The New England Patriots lost two of their first three regular-season games. They lost two of their last four.
As the second-seeded team in the AFC playoffs, they were forced to play the conference title game on the road against the high-flying Kansas City Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes, the probable most valuable player.
The Patriots’ reign as the dominant team in the AFC was thought by some to be in jeopardy. But as Rams coach Sean McVay noted, the Patriots are playing their best when it matters the most.
Of course they are.
The Rams play the Patriots in Super Bowl LIII on Feb. 3 at Atlanta. Patriots coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady are seeking a sixth Super Bowl title in their ninth appearance and their third in a row.
“It’s going to be a great challenge, just like Drew Brees was for us last week,” McVay said.
Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips held the same position for Denver in 2015 when he successfully schemed against the Patriots and Brady in the AFC championship game. Many Rams have experience playing against Brady, and a few went against him in the playoffs, including linebacker Dante Fowler.
“I never went against him in the Super Bowl, though,” Fowler said. “You know, there’s a difference.”
In eight Super Bowls, Brady has passed for 2,576 yards and 18 touchdowns with five interceptions. Perhaps his greatest performance came two years ago, when he led his team back from a 25-point deficit to defeat Atlanta in Super Bowl LI.
Last week, Brady once again came through in the clutch in a 37-31 overtime victory over the Chiefs.
“Probably the best quarterback ever,” Rams safety John Johnson said.
As usual, the Patriots’ offense under coordinator Josh McDaniels is full of productive players. Other than Brady, tight end Rob Gronkowski and receiver Julian Edelman, they lack star power.
Rookie running back Sony Michel rushed for 931 yards and six touchdowns this season. He rushed for 113 yards and two touchdowns in 29 carries against the Chiefs. Running back James White caught a team-best 87 passes this season and has 12 total touchdowns.
Rex Burkhead rushed for his first touchdown of the season in a playoff victory over the Chargers, and ran for two against the Chiefs. Edelman caught seven passes for 96 yards against the Chiefs, Gronkowski six passes for 79 yards.
The offensive line has not given up a sack in two playoff games.
“They’ve got the ability to personnel group you, change some different things specific to how they want to attack a defense,” McVay said, adding, “They’re not limited in any way.”
When Matt Patricia left the Patriots to become Detroit’s coach after last season, linebackers coach Brian Flores took over many of the defensive coordinator responsibilities if not the title. He reportedly will be hired as Miami’s coach after the Super Bowl.
“They’re going to identify a couple things that they say, ‘All right’ — Belichick’s the best at this — ‘What do the Rams do best and how are we going to say we’re not coming out of this game letting them beat us doing this?’ ” McVay said.
End Trey Flowers has 7½ sacks for a defense that includes veteran linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy and cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who was voted to the Pro Bowl. Safety Devin McCourty led the team in solo tackles and returned an interception for a touchdown.
“They’ve got a great understanding of how to attack you and make you feel like, all right, you’re in defense mode when you’re on offense,” McVay said.
Kicker Stephen Gostkowski has made 37 of 41 field goals in 27 playoff games. Ryan Allen averaged 45.1 yards per punt this season.
The Patriots have consistently played in Super Bowls not only because of Brady, but also because of “their coaching staff and their scheme and everything they do,” Rams punter Johnny Hekker said.
“So we’re going to take this time to do our best to prepare for this game and give them our best shot.”