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Eagles-Patriots Super Bowl LII Preview
The Philadelphia Eagles are set to face the New England Patriots in a Super Bowl XXXIX rematch, with revenge on their minds. Or maybe it's just the fans that have revenge on their minds, since these are two completely different teams, with the exception of a certain "Man named Brady" and "The Hoodie". The Patriots are going for their sixth Super Bowl Championship, while the Eagles are still looking for their first, after losing twice before. The Patriots have become "The Evil Empire", while the Eagles have adopted an Underdog persona. New England is favored, but they still have to play the actual game, so let's take a look at the matchups.
Eagles Offense Versus Patriots Defense
Only two QBs in NFL history have thrown for 25+ passing TDs in a season with 2-or-fewer INTs. Everyone could guess that one is New England QB Tom Brady (28 TDs, 2 INTs in 2016), but did you know that the other one is Eagles QB Nick Foles (27 TDs, 2 INTs in 2013)? As a matter of fact, Foles sports the highest completion percentage and passer rating in NFL playoff history. This postseason, Foles is 49-for-64 (77.8%) for 598 yards, with 3 TDs and 0 INTs against the Falcons and Vikings, the 9th and 1st ranked defenses respectively in the NFL. The Patriots defense is not that good. As a matter of fact, they are monumentally bad for a Super Bowl team; ranked No. 29 overall. The Eagles regular season offensive rankings are meaningless now since they were mostly built with MVP candidate Carson Wentz at QB before he got hurt in Week 14. It's Foles team now and once the playoffs started, the Foles from his magical 2013 season reappeared. You will hear the term "RPO" quite often during this Super Bowl. RPO stands for run-pass option and it is what helps get Foles in a groove. Basically a RPO starts when the QB lines up in the shotgun with the RB standing next to him. When the ball is snapped the QB has the option to hand the ball off or keep it to throw or run. Foles won't be running much, but that split second of indecision on the part of the defense, when they don't know if it is a run or pass play, enables Foles time to survey the field to find an open receiver. Even better for Foles and the Eagles, the Patriots front seven has struggled against the RPO this season. Actually the Patriots have struggled against all offenses this season, with the 30th ranked pass defense (251.2 ypg) and 29th ranked defense overall (366 ypg).
Nick Foles - 7 TD Passes
When Foles passes, he will have quite a few weapons to choose from. The biggest names are WR Alshon Jeffery and TE Zach Ertz. The problem for the Eagles is that Jeffrey will have to deal with CB Stephon Gilmore all day and Ertz will have to face safety Patrick Chung. Any Eagles fan who remembers Chung from his one bad season in Philly will be surprised to know that he has done a nice job of containing opposing TEs this season. Both of them certainly won't get shut out, but the Eagles best receiving match-up is slot WR Nelson Agholor against former Eagle, CB Eric Rowe. Agholor is a former first round pick who finally had a breakout season in his third year and Rowe just isn't built to defend the slot. Rowe has allowed 10 catches on 15 throws during the playoffs, including 5 of 6 against the Jaguars in the AFC Championship Game. That's not good. The Eagles also like to use the screen game with their RBs, especially Jay Ajayi.
When Foles decides to hand the ball off, he will have the NFL's No. 3 rushing attack (132.2 yards per game) behind him. The Eagles use a RB-by-committee approach with RBs Jay Ajayi, ex-Patriot LaGarrette Blount and Corey Clement. Expect Ajayi to get the most carries, as he is the most explosive of the RBs, but Blout will certainly be used as a hammer in short-yardage and goal-line situations. Clement is a rookie who is a nice change-of-pace RB. The good news for the Eagles is that the Patriots front seven isn't all that formidable and they ranked 20th in the NFL against the run. New England normally uses a "read and react" defense along the line, but head coach Bill Belichick likes to take away what a team does best, and with the Eagles, that has been running the football. In order to do that, expect the Patriots to do a lot of run blitzing.
That brings us to the main strength of this Eagles offense; their offensive line. The Eagles have three Pro Bowlers, RT Lane Johnson, RG Brandon Brooks and Center Jason Kelce on their offensive line. New England doesn't have any stars in their front seven, so this has to be the matchup the Eagles dominate if they hope to win the game. The weak link on the Eagles O-line is LT Halapoulivaati Vaitai. Expect the Pats to test him all game long with DE Trey Flowers and OLBs Kyle Van Noy and James Harrison. Vaitai just contained Minnesota's Pro Bowl DE Everson Griffen in the NFC Championship Game, but he's still going to be the target up front for New England's defense.
Patriots Offense Versus Eagles Defense
Tom Brady is widely considered to be the G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time) and just had one of his finest seasons at the age of 40. He might just win the NFL MVP since Wentz's injury will prevent him from winning that award. The last time Brady was in the Super Bowl (last year), he was carving up the Atlanta defense en route to the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history. In the AFC championship Game, he completed 10 of 14 passes for 140 yards and 2 TDs in the 4th quarter to complete that comeback. Brady is kind of a scary guy with the ball in his hands late in games for opposing defenses. He is the ultimate field general, able to recognize what defenses are trying to do, although how much of that was the result of cheating is up for debate. The only thing Brady didn't do well this season is convert on third downs. He was 16th in third down passing (84.2) and 6 of his 8 INTs came on third down. The Eagles will need to force Brady and the Pats into plenty of third-and-longs on Sunday.
The Patriots normally don't have big-name talent at receiver, but they went out and got WR Brandin Cooks to be their deep threat and, of course, they have the best TE in the NFL in Rob Gronkowski. Expect the Eagles to have CB Ronald Darby shadow the speedy Cooks and leave CB Jalen Mills on WR Chris Hogan. Mills gave up more TDs than any other CB this season (9), so expect Brady to test him. There really is no way to stop Gronkowski, but Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins will certainly try. Expect the Eagles to use their nickel defense most of the game, moving Jenkins closer to the line and inserting Corey Graham as a third safety. That way, Graham can provide bracket coverage over the top on Gronk. The problem with that approach is that Brady loves to use his RBs in the passing game. Perhaps you've heard the tale of how RB James White had 14 receptions for 110 yards and a TD in last year's Super Bowl. Expect him to be used in much the same manner against the Eagles. Eagles LBs Nigel Bradham and Mychal Kendricks are going to have their hands full in coverage. While the Eagles allowed 9 TDs to RBs and TEs during the regular season, they tightened things up and only allowed 2 over the last eight games of the season. And if that isn't enough, Danny Amendola is in the slot, where he has had 18 receptions in two playoff games and scored 2 fourth quarter TDs in the AFC Championship Game. Eagles slot CB Patrick Robinson has had a career revival this season, but this might just be the toughest matchup he's seen all season. The Eagles 17th ranked pass defense is going to have their hands full with the Patriots No. 1 ranked offense (394.2 ypg) and No. 2 ranked pass offense (276.1 ypg).
The Patriots simply don't run the football much, as you might expect from a team with Brady as their QB. As a matter of fact, the Patriots have a 67-33, pass-run ratio in their last four Super Bowls, without any RB rushing for over 44 yards. Complicating matters further for the Pats is the fact that the Eagles have the No. 1 run defense in the entire NFL (79.2 ypg). New England is only averaging 74 yards per game in the playoffs, while the Eagles have held the No. 7 and No. 13 rushing offenses in the league to 70 and 86 yards the last two weeks. This does not look like a good matchup for the Patriots. Dion Lewis led the Patriots with 896 rushing yards this season, but he is going to have trouble finding any running lanes against the Eagles defensive front.
Just like their offense, the strength of the Eagles defense is along their line. They don't boast any double digit sackers, but they rotate their line all game to keep the players fresh to keep throwing fastballs at the opposing QB. The key to the Eagles defensive line is All Pro DT Fletcher Cox. Cox simply can't be blocked one-on-one and the interior of the New England offensive line is so suspect, I doubt even two guys will be able to stop him from wreaking havoc all game. Honestly, the only good offensive lineman the Patriots have is LT Nate Solder. The rest of them are just average at best. DEs Brandon Graham and ex-Patriot Chris Long should torture RT Cameron Fleming all game. And with Cox collapsing the pocket, Brady won't be able to step up into the pocket to buy time for his receivers to get open. As the New York Giants proved in the two Super Bowls that Brady has lost, the way to beat him is to apply constant pressure to disrupt his rhythm and hit him all game long. The Eagles led the NFL in QB hurries, so this is the blueprint for success on Super Bowl Sunday for the Eagles.
Who Will Win Super Bowl LII
Want a strange fact for this Super Bowl? Both kickers went to college at the University of Memphis. While New England's Stephen Gostkowski has a long and distinguished NFL career over 12 seasons, Philly's rookie Jake Elliott broke most of his kicking records at Memphis. Gostkowski was 37 for 40 this season on FGs, including a perfect 4 for 4 from 50+ yards. Elliott was 26 for 31, including 5 of 6 from 50+ yards. He also hit a 61-yarder to beat the Giants with no time left on the clock in Week 3. Elliott has the stronger leg on kickoffs for touchbacks, but Gostkowski excelled at placement, and the Pats were third in average opponent drive start off kickoffs (23.3). That is significant when you consider a team gets the ball at the 25 on a touchback. Both punters excel at pinning the opponent inside the 20. Eagles punter Donnie Jones has dropped 5 punts inside the 20 yard line in the playoffs. New England's Ryan Allen surrendered only 105 return yards all season, best for third in the NFL. He is also a lefty, which always messes up punt returners. Because of their kickers, both teams have excellent coverage units on kickoffs and punts. One difference is in the return game. The injury to Darren Sproles was a big blow to the Eagles special teams. His replacement, Kenjon Barner won't scare anyone. New England kick returner Dion Lewis is fourth in returns with a 24.8-yard average and he returned one for a TD this season.
In spite of the incredible job that Eagles head coach Doug Pederson has done in his second season (to my great surprise), everyone will agree that he is at a major disadvantage going up against New England head coach Bill Belichick. Belichick will take part in his 11th Super Bowl on Sunday as a head coach or assistant; the most for any coach in NFL history. The guys is good, and not just because of all the cheating he constantly does. And he does cheat. A lot. And probably is still cheating and the NFL just hasn't caught him yet. Because he's a cheater who cheated the Eagles out of a Super Bowl once (Spygate). But I'm not bitter or anything. Anyway, Pederson has done a great job of just keeping his team together during a season in which he lost his franchise QB (Wentz), who was running away with the MVP award, a first-ballot hall of fame LT in Jason Peters, his best RB and return man (Sproles), his kicker (Caleb Sturgis), his special teams captain (Chris Maragos) and his starting MLB (Jordan Hicks). Through it all, the Eagles just kept winning with a next-man-up mentality and that's a tribute to Pederson. We'll see just how good he is as a play-caller on the biggest stage against one of the greatest defensive minds in NFL history. The other great chess match to watch will be Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels against Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.
Nothing can be taken from the last Super Bowl played between these two teams, since Brady is the only player on either roster remaining from Super Bowl XXXIX. But we can look at a little bit of history when it comes to the Brady and Belichick combo in Super Bowls. In the 7 Super Bowls those two have been a part of for New England, the Patriots have only outscored their opponents by 12 points; 169-157. And their biggest margin of victory is only 6 points (last year's overtime win). That tells you that the Patriots don't blow anybody out and they don't get blown out. On that note, here is another obvious stat that I saw. Teams that are plus-one or better in the turnover differential are 33-7 in Super Bowl history. That is good news for the Eagles, since their defense was 4th in the NFL in INTs (19) this season and 6th in fumble recoveries (11), while the Patriots were 18th in INTs (12) and 28th in fumble recoveries (5).
The Patriots are favored in Super Bowl LII for one reason and one reason only; the Tom Brady and Bill Belichick mystique. The problem with that narrative is that this might be the worst of all of their Super Bowl teams. Sure, Brady is an assassin, but the Patriots have no running game and their defense is just terrible. And yes, the Eagles are playing with their backup QB, but Nick Foles has some pretty incredible playoff numbers and this Eagles team has proven all season that, in spite of all the injuries, they are more than just the sum of their parts. Coaching obviously matters, but ultimately it's up to the players to produce on the field. That is where the Eagles have a slight edge. Their defense is borderline great and has been absolutely shutting down teams the second half of the season and in the playoffs. They create turnovers and the Patriots do not.
And one last thing to consider. While the Super Bowl is at a neutral site in Minneapolis, I'm betting it will be an Eagles crowd. New England fans only root for the Patriots because their beloved Red Sox don't play this time of year. Plus, all that winning has made their fans complacent. Conversely, Eagles fans have never gotten to see their team win a Super Bowl. Nothing would bring more joy to a Philly fan's heart than an Eagles Super Bowl Championship And Eagles fans have proven that they will travel anywhere to take over a stadium. Just ask the Rams, Chargers and Giants about how they had to use silent counts on offense in their home stadiums because the Eagles fans were so loud. Eagles fans get a bad rap from the lazy national media, but they are the best fans on the planet and dammit, they deserve a parade.
Eagles 30 - Patriots 23