LOS ANGELES. On Saturday, America’s official groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, will tell us whether we’ll need to endure six more weeks of winter. More important even than Phil, on that very same day, the Pro Football Hall of Fame will tell us whether we have as few as five or as many as eight new enshrinees. And on Sunday, we’ll have a chance to watch a few of tomorrow’s potential Hall of Famers battle it out in Super Bowl LIII.
Punxsutawney Phil has an open secret
As Punxsutawney Phil knows, this Saturday is about being the best ever. Sunday is about being the best of this season. Sunday, February 3, is when 2018 National Football League season comes to an official close with Super Bowl LIII. (That’s 53 for readers who didn’t study Latin in high school.)
Football is the greatest game in the history of games. It does not require hyperbole. So let’s get down to the business of football. That’s certainly what Phil will do, once his Saturday star turn is in the 2019 record books.
For those wanting information about the halftime show, go somewhere else. The Super Bowl halftime show, like the Academy Awards, should be canceled altogether and replaced with football highlights. For the record, Punxsutawney Phil says he hasn’t watched the halftime show in years.
For those who do care about the over-hyped commercials, remind me to come to your home and get excited. I will get excited during the commercials when you are trying to watch your favorite television show.
Football is about football.
A pairing of legendary franchises
The Los Angeles Rams play the New England Patriots for the right to hoist the Vincent Lombardi Trophy. The Rams are playing in the Super Bowl for the fourth time in their franchise history. The Patriots are making their NFL record eleventh appearance. The Rams have actually won three NFL championships in three different cities. They won as the Cleveland Rams in 1945, as the Los Angeles Rams in 1945, and as the St. Louis Rams in 1999. The Patriots have won five Super Bowls.
These teams last met in the Super Bowl in 2001. The Rams were 14-point favorites and on the verge of a dynasty. A Patriots team with an unknown backup quarterback and a lightly regarded head coach shocked LA’s Greatest Show on Turf 20-17. Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and Adam Vinatieri began their path to the Hall of Fame. They’ll be enshrined there when they eventually retire.
This time, it’s the Rams who are playing the part of the young upstarts. Sean McVay is only in his second season as an NFL head coach. He is an innovative offensive mind. His defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is among the best in the business. The son of Bum Phillips won his first Super Bowl in 2015 with the Denver Broncos as their defensive coordinator.
In addition to his five triumphs as a head coach, Belichick also won two Super Bowls as the defensive coordinator for the New York Giants under Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells. Belichick’s defensive game plans led to two of the most shocking upsets in Super Bowl history, the 1990 Giants (also 14 point underdogs) win over the Buffalo Bills and the 2001 Patriots victory over the Rams.
Super Bowl LIII: The backstory
The 53rd incantation of the Super Bowl came about when both teams won in heart-stopping fashion in their respective Conference Title Games. The Patriots won the AFC Title Game in a shootout over the Chiefs in Kansas City. The Patriots fell behind late 28-24, took the lead 31-28 with only 39 seconds left. They allowed the tying field goal, but went on to win 37-31 in overtime.
The NFC Title Game also went to overtime. At the two minute warning, controversy ensued when a Rams defender delivered a helmet to helmet hit on a New Orleans Saints receiver that was not called. The Saints could have run out the clock. Instead they kicked a field goal for a 23-20 lead but left nearly two minutes on the clock. The Rams used that time to tie the game. The Saints had the chance to win in overtime. But Drew Brees got nailed upon releasing the ball and had his pass intercepted. Greg “The Leg” Zuerlein drilled a 57 yard field goal to give the Rams the 26-23 win.
Super Bowl LIII: It could be a matter of style
Punxsutawney Phil has a unique style. Both Super Bowl LIII teams, however, have opposite styles. The Rams have flash. Todd Gurley may be the best running back in the league. But in recent weeks CJ Anderson has been bulldozing his way through opposing defenses. Jared Goff has been revitalized under Sean McVay. On the defensive side of the ball, Wade Phillips has monsters in Aaron Donald and Ndomakung Suh.
For the Patriots, Belichick and Brady are in their record ninth Super Bowl together and their third straight Super Bowl. Two years ago, they overcame a 28-3 deficit to shock the Atlanta Falcons and win 34-28 in overtime. Last year they overcame a 21-6 deficit to lead the Philadelphia Eagles 33-32, but the Eagles ended up winning 41-33. Even in defeat, Brady passed for an NFL record 505 yards.
This year, Brady has a better running game than he has had in years. When he needs to pass, Julian Edelman is still solid and Rob Gronkowski is finally healthy and playing lights out. Josh McDaniels is one of the best offensive coordinators in the business.
Both teams can run the ball. The Patriots have the experience, but in 2001 the Rams had the experience. This time around, the Rams have the edge on defense, especially on the defensive line. In 2001 the Rams had their aura of invincibility shattered. In 2018 the Patriots seem inevitable.
Who really wins championships? The players? Or the coaches?
One cliché we keep hearing is that players win championships, not coaches. Michael Jordan used to say that, and he knew a thing or six about winning rings. Yet this game will come down to the strategists. Wade Phillips will throw everything he can at Josh McDaniels. Bill Belichick will do likewise with Sean McVay.
Expect trick plays. Nobody runs the flea-flicker like Brady. Nobody does the fake punt better than Rams punter Johnny Hekker, a former quarterback. Both Brady and Goff will probably get one chance to catch a pass.
The only way to beat Brady is to hit him repeatedly. The four biggest games where he was hit the hardest knocked him into defeat. In 2007 and 2011, Tom Coughlin’s Giants repeatedly belted Brady to win the Super Bowl. Repeating that motif, in 2013 and 2015, Brady was knocked silly by the Denver Broncos in the AFC Title Game. In both of those AFC Title Games, the defensive coordinator was Michelin Man Wade Phillips.
On the other hand, Belichick rarely blitzes. Phillips will bring the house in key situations. Getting extra aggressive leaves a defense vulnerable to big plays, but that is only if the quarterback has time to throw. Brady recognizes blitzes as well as any quarterback, but Phillips disguises blitzes as well as any coach.
Title game clues
In the AFC Title Game, Belichick had no answer for Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes. The Patriots won the coin toss in overtime. Had they lost that coin toss, they might not be playing in this Super Bowl. Their defense could not stop Mahomes.
Conversely, the Rams, after falling behind the Saints 13-0, did clamp down on Drew Brees. Phillips brought pressure, and that was enough to defeat Brees and his chess-master coach, Sean Payton.
Granted, it is very hard to bet against the Patriots, given their deep experience and success. However, they are fallible. They lost last year in the Super Bowl to a second year coach in Doug Pederson and a backup quarterback in Nick Foles. Nobody gave the Patriots a chance in 2001, and nobody is giving the Rams a chance this time.
Game time, odds, and a bet
Punxsutawney Phil reminds us: The big game starts at 6:30 p.m. Eastern time on CBS. While the Rams were initially installed as one point favorites, the early betting was on the Patriots. They enter the game favored by two points according to Oddshark.com through the Bleacher Report.
The Patriots are saying all the right things, but this game feels like a coronation for them. None of these Rams played on the 2001 team, so the revenge factor is not very high. The Patriots have the power, but the Rams have the speed and quickness. As John Madden used to say, “speed kills.” Go with the speed. And go with the upset special. The Rams will shock the world and defeat the mighty Patriots. The Rams will win Super Bowl LIII.
Punxsutawney Phil is all in.
— Headline image: Punxsutawney Phil on February 2, 2018. (Image of Punxsutawney Phil by Chris Flook
via Wikipedia entry on Phil. CC 4.0 license. Image slightly reduced to fit CDN format.