New England Patriots running back Rex Burkhead (34) dives to the end zone for a touchdown to win the AFC Championship NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs in overtime, Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Once again in the AFC, Tom Brady would not allow the torch to be passed. His 37-31 overtime win over Patrick Mahomes and a fatigued Kansas City Chiefs defense allowed the New England Patriots to go to their ninth Super Bowl with Brady and Coach Bill Belichick era.

The NFC championship game was just as compelling, as the Rams advanced to the Super Bowl with a 26-23 overtime victory, and the Saints were robbed by the officials on the missed pass interference call on Nickell Robey-Coleman.

The victories set up a very compelling Super Bowl matchup that in many ways will be painted as young (Rams quarterback Jared Goff and Coach Sean McVay) versus old (Brady and Belichick). But there are also many similarities between the two teams, and while some reasons for their success are obvious – Brady and Belichick are all-time greats, while McVay is considered perhaps the brightest young mind in the game – others are a little more hidden. As the NFL’s other 30 teams make their offseason changes, they would be wise to learn from these lessons from the Super Bowl participants.

Lesson 1: Don’t shy away from making trades

Over the past several years, the Patriots have been one of the most aggressive teams in the league as it pertains to making trades. Knowing the difficulty of getting rookies to play at a championship level, Belichick has mastered the strategy of trading for players in the third and fourth years of their rookie contracts.

The Patriots traded for left tackle Trent Brown, Cordarrelle Patterson, Danny Shelton and Jason McCourty this offseason. Last offseason, he traded for wide receiver Brandin Cooks, before dealing him to the Rams this April.


Part of the Rams’ championship blueprint has been built through the trades of General Manager Les Snead, who dealt for cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib along with Cooks this offseason. He didn’t stop there, acquiring edge rusher Dante Fowler Jr. from Jacksonville at the trade deadline. All have played pivotal roles this season, with Fowler making the hit on Brees that forced the overtime interception that set up Greg Zuerlein’s game-winning field goal.

Lesson 2: Place a high value on offensive line play, and coaching

According to Pro Football Focus, the four conference finalists ranked among the top 11 for offensive line play, with the Patriots ranking third and the Rams seventh.

Los Angeles rebuilt its line with the additions last offseason of left tackle Andrew Whitworth and center John Sullivan – the two positions that most GMs around the league will tell you are the most important on any line. O-line coach Aaron Kromer is a valuable asset, as he picked up on how the Dallas Cowboys were tipping off their stunts and blitzes by the way they lined up before the snap in last week’s divisional-round matchup.

The Patriots may not have any big names along their line, but offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia is one of the all-time best. His aggressive blocking scheme against the Los Angeles Chargers played a big role in that victory, and the work of Brown at left tackle since coming over in a trade with the 49ers has been impressive. New England lost Nate Solder in free agency, and then first-round pick Isaiah Wynn to injury before the season began, and still found a way to build a very effective front wall for Brady and the running game.

Lesson 3: In an offense-heavy game, the teams with the best playcallers rose to the top


Clearly, NFL teams are aware of the success of McVay, who has been held up as the modern prototype for the role. But it’s still worth noting that of the four conference finalists, each had a playcaller considered one of the best in the game: McVay, Payton, Andy Reid and Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.

The league’s rule changes gave the offense a decided advantage, and the four highest-scoring teams in the league wound up playing for Super Bowl appearances on Sunday. With that unlikely to change next season, any team with a serious shot at contending is going to need to put a high-scoring offense on the field. All four of the conference finalists had a 4,000-yard passer, with the exception of Brees, who came up 28 yards short after resting the team’s season finale.

Lesson 4: Go for it on fourth down

Interestingly, McVay went against his usual formula by opting for a chip-shot field goal to tie the NFC title game at 20-20 in the fourth quarter Sunday, instead of going for the touchdown and the lead. It all ended up working out, but had the Saints gone on to win in regulation, that would have been a heavily scrutinized decision.

Still, the Rams and Patriots (in addition to the Saints and Chiefs) deserve credit for embracing the analytics movement and being aggressive in going for it on fourth down. The four teams were a combined 38 of 60 on fourth-down attempts, converting 63.3 percent – well above the league average of 55.7 percent. The Rams essentially iced their win over Dallas in the divisional round with McVay’s decision to go for it on fourth and goal. The Chiefs did make a critical fourth-and-1 stop of New England in Sunday’s game, but generally speaking, fortune has favored the teams willing to go for it on fourth down this season.

Lesson 5: A strong running game still matters


The Rams and Patriots both ranked in the top five of the NFL in rushing yards per game this season. Their ground success was readily apparent in both teams’ divisional-round wins, and while the Saints largely bottled up the Rams on the ground Sunday, the Patriots put up 176 rushing yards and four touchdowns against Kansas City, with the running game proving pivotal in building a 14-0 first-half lead.

For L.A., the running game – usually led by Todd Gurley, who was limited in Sunday’s win – is also a huge factor in setting up the play-action pass, including through the use of jet sweeps and other motion that McVay has become known for as a playcaller. The Patriots also ask a lot of their running backs in the passing game, with McDaniels finding creative ways to get them the ball out of the backfield.

Even though this was an NFL season defined by big plays in the passing game, teams that can win on the ground set themselves up for success.


Comments are no longer available on this story