So a week after suffering heartbreak as a Vikings fan, I am ready to write my Super Bowl article, still slightly pained that I have to write about the team in green instead of the team in purple and gold. However, back to the rest of the NFL, these playoffs have been an extraordinarily well played and filled with exciting games besides last weeks NFC title game and the Patriots demolishing of the Titans in the divisional round, led by the Titans comeback at Kansas City, Brady’s 4th quarter comeback (again) vs Jacksonville, and of course the Minneapolis miracle. After all of this, we are down to the number one seeds in both conferences again, New England and Philadelphia.
Somehow, even after losing their starting quarterback, starting left tackle, and starting middle linebacker, the Eagles are still here. Until Carson Wentz tore his ACL against the Rams, the Eagles were rolling, stomping over everyone except for Kansas City and Seattle, seeming destined for Carson Wentz to face Tom Brady in the Super Bowl in what would possibly be a game in which the new generation of NFL stars would finally take the crown away from the old. Wentz’s injury in Los Angeles on the weekend after Thanksgiving was thought to sink the Eagles, basically ending all hopes of the Super Bowl for them. Sure, Nick Foles had prior success with the franchise, but that was back in the Chip Kelly days, and his performance against Oakland and the two drives he played against Dallas looked awful, and the Eagles were predicted by many to be one and done in the playoffs. I’m writing about this and as a Vikings fan who just gave up over 400 yards to a backup QB led the offense, my blood is beginning to boil, and my blood is boiling when I think about what would have happened if Julio Jones didn’t slip in the end zone. You know how the Eagles won their playoff games, I’m moving on to how the Patriots got here.
New England Patriots:
Alright, so New England didn’t go anywhere close to 16-0 like many experts overreacted to and predicted before the season, but 13-3 ain’t bad, or as they call it in New England, expected. Yes, Brady is 40 and shows no signs of stopping anytime soon, Gronk has been healthy mostly all season, Cooks has thrived, and the defense seems to have steadily improved, more so in the total amounts of points they give up then total yardage given up. A disastrous start seems large now due to that being the hardest part of their schedule, with a loss at home vs the AFC West champions, and another one to the Carolina Panthers, who going into the playoffs was thought to be a Super Bowl sleeper. Besides one bad Monday night in Miami and a close, thrilling win at Pittsburgh, New England rolled through the rest of their schedule, dominating opponents such as Buffalo, Atlanta, and Oakland like we’ve seen them do for years. This has been by far the easiest road to the Super Bowl for the Patriots. They got Marcus Mariota and the Titans in the divisional, and they got Blake Bortles in the AFC title game. Yes the Jaguars defense is amazing and will be for quite some time, but you can’t underestimate how lucky New England was that Jacksonville’s QB was Blake Bortles, a decent starter who is improving, but as shown last Sunday, still not close to pro bowl consideration level. If the Jaguars starter was Phillip Rivers, for example, Jacksonville is going to the Super Bowl, but it wasn’t, and New England exploited both Bortles and the team's inexperience in that 4th quarter on Sunday. Now they draw a more veteran Eagles squad, but also with a backup QB and former starter in Nick Foles, looking to exploit his inexperience like they’ve done to Mariota and Bortles before him.
When New England has the ball:
Look for the Patriots to stick to its usual west coast offense game plan a bit more than normal in Minneapolis. I don’t expect them to go deep as much, with the exception of quick sideline fades to Gronk, to counter that Philadelphia pass rush. Slants, outs, and drags over the middle will be good ways for Brady to get rid of that ball fast before Fletcher Cox and Chris Long can get a hit on his 40-year-old body. The defensive backfield for Philadelphia is the weakest part of what is otherwise a strong defense, and the receivers are the most talented and experienced part of New England’s team outside of the QB position. The Eagles defense now is a better, more consistent version of Atlanta’s last year because of this, great pass rush, shaky secondary (with the exception of do it all Malcolm Jenkins). It’s quite possible that Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola have bigger games than Gronkowski receiving wise, as the future hall of fame tight end might not still be 100% after that concussion suffered against Jacksonville, and pro bowl, do it all safety Malcolm Jenkins will be on him all night. There’s something about this Eagles pass rush that seems similar, maybe even better, than the two New York Giants defensive lines that were key in getting to Tom Brady and ultimately upsetting the Patriots twice. The depth is extraordinary, one play Brandon Graham’s in your face, the next it's Fletcher Cox, then Chris Long, Derek Barnett come on down, Timmy Jernigan you get to play to, and the list goes on, and on. The defensive line shows how Philadelphia got here overall, by crafting a well-rounded team that could withstand big injuries via depth, much like how the Minnesota Vikings have also been constructed. However, Belichick knows this, and I’d expect a lot of screens and swing outs to Lewis and Burkhead all night to counter it. If Philadelphia can get to Brady throughout the whole game, the Eagles would be favored to pull it off, but if they can’t, then Tom Brady and those Patriots receivers and running backs should be ready to have a field day on this secondary.
When Philadelphia has the ball:
The Eagles offensive game plan with Nick Foles will be one of the more interesting in-game storylines to watch. We’ve seen him controlled by head coach Doug Pederson vs Atlanta, and we’ve seen Doug Pederson let him sling it and light up the scoreboard like a pinball machine against Minnesota. My guess would be a bit of both against New England, seeing that Foles again should have a lot of time in the pocket to go downfield, but at the same time, Pederson will want to rely on that run game and short throws to keep Tom Brady off the field. Foles having time shouldn't be a problem, that Patriots defensive line hasn’t been able to muster a great pass rush all year and that Eagles offensive line is the best they’ve faced since Pittsburgh, even with pro bowler Jason Peters out for the season. The Eagles three-headed monster at running back of Ajayi, Blount, and Corey Clement could give New England trouble, and I expect them too early. The most interesting matchup here I think is the Eagles receiving corp vs New England's secondary. Jeffery is a jump ball receiver who is great at getting body position, Zach Ertz is a monster at tight end, and Nelson Agholor and Torrey Smith are good route runners who can burn you deep at any time. The Patriots secondary meanwhile is by far the strongest part of their defense, led by an underrated one-two corner duo in Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore, along with former pro bowl safety Devin McCourty. This is why it’s going to be key for New England to make Philadelphia one dimensional by shutting down the run early. If they can’t shut down the run, those Eagles receivers are going to find soft spots in coverage and the Patriots are going to have to respect the run, even more, opening up a lot of quick run-pass option routes over the middle. If Matt Patricia and New England can shut down the run, much like they did in the second half against Jacksonville, that great secondary should have no problem locking down Eagles receivers, and might just turn Philadelphia’s Super Bowl trip into the Minneapolis nightmare.
This Super Bowl is one that defines the NFL season. Two teams, both have a few big time injuries to star players, (Wentz, Peters, Julian Edelman, Donta Hightower), but they're here thanks to the normal stars that have stayed healthy and backups who have stepped up when their teams need it. Rob Gronkowski has a concussion as well, but I’m 99.9% certain he plays in this game, with two weeks being long enough to recover and because its Gronk. I see this game being a tale of two halfs, like many other Patriots playoff games recently. At halftime it will be close, with the Eagles running game helping to calm down Nick Foles and lead them downfield for a couple touchdown drives, while New England gets a late score to go along with just a field goal after not being able to handle the Philadelphia front seven for the entire first half, and are down 14-10 at half. But Bill Belichick and his staff are the best at halftime adjustments in the league, and Brady is going to realize he can’t lose to a backup quarterback. Much like the AFC title game against Jacksonville, the Patriots come out and shut down the running attack, thus putting the entire hopes of the Eagles on Nick Foles, who can’t handle it. As we’ve seen a number of times before, the pass rush against the Patriots is unsustainable in the second half, and the same goes here, as Tom Brady in the second half has time to pick apart Philadelphia’s secondary, and New England roles towards Tom Brady’s unprecedented sixth Super Bowl title on a cold night inside the warm US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
Final Score: New England Patriots 31, Philadelphia Eagles 17