Super Bowl 53: Key Storylines to Follow

Some are calling Super Bowl 53 the “haters Super Bowl,” with much of the country shunning the big bad Pats but not quite embracing the Rams who abandoned a dedicated fan base in St. Louis to chase dollar signs. Still there is plenty of intrigue.

On the surface these are two vastly different franchises. It starts with the age disparity between both starting quarterbacks and head coaches. The Rams built a “dream team” in the offseason, adding star power like Ndamukong Suh, Brandin Cooks and Aqib Talib.  The Pats have always elevated complementary players to fuel the nucleus that is Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski when he’s healthy. Their differences, along with a few similarities, and how the two teams intersect, leave us with some very intriguing storylines. Let’s examine the top narratives to look for during Super Bowl 53.

Belichick vs. McVay chess match

Likely the key to this Super Bowl. The 33-year-old wunderkind against arguably the greatest coach of all time, especially one who’s Super Bowl routine is old hat. McVay and Belichick are both gutsy with a propensity to be aggressive. Despite just beginning his head coaching reign, McVay is under far more pressure than Belichick given how immediate his coaching tree has been spawned this hiring season. McVay got very conservative and kicked the field goal on 4th and 1 at the goal line late against New Orleans, a call that probably would have cost the Rams the game had Nickell Robey-Coleman been called for pass interference. The McVay narrative would be vastly different today. But the Rams are in and if McVay brings his best and confuses Belichick with some exotic playcalling, you will all have head coaching gigs next cycle simply for reading his name in this paragraph.

Will Todd Gurley be properly used?

Gurley was error prone early in the NFC Championship with two key dropped passes and then seldom used until the 4th quarter.  Many assumed Gurley had lingering effects of his December knee injury. Turns out Gurley was fine and it was a coach’s decision, some might argue a very bad one given the dimensions Gurley adds to the offense. C.J. Anderson was mostly ineffective in his stead.  After the game Gurley chalked up his low usage to “playing sorry,” while McVay was more remorseful and admitted he “should have done a better job” incorporating Gurley into the offense. Seven touches for the NFL’s most productive rusher won’t cut it against the Patriots.

Will the Rams be ready for the moment?

This is the biggest stage the Rams and McVay have ever been on. They are a young team, with almost no Super Bowl experience.  The Patriots, on the other hand, function as a seasoned squad preparing to go into a battle they’ve seen the blueprint for several times before. All the insanely complicated logistics of Super Bowl week like family ticket distribution, the media storm and the different pacing of a Super Bowl game, are old hat for the Patriots.  The Rams will have to not be too wide-eyed in Atlanta.

How will Rams defend Rob Gronkowski?

Rob Gronkowski wasn’t much of a threat early in the season, either due to injury or the lingering effects of injury which had seemingly slowed him down.  Even in the single 100-yard receiving game Gronk produced in the season’s second half, his inability to move with any speed or precision punctuated the Miami in Miracle win for the Dolphins. But playoff Gronk looks like a different animal, like a younger version of himself.  Last week in Kansas City, Gronk caught six passes for 79 yards but it was his blocking that was a complete game-changer.  Brady said of his teammate, “He’s one of the most dominant blocking tight ends in the league. He’s a threat any time he’s out there.”

The Rams haven’t been keen on slowing down tight ends this year. Their defense was the second-worst in the league, giving up 1,075 yards receiving to opposing tight ends. If Gronk forces the Rams to double-team him on the line or downfield, it could be a long and tiring day for Wade Phillips’s group.

Will Brandin Cooks’ revenge tour continue?

While Cooks said publicly he’s not viewing the Super Bowl as a revenge game against his former team, he has to relish his current path. Cooks had two 1,000-yard seasons with the Saints and then knocked them out the postseason with the opposition. He spent a season with the Patriots where he added another 1,000-yard season to his record, and now he has the chance to take a ring from them. Even if it’s not in the forefront of his mind, the revenge tour is real.

Can the Rams get pressure on Brady? 

The Rams field arguably the NFL’s  best defender in Aaron Donald who led the league in sacks with 20.5. Tom Brady has one of the quickest releases in football and his offensive line has largely kept pressure at bay. But when there is penetration, Brady is prone to mistakes, or at least off target throws. The Chiefs led the league in sacks yet failed to record even one last week. If the Rams want to win Super Bowl 53, they need to attack any open lanes and get their hands on Brady.

If Pats win, does Brady retire?

At times, Brady has said he wants to play until 45 or later. Other times he’s been a little more coy. He’ll probably keep playing simply because he loves his job so much.  But if Brady wins a sixth ring after playing in his TENTH Super Bowl, does he really want to come back for more?

The Ratings Bowl

Yes, there are millions of people that either a) are tired of or hate the Pats b) have no emotional connection to the Rams and/or c) have little interest in the Maroon 5 led Super Bowl halftime show. Will enough of those people do something else on Super Bowl Sunday to make a major dent in the ratings?  Probably not.