Yeah, I know: The build-up for the final game of each NFL season is something of a marathon. And there are so many different ways to analyze this Patriots-Rams matchup. But really, we're all just seeking an answer to the same simple question:
Well, you're in luck! My historical reference model relies on data from 15 previous seasons to create a framework for predicting just that.
Below are 10 numbers to arm you with the predictive contextualized information that is most likely to determine who will win the Lombardi Trophy ... and who'll just be picking 31st in the 2019 NFL Draft. These figures flag as the most important factors when it comes to forecasting each team's ability to earn (or prevent) first downs and touchdowns.
Since the Patriots' Week 11 bye (including the playoffs, meaning their past eight games), Tom Brady has been sacked a grand total of five times. In New England's two postseason contests thus far, Brady wasn't sacked a single time. Clearly, the Pats' O-line is in a groove. In regular-season wins, Brady took an average of one sack per game, helping drive New England's 47.1 percent third-down conversion rate in these contests. In losses, Brady was sacked twice per game, with the Pats converting just 33.9 percent of third downs. During this postseason, New England boasts a robust third-down conversion rate of 60.6 percent. So, will Brady stay clean on Super Sunday? That depends on how well New England blocks a certain game-wrecker ...
Per Next Gen Stats, Aaron Donald has racked up 73 individual pressures, the most in the NFL for any player in a single season NGS has tracked (which is only three campaigns, though this also mirrors my 15-year model, in which Donald's elite status also holds). With 20.5 sacks and 41 QB hits also on Donald's docket for this season, it's hard to find a regular or contextualized stat category that he doesn't lead. The Rams have generated a pressure rate from the interior of 16.6 percent, the highest figure in the NFL. This is definitely something to watch on Sunday, as Tom Brady does have a well-established performance split between interior and edge pressure this season. Against edge pressure, Brady holds a 7:0 TD-to-INT ratio and a 118.7 passer rating; against interior pressure, those figures plummet to 2:2 and 63.1. Donald has yet to record a sack this postseason, but don't let that fool you. When it comes to accounting for impact on opposing offenses, Donald's contributions have been far greater than his four tackles, three QB hits, three tackles for loss and four pressures (numbers that aren't too shabby for two playoff games, by the way).
With Sony Michel on the field this postseason, the Patriots have run the ball 83.8 percent of the time. Despite having played in just two playoff games (due to the Patriots' bye), Michel paces all NFL rushers this postseason with eight runs of 10-plus yards. The combination of Donald and Ndamukong Suh has helped the Rams' defense hold opponents to just 49 rushing yards per game in the playoffs -- way down from L.A.'s regular-season yields of 122.3 yards per game (23rd in the league). Should Michel (or any New England rusher) get past Los Angeles' front, he will encounter favorable matchups against the linebacking corps: During the regular season, Rams LBs allowed the eighth-most yards after RBs passed down linemen.
Julian Edelman has earned 171 of his 247 postseason receiving yards (69.2 percent) off passes caught in the middle third of the field. Since Week 5 of the regular season (including the two playoff games), he's caught 58 of 77 pass targets (75.3 percent) when lined up in the slot, with four of those grabs producing touchdowns. Edelman's high average in yards after the catch when aligned in the slot (5.8 yards, per Pro Football Focus) could create a mismatch in favor of the Patriots when Nickell Robey-Coleman is assigned to stop him. The Rams nickel corner has allowed just 253 totals yards to opposing receivers this season, but 187 of them (73.9 percent) have come in slot coverage. Another thing to consider when we're talking about the middle of the field: Rob Gronkowski has played 97 percent of snaps in New England's two playoff games.
Jared Goff has incorporated play-action on 35.2 percent of his plays this season -- the highest rate in the NFL among the 33 qualified quarterbacks. Goff averages 3.4 additional air yards per attempt when using play-action -- the fourth-biggest increase among qualified QBs. The Patriots' defense has faced play-action on just 17.9 percent of throws against them (third-lowest rate), but New England has allowed opposing passer ratings to increase by 28.4 points (sixth-most) and opposing air yards per attempt to increase by 2.9 yards (third-most). Overall, the Patriots' defense has allowed a league-high 13.5 air yards per attempt when facing play-action.
Both Adrian Clayborn and Dont'a Hightower had 14 quarterback pressures over the past two games, per Next Gen Stats. They are tied for the most of any player this postseason. The Patriots' ability to create defensive pressures that stop opposing offenses from earning first downs and touchdowns has doubled in the playoffs (27.5 percent, compared to 13.6 percent during the regular season).
Next Gen Stats reveal that, since Week 16, the Rams have used 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends and two wide receivers) on 21.7 percent of snaps (coinciding with L.A.'s signing of C.J. Anderson). Before Week 16, the Rams easily paced the league when it came to usage of 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers) at 99.3 percent (excluding kneel-downs). During the playoffs, the snap counts of Todd Gurley and Anderson have been nearly equal (51.7 and 48.3 percent, respectively), but the Rams have executed rushing plays almost twice as often when Anderson is on the field (35.6 percent for Gurley, 69.6 percent for Anderson).
Over the course of this season (including the playoffs), Goff has six turnovers (four interceptions, two lost fumbles) on third downs when there's 6 or more yards to go. Only Philip Rivers had more, with seven. (Both QBs have logged 18 games to this point. Goff's giveaways occurred over 81 attempts, while Rivers' came in 107.) New England's defense has five takeaways on third-and-6-plus this season (tied for eighth-most).
Goff has completed 72.7 percent of his second-down passes this postseason(for 108 yards per game and a 101.9 rating), including nine for 10 or more yards. Avoiding drives with unfavorable third downs is big for Sean McVay's offense, because Goff is completing just 47.4 percent of his third-down pass attempts in the playoffs, with a 61.7 passer rating on such plays. These numbers are way down from Goff's regular-season third-down figures in completion rate (65.3) and passer rating (96.5). Ideally, the Rams will create third-and-short situations where New England's defense will be forced to be more balanced. The Patriots have only faced two third-down rushing attempt this postseason, and only one of them netted positive yards (or 1 positive yard, I should say) -- a big difference from the 5.3 yards per rush they allowed on third downs during the regular season (the sixth-highest mark in the NFL).
Goff has targeted man defense with crossing routes on 20.9 percent of passes against the coverage this season, the second-highest rate among 33 qualified QBs. The third-year QB has piled up sparkling numbers in these circumstances, with a 113.8 passer rating and an average of 11.7 air yards per attempt. These passes have allowed Goff to rank in the top three in yards per attempt (9.1) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (10:1) when facing man coverage, while also posting a 104.1 passer rating in this area. All of those stats trump Goff's numbers against zone defense: 8.5 yards per attempt, 10:8 TD-to-INT ratio, 94.8 passer rating. The Patriots' defense has not only used man coverage the most of any team in the NFL by a wide margin -- 54.6 percent of snaps, the most by 7.5 percent -- but the unit also allows the league's lowest completion percentage (53.7) and just 6.9 air yards per attempt (third-lowest) in man.