First of all, let’s stipulate. If Thursday night’s Rams-Patriots game was a rematch of Super Bowl LIII, as was advertised, it was in name only. Not even the laundry was the same, though the Rams’ new uniforms are looking better and better as the weeks go by.
It was not a night for revenge, or redemption, or much else having to do with that February 2019 night in Atlanta. Those scars, as Sean McVay said after Thursday night’s 24-3 Rams victory, aren’t going away.
“That’s always going to be a part of, you know, the coaching trajectory for me and a night that, you know, you got to be able to learn from,” he said. “But as far as how that affected our plans going into this game, it really didn’t at all.
“We’re a totally different team. I mean, you see, we’re doing a lot of different things.”
Totally different. And, potentially, quite a bit better.
For example: As colleague Kevin Modesti noted, when Cam Akers uncorked a 35-yard run off left tackle on the second offensive play Thursday night it equaled Todd Gurley’s rushing total in that Super Bowl. We know now that Gurley was physically compromised that night and for much of the back end of that season.
But there’s a message there, and McVay and offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell seem to have deciphered it loud and clear. Who knows? Maybe they do read This Space.
Akers didn’t stop at 35. He didn’t stop until he got to 171 yards, on 29 carries, the best game by a Rams rookie running back since Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis pounded his way to 211 on 28 carries in New Orleans in December of 1993, when the Rams were based in Anaheim.
Akers was asked if he thought McVay got the message when he noted last Sunday in Arizona that the more touches he gets, the better his rhythm.
“I think he did,” the rookie said with a grin.
Glad to help, Cam.
These are different teams and a different time and the Super Bowl rematch angle was useful for Fox’s promotion of its Thursday night game but not worth much else. The Patriots might have won four of their previous five going into Thursday’s game, and they might have embarrassed the Chargers on Sunday, but they’re now 6-7 and 2½ games out of an AFC playoff spot with three games to play, and all of Bill Belichick’s coaching powers probably won’t get them into the tournament.
Meanwhile, it is fair to suggest that the Rams, who have won four of five themselves since the debacle at Miami on the first day of November, might be putting themselves in position to do something special. Remember what we said a few weeks ago about keeping up with their championship L.A. neighbors, the Lakers and Dodgers? It seems more feasible now than it did then.
Rediscovering the running game makes a difference. They had a 16-play, 90-yard third-quarter drive Thursday that chewed up 9:42, and 12 of those 16 plays were runs, nine by Akers. (Again, Coach McVay, you’re welcome.)
Jared Goff only threw for 137 yards, with two touchdowns (one rushing), one interception, one sack and a 74.9 rating, but it was almost immaterial.
“As a quarterback, you know, you may think that’s not fun,” Goff said. “(But) those are the best, when we’re just pounding it and able to make those plays.”
It’s old-time football, and it might be the best way for the Rams to operate: Force the opponent’s defense to respect the run and use their own defense to create havoc and impose their will. Somewhere, the late Chuck Knox is smiling.
There certainly was enough defensive havoc Thursday night. The Rams sacked Cam Newton four times and backup quarterback Jarrett Stidham twice, with Michael Brockers getting two and Aaron Donald credited with 1½.
“You know, it’s definitely a cliche statement: stop the run, earn the right to rush the passer,” Brockers said. “And I think that’s what we did.”
But there was more. Consecutive New England incursions into the red zone ended with (a) former UCLA Bruin Kenny Young’s first NFL pick-six, a 79-yard interception return on the first play of the second quarter, and (b) a goal-line stand after New England had a first-and-goal at the 6, with Newton trying to run it in from the 2 on fourth down and getting stuffed by linebacker Justin Hollins for a 2-yard loss.
The Rams came into the game with the league’s No. 2 overall defense behind New Orleans and No. 1 against the pass, giving up 291.3 yards per game overall and 198.3 through the air. On Thursday night, those numbers were 220 and 113. The Saints, who have allowed 288 yards per game, face the Eagles (29th in the league in offense) this week, so their number shouldn’t balloon, but that could be an interesting race.
And this is as good a time as any to launch Donald’s campaign for the league’s MVP award, Patrick Mahomes or no Patrick Mahomes, because the attention he gets from opponents creates so many openings for others. The last defensive player to win The Associated Press MVP award was Lawrence Taylor in 1986. I think it’s time.
But that’s a side issue. And if you really want to use this occasion to re-explore Super Bowl LIII, maybe the Patriots did the Rams a favor that night, painful as it was at the time.
“Being at that pinnacle, being at that Super Bowl and understanding what it takes to get back – all I’m trying to do is lead this team and give examples on what we have to do to keep finishing, keep pushing through,” Brockers said.
“Because there’s going to be another chapter.”
@Jim_Alexander on Twitter