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Column: How Will Brash Rams Cope With Wily Ol' Patriots?

January 29, 2019 - 1:01 pm
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By PAUL NEWBERRY ,  AP Sports Columnist

ATLANTA (AP) — The guys from LA seemed to enjoy the spectacle.

The silly questions. The ridiculous antics. The carnival-like atmosphere.

Why wouldn't they?

It's all new to most of them.

"I'm 37 years old and I'm big-eyed right now," said offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth, the oldest player on the Los Angeles Rams. "This is amazing. It's something that excites you and makes you realize how special this game is."

For the other guys at Super Bowl Media Night, there might as well have been a collective yawn.

The New England Patriots have been through it all before.

Over and over again.

Bill Belichick looked out on the assembled media — sprinkled with an array of comics, TV personalities and riff-raff — with his usual disdain.

Tom Brady smiled at all the right times but might as well have been on auto-pilot.

It will be interesting to see how it all plays out next Sunday.

Will the brash young Rams — with a sweatsuit-wearing coach, Sean McVay, who is half Belichick's age and a quarterback, Jared Goff, who doesn't remember Brady's first Super Bowl because, well, he was only 7 years old the time — find themselves overwhelmed on the big stage?

Are the wily ol' Patriots — making their ninth Super Bowl appearance in 18 seasons and already possessing enough rings to fill out an entire hand — simply too experienced to slip up against a team that has virtually no track record at this time of year to fall back on?

"Probably throughout the week, it gives them an advantage," Whitworth conceded. "They kind of know this week. They know when things are a little anxious, when to kind of, hey, turn it on and get ready to play. They probably have a process and a plan for the week.

"But you know what?" he quickly added. "I'm just a firm believer that when you get out there and you snap that football, at some point the nerves are going to go away. You're going to have to settle in and be the team you are."

Those who are quick to declare that the Rams are just happy to be here, perhaps after watching McVay toss balls toward a kid hoisted onto an adult's shoulders and wearing a goalpost-shaped hat, might want to consider all they've been through.

A season ago, they suddenly emerged as one of the NFL's most exciting young teams, improving from 4-12 in 2016 — their first season back in Los Angeles after two decades in St. Louis — to 11-5 and a division championship. Then, in the first-round of the playoffs, they were upset at the Coliseum by the Atlanta Falcons.

"We felt like we could've made it (to the Super Bowl) last year," said John Johnson III, the Rams' second-year safety. "We were really disappointed."

This season, Los Angeles stared down a pair of off-the-field tragedies without batting an eye. There were the wildfires that raged in Southern California, forcing them to cancel a practice and creating some anxious moments for those closest to them. There was a mass shooting that claimed 13 lives at a bar not far from their Thousand Oaks training base.

They also spent a week training in Colorado Springs, preparing to play a game in the high altitude of Mexico City, only to have that contest moved back to Los Angeles on short notice because of poor field conditions at Estadio Azteca.

"It was like one thing after another that we can't control," Whitworth said. "We really had to just settle in — even though we were worried about our families and our friends and people around us — and just play football."

They went 13-3 to capture another division title and a first-round bye. They knocked off the Dallas Cowboys for the franchise's first playoff victory in 14 years. Then, playing in one of the league's most hostile road environments, they rallied from an early 13-point deficit to beat the New Orleans Saints in overtime.

Sure, the Rams needed a blown call in the closing minutes of regulation just to get to overtime. But considering all they had been through, there was probably a bit of karma in that outcome.

Now, they face the ultimate test.

Belichick, Brady and the Super Bowl-tested Patriots.

New England is not unbeatable, of course. They've actually lost three of those eight previous Super Bowls, and every single one has been a nail-biter, the average margin barely more than four points.

But the Patriots carry themselves with a haughty aura that they've more than earned. A team that shows the least bit of timidity or uncertainty will likely find itself beaten before taking the field. Even with all those titles on their resume, Belichick and Brady seem as driven as ever.

With his gruff-meter turned up to full blast and wearing a dark suit that would've worked just fine at a funeral, Belichick scoffed at a reporter who questioned, innocently enough, how he managed to avoid burnout. He brushed off a wide range of queries with his standard "I'm only focused on this game" retort. He refused to play along with any attempts to crack his grim veneer.

When someone from the TV show "Extra" asked him to pick a random question from a helmet, Belichick reluctantly grabbed a slip of paper that read, "Who is Adam Levine married to?"

The coach tossed it aside with disdain.

"Ask me a football question," Belichick demanded.

Yep, the Patriots have been through it all before.

We'll see if that makes a difference comes Sunday.

"I think experience helps. But I don't think it will be the deciding factor. Yeah, they've been to this game a lot. But they haven't played this team," Johnson said, looking around at a group that has come so far.

"Ever."

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Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry@ap.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paul%20newberry

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For more AP NFL: https://apnews.com/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

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