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The 10 Biggest X Factors That Could Decide Super Bowl LIII

All the attention will be on Tom Brady and Jared Goff, but Bill Belichick and Sean McVay will be looking at the smaller details. Which minor, underperforming, or possibly washed players should we have our eyes on this Sunday?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Bill Belichick understands that games are won and lost in the details and on the margins. Belichick likes left-handed (-footed?) punters because punt returners aren’t used to the spin on the ball from a lefty. Malcolm Butler said after he intercepted Russell Wilson at the goal line in Super Bowl XLIX that he was beat on the same play in practice earlier that week and Belichick told him to jump the route if he saw that formation in the game. The Patriots attributed their epic comeback against the Falcons to their meticulous pregame preparation, which included practicing for the extended halftime in the Super Bowl.

Rarely do the details that we think matter end up mattering. While our attention will be on Tom Brady and Jared Goff, Belichick and Sean McVay will be looking at the smaller, more volatile details. Individually, these details are unlikely to turn the tide of the game quite like Butler’s interception did, but together, they can divert the flow of the matchup. These are the potential X factors that could decide Super Bowl LIII.

Nickell Robey-Coleman

Robey-Coleman is an unlikely household name entering the Super Bowl after his uncalled pass-interference penalty swung the NFC championship game. He might draw even more attention from Tom Brady on Sunday—and not just because of his comments this week. Robey-Coleman played 358 snaps defending the slot receiver this regular season—nearly 300 more slot coverage snaps than cornerback Troy Hill, the next closest Rams defender. He will likely cover Julian Edelman, who ran nearly 67 percent of his routes from the slot this season, including the playoffs. Since 2013, when receiver Wes Welker left the Patriots, Edelman leads the NFL in playoff receiving yards with 1,196. That’s to be expected, considering he’s played the second-most playoff games among wide receivers in that span, but he is also fourth in receiving yards per playoff game (minimum two games), trailing only Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, and Michael Thomas. Edelman has logged more than 80 receiving yards in 10 of 12 playoff games in that time frame. The Rams defense may need to commit extra defenders to the line of scrimmage to stop the Patriots run game, and that could leave Robey-Coleman with little help over the middle on quick routes. Perhaps the Rams could try to put a more physical corner on Edelman (such as Aqib Talib) to press Edelman and throw Brady’s timing off, but that would risk giving up a big play. If karma is real, it may be coming for Robey-Coleman.

Cordarrelle Patterson

Patterson is perhaps the best kick returner in football. He averaged the third-most yards per kick return in 2018 with 28.8, and his six kick-return touchdowns since he entered the NFL in 2013 lead the league (by far) in that span. There are few things that get Belichick more amped than winning field position on special teams, but there’s one problem: Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein. Los Angeles allowed only 29 of its kicks to be returned this season (less than two returns per game). Patterson will try to make his returns count, but with Legatron booting the ball out of the back of the end zone and Edelman handling the Pats’ punt returns, Patterson may not get the chance to influence the game on special teams. Perhaps that means Belichick will find a way to get him involved on offense, as he did at times throughout the season.

Stephen Gostkowski

Gostkowski has quietly been the Pats kicker longer than Adam Vinatieri was, and he has also quietly been so-so in the playoffs for the past few years. He’s missed chip-shot kicks in the final game of the Pats season each of the past three years:

  • In the January 2016 AFC championship game against the Broncos, Gostkowski missed an extra point on the Pats’ first touchdown that kept the game at 7-6 instead of making it 7-7. When the Pats scored a touchdown with 12 seconds left to cut Denver’s lead to 20-18, the Pats were forced to go for two points to tie the game. Brady’s pass to Edelman was incomplete, and the Broncos won the game and went on to win the Super Bowl.
  • The following year, in Super Bowl LI against the Falcons, Gostkowski once again missed an extra point on a touchdown, which forced the Patriots to go for an extra two-point conversion in their epic fourth-quarter comeback. This time the Pats converted on their way to a Super Bowl win, but it was necessary only because Gostkowski missed earlier.
  • In the second quarter of Super Bowl LII against the Eagles last year, Gostkowski missed a 26-yard chip-shot field goal attempt on a botched snap. On the Pats’ next drive, Belichick passed on a 52-yard field goal (twice the length of the previous attempt) and went for it on fourth-and-5 from the Eagles’ 35-yard line. The conversion failed, and Philadelphia used the short field to score a touchdown. Gostkowski hit a 45-yarder on the ensuing Pats drive, but then missed an extra point shortly before halftime.

Gostkowski made 27 of 32 field goal attempts this year, was perfect from less than 40 yards, and hit 49 of 50 extra point attempts. But the lone extra point he missed came against the Dolphins, and that miss allowed them to win by a point in the 34-33 Miami Miracle. I’m not saying he’ll miss an extra point in this game, but I am saying it would be the first time he hasn’t missed an easy kick on the biggest stage since the winter of 2015.

Josh Reynolds

Reynolds is not as well known as Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks, and Robert Woods, but he could be thrust into the spotlight early and often during the Super Bowl. The Pats love to take away a team’s no. 1 and no. 2 options and force a team’s lesser options to produce, as demonstrated in the AFC championship game when Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill combined for 65 yards and a touchdown on four catches while Sammy Watkins and Damien Williams combined for nine catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns (and could have easily had four). In the Super Bowl, the Pats may key in on Gurley, who has struggled in the past two games, and Cooks, who played for New England last season. The Pats’ strategy may dictate that a large chunk of the Rams’ passing offense flows through Reynolds, the 117th overall pick in the 2017 draft who entered the lineup after Cooper Kupp tore his ACL. Reynolds had one of his best games of the season in the NFC championship game and caught four of his seven targets for 74 yards, but the Pats may dare him to produce against their talented secondary.

Gerald Everett and Tyler Higbee

Of course, McVay may be anticipating that the Pats could force Reynolds to make plays, and the Rams have already begun building in counters to the counters the Pats defense will throw at them, starting with their personnel usage. During the regular season, Los Angeles used 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, and three receivers) on the field at a staggering rate—90 percent of the time, or on all but six plays per game, according to Sharp Football Stats—in an effort to eliminate the tendencies that defenses can use to guess what plays will happen based on who is on the field. Yet the Rams have broken their own mold since signing C.J. Anderson. Since Week 16, the Rams have used 11 personnel just 69 percent of the time and 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, and two receivers) 27 percent of the time. Against the Saints in the NFC championship game, the Rams ran 17 plays with 12 personnel (25 percent), which is the same number of plays they ran out of 12 personnel in the first 15 weeks of the season combined. The Rams went from almost never using two tight ends on the field at the same time to doing it regularly, and that means Higbee, who had the second-most catches in a game of his career last week, and Gerald Everett, who had the second-most yards in a game of his career last week, could take on even bigger roles in the passing game in the Super Bowl than they did in the NFC championship game. Belichick may force the Rams to funnel the ball to their tight ends during the plays Reynolds isn’t on the field.

Todd Gurley

It’s cheating a bit to put the reigning Offensive Player of the Year who just led the NFL in touchdowns from scrimmage this season as an X factor, but Gurley has become a variable after a bizarre no-show against the Saints led to him being out-snapped by C.J. Anderson despite both Gurley and McVay insisting he was healthy. To beat the Patriots, the Rams will need Gurley, not Anderson, to dominate running back snaps Sunday.

Play-action is critical to the Rams offense (they ran it more often than any other team this year). Anderson mostly runs up the middle, and thus the play-action fakes to Anderson are also mostly up the middle, which diminishes the diversity and quality of the fakes.

Gurley is a much better player with more versatile runs and therefore more versatile play-action fakes.

If the Rams’ running back snaps are split like they have been in the playoffs (75 combined snaps for Gurley and 70 snaps for Anderson), the range and quality of fakes the Rams can employ will be limited. If Gurley returns to his snap counts pre-injury (86 percent of the Rams’ offensive plays), he can affect the game just by being on the field.

Gurley can also be a game-changer as a receiver. The Chiefs gashed the Pats consistently the past two seasons on throws to Kareem Hunt and, in the AFC championship game, to Damien Williams.

Patrick Mahomes II may have missed the latter throw, but McVay has two weeks to replicate these looks for Goff to hit Gurley.

Patriots Linebackers

This is who will be under siege from Gurley by land and air. Gurley is at his best on outside zone and off-tackle runs, and the Patriots’ front-seven defenders are not very athletic or fast by the NFL’s lofty standards. That could present a big problem if the Rams get Gurley going back to his bread and butter (the Rams were the no. 1 running team in football on runs off the left tackle, according to Football Outsiders). Pats linebacker Kyle Van Noy is the highest-graded linebacker of the playoffs by Pro Football Focus and had two crucial sacks on Mahomes in the AFC championship game. Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower, along with defensive ends Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise Jr., will need to set the edges well against the Rams’ run blockers or risk Gurley shredding them on off-tackle runs—and will also need to curb all of the sweep plays the Rams use to set up the rest of their offense.

J.C. Jackson

If you want to bet on the next Malcolm Butler, this is about as good as you’ll do. Like Butler, Jackson is an undrafted rookie free-agent cornerback who has found himself as a key piece of the Pats secondary entering the Super Bowl. Unlike Butler, who was subbed in at halftime of Super Bowl XLIX, Jackson is set to start. Since getting serious playing time in Week 13, Jackson has been stellar and has the best opposing passer rating allowed among cornerbacks with a minimum of 40 targets. He has also been one of the best corners at disrupting passes that travel more than 10 yards in the air, according to Pro Football Focus. Yet Jackson has been flagged nine times for 102 yards (including the playoffs), which is particularly noticeable on a defense that was penalized fewer than six times per game (tied for the third-fewest among defenses) in the regular season. Against the Chiefs in the AFC championship game, Jackson was called for one defensive holding penalty and two pass-interference penalties and gave up a 27-yard pass to Demarcus Robinson—all of which gave the Chiefs first downs in the fourth quarter. This is more worrisome considering we can be sure the refs will have a … vigilant eye on pass-interference penalties in this game. Jackson has had a strong season, but the Chiefs showed McVay and Co. that Jackson can be picked on. How he responds in this game could be massive.

Phillip Dorsett

In the first month of the season, Dorsett seemed to be the answer to the Pats’ receiver questions on the outside. He caught 16 passes on 26 targets for 165 yards and two touchdowns in four weeks. Then Josh Gordon started playing, and Dorsett disappeared. From Week 5 to Week 15, Dorsett had 11 catches on 11 targets and no scores, including no targets in a four-game stretch from Week 12 to Week 15. But Dorsett returned to the radar once Gordon was suspended. Dorsett was the third-leading receiver after Julian Edelman and James White against the Chargers in the divisional round, and finished with four catches on five targets for 41 yards and a touchdown. Against the Chiefs in the AFC championship game, he had just one catch on three targets, but made it count with that one catch being a 29-yard touchdown.

After not scoring from Week 5 to Week 15, Dorsett had a touchdown in three consecutive games. Even when he’s not getting the ball, he’s using his deep routes to open underneath routes for Edelman and give him a clean release off the ball. How Dorsett fares against Marcus Peters or Aqib Talib could stretch the Rams defense vertically and might be valuable enough to draw those players away from Rob Gronkowski and Edelman.

Rob Gronkowski

It’s been tough sledding for Gronk, who had his worst per-game season in 2018 since his rookie year in 2010. He consistently struggled to separate from defenders in the regular season, and the highlights of him dominating Pittsburgh in Week 15 of 2017 look like a distant memory.

There was hope the Pats were saving Gronk for the playoffs—he has three touchdowns in every postseason he’s played more than one game (2011, 2014, 2015, 2017), but he has yet to score this time around. He is coming off of one of his better games of the year against Kansas City, but even when Brady found Gronk in the AFC championship game, it was usually when Gronk beat his man at the point of catch, rather than beating him by running the route.

Gronk’s contributions as a blocker are far more reliable than his receiving abilities this postseason, and that could be the key for the Pats in the running game. But much more important than Gronk’s blocking is his partying. Gronk is the ultimate X factor off the field, and there’s a real chance that this is his final NFL game (he said at media night Monday he was not sure whether he would retire, but he admitted earlier in the season he had threatened retirement this offseason if the Pats had traded him).

If the Patriots win the Super Bowl, we will be in line for the Full Gronk Experience. We’ve already seen him buy a horse named after him and watch it race in the Kentucky Derby, wrestle in the WWE, and ride on Shaq’s shoulders in a dance-off at a Steve Aoki concert. Lord knows what Gronk is going to get into if he doesn’t have to answer to Belichick anymore.