Fans of old school football should be happy when they tune into Super Bowl LIII on Sunday night since they should expect to see two offenses in New England and Los Angeles that are predicated on a variety of running backs who have a bunch of different skill sets.
We are in the middle of the Golden Era of quarterback play in NFL history and Patriots icon Tom Brady is playing in his ninth career Super Bowl but it’s not a stretch to say whichever team’s running game can be more productive has a much better chance to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
Pats head coach Bill Belichick is twice the age of Rams head coach Sean McVay (66-33) but they both seemed to have adapted their team’s identity to this new thinking when it comes to running backs.
Interestingly enough, both clubs feature first-round draft picks (Todd Gurley and Sony Michel) while less heralded players (C.J. Anderson, James White, and Rex Burkhead) all figure to play key roles as well.
New England’s running backs have been more consistent on the road to Atlanta as they combined to pile up 155 yards and four touchdowns against the Chargers, then 176 yards and four scores in Kansas City.
The Rams destroyed the Cowboys with 273 rushing yards and three touchdowns but the Saints managed to bottle them up (only allowing 77 yards rushing) in the NFC title game.
After an up-and-down regular season, Michel has become a star in the playoffs as he’s rushed for 242 yards and five touchdowns (an NFL record for rookies) on 53 carries for an average of 4.57 yards per carry.
White is New England’s pass catcher out of the backfield and he shined with an NFL record (for RBs) 15 catches for 97 yards against the Chargers. The Chiefs did a better job of containing him but he still managed to combine for 72 yards and some very important third-down conversions.
Injured for much of his brief Patriots career, Burkhead had his best game as a pro with two incredibly clutch touchdowns: a four-yard run that gave New England a three-point lead with 39 seconds left in regulation, then the walk-off two-yard run in overtime that sent the Pats back to their third-consecutive Super Bowl.
Gurley was looking like an MVP candidate in the regular season (1251 yards rushing, 17 TDs; 580 yards receiving, 4 TDs) before a knee injury slowed him down. He seemed to be back to his old explosive form against the Cowboys as he racked up 115 yards on just 16 carries (7.2 yards per carry) including a 35-yard touchdown run.
In the NFC Championship Game, he was basically benched though (four carries, 10 yards) and barely contributed other than a 6-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
Anderson is one of the most unlikely participants in this Super Bowl since he was cut by Carolina and Oakland earlier this season and has only been a Ram for a month and a half.
With Gurley out, he had 132-plus rushing yards and a touchdown in Los Angeles’ last two regular season games and that hot streak continued against Dallas with another 123 yards rushing and two touchdowns. New Orleans wasn’t fooled by him as he was limited to 44 yards on 16 carries.
Gurley is the best running back of these five guys but who knows what to expect after that no-show against the Saints. Plus, he’s never been in a game of this magnitude before. Anderson is a great story but the Patriots faced him plenty of times when he was with Denver.
I’ll give the edge here to New England since they have three guys that can all have big performances when they are called upon. Remember that White easily could have been the MVP vs. Atlanta when he caught 14 passes for 110 yards and he scored 20 points (a Super Bowl record).