ATLANTA — The Los Angeles Rams (15-3) and New England Patriots (13-5) are set for 60 minutes of Super Bowl LIII football in the heart of the south.
The Rams made it to Atlanta by way of head coach Sean McVay's balanced, next-man-up offensive attack that overwhelmed any unfortunate defense in its path for the first half of the season. Future Hall of Fame coordinator Wade Phillips' defense joined the cause, shutting out the Cardinals in Week 2 and from there the pressure on quarterbacks picked up, and passes were picked off by the superstar secondary.
Los Angeles overcame off-the-field challenges, took its late-season bye, and battled through the season's second half to win the NFC West for the second-straight year, earn the No. 2 seed in the NFC, and march through noisy New Orleans for a date with the nearly two-decade Super Bowl regulars in the Rams' first Super Bowl appearance since 2001.
The Patriots are back in the big one for the fourth time in five seasons and it's been the familiar faces from Foxborough. Quarterback Tom Brady is a win from NFL history — his sixth world title in nine tries — in his 19th NFL season. Head coach Bill Belichick's group in red, white, and blue lost five games for the first time since 2009. But the dynasty roared on — another AFC East title, another first-round bye, a blowout in the Divisional round, a game-winning drive from Brady in the semifinal, and now a date with its next Super Bowl challenger.
If the Lombardi Trophy has a seat on Monday morning's charter back to L.A., it'll likely be because the Rams defense disrupted the five-time world champ. Brady was on in his 28th and 29th career-postseason games, hitting on 77 percent of passes for 343 yards against the Chargers, and 65 percent for 348 yards against the Chiefs. The well-regarded greatest of all time threw a touchdown in each game. He also converted three-straight 3rd-and-10s for the win in O.T. in Kansas City.
Just before leaving Southern California, defensive tackle Michael Brockers learned that Brady is yet to be sacked in his two playoff games.
"That's crazy. He's the GOAT, but it's just another quarterback, he's going to try to avoid the pressure, he's going to try to get down, it's our job as D-linemen to get to him," Brockers said.
The Rams' defensive front's job indeed — but it may not be the top priority entering Super Bowl Sunday. According to Brockers' neighbor on the D-line, and the NFL's leader in sacks (20.5), the Rams rushers must first cut off the Patriots' multi-headed threat out of the backfield, in running backs Sony Michel, James White, and Rex Burkhead — who had two touchdowns against the Chiefs.
"Well, we got to stop the run first, I feel like they've been running the ball great," defensive tackle Aaron Donald said. "Getting a lot of opportunities to get the pass going with Brady, so we stop the run, get after the quarterback — I know he gets the ball out quick — but I trust our secondary, our guys on the back end to do their job and lock things down."
The Rams have turned things around in the postseason after letting up 122.3 yards rushing per game in 2018, giving up just 50 yards on the ground against the Cowboys and 48 to the Saints.
But Donald's recipe to generate his own opportunities for a Super Bowl sack or two, three, or more, relies on the never-short-on-swag defensive back duo of cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, along with their cast of playmakers who are beginning to shake their who was that? status, like safety John Johnson, safety Lamarcus Joyner, and cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman. Brady's top targets remain White, tight end Rob Gronkowski, and wide receiver Julian Edelman — and members of the L.A. secondary are well aware of the challenge the cast of veterans present.
"Definitely a tough cover — best tight end in the game," Talib said about Gronkowski, who remains a staple of Brady's offense, despite a career-low three touchdowns in 2018.
Talib and Johnson each listed Gronk's size and physicality as what makes him effective — but Johnson said he's up for the challenge in his second year.
Check out photos from practice as the Los Angeles Rams prepare to face the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII.
"Yeah, I mean, I've just got to look in the mirror — I'm an NFL player, too," Johnson said. "I'm a professional. I've got dreams, I've got goals. I want to be great just like he is. So it's going to be a good competition."
As for Edelman, who had 151 yards in the Divisional and 96 in the AFC title game, McVay — a former receiver himself — called the 5-foot-10 pass catcher "physical, tough, and wired to separate." Peters agreed with his head coach, in his short, perhaps tired-of-talk, ready for football breakdown of Edelman.
"Explosive," Peters said. "Savvy veteran."
Going against Brady's experience means there's a chance the Los Angeles defense will have to stop him late. If that's the case and quarterback Jared Goff and running back Todd Gurley are watching from the sideline as Brady operates, in search of his 45th-career game-winning drive, the Rams have total confidence in the defense's ability to make a stop.
On Thursday, Gurley answered what leads to it.
"Aaron Donald," Gurley said. "Playoff Suh," he added. Gurley's four-word reply expressed clear confidence and it based off facts. Donald recorded 9.5 fourth-quarter sacks in 2018 and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh's postseason has amounted to 1.5 sacks along with four quarterback hits, and eight tackles — two for loss.
"Got to execute the gameplan," Talib said, supplementing what — or who — Gurley suggested will make a late-game stop. "Coach Wade is going to call good calls, we just got to execute."
A common theme from the Los Angeles offense in preparation for the Super Bowl has been expecting the unexpected — anticipating Belichick's defensive adjustments to take away what the Rams do best.
Goff said that may be the case on Sunday night, but also that in-game adjustments happen every week, against any opponent. The Rams might just have an answer to Belichick's answer, and that's Goff's offense. McVay's group has found a way to win all season and features an array of playmakers in a balanced attack.
"It's huge because one guy can't be targeted, so many guys get the ball, even our tight ends and our running backs," Cooks said, explaining the possible advantage. "I think it makes us special and keeps us on our edge."
L.A.'s newfound plural running back advantage didn't quite show up in the semifinal, with Gurley and running back C.J. Anderson picking up just 60 yards on the ground. But before leaving for Atlanta, McVay said he had "a funny feeling" No. 30 will have a good showing in the Super Bowl.
The running back of few words, facing an ocean of reporters said, "We'll find out on Sunday" when asked if he's feeling a big game in the biggest game. His veteran partner in the Rams backfield, and a back of many words, gave his keys to victory.
"Be great on third down, be great in the red zone, and protect the football," Anderson said. "If we can do that at a high level, got a high chance at winning."
"They play a lot of man coverage and are really good at it and expect them to mix some things in, but they do a really good job of staying tight and running with the receiver and making plays on the ball, so it'll be tough for us," Goff said of the Patriots defense, perhaps with veteran safety Duron Harmon and his four interceptions in mind.
New England's defense allowed 359.1 yards per game in 2018, but had success keeping the ball out of the paint, letting up just 20.3 points per game. The defensive front that'll do its best to get after Goff is led by fourth-year defensive end Trey Flowers, who has posted at least one sack in each of his last three, and in six of his last eight games.
Both Gurley and Anderson emphasized this week that stats don't matter in the postseason — they don't matter in the Super Bowl. Now, with four bouts of media availability wrapped up, and gameplans in-place, it's about making the plays and winning the game for the Rams.
But what about making the play?
Wide receiver Robert Woods said he's been imagining his Super Bowl moment — while watching Super Bowl XLIII's pair of memorable catches.
"Just visualizing making a play, been watching the Larry Fitzgerald play against the Steelers taking it down the middle — just watching receivers make plays — Santonio Holmes in the corner of the endzone, plays like that."
"You always visualize making a big play like that," Donald said. "A game-changing play — that's what you're here for. What better stage to do it than now?"
And what about to win on the game's biggest stage? Reporters questioned the Rams all week on what it would mean to lift the Lombardi — to describe the feeling that only three current Rams have previously felt.
Adjectives like 'amazing' and pronouns like 'everything' are thrown around, others cannot even imagine.
And it's not difficult to imagine how challenging it would be to describe the feeling of a life's worth of hard work, sacrifices made, and dedication to the game paying off, your childhood dreams coming true with over 100 million watching worldwide.
"There's nothing better than seeing your teammates celebrate, celebrating with a bunch of guys who you've seen since April," Super Bowl 50 champion, C.J. Anderson explained. "Obviously I wasn't with this team since April, but there's a lot of players on this team that I know have worked hard and there's going to be nothing better than to see them celebrate with their families, me celebrate with mine, and we'll try to get it done this Sunday."
In case you missed it from Super Bowl Week:
...Practice report: Rams go through spirited session on Thursday… ...Edelman on Talib: "The respect for Talib is huge… ...Joyner on Patriots offense… ...Goff and the L.A. offense has proven it can overcome adversity… ...Aaron Donald on Super Bowl LIII… ...Talib in search of first postseason interception...