The New England Patriots made their offensive intentions pretty clear early on in each of their first two playoff games this year: they are going to trust their running game to control the tempo of the game and to simultaneously keep the high-powered offenses they were facing — the Los Angeles Chargers’ in the divisional round and the Kansas City Chiefs’ in the AFC Championship Game — off the field. The plan worked both weeks.
New England ran 32 times for 156 yards and four touchdowns against L.A. and ultimately ended the game with a time of possession of 38:20. One week later, the Patriots’ running backs carried the football 47 times for a combined 177 yards and four more scores — all with the offense on the field for 43 minutes and 59 seconds, including the game-winning drive in overtime which took 4:52 off the clock.
Meanwhile, quarterbacks Philip Rivers and Patrick Mahomes only had limited time and opportunities to work with. And while likely league MVP Mahomes made them count, at least in the second half of the AFC title game, neither he nor Rivers were given much wiggle room for error or any wasted possession — something that might also happen to the Los Angeles Rams and quarterback Jared Goff in Super Bowl 53.
The Rams, of course, feature the latest potent offense to stand in the Patriots’ way: Goff has elevated his game in the second year under head coaching wunderkind Sean McVay, while the ground game behind Todd Gurley and a reinvigorated C.J. Anderson is one of the NFL’s most potent. And L.A. also features some talented weapons at the tight end and, including former Patriot Brandin Cooks, wide receiver positions.
Using a heavy dose of Sony Michel as the lead back and James White and Rex Burkhead as the change of pace runners therefore again looks like a sound battle plan. And the reasons for that actually go beyond controlling the rhythm of the game against an opponent with a powerful offense: the Rams defense, despite outstanding linemen Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh, has had a comparatively hard time stopping the run so far this season.
The total numbers tell only one part of the story but already illustrate Los Angeles’ problems in the ground game. In the regular season, the team ranked dead-last in the NFL in yards given up per attempt at 5.1 yards per run (the Chiefs for comparison, ranked 31st with 5.0). And while teams attempted only the 10th fewest rushes against L.A. — 386 for 1,957 yards and 12 touchdowns — the efficiency on any given run play was still bad.
When looked at through advanced statistics, the Rams defense does not get much better. According to Football Outsiders, which tracks plays based on how successful they are compared to others given the situation, it is still a bottom-third unit: Los Angeles ranks 28th in DVOA with a +1.5% rate, meaning that teams perform consistently better against the team on the ground than they do against others in the same scenario.
While the Rams are far and away better than the once again 32nd ranked Chiefs and their +9.7%, they are still no world-beaters when measured that way. That being said, L.A. improved in the playoffs and gave up only 2.3 yards per rush against the Dallas Cowboys and the New Orleans Saints in the divisional and championship rounds — two teams that have performed similarly to the Patriots during the regular season — by actively putting more men in the box.
One other difference over the last two weeks is that New England was willing to stick to its ground game to create a more balanced attack than the Cowboys and Saints had, in turn freeing up the misdirection passing game, which then helped the ground game again. This approach has served the Patriots well against the two teams they faced during the playoffs so far, and it would not be a surprise if it was a key to the Super Bowl as well.
So if you are working on your picks for game MVP, quarterback Tom Brady should still be your top choice simply because of his history on the big stage. But maybe don’t forget about a player like Sony Michel — one that has scored five touchdowns over the first two postseason games of his career and at 121.0 yards per game is on his way to become the best playoff rookie runner of the 21st century (h/t @DeeepThreat).