Patriots have had extreme makeover since Super Bowl LIII win vs. Rams

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Every team in the NFL undergoes turnover on an annual basis. But when it comes to defining how different the New England Patriots look since beating the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII 22 months ago, it truly is C-H-A-N-G-E.

Perhaps you've heard quarterback Tom Brady is no longer on the team?

It cuts much deeper than a Cam Newton-for-Brady swap, and with the Patriots visiting the Rams on Thursday (8:20 p.m. ET, Fox) for the first time since Super Bowl LIII, let's highlight the depths of New England's change.

Just 17 players who dressed for that Super Bowl remain on the current active roster (not including those on injured reserve). The Rams also have 17, but the difference is many of their key cogs are still with the team.

Not so in New England, with perhaps nothing illustrating that point more than what Rams coach Sean McVay brought up this week.

With the Super Bowl LIII outcome in the balance in the fourth quarter, the Patriots switched to bigger offensive personnel for the first time but aligned them in an empty formation, setting up their only touchdown in what McVay cited as an example of how impressed he is with the Patriots' ever-evolving offensive approach. McVay wouldn't recognize it if the Patriots try to do something similar Thursday night.

Brady was the quarterback, Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen the tight ends, James Develin the fullback, and Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan the wide receivers. None of those players will be on the field Thursday (only Edelman is still on the roster, but he's on injured reserve).

Neither will starting offensive tackles Trent Brown (free-agent departure in 2019) and Marcus Cannon (one of an NFL-high eight players to opt out of the season).

So it's no wonder Super Bowl LIII wasn't a big reference point for coach Bill Belichick this week.

"We looked at it, but there's a lot of football that's been played since then," Belichick said. "I think the more recent games have more relevance. Certainly the players do. There's a lot of players that played in that game that aren't going to play in this one."

The Patriots' offensive starters who remain are at the heart of the line -- center David Andrews and guards Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason. There is a bit more continuity on defense, where the entire secondary outside of safety Patrick Chung (who opted out) is there.

In large part because of such significant turnover, the Patriots only recently acknowledged they have discovered a teamwide identity that suits them -- a physical run-first offense with dominant, opportunistic special-teams units and a matchup defense anchored by reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore at cornerback.

"That was a process for us. There has been a great deal of turnover; you lose some guys," said captain Matthew Slater, the team's longest-tenured player (since 2008), whose father, Jackie, had a Hall of Fame career with the Rams (1976-1994).

"Maybe it took a little longer than we would have liked, but I still believe in the culture we have here. It starts with our head coach and ownership. The culture we have is very sustainable if you do it the right way, and we're starting to do it the right way."

Winning four of their past five games has built some confidence along those lines, and therein lies one of the most striking similarities between the new-look 2020 Patriots and the 2018 club that stymied the Rams 13-3 in Super Bowl LIII.

The '18 team was struggling into mid-December, losing back-to-back road games to the Miami Dolphins and Pittsburgh Steelers, before morphing into exactly what the '20 team has become to win its final five games -- a physical run-first offense with dominant, opportunistic special-teams units and a matchup defense anchored by Gilmore.

So the players might be mostly different, but the approach should look familiar to McVay.

"This is as good a team as anybody in terms of making you pay for mistakes. They're playing really good complementary football, especially as of late," McVay said.

The question now is if the Patriots have dug themselves too big of a hole to make a similar type of charge as they did in 2018. They have a 16% chance to make the postseason, according to ESPN's Football Power Index (10th in the AFC). Belichick's squad has qualified for the playoffs 11 straight seasons, which is the longest playoff appearance streak in NFL history.

"I feel like we're gluing it all together, playing well as a team -- not just one individual aspect," said veteran defensive tackle Lawrence Guy, one of the unsung members of the team since 2017. "If we're able to do that, the sky's the limit."

After the Patriots host the Rams, they visit the Dolphins (8-4) and then finish with home games against the Buffalo Bills (9-3) and New York Jets (0-12).

"We know our formula, and we're at a point in the season where we have to keep it going," longtime captain Devin McCourty said. "Now we're down to four. We have four games promised to us, and everything after that will be what we make it in these last four games."