Head coach Mike Martz and his St. Louis Rams come into Super Bowl XXXVI the strong favorite to win their second Lombardi trophy in the past three years.
Following last Sunday’s win over the heavily favored Pittsburgh Steelers, do the Cinderella New England Patriots have enough left in the tank to pull off another improbable upset?
If New England does have a shot at knocking off the Rams it will take crafty strategizing, total execution and a little bit of luck.
Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel and his staff implemented an effective game plan against the Steelers in last week’s AFC Championship game.
New England focused primarily on disrupting Pittsburgh’s running game, allowing only 58 total yards rushing ? 41 from quarterback Kordell Stewart ? and making sure Jerome “The Bus” Bettis never completed his route. Making his first game appearance in nearly two months, Bettis was held to just nine yards on eight carries.
By taking away the Steelers’ running game, New England shifted all the pressure to Stewart, challenging him to beat them through the air. Stewart’s weaknesses were apparent as he was exploited for three interceptions. Their plan worked.
In contrast this weekend, challenging the Rams to rely on their passing game is like opening the doors of a bakery and asking a team of Sumo wrestlers if they would like to sample the goods. In both cases, you get the same conditioned response ? instant salivation.
The Super Bowl is to be contested on the indoor turf at the Louisiana SuperDome. Heavily reliant on speed, the Rams receivers Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Az-Zahir Hakim and Ricky Proehl perform best on the artificial surface.
St. Louis will be able to spread the field on offense, posing major match-up issues for the New England secondary.
Containing the Ram receivers has been a daunting task for opposing defenses all year long, and Super Bowl Sunday will be no different. New England defensive backs will have to make an effort to create some contact with the St. Louis receivers at the line, hoping to slow them down just enough to allow the secondary to stay with them throughout the play.
Even if defensive genius Bill Belichick does somehow slow down the passing game, “all-world” running back Marshall Faulk is capable of putting a big hurt on the Patriot defense.
New England’s only hope to keep Faulk in relative check on the ground is to force him to the sidelines and make it harder for the New Orleans native to scamper for huge runs downfield. New England will likely call on a combination of linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Roman Phifer to try and disrupt Faulk’s game.
The Patriots’ dilemma was evident in their first meeting with the Rams this season. In November, New England did a decent job at containing Faulk, holding him scoreless on the ground and well under 100 yards rushing.
Unfortunately for the Patriots, NFL MVP Kurt Warner just happened to pass for over 400 yards in the game, including three touchdowns that helped the Rams to a seven-point victory. In the end it’s “pick your poison” for the Patriots.
A bit of unwanted controversy surfaced this week regarding the Patriots’ quarterback situation. Starter Tom Brady went down in the second quarter of the AFC title game with a high ankle sprain. With New England ahead by four points, he was replaced by Drew Bledsoe.
Bledsoe, who lost the starting job to Brady two games into the season after being injured, went on to lead his team to victory. But Wednesday, head coach Bill Belichik dispelled any rumors that pegged Bledsoe as the team’s Super Bowl starter, choosing Brady instead.
Though Bledsoe will not be starting the game at quarterback, there is still a chance he could take some snaps. A vicious St. Louis defense will be looking for ways to rip apart an injured and inexperienced Brady. Should Brady end up on the sideline because of injury or poor play, Belichik has Bledsoe, an over-qualified backup with Super Bowl experience to turn to.
Belichick can go to his bullpen and get quality relief much like Arizona Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly was able to turn the ball over to ace Randy Johnson late in the seventh game of the World Series.
In football, “luck” usually lurks in two venues ? turnovers and special teams. It just so happens that New England has had good fortune with both.
In the recent win over the Steelers, special teams carried the day, accounting for two big scores, and in their loss to the Rams earlier this year they forced two interceptions and two fumbles.
So what does St. Louis have to do? In two words ? change nothing. They are on the Super Bowl fast track, humming on all cylinders ? passing game, running game and defense. If they can limit turnovers and not get careless or overconfident, the highlights of the game should be the halftime TV commercials.
My pick ? sorry, New England fans, but you’re 0-for-3 in Super Bowls after this Sunday.
Gerton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.