The New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams will face off on Sunday in Super Bowl LIII, ending the 2018-2019 NFL season. The champions for this season will be decided at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, with the Patriots looking to claim their sixth Lombardi Trophy, while the Rams will be looking to get their second championship ring in team history. These two teams met back in Super Bowl XXXVI in February 2002 when the then St. Louis Rams lost to the Patriots 20-17, effectively ending the “Greatest Show on Turf” era for the Rams while starting the Tom Brady era in New England.
As Brady returns for his ninth trip to the championship game, there are plenty of players to watch besides the Patriots’ quarterback (and other than Jared Goff, the Rams’ quarterback). Who will have an impact on this game? We have five (or maybe a few more) players to watch this Sunday.
Todd Gurley / C.J. Anderson, running backs, Rams - The Rams have the explosive, three-time Pro Bowl selection, two-time First-Team All-Pro, two-time league leader in rushing touchdowns including this year, running back Todd Gurley. Against the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Championship game, Gurley recorded just four carries for 10 yards with a touchdown. Meanwhile, C.J. Anderson, who rushed for 167 yards in Week 16, 132 yards in Week 17, and 123 yards in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, carried the ball 16 times for 44 yards. It is an odd juxtaposition of how the two running backs are being used, compared to how they are expected to be utilized. Rams head coach Sean McVay has said Gurley will see plenty of playing time against the Patriots, blaming the lack of carries on play calls more than anything wrong with Gurley or his play. Both players have proven they can carry the load when required, but it seems like the Rams need Gurley to be at their most explosive on offense.
Sony Michel, running back, Patriots - Why not stick with the running backs and turn to the Patriots’ offense? Michel has added an explosive ground element to the Patriots offense this year, especially in the team’s last two games. He ran for 129 yards and three touchdowns against the Los Angeles Chargers in the Divisional round of the playoffs, then 113 yards and two touchdowns against the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship game. Expect the Patriots to look to get him involved early, limiting the Rams offense while getting one of their top playmakers the ball.
Aaron Donald / Ndamukong Suh, defensive tackles, Rams - Donald should be named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year this year, but he has been quiet in the playoffs. Suh, the former Miami Dolphins defensive tackle who was cut before the season and joined the Rams, had a slow start to the season but has been playing more and more like himself lately. Everyone says the key to disrupting Brady is pressure up the middle, and no team in the league has a tandem of defensive tackles like the Rams’ pair. They have ten Pro Bowl selections and seven First-Team All-Pro selections between them, and they could be the key to shutting down New England’s offense on Sunday.
Rob Gronkowski / Julian Edelman, tight end / wide receiver, Patriots - The Patriots do not have flashy stars as receiving options for Brady, but they do have Gronkowski and Edelman, who seem to always come up big when they are needed. After Week 5 of the season, Gronkowski had more than three receptions just once until the AFC Championship game, where he caught six passes for 79 yards. Edelman, who missed the first four games of the season due to a suspension, only reached the 100 yards receiving mark twice in the regular season, and only surpassed 75 yards five times. In the postseason, he caught nine passes for 151 yards against the Chargers and seven passes for 96 yards against the Chiefs. Both Gronkowski and Edelman should play big roles if the Patriots are going to have any success.
Trey Flowers, defensive end, Patriots - While the focus for the Patriots will likely be on their offense, there are defensive players to watch this weekend. Flowers has been an impressive pass rusher all season, leading a sixth-best ranking by Pro Football Focus. He only recorded 7.5 sacks, but he was constantly creating pressure this season. He will need to continue that this weekend.
Honorable mentions: Robert Woods, WR, Rams; Devin McCourty, S, Patriots; Shaq Mason, G, Patriots; Marcus Peters / Aqib Talib / Nickell Robey-Coleman, CB, Rams; Kyle Van Noy, LB, Patriots