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Rams-Patriots Preview: Last quarter-season push begins on Thursday Night Football

Four games to go.

Win any three of them – so long as that includes a victory over the Seahawks in Week 16 – and the Rams are your 2020 NFC West champions.

Win the next two games, and at a minimum their playoff spot would be assured before heading to Seattle.

Thursday Night Football against the New England Patriots opens the final quarter of the 2020 campaign.

But to what extent is this a Super Bowl LIII rematch?


I'd answer "minimally."

From the jump, it's worth a few lines noting all the key contributors in that game who either are no longer with the Rams and Patriots or won't play on Thursday at SoFi Stadium.

Off the top of our heads in no particular order: Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks, Andrew Whitworth, Ndamukong Suh, Kyle Van Noy, Patrick Chung, Donta Hightower, Cory Littleton, Mark Barron, Marcus Peters, Marcus Cannon, Danny Shelton…

Oh, and the MVP of that game Julian Edelman, who is currently injured.

Even the kickers are different. No Stephen Gostkowski or Greg Zuerlein this time around.

Still Bill: Volume 2

But it makes for good theater, and so why not embrace Sean McVay versus Bill Belichick: Round Two?

McVay repeatedly has described that three-point performance as a humbling night. Whereas he had two weeks to prepare for the Super Bowl, he had at most four days to spin it around for this Week 14 affair.

Then again, rather than framing it as a short week of preparation, one might cheekily suggest that on the contrary, it's been a long two years of plotting for this rematch with the Patriots.

The same could be said of Jared Goff.

A Cautionary Tale

Goff's performance against Brian Flores, who coordinated the defense on that fateful night in Atlanta, betrayed his growth since February 2019.

But courtesy of Pro Football Focus, here’s a phenomenal breakdown of why the Rams cannot, should not, and will not be caught expecting leftovers from Miami when they play the Patriots in prime time.

Much like Goff and the Rams, Justin Herbert and the Chargers had struggled against the Dolphins pressure packages and coverages earlier this season. So what did Belichick do last Sunday?

Flores, one of many Belichick disciples across the league, laid bare the shortcomings of a rookie quarterback with a heavy blitz package that left the young Herbert's head spinning in Week 10…

The Patriots ended up playing one snap of Cover 0 blitz. In total, New England blitzed only five times on 56 Herbert dropbacks… Instead of blitzing, Belichick allowed his defensive linemen to play games and stunt against a Chargers offensive line that was ready for the all-out blitz but could not handle simple stunts.

Love him or hate him, you have to respect Belichick's cunning.

"I wouldn't put anything past (the Patriots)," McVay said this week, when asked what he expected from the New England defense.

McVay Strikes Back

Let's give the Rams head coach his due, too. He also possesses a proven track record of Jedi mind tricks, and many on this Patriots roster have never faced him.

Safety Kyle Dugger, edge Josh Uche, linebacker Anfernee Jennings are all rookies who figure to play big snaps in this showdown, just to name a few Patriots who are about to encounter the Rams play-caller for the first time.

Might McVay be able to exploit some of the inexperience on this New England defense the way Belichick has so often done with opposing quarterbacks?

Fantasy Football

In a parallel universe we'd all like to visit someday, Cooper Kupp did not tear his ACL in 2018 and went for 130 yards and two touchdowns in a Super Bowl LIII win over New England.

We've all played that "What If" game, and it's one of the many reasons to look forward to Thursday night, when the Rams leading target will be in Horns.

And Kupp is due.

The last time he hit paydirt was that 55-yarder against the Giants at SoFi Stadium in Week 4 against the Giants.

Winning for (Less Than) One Hundred, Please

Cam Newton hasn't reached 100 yards passing in New England's last two games – both wins.

In fact, he's thrown for fewer than 85 yards in each. The last player to do that was Akili Smith with the Bengals in 2000, and he was benched in one of those victories, per NESN's Zach Cox.

In part, Newton's numbers last week were a reflection of the 45-point blowout. But they're not an inaccurate depiction of who he is at this stage of his career.

Newton is the first quarterback in NFL history with multiple rushing touchdowns in at least four games within a season, according to Elias.

Winning Edge

And my goodness, can he still threaten a defense.

Watch this breakdown by former NFL linebacker (and one-time Rams training camper) Matt Chatham.

The Rams will really be tested on the perimeter Thursday, in a different way than last week against a reluctant 5-foot-10 Kyler Murray.

At 6-foot-5 and 248 pounds, Newton is a force.

"You bring your big boy pads," Aaron Donald said of turning the page to this week's challenge.

As if he has any other kind, right?

Dink and Dunk Contest

Here's the thing about high percentage throws: layups and dunks are good things, even in an era of three-point barrages.

McVay and Goff didn't turtle-shell after the turnover-doomed loss to San Francisco. They sprayed the football all around State Farm Stadium, passing 47 times last weekend and completing passes to nine different targets.

True, those were largely bread-and-butter plays. Goff averaged a career-low 3.3 air yards with 35 of his throws coming within five yards of the line of scrimmage and 16 thrown at or behind the line, according to NextGen Stats.

They also broke Arizona's containment plan, hitting 13-of-16 passes from outside the pocket, the most such completions by any player since ESPN began tracking the stat in 2009.

I get that there's still a vertical element missing from this offense. But we also need to respect the fact that the Rams are answering the questions defenses are presenting properly. And it's not as if Goff didn't thread some needles in Week 13.

Fourth The Win

I said it Sunday during the game and want to repeat it here: One of the most encouraging things the Rams did against the Cardinals was fail on fourth down. Twice.

As cutthroat as McVay can be as a play-caller and master motivator, he's objectively one of the most conservative game managers in the NFL and has been throughout his tenure.

And with a defense this stout, especially coming off a four-turnover loss to the 49ers, there was an argument to be made that conservative was the way to play it in Arizona.

I tend to frame it the other way: With a defense that imposing, they're giving you every reason to go for it. And indeed, when the Rams offense failed on fourth-and-six in the opening quarter, the defense forced a three-and-out. Ditto, when they came up short again on fourth-and-goal in the second quarter.

McVay's willingness to go for those fourth downs communicated a confident disposition and total trust in his team, in addition to embracing the analytics of it all. Over time, the math says those decisions will translate into more points and wins.

Kickoff for Rams-Patriots at Sofi Stadium is scheduled for 5:20 p.m. pacific time on FOX, NFL Network and Amazon Prime Video.

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