 yards against them the week before.
LA must find ways to exploit that same weakness. The point has been made ad nauseam yet the fact remains that Jared Goff does his best work on play-action passes. And those are most effective when the defence is obliged to bring extra men down into the box to defend the run.
Goff’s performance has dipped through the second-half of this season, and it seems obvious that two events have had a major impact. The first was losing Cooper Kupp to injury in Week 10. The second was Gurley’s knee injury. As effective as Anderson has been as a replacement, opposing defensive co-ordinators simply do not adjust their gameplans around him in the same way.
Some of the criticism that has come Goff’s way has been excessive. He had an ugly patch at the start of December, throwing six interceptions in three games, but he has only had one in the past four and made smart decisions, as well as good throws, in high-pressure spots against the Saints.
I think he can do the same against New England, but he cannot be expected to carry his team as Patrick Mahomes did for the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game. What does stand him in good stead is the abundance of weapons at his disposal.
Belichick is a master of identifying his opponents’ greatest threats and eliminating them. Against the Chiefs, he had his defence double-team Tyreek Hill all game, greatly reducing the explosive potential of an offence that lives by the big play. But which Ram could merit similar treatment? Through most of the season, we might have said Gurley without hesitation, but now there is no such obvious choice.
Goff has a variety of receiving weapons, from the former Patriot, Brandin Cooks, to Robert Woods, Josh Reynolds and a pair of serviceable tight ends. Taking away any one of them would not redefine the Rams’ options as doing so with Hill did. On the other hand, none are so fearsome as to think that the Patriots’ own talented secondary could not handle them one-on-one with the likes of Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson and Devin McCourty.
It will certainly be interesting to see whether the Patriots deploy the same strategy they did against Kansas City: hitting receivers repeatedly (and grabbing hold a little more than they should) at the line to stop them from getting a quick release. That strategy proved hugely disruptive to a more talented quarterback in Mahomes.
Brady and Belichick might never have beaten the Rams back in 2002 without a nerveless kicker named Adam Vinatieri. They boast some of the better special teams units in the league again this season, and Stephen Gostkowski hasn’t missed a kick yet in this postseason.
Still, it would have been remiss of me in a preview of this game not to highlight the fact that the Rams are coming in with a kicker – Greg Zuerlein – who just nailed a 57-yard overtime winner in a conference championship game. Belichick himself, meanwhile, named punter Johnny Hekker as a weapon – one of the best in the league at his main job and athletic enough to pick up first downs with his legs or his arms on a trick play, too.
I’ll be honest and say that my instincts are telling me that the Patriots should win. They’ve just been too good in this postseason, scheming too well on both sides of the ball and, with another bye week to plan for Sean McVay, I expect Belichick to get it right again. But I also predicted a Rams over Patriots Super Bowl all the way back before the season had begun, and there’s sufficiently little to choose between these teams that I just can’t back down now. So here goes:
Or perhaps you fancy this:
Rams @ -2.5, National Anthem over 1min 49.5secs….3/1
Think you can pick a winner? Why not leave your prediction in the comments section below…
Pick The Playoffs
7 – WEST COAST OFFENSE
6 – AALIPOUR1, GEOFFREY MANBOOB, SCAMPTON, THOM OWEN
5 – JROSCOW, KEVIN JACKSON, MATTHEW SHERRY, SOXINOX
4 – PAOLO BANDINI
3 – CRAIG LLEWELLYN, GARY FORBES, OWEN MARSDEN
0 – BEN JOHNSON, JOSH PEACOCK
Pick Six & Pick The Playoffs combined
63 – KEVIN JACKSON
62 – WEST COAST OFFENSE
58 – PAOLO BANDINI
57 – JROSCOW, OWEN MARSDEN
53 – CRAIG LLEWELLYN
52 – THOM OWEN
48 – AALIPOUR1, GAZM013
44 – JOHN O’GORMAN
42 – POMPEYDINO
40 – JAKE BURTON
26 – JOSH PEACOCK
25 – MATTHEW SHERRY
21 – SCAMPTON
19 – JAYESH PATEL
14 – TED BOVIS
13 – ROB ALLEN
6 – GEOFFREY MANBOOB
5 – SOXINOX, STEFF HARRIES
4 – ADAMCONOR90, ANDREW COSTANZA, ANDREW HULBERT, HEFIN DAVIES, ITSMILKS, KPERSON, LEEDER, RANDY BULLOCK,
3 – ANDYJET88, CHARLESWALFORD, CRAGGLES, DAN SPENCE, DAVE H, GARY FORBES, JAMIE FERGUSON, LEE JELF, LEONPERRY, LEWIS, MORN01, PETER MORAN
2 – BARRY MCNEIL CHRISTIE PEARSON DAVID KATHRYNFRAMP10 LEE C
1 – ROBLAWTON
0 – BEN JOHNSON