By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — All the eyes of the football world will be focused in on the Patriots and Rams on Thursday night.
Yes, it’s been a whopping TWO (2) days since the last NFL game, and fans are hungry for more. Fortunately, they’ll be getting a pretty good one.
This Super Bowl LIII rematch looks like a mismatch on paper, with the first-place Rams sitting at 8-4 and the 6-6 Patriots floundering about in the non-playoff ether in the AFC. But the Patriots have won four of their last five games and are coming off a 45-0 victory over the Chargers in Los Angeles. When a team just put forth one of the most dominant victories in its franchise history, you can’t help but like their chances playing in the same stadium just four days later.
The Rams, though, are coming off an important win of their own, a 38-28 win over the Cardinals. That win, combined with a surprising Seattle loss, moved the Rams into the top spot in the NFC West — a place they hope to remain heading into the weekend.
The Sean McVay-Bill Belichick clash in February of 2019 went to the Hall of Fame head coach. Thursday will show how prepared and determined McVay has been to change that outcome the second time around.
The Patriots are a running football team. And they’re a running football team that’s running the ball quite well right now.
In their last four wins, the Patriots have rushed for 607 yards, while passing for 604 yards. They’re at their best when they are running and running and running, and then running some more.
Against the Rams, though, that’s going to be a challenge. The Rams ranked third in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game (93.1) and fifth in the league in yards allowed per rushing attempt (3.91).
The Patriots are certainly one of the best rushing teams in the NFL (third in yards per game, ninth in yards per attempt), but they haven’t had much experience going against the best run defenses in the league. When they have (at fifth-ranked Seattle, vs. ninth-ranked San Francisco), they’ve lost.
The issue is compounded by the fact that the Rams’ have the NFL’s No. 1 pass defense. That’s in terms of yards per game (198.3) and yards per attempt (5.47). Taken together, it means the Rams allow the second-fewest yards per game and the fewest yards per play in the NFL.
It will be critical, then, for McDaniels to tap into that offensive creativity to find ways to crack the Rams’ defensive armor.
The Key: 23
This is far from scientific, but scoring 23 points may be the key for New England.
That’s because this season, the Rams have allowed 23 or more points six times. In those games, they’re 2-4.
When they’ve held opponents under 23 points, they’re 6-0.
The teams that put up 23 points while winning were the 49ers (twice), Dolphins and Bills. Buffalo did it with four passing touchdowns from Josh Allen, along with 101 rushing yards and a touchdown on the ground. Miami did things a bit non-traditionally, scoring touchdowns on a fumble return and a punt return. They scored one of their two offensive touchdowns after recovering a fumble at the Rams’ 1-yard line.
So clearly, there are different ways to get there, and the Patriots might have the best chance to follow a path similar to Miami’s.
Of course, scoring 23 points wouldn’t magically win the game for the Patriots. But based on the results from this season, doing so has been a prerequisite to beating the Rams.
Get To Jared
Some teams can win games when the quarterback has a bad game. The Rams aren’t really one of those teams.
Twice against San Francisco, Goff was awful, completing 55 percent of his passes for 198 yards per game with two touchdowns and three interceptions in the two games combined. Against Miami, Goff was 35-for-61 for 355 yards, but with a touchdown, two picks, and two lost fumbles.
The Rams did win in one of Goff’s mediocre games (20-for-31, 275 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT vs. Dallas), but they’re 1-3 when Goff posts a passer rating under 80. All eight of this other games have seen him post passer ratings of 96.9 or higher; the Rams are 7-1 in those games.
So, perhaps slightly more than most teams, the Rams go as Goff goes. Robert Saleh and Brian Flores figured out how to confuse the QB this year, and Bill Belichick’s done it in recent years as well.
Coming up with a game plan that’s more in line with the Chargers game than the Texans game will be the key for New England in this one.
The numbers may not be in favor of New England overall, but if there’s one thing to feel good about for the Patriots, it’s that their quarterback loves the bright lights of prime time.
Newton has been under center for the Patriots in three prime-time games this season: at Seattle, at the Jets, and against the Ravens. In those games, Newton averaged 263 passing yards per game, with two touchdowns and an interception. He also rushed for five touchdowns in the three games.
In early and mid-afternoon games, Newton’s averaged 158 yards per game with three touchdowns and eight interceptions, rushing for six touchdowns in the eight games.
The numbers may not be dazzling, but they do show that Newton’s used the prime-time stage as an opportunity to showcase to the football world that he can still be an effective version of himself. He was outstanding, albeit in a losing effort, against Seattle. That night, he completed over 68 percent of his passes for 397 yards with a touchdown and a pick, while also rushing 11 times for 47 yards and two touchdowns.
He was brutally efficient against the Jets, completing more than 77 percent of his passes and rushing for two touchdowns on 10 carries.
And on a rainy night against Baltimore, he was 13-for-17 (76.5 percent) for just 118 yards and a touchdown, while rushing for a touchdown.
Cam and the Patriots have just two games under the lights left this year: Thursday at the Rams, and a Week 16 Monday nighter against the Bills. If Cam can elevate his game in this one, it could make the difference.