FOUR PLAYERS TO WATCH
David Andrews, Patriots center
60.6. That’s New England’s third-down conversion rate this postseason. It helps that Tom Brady has gone two games without a sack. Andrews’ protection calls have been in sync with Brady as New England has allowed only five sacks since Week 11. Brady hates pressure up the middle. And the Rams have the game’s biggest wrecking ball in the middle in two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald. Andrews’ calls and assists on Donald will be critical.
Rob Havenstein/Austin Blythe, right side of Rams OL
The Patriots are capable of morphing into any kind of defense Bill Belichick desires. But linebacker Dont’a Hightower will be a key pressure component. His 12 postseason pressures lead all linebackers by seven, according to Pro Football Focus. Of his 50 rushes, 30 have come from the left side of the defense and have produced nine pressures. Right tackle Havenstein and right guard Blythe have allowed only two pressures each in 71 postseason pass-blocking snaps.
Adrian Clayborn, Patriots defensive end
The 30-year-old former Falcons player is back in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. He has started only one of 16 games, including the playoffs, in his first year with New England — he was a healthy scratch for the final two regular-season games. After 2½ sacks in the regular season, he has one in the postseason. In 54 pass rushes, all from the right side, he has produced eight pressures. He punished the Chargers’ Philip Rivers with a sack and three knockdowns in the divisional playoffs.
Nickell Robey-Coleman, Rams nickel cornerback
He is certainly not under the radar in New Orleans after committing what Saints fans believe were the top two no-call penalties of the NFL’s first century. Let’s assume the officials will be trying to avoid similar blatant whiffs Sunday. Robey-Coleman will be seeing a lot of the pesky Julian Edelman, who in 18 games for the Patriots this season has caught 58 of 77 targets (75.3 percent) with four of his six touchdowns while lined up in the slot.
ONE UNSUNG HERO
Cordarrelle Patterson, Patriots receiver/returner
Is there a Minnesota sports fan out there who doesn’t think the football gods could very well smile upon a former Viking in the Super Bowl? Patterson is PFF’s fifth-highest-ranked special teams player. He averaged 28.8 yards on 23 kick returns, including his sixth career kick return for a touchdown. He is averaging 25.8 in the postseason with a key 38-yarder late in the AFC title game. He hasn’t been a postseason factor on offense — but stay tuned. You never know what the Patriots have in store.
In a close, high-scoring game, the Patriots will force Jared Goff to make a critical error in Patriots territory on third-and-let’s-say-6. In 18 games this season, Goff has six turnovers (four interceptions) on third downs with 6 or more yards to go, according to NFL.com. Only Rivers, with seven, had more. The Patriots defense turned up the pressure in tormenting Rivers and containing Patrick Mahomes to reach their third consecutive Super Bowl. Now, a Goff INT will seal a 34-31 victory and a sixth Super Bowl title for Brady and Belichick.
How will McDaniels handle Donald?
Fortunately for Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, Donald has faced the Patriots only one time in a career that’s steamrolling its way to Canton. In 2016, Donald had no sacks and one hit on Brady in a 26-10 loss at New England. Of course, the Rams were 4-12 that year. According to PFF, Brady has a 63.1 passer rating with two touchdowns and two interceptions when facing pressure up the middle this season. But setting the protection to stop Donald at all cost could turn others, including inside mate Ndamukong Suh, loose.
Can Phillips slow the Patriots running game?
Ideally, the best way to slow Donald on third down is to run over him on first and second down. Los Angeles defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is tasked first with slowing a Patriots running game that has posted 331 yards on 82 carries (4.0) and eight touchdowns — eight — in two postseason games. In a conference semifinal victory over the Cowboys, Wade’s crew held Ezekiel Elliott to 47 yards on 20 carries (2.4). In the NFC Championship Game, the Rams held the Saints’ vaunted running attack to 48 yards on 21 carries (2.3).
What unconventional thing will McVay pull?
The Rams were being blown out of the Superdome in the first quarter when Sean McVay stopped a 14-0 onslaught dead in its tracks with a successful fake punt. Of course, it helps that punter Johnny Hekker has a better arm than some NFL quarterbacks. In last year’s Super Bowl in Minneapolis, Eagles coach Doug Pederson pulled the “Philly Special” — a misdirection masterpiece that resulted in Nick Foles catching a pass from tight end Trey Burton. McVay isn’t going to go four quarters on the game’s biggest stage without a major outside-the-box move.