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PATRIOTS (13-5) vs. RAMS (16-2)

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Patriots rushing vs. Rams run defense -- EVEN

The Patriots haven't rushed for more than 68 yards in either postseason game and are averaging a paltry 2.5 per carry. Running back Antowain Smith is averaging 3.2 per carry, down from 4.0 in the regular season. Circumstantial? The Patriots have run in snow and against Pittsburgh's No. 1 rush defense. The Rams suddenly appear vulnerable to the big run in the postseason, giving up more than 100 rushing yards in each game. New England's massive line will attempt to overpower St. Louis' lighter, quicker defensive front.

Key matchup: Patriots center Damien Woody vs. Rams middle linebacker London Fletcher. Woody earned a Pro Bowl trip with his stellar play and, although deserving, Fletcher was a Pro Bowl snub.

Stat to remember: 5.2. Yards per rush allowed by the Rams' defense in this year's playoffs.

Patriots passing vs. Rams pass defense -- RAMS

The Patriots have become one-dimensional in the postseason, relying almost exclusively on the passing game. Quarterback Tom Brady has yet to throw a touchdown pass in the playoffs, but his completion rate is 62.9 percent. New England will want to throw short and quickly to keep the pass rush away from their quarterback's sore ankle. The Rams' secondary has been phenomenal in the playoffs with seven interceptions in two games, backing up a pass rush that has netted five sacks. To control the clock, the Patriots will need to avoid turnovers.

Key matchup: Patriots wide receiver Troy Brown vs. Rams cornerback Aeneas Williams. The Patriots will throw often to their best receiver, and he'll be covered by the Rams' best defender.

Stat to remember: 3. The Rams have returned three of their seven postseason interceptions for touchdowns.

Rams rushing vs. Patriots run defense -- RAMS

The Rams turned to their running game in last week's NFC championship game when Philadelphia took away the deep ball. Marshall Faulk carried a season-high 31 times for 159 of the team's 161 ground yards. He has gotten the lion's share (47 of 54) of the Rams' postseason carries. How left tackle Orlando Pace's sprained left knee holds up will be critical. The Rams are averaging 126 rushing yards a game and 4.6 per carry in the postseason. The Patriots are giving up just 67.5 per game and 2.6 per carry. They totally shut down Pittsburgh's No. 1 rush offense last week.

Key matchup: Faulk vs. Patriots middle linebacker Tedy Bruschi. Faulk showed against Philadelphia that he can be effective between the tackles. Bruschi's job is to see that he doesn't get into the secondary and maximize the damage.

Stat to remember: 58. Rushing yards the Patriots allowed against the Steelers, including 19 (on 13 carries) by Jerome Bettis and Amos Zereoue.

Rams passing vs. Patriots pass defense -- RAMS

The Rams' prolific passing game has been hampered by quarterback Kurt Warner's physical ailments the past two weeks, when he threw for 216 and 212 yards. The big question is what the Patriots will do to throw off the timing routes that make the Rams so explosive. Blitz or drop back into coverage? It will be a guessing game every play. The Patriots' blitzes unhinged Pittsburgh quarterback Kordell Stewart and he threw three interceptions, two at the end of the game. Warner won't come unglued, but he did throw 22 picks during the season.

Key matchup: Rams coach Mike Martz, the reigning offensive guru of the NFL, vs. Patriots coach Bill Belichick, the current defensive whiz. The coach whose team makes more big plays wins.

Stat to remember: 6.79. Warner's average gain per pass attempt is down 2 yards in the postseason from his regular-season average of 8.85.

Special teams -- PATRIOTS

The Patriots have a big advantage in virtually all phases of special teams play. They got two touchdowns out of special teams against Pittsburgh to win the game. Containing Brown on punt returns will be St. Louis' biggest challenge. He returned two punts for touchdowns in the regular season and another last week. New England's punt-coverage team gives up just 4.8 yards a return. The Rams gave up 25.5 yards per kickoff in the regular season. The Patriots' Adam Vinatieri was 24-for-30 in field goals, the Rams' Jeff Wilkins was 23-for-29. Both hit 54-yarders.

Key matchup: Brown vs. Rams' punt-coverage team. Brown averaged 14.2 yards per return in the regular season, and the Rams allowed an average of 9.8.

Stat to remember: 2. The Rams surrendered two kickoff return touchdowns during the regular season.

Intangibles -- EVEN

Both teams are on a roll with eight-game winning streaks. The Patriots are a physical, power team, and although the Rams can play the power game, they have a preference for trick plays and long passes. In what could play a key role, the Rams were in the Super Bowl just two years ago, and that memory is fresh. The Patriots last played in the Super Bowl in 1996, but with a much different roster. This is the first Super Bowl for Martz and Belichick as head coaches, but both have been here as assistants - Belichick three times.

Prediction -- RAMS

The Patriots are going to make this an interesting and tense battle with their unpredictable defense and their superb special teams play. Belichick will figure out a way to keep Warner from unloading on his secondary, and a ball-control offense will limit the Rams' chances. But in the end, the Rams' twin MVPs - Warner and Faulk - will make enough plays to get their second title in three years. Rams, 27-18. - Ken Murray

Breakdown

Line: Rams by 14.

Vs. spread: Patriots 12-5; Rams 10-7.

Vs. common opponents: Patriots 7-2; Rams 8-1.

Series: Rams lead 5-3.

Last meeting: Rams won, 24-17, on Nov. 18, 2001, at New England.

Postseason records: Patriots 9-10; Rams 18-21.

Coaches: Bill Belichick, second season with Patriots, seventh overall, 55-61. Mike Martz, second season with Rams, 26-9.

Quick hits: This is the ninth Super Bowl in New Orleans and the sixth played at the Superdome. ... Patriots' Tom Brady, who at 24 will become the third-youngest QB to start a Super Bowl, is 13-3 as a starter. He had a team playoff record of 312 passing yards in divisional win over Raiders. ... Patriots K Adam Vinatieri (10 field goals) broke Tony Franklin's team playoff record last week. ... Rams defense has not allowed a 100-yard rusher this season, including playoffs. ... Rams CB Aeneas Williams has six interceptions in four career playoff games, including two returned for TDs in divisional win over Green Bay.

Injuries:

PATRIOTS: Probable: QB Tom Brady (ankle); OT Matt Light (ankle).

RAMS: Questionable: FS Richard Coady (ankle); OT Orlando Pace (knee). Probable: WR Az-Zahir Hakim (ankle); QB Kurt Warner (ribs); DT Jeff Zgonina (elbow).

Lineups

Patriots offense

WR 86 David Patten

LT 72 Matt Light

LG 77 Mike Compton

C 65 Damien Woody

RG 63 Joe Andruzzi

RT 64 Greg Robinson- Randall

TE 83 Rod Rutledge

WR 80 Troy Brown

QB 12 Tom Brady

RB 32 Antowain Smith

FB 44 Marc Edwards

Rams defense

LE 91 Leonard Little

DT 90 Jeff Zgonina

DT 66 Brian Young

RE 98 Grant Wistrom, OLB 52 Tommy Polley

MLB 59 London Fletcher

OLB 58 Don Davis, CB 35 Aeneas Williams, CB 21 Dexter McCleon

SS 31 Adam Archuleta

FS 20 Kim Herring

Rams offense

WR 80 Isaac Bruce

LT 76 Orlando Pace

LG 61 Tom Nutten

C 67 Andy McCollum

RG 62 Adam Timmerman

RT 60 Rod Jones

TE 84 Ernie Conwell

QB 13 Kurt Warner

RB 28 Marshall Faulk

WR 81 Az-Zahir Hakim

WR 88 Torry Holt

Patriots defense

LE 91 Bobby Hamilton, DT 96 Brandon Mitchell

DT 93 Richard Seymour

DE 98 Anthony Pleasant

OLB 95 Roman Phifer

MLB 54 Tedy Bruschi

OLB 50 Mike Vrabel

CB 24 Ty Law

CB 45 Otis Smith

SS 36 Lawyer Milloy

FS 34 Tebucky Jones

Keys to the game

For the Patriots

1 Keep the chains moving. If quarterback Tom Brady can crank out clock-eating drives -- regardless of whether the Patriots are able to cash in with scores -- New England will go a long way toward minimizing the Rams' dynamic offense.

2 Disrupt the Rams' timing patterns. If quarterback Kurt Warner has to hold onto the ball, waiting for his receivers to get open, it will give the Patriots' pass rush a chance to get to him -- and his bruised ribs.

3 Win the field position battle. That's the kicking game. The Patriots have a strong special teams cast that knows its role.

For the Rams

1 Capitalize on the Patriots' blitzes. If Warner can make New England pay for putting its cornerbacks in man-to-man coverage, the Rams will have achieved a strategical advantage. Even if it's a third-down conversion instead of a long touchdown, it'll be invaluable.

2 Create turnovers on defense. The Rams' secondary has seven interceptions in the postseason. If the Rams get any gifts from Brady, it will be hard to beat them.

3 Contain Troy Brown. Brown almost single-handedly destroyed Pittsburgh with his punt-return touchdown and lateral after a blocked field goal. It's an area where the Rams are vulnerable. -- Ken Murray

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