After a long week at the Super Bowl in Atlanta, Paul Higham delivers his verdict as he expects the experienced Patriots to triumph over the youthful Rams.
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It’s one of the biggest sporting events in the world, and certainly the highlights of the sporting, and in some ways social, calendar in the United States, and after unprecedented hype and build-up the big game is almost upon us.
The New England Patriots go into Sunday’s game in Atlanta as favourites to lift a sixth Super Bowl under the guidance of Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick as the dominance of the so-called ‘evil empire’ shows no signs of ending.
They’re two figures NFL fans love to hate in the USA, mainly due to them combining to dominate a sport all geared up not to be dominated by one team – they’re defying the odds, and Brady, at 41, is now even defying the aging process after leading yet another so-so Patriots team to the Super Bowl.
The argument over whether he’s the best ever (he is) can wait for another time but his presence along with Belichick is what makes his side favourites against a Los Angeles Rams team that on paper at least has a better team.
Head coach Sean McVay, at just 33, is eight years younger than opposing QB Brady, but he’s an impressive character and an offensive innovator and he’ll really relish taking on the two greats on the opposing sideline.
Having those two legends in opposition can often cause concern and make coaches play it safe and wander from their gameplan, but I do expect McVay to go for broke, take chances when he has to, just as the Eagles did last year, and do everything possible to keep Brady off the field.
I arrived in Atlanta with an open mind, willing to look coldly at all the players involved, at the coaches, the styles, the strengths and weaknesses of both outfits before coming up with a verdict.
The problem is, though, that in these big games the number of imponderables is much higher and the effect they can have on the game much greater than almost anything else. In a word, pressure, and how you react to playing in the ultimate occasion for an American sportsman.
The build-up, the week of constant questions, the 24-hour coverage of TV at home and around the world, the neutral venue, the expanded half time show - all of these things, as players and ex-players have been telling me all week, have a huge bearing on the outcome.
Obviously the Patriots have a huge advantage on this front as they appear in their third straight Super Bowl (and an incredible ninth for Brady) and while it’s no guarantee of success it’s enough to put a tick in their box.
You’d obviously pick Brady above Rams quarterback Jared Goff, who has led a great offence without having to reach levels of greatness himself – you’d expect scheming genius Belichick to be planning to make him do it by himself on Sunday.
Goff may, of course, produced a display like Nick Foles did last year but it would be a career best given the circumstances, so the Rams will have to play a team game, leaning heavily on the running game and hoping defensive bulldozer Aaron Donald can have a big say on the outcome.
The two running games will be crucial, Todd Gurley has been astonishingly good for the Rams all season until the play-offs, and he was anonymous in the NFC Championship game when CJ Anderson stepped in to carry the load.
The Patriots have talented rookie Sony Michel leading the way on the ground, but they’ve got great options in James White and Rex Burkhead, while Rob Gronkowski may be more subdued these days but can come up with the big plays when needed.
So how do the Rams pull this one off? Well, it’s no secret that the key is getting pressure on Brady, you have to get hitting and chasing him and making him move around and outside of the pocket – and crucially, as Atlanta found out, you have to do it until the final whistle.
You do, however, have Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh applying pressure and having all the tools to do just that – but the Charger and Chiefs also thought that as they had 90 sacks between them for the regular season and hit Brady precisely zero times combined during their two play-off games.
So, as the week has worn on it’s become clear that, while it’d be no surprise to see the Rams stars all play to their best and grab the win, there’s just too much experience and nous on the field, and on the sidelines, to back against these Patriots doing it yet again.
Prediction: New England Patriots 31-27 LA Rams
Best bet: Patriots to win (-2.5) at 10/11
The Patriots have never been favoured by less than a score before and that’s too good to turn down here. The Rams are a great team and have a huge chance, but they’ll have to play the perfect game to do it, and in the biggest game of all that’s a tough task.
Scores: Rex Burkhead first TD scorer at 12/1
Always a tricky one, but I've decided to go against the grain somewhat and trust Belichick to pull something slightly left field out for us. Burkhead's a real danger from close range and when anticipating a long running drive from the Pats to start with he could be your man to punch it in.
Touchdown Treble: Todd Gurley, Sony Michel & Rex Burkhead at 6/1
Still doubts over Gurley's fitness, but he'll be used plenty in this game, especially near the goal line een if not at 100 percent, Michel should have plenty of chances while Burkhead is my slightly higher-priced fancy.
Odds correct as of 2035 GMT 01/02/19