Times NFL writer Sam Farmer talked with his Boston Globe counterpart, Ben Volin, ahead of the Rams-New England Patriots matchup in Super Bowl LIII. Here’s how that email discussion went:
Volin: My first question to you is how are the people of Los Angeles reacting to this Rams Super Bowl appearance? Do you sense that the run has generated a lot of new fandom, or are the Rams still more of a curiosity on the L.A. sports scene?
The Boston reaction has been interesting. The team had 35,000 fans come out to Gillette Stadium last Sunday for a sendoff pep rally, the largest crowd they’ve ever had. At the same time, I sense a little apathy among the people of Boston.
Farmer: The foothold the Rams have doesn’t compare to that devout fan base in New England, but you’ve got to remember, the team has only been back three years. Los Angeles is a city of transplants, and everybody brings their hometown football loyalties with them.
In the 20 years that the NFL was gone, we saw the rise of the internet, fantasy football, Sunday Ticket and NFL Network. Basically, you now can follow the Patriots just as closely in Westwood as you can Waltham. People in L.A. consumed football from the couch for two decades. So it takes some time to restart the engine.
That said, I think the story that the Rams have no fans is exaggerated and played out. The Coliseum is outdated and cavernous, and even 65,000 spectators make it seem like the place is empty. Still, the place was rocking for the Rams as the season went on. Even Cowboys and Eagles fans were outnumbered in a big way. The Packers game was about 50/50.
Don’t you guys get tired of the “Beat L.A.” thing? It’s like we’re renting space in your head. People don’t obsess on Boston here.
Volin: That’s pretty funny. My colleague Dan Shaughnessy wrote a great column about how “Beat L.A.” doesn’t apply to Patriots-Rams. It’s about Larry and Magic and the old Boston Garden and the L.A. Forum and Red Auerbach and all of that. Before the Chargers playoff game a few weeks ago, Julian Edelman posted a “Beat L.A.” hype video to social media, and my initial reaction was, “Oh yeah, I guess the Chargers are L.A. now.”
I think people like the chant because “Beat L.A.” just kind of rolls off the tongue and sounds good. And we did just have Red Sox-Dodgers, too. But as far as an actual sports rivalry, I don’t get the feeling that Bostonians actually care all that much about beating L.A. There’s not much animosity there (and I think a lot of us wouldn’t mind living out in L.A. right now).
Football question: Who is the Rams’ most important player on Sunday, and who is one player that Patriots fans may not know now, but they’ll know his name by the end of the game?
Farmer: Obviously, Jared Goff has to have a good game, but he’s pretty unflappable, as we saw in all the noise at the Superdome. I’d say getting Todd Gurley going is key, because that sets up the play-action passing game, and the Rams really can’t afford him laying an egg two games in a row.
Fans up there are on top of things, so there aren’t a lot of players who will catch them completely by surprise, but I think receiver Josh Reynolds has been pretty dangerous in the absence of Cooper Kupp.
The Rams are shape-shifters offensively, and that plays in their favor when Bill Belichick is so good at taking away your best weapon, especially with two weeks to plan. Reynolds could be one of those second-tier weapons who picks up some slack if/when Belichick takes somebody else away.
Volin: Reynolds is a good one. Michael Irvin was asked the same question on Wednesday and he said TE Gerald Everett, which I thought was a great call. They throw a lot of quick passes to him in the flat, but he’s a threat to turn one upfield with a double move and hit a deep shot.
I still think the Patriots try to pound the ball with FB James Develin leading the way for Sony Michel (or Rex Burkhead). And Julian Edelman is in line for a huge game.
The guy on defense I’m putting the bull’s-eye on is LB Kyle Van Noy. His ability to read plays correctly and not bite on the play-action could make or break this game.
OK, last one from me. You mentioned Goff and his ability to block out the noise at the Superdome. Incredibly impressive. Along the same lines, is there any reason to think Goff or young coach Sean McVay won’t be ready for the bright lights and the spotlight on Sunday night?
Farmer: Well, the magnitude of the moment has taken down others before, so there’s always that possibility. Weather won’t be a factor, as it was in Chicago, where the Rams never got in rhythm. They basically sputtered and wheezed for the better part of three weeks — at Detroit and Chicago, and at home against Philadelphia — before getting back on track.
Their path parallels that of the Patriots in a lot of ways. Both played poorly (and were written off by some) after Week 15 losses, then they both regained their equilibrium by knocking off two inferior division opponents at the end of the season. They both lost key offensive players at the end of the year — Josh Gordon and Gurley — and they both rediscovered their running games. Very similar in that regard.
The Rams have played the run way better in the playoffs than most people anticipated. They put the clamps on both Dallas and New Orleans. Part of that is Ndamukong Suh has come to life. He has played great. Their linebackers, Mark Barron and Corey Littleton, are both about 230 and are good runners. But they aren’t those big run-stopping pluggers, so that could be a problem.
A lot of their pass rush is generated up the middle with Aaron Donald and Suh, so that’s different than the Patriots dealt with in their past two playoff games. Dante Fowler has played well on the edge lately, though, and got in Drew Brees’ face on that overtime interception.
As Philip Rivers said in a recent story, where he breaks down both teams, the Rams kind of do what they do defensively. They don’t try to fool you.
Getting back to your original question, there’s a possibility the stage will be too big for these guys. But I really don’t anticipate that. The Rams have played really well on the road this season, and noise won’t be anything close to the issue it was in the NFC Championship game.
So where might the Patriots stumble?
Volin: I could see problems for the Patriots if they don’t get off to a fast start and have to play from behind — say, a two-touchdown deficit in the first half.
The Patriots’ offense has been fantastic in the postseason and jumped all over the Chargers and Chiefs from the get-go. But I don’t know if the Patriots are built to play from behind. They are mostly a ground-and-pound team now with their fullback and blocking tight ends, and a lot of their passing game is built off play-action (like the Rams). If the Patriots play from behind and have to be one-dimensional, I’m not sure they have the firepower in the passing game to do it.
On defense, it’s going to be about their ability to defend the run with their “Big Nickel” defense. We all know the Rams use that “11” personnel (three wide receivers) on over 90% of their snaps. The Rams averaged, I believe, 5.1 yards per carry when running with “11” personnel this year, while the Patriots were one of the worst teams defending it, allowing 4.9 yards per carry.
If Gurley can gash the Patriots for five or six yards consistently on first down, the Patriots are going to have a tough time getting off the field.
OK, last thing. Quick prediction. I’m going 40-37, Patriots. I think this is going to be a fantastic game with a ton of offense, but I can’t pick against Tom Brady at this point. I have learned my lesson.
Farmer: I get that about not betting against Tom Brady. He has scalded all of us in that regard. I think it will be slightly lower-scoring because there always seems to be a feeling-out process with the Super Bowl, when everybody is settling in.
I’m taking the Rams 31-28 because I think their offensive versatility weighs in their favor, as does their interior pass rush with Donald. The late addition of C.J. Anderson allows them to run between the tackles much more effectively than they did earlier in the season.