They spoke at last year’s NFL scouting combine, met again at a spring coaching clinic about 90 minutes away from Mercedes-Benz Stadium, brokered the final details of a trade for a star wide receiver and have remained in contact by text throughout the season.
“I’m not even close to being mentioned in the same breath as coach Belichick and what he’s done,” McVay said.
Not yet anyway.
But at age 33, the youngest coach in modern NFL history and a team featuring young stars such as quarterback Jared Goff, running back Todd Gurley and defensive lineman Aaron Donald have the opportunity to announce the arrival of a new era if they can knock off the 66-year-old Belichick and ageless quarterback Tom Brady.
Belichick and Brady, 41, have won five Super Bowls in eight appearances.
“There’s no do-overs; this isn’t any retakes and Hollywood scripts or anything,” Brady said of playing in the championship game. “We gotta go out there and get the job done under pressure.
“I’m looking forward to it.”
The Rams advanced to the Super Bowl by defeating the Dallas Cowboys in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs and the New Orleans Saints in the NFC championship game. Greg Zuerlein’s 57-yard field goal in overtime against the Saints put them in the sport’s biggest game for the first time since the 2001 season.
All but four Rams players — cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Sam Shields, running back C.J. Anderson and receiver Brandin Cooks, who was traded from the Patriots to the Rams — are playing in the Super Bowl for the first time.
And they sense the magnitude of the opportunity.
“What better stage than to do it now in the Super Bowl,” Donald said. “That’s what you’re here for.”
To defeat the Patriots, the Rams must find ways to neutralize Brady, a four-time Super Bowl most valuable player. Last year, Brady passed for 505 yards and three touchdowns in the Patriots’ 41-33 Super Bowl loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.
But two years ago, Brady led the Patriots back from a 28-3 third-quarter deficit to defeat the Atlanta Falcons, 34-28, in Super Bowl LI. That performance further cemented his status as perhaps the greatest of all time.
“You got to go beat the G.O.A.T. to be a champion,” Rams defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh said.
Suh was among several high-profile offseason additions to the Rams roster, a haul that included Talib, Cooks and cornerback Marcus Peters. The ninth-year pro is coming off his two best performances of the season. With opponents double-teaming Donald, Suh dominated against the Cowboys and also played well against the Saints.
“We've been able to have fun together and create a lot of havoc,” Suh said of his pairing with Donald. “I hope we have the opportunity on this stage to shine our brightest.”
It won’t be easy: Brady was not sacked in playoff victories over the Chargers and the Kansas City Chiefs.
Rams linebacker Dante Fowler, acquired in October at the trade deadline, caused an interception in overtime against the Saints by hitting the arm of quarterback Drew Brees. Similar kinds of plays will be necessary to control Brady, he said.
“Try to hit his hand or get in his face, step on his toes, so he [isn’t] able to plant and throw,” Fowler said. “Because if he's just sitting back there looking pretty it's going to look ugly for us.”
Said safety John Johnson: “The margin for error is zero. We just can't really make mistakes.”
It’s not just Brady that the Rams have to control. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels utilizes running backs Sony Michel, James White and Rex Burkhead in myriad ways. Receiver Julian Edelman and tight end Rob Gronkowski are proven Super Bowl stars.
“They got about six or seven different offenses they can run,” said Talib, who played for the Patriots in 2012 and 2013. “They had them six or seven offenses then; they still got all six or seven now.
“Just have to see how they going to try to attack you and figure it out.”
Goff, the No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft, will be challenged to recognize and adjust to schemes devised by Belichick, a master at taking away an opponent’s strengths. Goff played through the deafeningly hostile environment at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans to earn the matchup against Brady.
“You want to treat it like any other game,” Goff said, “and that’s my plan.”
It remains to be seen how McVay will deploy Gurley.
The NFL touchdowns leader, who signed a $60-million extension before the season, handled the ball only five times in 32 plays against the Saints while Anderson, a late-season pickup, carried the load.
Gurley has not been the same since injuring his left knee during a game against the Philadelphia Eagles in December. He rushed for more than 100 yards and a touchdown in divisional-round playoff victory over the Cowboys, but he dropped two passes and said he performed “sorry as hell” against the Saints.
Now he will play in the biggest game of his career.
“Fully expect him to be the Todd Gurley we all know,” McVay said.
Does Gurley feel like he has a big performance in him for the Patriots?
“We'll find out Sunday,” he said.
Left tackle Andrew Whitworth will protect Goff and help clear the way for Gurley and Anderson. Whitworth, in his 13th season, said the Rams would not be overcome by the moment or matching up against the Patriots.
“When you get out there and you snap that football, at some point the nerves are going to go away and you’re going to have to settle in and be the team you are,” he said.
The Rams’ road to the Super Bowl included playing through the aftermath of a mass shooting not far from their Thousand Oaks facility, and fires that forced the evacuations of thousands of residents, including Rams players and their families. They traveled to Colorado to train at altitude for a scheduled game in Mexico City, only to have the game switched to the Coliseum.
“We were together during those times,” Goff said. “A lot of that stuff, I think, brought us together.”
That bonding, and the work that began with offseason workouts, will be put to the test Sunday.