Frongillo: Patriots’ Michel Has Stepped Up in the Playoffs

January 25, 2019 GMT

Thinking about out loud while waiting for the Super Bowl hype to kick into really high gear.

Sony Michel not only didn’t attend last year’s NFL draft, the former University of Georgia standout running back didn’t even host a draft party. On the opening night of the draft, Michel was with his family patiently waiting to see if he would be selected in the first round.

When the Patriots used the 31st selection in the first round on Michel, there were rumblings that Bill Belichick had taken a running back too high. Well, everyone who was in a rush to judgment to criticize the pick has watched Michel follow up a solid showing during the regular season by running wild in the playoffs.

Michel has gone from not having a draft party to being a featured rookie performer at the NFL’s biggest party event. After running for 931 yards and six touchdowns in 13 games during the regular season, Michel has taken his play to the next level in the postseason. Michel heads into the Super Bowl as the leading playoff rusher (242 yards) and scorer (30 points, 5 TDs).

Among the seemingly hundreds of prop bets for the Super Bowl is who will rush for more yards, Michel or Los Angeles Rams star Todd Gurley? Gurley rushed for 1,251 yards this season but has been hampered in the playoffs by left knee soreness.

For those so inclined to wager, don’t hesitate when it comes to putting your money on Michel. The Rams have a strong defensive front, but the feeling here is Michel will out-gain the combined rushing yards of Gurley and his Rams’ backfield partner, C.J. Anderson. ...

The Patriots have made plenty of big calls in playoff games throughout the Belichick-Tom Brady dynasty. Two of the biggest “calls,” however, belong to special-teams ace Matthew Slater, who made the correct call of heads both during the overtime coin toss prior to Sunday’s win over Kansas City in the AFC title game and against Atlanta in Super Bowl LI.

The reason Slater always calls heads is because of his father, former Rams great and NFL Hall of Fame offensive tackle Jackie Slater.

“I remember as a child watching my father play in L.A. and him going out and doing the coin toss for the Rams,” said Matthew Slater. “He always called heads, so I asked him one time, ‘Hey, why do you do that? What’s the story behind that?’

“I think anyone who knows my family knows faith is important to us, and for him. He was always like, ‘You know, God’s the head of my life, so I call heads.’ That was something he came up with and I’ve kind of just embraced it. I’m glad it’s worked out for us here the last couple times when we needed it.”

By the way, Jackie Slater, who spent his entire 20-year NFL career with the Rams, making seven Pro Bowls and having his No. 78 retired, will be rooting for the Patriots on Super Bowl Sunday.

“We had a good conversation (about that),” said Matthew Slater. “He’s going to support his son, so we cleared the air on that and we’re all squared away.” ...

The performance by Rams placekicker Greg Zuerlein in the win over New Orleans in the NFC title game was the best I’ve seen by a kicker in a postseason game since Adam Vinatieri -- who holds the NFL record for a kicker for most Super Bowl appearances (5) and wins (4) -- in the Patriots’ overtime win against the Raiders in a snowstorm in a divisional-round game in 2002.

Vinatieri kicking a 45-yarder through the snow to force overtime against the Raiders still ranks as my No. 1 all-time clutch playoff kick (the Super Bowl-winning kick against the Rams doesn’t happen unless Vinatieri gives the Raiders the boot) due to its degree of difficulty. But Zuerlein kicking four field goals, including a 48-yarder with 15 seconds remaining to force OT and a game-winning 57-yarder, is pretty impressive.

The 57-yard boot was the longest game-winning kick in NFL playoff history, but it wasn’t the longest kick of Zuerlein’s career. He kicked a 61-yard field goal against Minnesota in 2015. By the way, Zuerlein showed up on the Rams’ injury report Wednesday as a DNP with a left-foot injury. Zuerlein is a right-footed kicker.

Follow Carmine Frongillo on Twitter @cwfrongi.