Dante Fowler has the AFC championship game from the 2015 season committed to memory, so much so that the Rams outside linebacker does not feel a need to watch it again as he prepares for Super Bowl LIII against New England.
Fowler, acquired in a trade from Jacksonville on Oct. 30, spent hours studying Denver’s 20-18 defeat of the Patriots in that game before the Jaguars played New England for the AFC championship last January.
The Broncos’ defensive dominance was both inspirational and instructional for Fowler, who hopes to reprise the role of Denver edge rusher Von Miller against the Patriots in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday.
Miller turned that AFC title game into a demolition derby, sacking Patriots quarterback Tom Brady 2½ times for a loss of 13 yards, hitting Brady four times and intercepting him to set up a second-quarter touchdown for the Broncos.
Denver was relentless in its pursuit of Brady, sacking him four times, hitting him 17 times — seven by linebacker DeMarcus Ware — intercepting him twice and leaving him bruised and bloodied.
Brady completed 27 of 56 passes for 310 yards and threw a four-yard touchdown pass to Rob Gronkowski with 12 seconds left, but his potential game-tying two-point conversion pass to Julian Edelman was tipped by cornerback Aqib Talib — who now plays for the Rams — and intercepted by Bradley Roby.
“I feel like that’s a blueprint, especially from my position, on how to get to Brady, how to affect him and help the secondary in the back end,” Fowler said. “I studied that game last year — what [the Broncos] did, what Von Miller did — and I like how Von just took over the game.
Brady, 41, is the best playoff quarterback in NFL history. He’s completed 984 of 1,554 passes for 10,917 yards with 73 touchdowns and 33 interceptions in 39 post-season games. He was named most valuable player in four of the five Super Bowls his Patriots have won since 2001.
But as Fowler said of the revered pass-thrower who is often called the GOAT — Greatest Of All-Time — by fans, teammates and opponents, “He can be got.”
In defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, the Rams have a proven “Brady Buster.” The 71-year-old coach was Denver’s defensive coordinator in 2015, and his Rams play the same 3-4 scheme, with some notable star power and muscle up front, that those Broncos used to suffocate Brady.
“That was one of the great defensive teams of all time,” Phillips said of his 2015 unit, which went on to stifle Carolina in a 24-10 Super Bowl win. “They compared them to the 1985 Chicago Bears, so you know how good they were.
“Each game is different. I’ve had teams that played against [Brady] and didn’t do very well, and that  team did really well. You can’t fool the great quarterbacks. You have to outplay them. That’s what that team was able to do.”
The Broncos didn’t rely heavily on the blitz that day. Most of their sacks and hits on Brady came on four-man rushes, with Miller and Ware winning one-on-one battles on the edge and down linemen Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson squeezing the pocket with inside pressure.
“We just had a great rush that day, and we were able to get to him,” Talib said. “The pressure was coming from everywhere. Von and Malik were touching him, Wolfe was touching him, D-Ware … everybody got a little piece of him.”
Brady is a drop-back passer who does not have the speed to extend plays with his legs. But he has the experience and instincts to anticipate blitzes and evade rushers by stepping up in the pocket or sliding to the side to buy extra time.
Teams that have had success against Brady in the playoffs, like the New York Giants in the 2007 and 2011 Super Bowls, have funneled pressure toward the middle, leaving Brady with fewer escape routes, and pummeled him off the edge.
The Giants sacked Brady five times for a loss of 37 yards in a 17-14 Super Bowl win that spoiled New England’s perfect 2007 season. They sacked him twice for a loss of 10 yards, hit him eight times and created enough congestion to frustrate him in a 21-17 Super Bowl win in the 2011 season.
Brady wore a microphone in the latter game, and after one of his passes was batted away by Giants lineman Jason Pierre-Paul, Brady said, “It’s like throwing in a forest, dude. Those guys’ arms are like ...”
Former Chargers center Nick Hardwick said drop-back quarterbacks who aren’t that mobile usually struggle with pressure in the middle of the pocket.
“That’s how you get to Tom Brady, that’s how you get to the best quarterbacks in the league,” Hardwick said, “right in the middle, over the center and the guards.”
According to Next Gen Stats, Donald and the Rams defense generated the highest pressure rate from the interior (16.6%) in the NFL this season, and Brady has been significantly more effective against edge pressure (118.7 passer rating) than interior pressure (63.1).
“That can be a big advantage because [Brady] wants to step up in the middle and be comfortable,” said Fowler, whose hit on New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees helped force an interception that led to Greg Zuerlein’s game-winning field goal in overtime of the NFC championship game.
“With A.D. and Suh getting pressure up the middle, being able to step on his toes, they can make him a little uncomfortable planting and make him throw off his back foot. He usually makes one decision to get it out, but if they can force him to go to that second decision, that little extra time can be the difference in somebody getting there.”
The obstacles for the Rams defense are a seasoned Patriots line, anchored by left tackle Trent Brown and center David Andrews, that did not allow a sack to the Chargers and Chiefs in two AFC playoff games; a trio of talented running backs that racked up 331 yards rushing in two playoff games; and Brady’s quick release. He usually gets rid of the ball in two seconds or less.
“There’s a reason why he’s arguably one of the greatest of all time, because he does an excellent job of identifying the defensive structure you’re in,” Rams coach Sean McVay said. “He’s able to get the ball out of his hand in a timely manner, and he’s got guys who can separate.
“Any time you can move the quarterback off his spot, whether it’s with interior or edge pressure … just being able to force them to move, where they’re not able to just set their feet and work in rhythm. … Certainly that’s easier said than done. But the key is to get him off his rhythm, which not many people have success doing.”
The Patriots rely heavily on screen and check-down passes to running back James White, who had a team-high 87 receptions for 751 yards and seven touchdowns this season, and the punishing inside runs of rookie Sony Michel, who rushed 209 times for 931 yards and six scores.
Their success running from the power-I formation, with Michel lined up behind fullback James Develin, has eased some pressure on Brady and opened up play-action passes to Gronkowski, Edelman and wide receiver Chris Hogan.
“They’re gonna run, run, run and set you up,” Rams linebacker Mark Barron said, “and before you know it, they’ve thrown one over your head.”
Suh said the Rams had to be prepared for everything from the Patriots — a heavy running game, quick passes and play-action fakes, deep balls.
“I respect and admire their ability to be very versatile,” Suh said. “They execute all of the time. They’re going to have two weeks to game-plan, so I’m sure they’re going to have something special for us.”