Super Bowl LIII will pit the NFL’s most dominant franchise of the past two decades against a team eager to embark on their own successful era.
The New England Patriots will take on the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday in a repeat of Super Bowl XXXVI, played 17 years ago.
That match would be the start of the Patriots’ dynasty. They prevailed 20-17, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady taking down The Greatest Show on Turf.
Brady was 24-years-old when he won his first ring. That’s the same age as the quarterback that will oppose him in the Mercedes-Benz stadium, Jared Goff.
Goff, with the help of innovative head coach Sean McVay in his ear, has led the Rams to the big game in just his third season in the league.
Can he take down Brady and the Patriots? Or will New England, fuelled by a desire to avenge their defeat in Super Bowl LII, lift the Lombardi Trophy for the third time in five seasons?
GiveMeSport takes a look at the five key matchups that will decide Super Bowl LIII.
Julian Edelman vs. Nickell Robey-Coleman
The Patriots can always rely upon receiver Julian Edelman in the playoffs.
In 2016 he totalled 21 receptions and one touchdown in three postseason matches, and he’s continued to produce in 2018 with 16 receptions and 247 receiving yards.
The onus will be on Rams’ nickel corner Nickell Robey-Coleman, who got away with that no-call pass interference in the NFC Championship game, to slow Edelman down when Tom Brady’s most reliable target lines up in the slot.
Robey-Coleman has given up just 253 yards to opposing receivers this season, but 187 of them have come in slot coverage, per NFL.com. That’s 73.9 percent.
Stopping Edelman will be crucial if the Rams defence wants to get off the field on third down.
Patriots offensive line vs. Rams defensive line
Brady hasn’t been sacked in New England’s two playoff victories, which has enabled the 41-year-old to throw for 691 yards at a completion percentage of 71.1.
But on Sunday he faces a ferocious defensive line led by All-Pro tackle Aaron Donald and supported by Ndamukong Suh, Dante Fowler and Michael Brockers.
That group could also make like difficult for New England in the running game, having given up just 2.3 yards per carry in their playoff wins against the Dallas Cowboys and Saints.
That will be important in trying to stop a Patriots ground game that has sliced through its opponents with ease in January.
Patriots’ offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia has worked wonders with an o-line that may not feature any early-round talents but has kept Brady standing and has opened holes for Sony Michel to flourish.
Stephon Gilmore vs. Brandin Cooks
It’s not a certainty that Patriots’ All-Pro corner Stephon Gilmore will shadow former teammate Brandin Cooks but he’s ready for the challenge.
“I feel like I can run with everybody,” Gilmore said about the 4.33 wideout, per NESN.
The 28-year-old was put on Sammy Watkins in the AFC Championship Game, while Tyreek Hill was double-teamed.
Given the fact that Hill was limited to just one reception in the game, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Bill Belichick deploy a similar plan for Cooks.
But if the Patriots’ head coach wants his best cornerback on Los Angeles’ most explosive wideout, it will be Gilmore v Cooks in a battle between two of the best in their respective positions.
Cooks’ struggles against press coverage - he has a 52 per cent catch rate against press compared with 78 per cent against zone, per The Quant Edge’s Connor Allen - will also factor into Belichick’s decision.
Patriots linebackers vs. Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson
C.J. Anderson’s performances since signing with the Rams on December 18 will be of concern to the Patriots.
The 225 lb running back is averaging 116.5 yards on the ground, ensuring that Todd Gurley’s dip in form hasn’t impeded the Rams offence.
Gurley touched the ball just five times in the NFC Championship game but Sean McVay expects him to play a big role in the Super Bowl.
“I’ve got to do a much better job for Todd to get him opportunities to get him going,” McVay said, per NFL.com. “Fully expect him to be the Todd Gurley we all know and he's going to be a big part of this game."
The Patriots faced problems defending the run during the regular season but they managed to tighten things up during the final weeks and have allowed just 60 rushing yards in the postseason.
Linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy, who recorded eight tackles in the AFC Championship game, have been at the heart of the resurgence.
But they face an almighty test on Sunday if Gurley is at his best.
Patriots punt return vs. Johnny Hekker
Nobody loves Rams’ punter Johnny Hekker more than Bill Belichick does.
“He's a weapon on the field," Belichick said before the Patriots flew to Atlanta, per NBC Sports. "He can change field position and he’s a good situational punter and obviously he’s very athletic.”
It wasn’t the first time Belichick has waxed lyrical about Hekker, who missed Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro honours for the first time since 2014 this season.
His ability to pin Brady deep will be crucial in the battle for field position.
The Patriots cannot ignore Hekker’s passing skills, either. He has completed 11 passes in his career, including on a fake punt to Sam Shields in the NFC Championship game.