Super Bowl LIII X-Factors

New England Patriots

Offense – Julian Edelman

After missing the first four weeks of the NFL season due to suspension, Tom Brady’s favorite target has been as reliable as ever — and crucial to New England’s playoff aspirations. Now in his 10th professional season, Patriots’ wide receiver Julian Edelman will once again be lining up at the slot position for what will be his fourth Super Bowl appearance.

In 2018, Edelman finished with 850 receiving yards and six touchdowns on 74 receptions. Although he is a very productive receiver, he’s made a name for himself from his playoff performances. Able to beat the opposing secondary with his elusiveness and incredible catch radius, Edelman has often been compared to past New England greats like Wes Welker. Therefore, if it’s crunch time and the Patriots need a clutch catch, they’d need to look no further than Edelman, considering he’s at his best when under pressure or when his team is looking for its sixth Super Bowl win.

Defense – Stephon Gilmore

After Super Bowl XLIX hero Malcolm Butler left last offseason, many questions began to arise about New England’s depth at the cornerback position. This didn’t last long, however, as critics began to realize that Stephon Gilmore was going to fill in just fine with his new role.

Gilmore will be entering Super Bowl LIII with a total of 22 passes defended and three interceptions to his name. Not too shabby of a stat line — but his importance to the Patriots’ secondary is amplified once it’s realized that quarterbacks didn’t throw in his direction often for a reason. In 2018, Gilmore was ranked as Pro Football Focus’s No. 1 cornerback in the league with a positional grade of 90.9, as he allowed only 42 catches in 90 targets toward opposing wide receivers. Going up against a very versatile Rams receiving corps, Gilmore’s ability to shut down whoever lines up against him won’t go unnoticed.

Los Angeles Rams

Offense – Todd Gurley

After a fairly silent performance in the NFC Championship game against the New Orleans Saints, it’ll be in Bill Belichick’s best interests to not take No. 30, for the Rams, for granted. Arguably the best running back in the game today, Los Angeles’s Todd Gurley will make his presence be felt once again on football’s biggest stage.

Whether it’s a handoff out the backfield or in the passing game, Gurley is known for his ability to extend the play.

Finishing as the league’s rushing touchdown leader with a total of 17, Gurley also added 1,251 rushing yards, 580 receiving yards and four receiving touchdowns to his impressive stat line on the season. Altogether, Gurley brings another explosive dimension of play to Head Coach Sean McVay’s exciting offensive scheme, and he’ll certainly be the x-factor combating New England’s defensive plans.

Defense – Aaron Donald

As past Super Bowls have shown, defense wins championships. Therefore, going up against an offensive line that protects football’s greatest quarterback should be a dream scenario for the league’s best pass rusher in Aaron Donald.

Aaron Donald, like many other great pass rushers, tends to have two players simultaneously guarding him at all times.

However, what separates the Rams’ defensive star from the rest is that even if opponents assign a third player to mark him, it still might not be enough to halt his production. After being voted as the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2017, Donald will make his case for back-to-back honors with another outstanding stat line of 20.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and 25 tackles for loss in 2018. Aaron Donald’s fast hands, excellent play-reading intelligence and overall brute strength are only some of the reasons why he’s pretty much unstoppable; he’ll be a pleasure to watch for all football fans in Super Bowl LIII.

How the Run Game Will Impact Super Bowl LIII

The 2018 NFL season has shined a bright light on the running back position with several high-profile backs going down for various reasons just to have their backups put up big rushing numbers in their place.

Some players, like James Conner of Pittsburgh and Damien Williams of Kansas City, were able to jump right into a system where they could thrive despite their roles as replacements for other elite players.

This has been evident in the Los Angeles Rams, who signed C.J. Anderson off his couch in Week 16 in replacement of the injured Todd Gurley.

Anderson bowled his way to 120+ yards in each of his first three games for L.A. while also adding four touchdowns.

Gurley has suffered from a number of mysterious injuries over the past month or so, and it was clear that the Rams did not feel like he was ready to play in the NFC title game, where Gurley only had four carries for 10 total yards.

In the Rams’ last four games, Gurley has had more than 50 yards in only one of those games.

But that performance came in their most convincing win of that stretch, a win over the Dallas Cowboys in the divisional round where Gurley was able to go off for 115 yards and a TD.

Anderson is a serviceable running back, but he has nowhere near the athleticism and ability that Gurley has, and that is why when Gurley plays at full strength the Rams are able to raise their ceiling as a team..

Another reason why the Rams need last year’s NFL MVP to be ready to perform on Super Bowl Sunday is because

Bill Belichick is arguably the greatest NFL head coach of all time.

He and his staff can take an inferior running back like Anderson out of the game and force a young QB like Jared Goff to beat them with his arm.

In their AFC Championship win over the Chiefs, the Patriots were able to subdue the best offense in the NFL and shut them out for an entire half, which gave them a chance to take an early advantage.

Belichick has shown time and time again that he can orchestrate a successful game plan even against the generational talents.

But the Rams definitely feel confident with head coach Sean McVay roaming the sidelines, as he is arguably the second-best coach in the NFL behind Belichick.

In that divisional conference playoff match-up with the Cowboys, the Rams ran for a total of 273 yards compared to only 50 for Dallas.

One reason why coach McVay has run the ball so much is how running plays eat up time of possession. LA had more than 50 percent more possession than the Cowboys in that game.

In the NFC conference championship against the New Orleans Saints, the Rams rush yards dropped drastically to 77 yards and their time of possession was cut drastically.

They were never really able to gain an offensive rythmn because of this, which is part of the reason that the game was so close.

If coach McVay has a healthy Gurley on his side, he can force the Patriots’ coaching staff to make some difficult decisions on whether they want to put an emphasis on stopping the Rams’ dangerous receiving core or Gurley out of the backfield.

The Rams’ coaching and medical staff have been relatively quiet when it comes to the status of Gurley for Sunday’s game, and his recovery will be a major factor in how the game is played on both sides.

Even if he doesn’t play his usual amount of snaps, expect the winner of the rushing battle to ultimately have a huge advantage.

A version of this article appeared on p. 9 of the Jan. 31, 2019 edition of the Daily Nexus.