NEW ORLEANS — The 32 things we learned heading into Super Bowl LIII following Sunday’s NFC and AFC Championship Games:
1. Expect America to root for the Rams in the Super Bowl. Mostly.
1a. But New England won’t. Obviously.
1b. And St. Louis — don’t forget St. Louis — won’t, either.
2. But soooooo many other story lines to unpack.
2a. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in their familiar, respective roles as The Galactic Emperor and Darth Vader … while we try to figure out if Sean McVay or Jared Goff is Luke Skywalker.
2b. East Coast vs. West Coast with gritty Boston taking on glitzy Los Angeles.
2c. I can go on and on and on. And I will.
3. The Belichick-Brady (Sith) reign began 17 years ago against the heavily favored St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. Will Super Bowl LIII provide a bookend to that legacy, or perhaps signal its actual downfall to cap a season when the Patriots appeared to be so vulnerable?
4. But make no mistake — Spygate, Deflategate, whatever — this New England dynasty has been magnificent.
4a. The Patriots extended their own record with an 11th Super Bowl trip.
4b. Beat the Rams and they’ll match the Steelers for most Lombardi Trophies won (6).
4c. New England matched Pittsburgh for the most playoff wins (36) in NFL history and can break the first-place tie in two weeks.
4d. Brady can become the first player to win six rings, breaking his tie with Hall of Famer Charles Haley.
4e. The Patriots joined the 1971-73 Miami Dolphins and 1990-93 Buffalo Bills as the only teams to advance to three consecutive Super Bowls.
4f. With all these nuggets about AFC East teams, we didn’t want to leave the J-E-T-S out. While you may realize Brady added to his lengthy record with his 29th playoff win, did you know it was only his fourth postseason victory on the road — matching the total of former Jets QB Mark Sanchez. Yes, statistics lie.
4g. New England’s last playoff win on the road prior to Sunday? It occurred in former NFL city San Diego following the 2006 season.
4h. But this was the first Patriots team to get back to the Super Bowl the season after losing it.
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5. Old Patriot Rob Gronkowski? PSA: Apparently Gronk is not so washed up … and now has two weeks to recover and potentially serve as a major mismatch against the L.A. linebackers or whomever the Rams task with covering him.
6. New Patriot Sony Michel? Pretty good. The second of New England’s two first-round picks in 2018 (injured OL Isaiah Wynn was the other) became the first rookie with five rushing TDs in one postseason. And one game still to go.
7. Former Patriot Brandin Cooks? Quite dangerous. He began his NFL life as a member of the Saints … and burned the Who Dats for seven catches and 107 yards Sunday. Will he have an even better performance against New England, which traded him after one season? And remember, he’s still got something to prove on Super Sunday after he was knocked from Super Bowl LII prematurely with a concussion.
8. Back to Brady. The Rams better not let Super Bowl LIII even reach overtime, because TB12 is 3-0 in OT playoff games and has never even relinquished possession in that situation, per ESPN Stats & Info.
9. Brady is 41 … and still the oldest starting quarterback in Super Bowl history.
10. McVay, who turns 33 on Thursday, will become the youngest head coach in Super Bowl history. Yep, he was in high school when the Brady legend began to be forged.
11. BTW, what a championship Sunday — the first time ever both the AFC and NFC title games went into overtime.
12. The Saints’ loss was the first time coach Sean Payton and QB Drew Brees had suffered a playoff loss in the Superdome after winning six in a row together.
13. Gotta feel for Brees in particular. Days after his 40th birthday, his team gets shafted by the refs and he then suffers his first career overtime interception.
14. Gotta feel for Belichick’s Microsoft tablet, too.
15. What’s next for the Saints? No doubt they’ll remain formidable — assuming the emotional scars from this loss heal — but it remains to be seen how much they can improve in 2019. RB Mark Ingram is headed for free agency, New Orleans is projected to have less than $20 million in salary cap space, and the team has no first-round pick after trading it to Green Bay in order to take DE Marcus Davenport in 2018.
16. Saints “utility QB” Taysom Hill — nice weapon, even caught his first NFL TD pass Sunday. Coulda been you, Tebow.
17. And a special shout-out to New Orleans TE Benjamin Watson. One of the league’s classiest guys and an estimable community activist, he was robbed of the chance to contribute Sunday after being diagnosed with appendicitis. Watson said last month he planned to retire after the season. Good luck, sir, in your future endeavors — they will no doubt make the world a better place.
18. If you haven’t experienced a playoff game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, put it on your bucket list. Magnificent fan experience … even if Saints fans went home inconsolable Sunday.
19. The highest-rated “passer” in the NFC Championship Game? How about the Rams’ Johnny Hekker, whose 12-yard pass on a fake punt in the second quarter sparked his team after it had fallen into a 13-0 deficit after the opening period. A former high school quarterback, Hekker’s passer rating Sunday was 116.7.
20. Speaking of L.A.’s very special special teams, Greg Zuerlein was a sniper — Vinatieri-esque even. Zuerlein, aka “Legatron,” made all six of his kicks (4 FGs and 2 PATs), including a 48-yarder to tie the game at the end of regulation and a 57-yard rocket in overtime, the longest game-winning field goal in playoff history.
21. The Chiefs didn’t score fewer than 26 points in a game this season. Just nuts. With a little more defense, Kansas City could be an AFC force for a long time … assuming Brady and Co. surrender the torch one of these days.
22. Did Belichick dust off his Super Bowl XXV game plan — the defensive coordinator for the New York Giants in 1990, he helped New York limit Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas and Buffalo’s explosive K-Gun offense to fewer than 20 minutes time of possession — to beat the Chiefs?
22a. The Patriots doubled up the Chiefs on first downs (36-18).
22b. They doubled them up on plays run (94-47).
22c. New England outgained Kansas City’s top-ranked offense 524-290.
22d. Time of possession? Pats (43:59), Chiefs (20:53).
23. And how hard did the K.C. defense have to work? The Chiefs were forced to make 99 tackles, while the Patriots needed just 40.
24. Yet New England managed four sacks. Kansas City didn’t bag Brady once.
25. All that, and Kansas City still managed to force overtime. Props, fellas.
26. Perhaps seeking some redemption in Atlanta? How about Rams all-pro RB Todd Gurley, who had a pair of drops Sunday, the first leading to an interception of Goff and three points for the Saints. Gurley did manage a 6-yard TD run at the end of the first half, but gained just 4 yards on his three other carries. He can do much, much better … especially with two weeks to rest his knee … and the opportunity to play in front of some University of Georgia alumni.
27. Speaking of the Dawgs, who ya got? Gurley or Michel?
28. In no need of redemption? How about the L.A. run defense, scorched for a league-worst 5.1 yards per rush in the regular season. That figure has been curbed to 2.28 yards per run in the playoffs. The Rams allowed 98 rushing yards combined to the Cowboys and Saints the past two weeks.
29. Best player on the field in New Orleans? One vote for Saints RB Alvin Kamara, who snared 11 passes for 96 yards and returned four kickoffs for 119 yards.
30. The Rams should be a refreshing group to cover in Atlanta. The men from Hollywood certainly don’t shy from the spotlight, and a young-ish, loose-ish group will probably enjoy and embrace the hype in a way the Patriots often don’t.
30a. This may be especially true of Los Angeles nickel corner Nickell Robey-Coleman, who couldn’t talk enough about his controversial, unflagged pass interference against New Orleans. But hand it to Robey-Coleman, who admitted he committed a penalty while gambling on the play … while trying not to rub it in to Saints fans.
31. This will be the first Super Bowl staged at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, a sparkling venue worthy of the country’s biggest game. But will Super Bowl LIII be as good as Super Bowl XXXIV, the last one held in Atlanta? You’ll recall that’s when unheralded Rams LB Mike Jones saved the game on the final play with his tackle of Titans WR Kevin Dyson just shy of the Georgia Dome goal-line, preserving a 23-16 victory.
32. Lastly, thank you Patrick Mahomes. Maybe it didn’t work out the way you planned Sunday, despite the 295 passing yards and three TDs, but you were a revelation in 2018. I offer you a premature congratulations on that MVP award that is surely coming your way. We’re all looking forward to 15 more years of brilliance.
Follow Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis