Super Bowl 2019 Betting Preview
Teams: Los Angeles Rams vs New England Patriots
Location: Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta, Georgia
When: 23.30 GMT on Sunday 3 February 2019
TV Channels: BBC One / Sky Sports Main Event
Rams vs Patriots
The story of this year’s Super Bowl begins not at the start of this season, but in the autumn of 2001 amidst the aftermath of the September 11th attacks. Having been drafted the year before at #199, Tom Brady, a little-known 24-year-old, was to be thrust into action, after the New England Patriot’s starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe was injured in the late stages of a game with the New York Jets.
Brady was named starter for the following week, and although not instrumental in his team’s first win of the season, a chain reaction of events led them to the Superbowl – via controversial calls, clutch field goals and late drama.
Their opponents were the St Louis Rams – nicknamed “The Greatest Show on Turf” for their high-powered offense, who had compiled a 14-2 record. On paper, it was a mismatch: the champions from two years previous against the Patriots, who had failed on all four previous Super Bowl appearances. Accordingly, Vegas priced up St Louis as 14 point favourites.
Despite Bledsoe returning after Brady was injured in the AFC Championship win over the Steelers, the latter was picked to start the game by coach Bill Belichick. Belichick himself was appearing as a Head Coach in a Super Bowl for the first time, although had won two as Defensive Coordinator with the New York Giants.
After a quiet first quarter, the Patriots were eventually pegged back from a 17-3 lead to all square with 1:21 remaining. Starting on his own 17 and with no timeouts, Brady led them down the field where Adam Vinatieri kicked a 48-yard field goal to win the game.
Fast forward 17 years and the Rams (who were previously based in LA from 1946-1994 and returned in 2016) now have their chance for revenge. Since that game however, the Patriots have reappeared a remarkable seven times, winning four. By contrast, the LA Rams have not even made an NFC championship game – a long time between drinks.
Who will win Super Bowl LIII?
As the stats from their conference games show, where the paths of the teams reconvene is with comfortable divisional titles:
New England Patriots AFC East 11-5 (For 436, Against 325)
LA Rams NFC West 13-3 (For 527 Against 384)
Due to its highly tactical nature, and relatively linear format based on yards gained, American Football has long been an industry leader in data analysis and projections (although followers of association football – soccer – can read what the NFL can teach us about the Premier League, here). But the stats are less than conclusive for this year's final.
Pythagorean expectation projects how many wins you would expect from a team based on the points they scored and conceded, which sees the Rams at 10.87 and the Patriots at 10.67 wins (from 16 games).
This is a very simple measure, but even when the advanced metrics from the industry leaders such as Football Outsiders are delved into the two sides are extremely well matched.
The two sides also share the route of overcoming 3-point underdog status on the road in their respective championship games, in overtime encounters with no shortage of talking points.
5 key game-changers
The Rams (and quarterback Jared Goff particularly) overcame a slow start to pull level with the New Orleans Saints. They were to be the beneficiaries of one of the more controversial refereeing calls in sporting history, late on in the game, and their kicker Gregg Zuerlein made two clutch field goals to send them through. It would not be outlandish to suggest his winning kick would have been good from over 65 yards. So long as he overcomes an injury to his non-kicking leg, he will be a weapon the Patriots will fear down the stretch if things are close.
On the other hand, the Patriots dominated the first half of their game against the Chiefs, leading 14-0 at Half Time. In a remarkable 4th quarter duel with young gun-slinger Patrick Mahomes, 38 points were exchanged to send the game to a further period of play. Winning the toss, the Patriots received the ball and marched down the field to score the game winning touchdown.
The two sides last met in December 2016 and although arguably the best players of both sides are still there, it is hard to draw any firm conclusions from it.
To begin with, the Rams have a significantly better Head Coach in Sean McVay, who at just 33 is the youngest Head Coach to appear in a Superbowl. The match was also only Jared Goff’s 12th start as an NFL quarterback and by most metrics he is virtually unrecognisable from the nervy number one draft pick who threw 14 of 32 for a mere 161 yards (1 Touchdown and 2 interceptions).
Another player for whom it is hard to reconcile performances in that season to this is running back Todd Gurley, who may hold the key to this game. With 1,831 regular season, all-purpose yards and 21 touchdowns at times he has been unstoppable. He also poses the very threat that the Patriots have regularly been exposed by, mainly speed and misdirection out of the backfield.
Gurley was barely used in the Saints game, involved on 46% of plays but only carrying the ball 4 times (for 10 yards) and targeted 3 times (1 catch for 3 yards). Despite scoring a touchdown with 6 of those 10 rushing yards, more will be required from the fourth year All Pro given his likely strategic importance.
Another player with a point to prove on Superbowl Sunday will be Brandin Cooks, who will be looking to best his former team for a second consecutive game. His 7 receptions (for 107 yards) are a slightly overlooked facet of the Championship victory, coming up big on both Ram’s touchdown drives. If he can stretch the field, it may create the space needed for Gurley to cause the Patriots headaches.
Super Bowl supporting cast
On the defense, Rams star Aaron Donald – who broke the record for most sacks in a season by a defensive tackle, in 2018 – has since been partnered with big name signings Ndamukong Suh and Dante Fowler. These were clear statements by the organisation that they were in ‘win now’ mode, and their decisions have been vindicated, although at times during the regular season it looked a little in doubt. They shipped over 30 points during the regular season 6 times, including 54 points in the epic Week 13 shootouts with the Chiefs. Stopping the run has been their Achilles heel this season, which doesn’t bode well against a Patriots team light on deep threats but stellar in the run game.
However, since the playoffs began things have tightened up significantly, and they will hope that is a trend that will continue rather than being a mirage of small numbers.
The same can be said of the Patriots in general, who seemingly did just enough to make the playoffs, and are now showing their full hand once again.
Since being drafted by the Patriots in 2010, Rob Gronkowski after whom the 2018 Belmont Stakes 2nd colt was named has been their offensive linchpin and is surely a first ballot Hall of Famer. His role this season has been mainly to block, as opposed to being a passing target both for the good of his team and for his battered body.
The wraps were taken off him in the Chiefs game, with a season-high 11 targets (6 catches for 79 yards) and making catches on key three down plays.
Brady himself has looked more his usual self in the past month, on the back of a season during which it was frequently asked if the sun was setting on his career. The role of underdog is not one he has played often, but he clearly relished it at Arrowhead Stadium, and seemingly thrives off a ‘no-one believes in us’ mantra. With his only genuine deep threat, Josh Gordon, no longer on the team, it’s likely the game plan will again be to lean on a solid running back committee of James White, Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead, with Brady making short to intermediate throws when required.
Super Bowl 2019 odds – Vegas’ take
Despite initially leaning in favour of the NFC champions, Vegas is now seemingly not wanting to make the same mistake with Messrs Belichik and Brady. The Patriots are now 2.5 favourites at the time of writing, with a total points spread of 57. The big-game experience, coupled with a likely partisan crowd, are likely the key drivers behind them being made favourite.
A changing of the guard or the continuation of one the great sporting dynasties? With over 100 million expected to tune in, the eyes of the world will be on Atlanta to find out.