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Super Bowl 53 - Vegas Lines, Over/Under Picks & Predictions

I guess the saying is true, what goes around comes around. Needing egregious blown calls in both the AFC and NFC Championship games to get this exact matchup, the Patriots have officially gone full circle to where their dynasty began.

Not much was expected from New England during the 2001 season. They were coming off of a 5-11 record in Bill Belichick's first year as head coach. Franchise quarterback Drew Bledsoe signed a 10-year contract extension during the offseason but was injured in the organization's second game of the year on a brutal hit from Jets linebacker Mo Lewis. At the time, not even the world's most renowned oracle could have predicted what would transpire next. The Patriots went on to lose the game, dropping their record to 0-2, but Tom Brady started the final 14 contests of the year. He then compiled an 11-3 record as the starter, earning New England the second seed in the AFC playoffs.

The Patriots faced the Oakland Raiders at home in their first playoff game after the bye in what is now known as the "Tuck Rule Game." Brady's game-ending fumble was turned into an incomplete pass, which allowed Adam Vinatieri to nail a 45-yard field goal attempt seconds later in the snow to send the game into overtime. Vinatieri then hit a 23-yard field goal in extra time to advance New England into the next round. After defeating the top-seeded Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship game, the Patriots captured their first Super Bowl title against the St. Louis Rams as 14-point underdogs. History will forever show that this is where New England's dynasty first began, but I think NFL fans, maybe now more than ever, need to remember that bad rules and officiating have changed the landscape before and will again. Saints fans have every right to feel upset, as do Chiefs supporters to a lesser degree, but until the NFL can figure out a way to implement a way to remove some of the human error that it has in its game, these are situations that could occur at any time. It doesn't make it right, but it has been a part of the NFL as long as we've been fans.

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Los Angeles Rams vs. New England Patriots (-3.0): O/U 57.0

This will be the Patriots' third consecutive Super Bowl appearance and ninth since 2001, while the Rams will be making their first Super Bowl showing since losing to New England as a 14-point favorite the same year. As mentioned above, each team's Super Bowl run has come with some controversy, but we will be keeping things positive from here on out. New England opened at +1 but has already taken some early money from both sharp and square bettors, pushing them to -3.0 at a handful of books. There was a time last week that nearly 90 percent of the money and action had come in on the Patriots, but the shops that have moved New England to minus-three have reported that their handle is down to about 75 percent exposure on Brady and Belichick.

Public perception can be quite a thing when it comes to betting. A game that should be viewed as a pick'em has shifted four points because of Tom Brady's career excellence. Perhaps the sportsbooks should have started closer to where the line currently is located because of the potential of this happening, but they are now in a position where they will need the Rams more than any team in the history of the Super Bowl if things don't change.

For starters, I think most of the "sharp" money that came in early on New England was a number grab. The possibility to snatch the Patriots at +1 or zero points was too enticing to pass up. As the spread continues to rise, bettors that grabbed New England early will be in a position to come back on the other side. Casinos may not want to take on the liability of getting middled on the Rams +3.5 and Patriots +1, so it is possible that we never see this number get past three for that reason.


Keys to the Game

Los Angeles' key will be getting pressure to Tom Brady. The Chargers and Chiefs combined for zero sacks against New England, and if the Patriots' offensive line can hold up on Sunday, Brady will likely walk away with his sixth Super Bowl trophy. Aaron Donald, the Pro Football Focus recipient for the best pass rusher award, led the league with 20.5 sacks and produced 106 total quarterback pressures --33 of those coming in the fourth quarter or overtime.

A good quarterback with a reliable offensive line can negate some of the sack totals from showing up on the official stat line, but pressure on a quarterback will lead to quicker decisions, and more importantly, mistakes. A lot of Brady's success comes from having all day in the pocket. Schematically, it is impossible to take away all of a teams weapons if you aren't forcing the decision-making process. That goes for any NFL level quarterback but is especially true for one of the all-time great players to ever play the game.

If the Rams can find a way to dictate the game with their front-four, their secondary will have an opportunity to wreak havoc. Los Angeles ranked third in the NFL with 18 interceptions on the season and graded out fifth in success rate against the pass, allowing only 44 percent of passes to grade out successfully. All of this is easier said than done, which was visible by the Chargers' vaunted four-man rush not having an answer for anything thrown their way during the Divisional Round. But when you look at the five losses New England suffered this season, outside perhaps the fluky defeat against the Miami Dolphins, the common theme was pass rushers being able to stunt what the Patriots were trying to do.

In New England's four losses to the Jaguars, Lions, Titans and Steelers, Brady only averaged 225 yards, one touchdown and 12.5 points per game. I know we are picking apart a four-game sample size that fits into this narrative, but two playoff wins against the Chargers and Chiefs have removed all doubt around this team in the eyes of the public. I'd venture to say that this could be the worst Patriots team that we have seen during their historic run. It doesn't mean that they can't win, but we can't ignore their massive inefficiencies because of two quality showings.

The Patriots have not been good this season in applying pressure to opposing quarterbacks, and they have not defended the run well, which is evident from them allowing 49 percent of rushes to grade out successfully (22nd best) and a staggering 17 percent of carries to end in an explosive play (30th best). The one issue with all of this is that something is not right with Todd Gurley's health. We are going to find out what is wrong when this year comes to an end, but trust me, C.J. Anderson did not supplant Gurley on the depth chart. The narrative going around the industry that Anderson has affected Gurley's fantasy value into next season is ludicrous.

We live in an age where a running back's value is virtually zero to a point spread, and while I think that is generally an OK rule of thumb, Gurley's importance to the Rams is more significant than most. If Gurley were healthy, I think this could have turned into a runaway type of game. And maybe that is what will still happen after the 24-year-old was able to get a week off in between the NFC Championship and the Super Bowl, but as things stand, we are dealing with a pretty evenly-matched contest that is seeing the point spread inflated due to Brady's perceived worth. This game should be a pick'em, and if you are going to give me three points on either team, I would feel inclined to take the dog. Going against Brady and Belichick is never easy, but the value is too good to pass up in this situation.

Prediction: Rams 30 – Patriots 27


Recommended Picks: Rams (+3.0), Under 57.0

I expect a slower start to the Super Bowl from both sides. Under 28.5 or 29.0 in the first half would be my preferred way to bet the under in this game. Once public money comes in, we should see this slowly creep back towards that territory.

As far as the spread is concerned, Patriots money will continue to trickle into the market all week. I don't think we ever see this get to +3.5, but you never know.

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