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Super Bowl LIII preview: Tom Brady's protection plan

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady drops back to pass

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady drops back to pass as Patriots guard Joe Thuney blocks Chiefs outside linebacker Justin Houston during the first half of the AFC Championship Game on Jan. 20 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. Photo Credit: Larry W Smith/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

One Patriots’ unit that’s gotten a lot of love lately is the offensive line because of what it’s done for Brady.

In New England’s first two playoff games, Brady hasn’t been sacked and has only been hit twice, thanks to the efforts of center David Andrews, guards Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason, and tackles Marcus Cannon and Trent Brown. The Patriots also have rushed for 331 yards and eight touchdowns with their three-headed backfield of Sony Michel, James White and Rex Burkhead.

Now they’re facing probably the best defensive line in the league, led by Aaron Donald, who had a league-high 20.5 sacks this season. Protecting Brady just got tougher, but he believes in them.

“They’re the heart and soul of our offense,” Brady said.

“The passing game starts with them. The running game starts with them. Over the last four, five weeks we’ve been really efficient at both of those at different times in different ways. We’ve really needed it. I’m counting on those guys when we need it most going against the best D-Line in football.”

Brady credits New England’s 70-year-old O-line coach Dante Scarnecchia for their play. Scarnecchia has been a Patriots coach for all but five years from 1982 until now. Brady called him “the best offensive-line coach in the history of the game.”

RAMS READY FOR ANYTHING

There are, it appears, only a handful of ways to beat the Patriots. The Rams are ready to take advantage of one of them.

Back in early December the Dolphins used a sandlot desperation hook-and-ladder play called “Boise” on the last snap of the game to score a 69-yard touchdown and earn a 34-33 victory over New England. If the Rams find themselves in a similar situation to the Dolphins — deep in their own territory, needing a touchdown to win with time in Super Bowl LIII about to expire — they apparently have a similar play at their disposal.

“We’re situational masters around here,” Rams receiver Brandin Cooks said. “We have things for every situation.”

The Rams don’t want to be in that situation. Their preference will naturally be to have an insurmountable lead while counting down the seconds to the confetti cannon. Call this a creative contingency.

Sketching out such a play is one thing, executing is another. And it’s unlikely the Patriots, faced with a similar situation to that Week 10 game, will have tight end Rob Gronkowski as a somewhat clumsy safety trying to protect the goal line . . .  which the Dolphins took advantage of. But Cooks insisted that the Rams like their last-ditch effort.

“You’re confident in everything that you do around here,” he said with a smile.

CHASING HISTORY

New England is trying to join the Steelers as the only teams with six Super Bowl titles. If the Patriots win, they will have 37 postseason victories, one more than Pittsburgh. Belichick would tie George Halas and Curly Lambeau with six NFL championships and Brady would be the first player to win six Super Bowls. He and Pro Football Hall of Famer Charles Haley each have five.

BY THE NUMBERS

8-5: Patriots’ record against the Rams, including New England’s 20-17 victory in Super Bowl XXXVI.

5-5: Patriots’ Super Bowl record

1-2: Rams’ Super Bowl record

BRUSCHI BRISTLES

Tedy Bruschi retired from the Patriots a decade ago, when they already had won three Super Bowls in the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era, and logically should have been due for a fall.

Instead they have been to five Super Bowls since then, winning two . . . so far.

But when asked on Thursday whether he is amazed that Belichick and Brady still are at it, the retired linebacker and current ESPN analyst bristled.

“I think it’s the most uneducated comment in football, saying all they need is Belichick and Brady,” Bruschi said, adding the true genius of the dynasty has been bringing in the right players to replace those who depart.

He cited several positions at which a succession of players has kept the winning tradition alive. “That’s not Bill or Tom,” he said, arguing that telling players what to do is one thing, but having them be willing and able to do it is another.

Still, Bruschi acknowledged how important the Patriots’ two biggest names have been.

He cited Belichick countering the NFL’s trend toward wide-open passing offenses with a power running attack designed to exploit undersized defenders.

“Defenses have reacted to that by putting quicker, possibly smaller, maybe safeties playing linebacker,” he said. “So what does Bill say? ‘OK, I see that trend happening. Let me use this guy [fullback] James Devlin.’”

As for Brady, Bruschi has seen him come a long way since his first Super Bowl victory, over the Rams 17 years ago, when the Patriots relied more on defense and special teams than their young quarterback.

“I don’t think any of us knew what we had back in ’01,” he said. “We’ve got this young quarterback and he’s learning as he goes. Let’s play like that. That’s how it started, and now it’s sort of turned into the quarterback has to do a lot for this team to successful.” 

NO RESPECT

The Patriots’ defense feels it doesn’t get enough respect, and is out to prove they can slow down the Rams’ high-powered offense in Super Bowl LIII Sunday.

Most of the attention and credit for the Patriots’ Super Bowl runs have gone to Tom Brady and the offense or Bill Belichick’s genius. It’s understandable. But the Patriots wouldn’t be playing in the Super Bowl three straight times and for the fourth time in five years if their defense didn’t make key stops.

“We all have a chip on our shoulder,” linebacker Kyle Van Noy said. “A lot of the guys are used to it by now. A lot of players have played here for a long time. You have guys who are really, really good.

“You have guys like Devin McCourty, Dont’a Hightower, Patrick Chung that have been there for so long that get overlooked probably their whole career. But when you go back and watch and look at what they’ve done over their whole career it’s really impressive.”

The Patriots will need to make the defensive stands they couldn’t against the Eagles in last year’s Super Bowl if they’re going to beat the Rams Sunday.

The defense has had its struggles this year. But the Patriots only allowed 20.3 points per game in the regular season, which was the sixth fewest. But Van Noy said the defense is “OK” with getting “overlooked” under the circumstances.

“We’re OK with that,” Van Noy said. “We know Tom deserves all the credit. He’s the best that’s ever played.”

NEW ENGLAND SPECIAL

In last year’s Super Bowl, the Eagles’ “Philly Special” just before the half that went for a touchdown pass from tight end Trey Burton to quarterback Nick Foles was a game-changing play and play call. Belichick said he would call a trick play if he believed it work and the time was right.

“You try to do whatever you can do to win,” Belichick said. “Whatever play or plays or strategies — it’s a one-game season. There’s nothing else to save it for. Whatever you think can make a difference, whatever you think is the right play, the right call and if it’s in the right situation absolutely. There’s no other reason to play this game other than to go all out to win.”

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