NFL: AFC Championship Game-New England Patriots at Kansas City Chiefs

As he was in the AFC championship game, above, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is going to have to make a big contribution if New England is to win the Super Bowl Feb. 3, 2019.

ATLANTA -- Two years ago, the Patriots sent the Falcons back to Atlanta with the most crushing defeat in Super Bowl history.

Now the Pats are stopping by the Falcons' home base at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, looking to add to their unprecedented collection of Lombardi Trophies.

This one would be No. 6 for Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. It wouldn't be "unequivocally the sweetest," the phrase used by Robert Kraft to describe the epic comeback in Super Bowl LI, but it would further cement the Patriots dynasty as untouchable.

There's no question that the host city of Atlanta, along with most of the United States, is pulling for the Rams. And the Patriots are just fine with that.

Here's what they need to do to make America miserable again:


With 101 yards, Sony Michel will set the record for rushing yards by a rookie in the postseason. The mark currently belongs to Timmy Smith, who totaled 342 rushing yards for the Redskins in 1987.

Michel is coming off back-to-back 100-yard games. The Patriots rushing attack has never looked better. The offensive line dominated the Chiefs from the beginning, and Michel carved up the NFL's second-worst run defense for 113 yards.

Next up: The NFL's worst run defense.

Only the Rams (5.1 yards allowed per attempt) were more generous than the Chiefs on a per-carry basis.

As a unit, the Rams are heading in the right direction, though. In the divisional round and conference championship, Ezekiel Elliott, Alvin Kamara, and Mark Ingram -- three of the most efficient runners in the league -- combined to carry 37 times for 93 yards.

Why the sudden turnaround?

Dante Fowler Jr., acquired in a midseason trade with the Jaguars, was all over the field in the NFC Championship. He's known as a pass rusher, but his impact was felt against the run, too. Ndamukong Suh has turned back the clock. The defensive front has been suffocating.

But the Patriots are a different challenge. They run a ton out of '21' personnel, using fullback James Develin, a tight end, two receivers, and a halfback. Most teams don't utilize a fullback; the Saints and Cowboys rarely do. No one has recently been able to slow the Patriots' power rushing attack.


Bill Belichick deemed Aaron "pretty much unblockable" in the week leading up to Super Bowl LIII.

The stats and the film bear that out.

He can wreck a game, and he does it from the interior. This is where Tom Brady is at his most vulnerable. Brady can slide up in the pocket to avoid edge rushers, but there's not much he can do when the pressure is coming up the gut.

Donald racked up an incredible 20.5 sacks in the regular season. Fourteen of them came against the left guard. Joe Thuney will have his hands full in Super Bowl LIII.

The Patriots can double-team with Thuney and center David Andrews. They used that strategy when facing the Rams in 2016, and it was mostly effective.

Of course, this leaves everyone else one-on-one (in situations where the Pats do not keep a tight end in to block and the Rams don't blitz). Ndamukong Suh and Dante Fowler are a tough duo.


Jared Goff is in the midst of a late-season funk, completing 58.8 percent of his passes and averaging 6.5 yards per attempt over his past seven games.

In his first 11 games, Goff's completion percentage was 67.7 with a mark of 9.3 yards per attempt.

As the Rams' passing game has sputtered, they've won with an improving defense and a punishing ground attack.

The Patriots have done an excellent job of generating pressure with various stunts and games on the defensive line. With Brian Flores running the show, they've been aggressive in sending a fifth rusher, too. Patrick Mahomes, the front runner for NFL MVP, didn't appear comfortable against the Patriots front seven until the fourth quarter. The Pats should be able to rattle Goff in this game.


Rob Gronkowski enjoyed a timely resurgence in the AFC Championship, catching six passes for 79 yards and coming through with a pair of massive third-down receptions in the fourth quarter and overtime.

There's every reason to believe Gronkowksi can keep the momentum going against the Rams, who ranked as the second-worst defense against tight ends in the regular season (80 receptions for 1,075 yards allowed). They faced George Kittle twice, Travis Kelce, and Zack Ertz, so that affected the numbers, but Los Angeles' linebackers struggled in coverage against far inferior tight ends.

A review of the Rams' defense shows its susceptibility over the middle: Earlier this year, Detroit's Levine Toilolo put on a clinic against Los Angeles, finding space behind linebacker Cory Littleton and in front of the safeties for gains of 22, 39, and 19 yards.

A Pro Bowl special teams player, Littleton is a liability in coverage at linebacker.

Gronkowski dominated against the Chargers and Chiefs. He could close out the 2018 season, and possibly his NFL career, with a big day against the Rams in Super Bowl LIII.


Searching for the next Malcolm Butler?

Realistically, there won't be one. Butler's interception at the goal line in Super Bowl XLIX was a once-in-a-lifetime play.

But there can be players who unexpectedly assume prominent roles. This was the case in the AFC Championship game against the Chiefs, when Jonathan Jones, the No. 4 cornerback on the depth chart, helped lock down Tyreek Hill.

Potential surprise performers in Super Bowl LIII include Cordarrelle Patterson, Phillip Dorsett, and John Simon.

It's been a quiet postseason for Patterson, one of the most electric playmakers on the Patriots' offense. The Patriots averaged 9.6 yards per rush on end-arounds in the regular season, but they haven't visited the strategy much in the playoffs. That's where Patterson shines.

Dorsett displayed excellent concentration on his 29-yard touchdown reception versus the Chiefs. He's earned Tom Brady's trust.

And Simon has made the most of his snaps as a pass-rusher. It wouldn't be a shock to see him get to Jared Goff and deliver a key play or two in the Super Bowl.