It’s been a storybook season for the Philadelphia Eagles, one that sees Nick Foles, Doug Pederson, and that onslaught of underdogs ready to take on the dynasty that never seems to fade. After all this Eagles team has gone through – injuries to Darren Sproles, Jason Peters, Jordan Hicks, and none other than league MVP candidate Carson Wentz – beating Tom Brady and Bill Belichick on the biggest stage would be the signature moment in Philadelphia sports history. It would be the icing on top for a city starved for a title, but realistically, can the Eagles go toe-to-toe with this Patriots team for 60 minutes and actually come away with a win?
When the Eagles Have the Ball:
It starts with Nick Foles. It’s always been a quarterback league, and if that’s a good or bad thing if you’re an Eagles fan. Foles runs scarily hot and cold, having struggled immensely down the stretch in the regular season before lighting up the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship Game. The Foles we saw against the top-ranked Vikings defense was even better than the 2013 record-breaking quarterback; he legitimately had one of the greatest games we’ve ever seen. Don’t sell Foles short.
Foles was deadly accurate as a passer. He moved in the pocket. He sidestepped defenders. He ran the run-pass option to a charm. After struggling with the deep ball in his limited starts this year, he torched a secondary with Pro Bowlers Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith. You know Pederson will keep going with the RPOs in the Super Bowl; interestingly enough, the Eagles ran the most run-pass option plays this year, and the New England Patriots faced the fewest.
The Eagles’ running game is solid and underrated around the league. LeGarrette Blount is facing his old team, and as a 250-pound bruiser, he’s the guy that can take a full workload in the fourth quarter to try to run the clock down. A classic Howie Roseman acquisition, Jay Ajayi was discarded for cheap by the Miami Dolphins and has averaged over five yards per carry (playoffs included) since joining the Eagles. And third back Corey Clement flashed as an undrafted rookie, scoring six touchdowns and even handling the bulk of the passing game work when Sproles went down.
No individual player rushed for more than Blount’s 766 yards this season, but the team finished third in yards and fourth in yards per attempt. The good news is they’re facing a Patriots defense that struggled to stop the run all year, allowing a whopping 4.71 yards per carry, 31st-best in the league. In fact, since Brady took over as the starter in 2001, only one other Patriots team has allowed a higher rushing YPC average, and that was the ’02 team that missed the playoffs.
Typically, the Patriots have managed to hold their opponents out of the end zone. Despite allowing over 4,000 yards through the air and almost 1,900 on the ground, they still finished fifth-best in points allowed. No stat best characterizes a trademark Belichick defense than the bend-but-don’t-break strategy, and this team epitomized that: the Patriots were sixth in fewest points allowed per drive but 31st in yards. Simply put, when the Eagles get into the red zone, they absolutely have to convert would-be field goals into touchdowns.
Belichick’s well-known defensive strategy is to try to take away the opposition’s best player, which likely means Zach Ertz gets the bulls-eye target. Ertz is Foles’ top offensive target, a Pro Bowl tight end who can stretch the middle of the field and beat defensive backs deep with his speed. New England is without cover linebacker Dont’a Hightower, but expect veteran safety Devin McCourty to see much of the action in defending Ertz. Ertz has a huge size advantage against the 5’10” McCourty, a converted corner, so expect Belichick to send some help in the form of either Patrick Chung or even a corner (Eric Rowe). Still, it’s a significant edge to the Eagles, one in which the team needs to capitalize.
Alshon Jeffery played well enough in his first year with the Eagles to ink a four-year contract extension. He’s a physical, big-bodied receiver who will likely see coverage from Stephon Gilmore. When Nelson Agholor is in the slot, he’ll likely match up against Malcolm Butler; otherwise, it will be vs. former Eagle Eric Rowe. Jeffery isn’t a high-yardage receiver but if he can come down with some contested catches, it’s a plus for the Eagles. Pederson has been creative in his usage of Agholor, shifting him around to even take end arounds at times.
In the trenches, the Eagles have a huge advantage against the Patriots’ defensive line, even with All-Pro Jason Peters sidelined since midseason. Big V has been serviceable in his place, but it’s the right side of the line that has thrived. Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks, and Lane Johnson are arguably the best offensive line trio in the league, and they’ve been instrumental in the Eagles’ success. There’s no Richard Seymour or Vince Wilfork on the other side. Even former great pass rusher Chandler Jones is gone. The best pass rusher left on New England is Trey Flowers, a good, not great player who had 6.5 sacks and two forced fumbles this season. The numbers give this edge to the Eagles no matter how you look at it. Philly rated by Pro Football Focus as the league’s best offensive line prior to 2017, and finished the year sending three players to the Pro Bowl.
When the Eagles Are On Defense:
This will be the biggest test of defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s career. He’s tasked with trying to stop Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, and an offense that rated second in points and first in yards in 2017. Fortunately for Schwartz, he’s flanked by an absolute arsenal of defensive linemen that has the ability to make life difficult for Tom Brady for 60 minutes in a row.
It’s no secret how the Eagles will win this game: Pressure Tom Brady. Brady has been in seven Super Bowls. When he’s been sacked multiple times, he’s 1-2, with the lone win coming virtue a 25-point comeback in last year’s contest. He’s dangerously close to being 0-3. When he’s been sacked just zero or one time, he’s 4-0. There’s your formula right there.
How good are the Eagles at getting to the opposing quarterback? They’re pretty good. Like really good. They were ‘just’ 15th in sacks but first in quarterback pressures and no team in the league utilizes a defensive line rotation like Philly. Fletcher Cox up the middle is an unstoppable force, not quite in the Aaron Donald class, but an All-Pro talent nonetheless who will require constant double teams. Brandon Graham is a monster off the edge. Derek Barnett, Chris Long, Vinny Curry, Timmy Jernigan, and Beau Allen make up the rest of that line. All have played at least 40 percent of the defensive snaps this season.
This is how the New York Giants beat Brady in both their Super Bowls. Brady’s numbers when pressured are significantly worse than when not facing pressure, and when he’s pressured up the middle, his numbers are scarily bad. Manufacturing pressure up the middle is not an easy task, but Cox/Jernigan should get some hurries of Brady.
Schwartz’s defenses have historically struggled against Brady. In the last three times that he’s faced arguably the GOAT, his teams have allowed 37, 45, and 40 points. If that happens in the Super Bowl, it’s game over. It won’t, though. Schwartz is too good not to devise a game plan to get to Brady.
The key for the Patriots will be getting rid of the ball quickly. Brady has survived – and thrived – so long in this league because he’s the best there is at dissecting an opposing defense and finding the open receiver. Even with Julian Edelman on IR this whole season, he’s found weapons galore. Rob Gronkowski (who has been cleared from his concussion) is possibly the most uncoverable freak of nature to ever play tight end. Danny Amendola has been a playoff hero this year, stepping into the Edelman role. Brandin Cooks has gamebreaking speed. Dion Lewis and James White catch a ton of passes out of the backfield. Don’t sleep on Chris Hogan, as Pittsburgh did in last year’s AFC Championship Game.
Brady releases the ball incredibly quickly, usually in under 2.5 seconds, and the Eagles are without their best cover linebacker in Jordan Hicks. They’ve struggled all season to replace him, and even if they go with a nickel defense all game, there’s still the problem of who covers the middle of the field. A player like Gronk can’t be covered by any one man, and while Malcolm Jenkins is an exceptional cover safety and a Pro Bowler, Travis Kelce gave him fits in Week 2. It’s not unreasonable to think Brady throws the ball Gronk’s way 10, 12, 15 times or more.
Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby are good cornerbacks, although prone to the occasional big play. Patrick Robinson has thrived in the slot this season, and he recorded a terrific pick-six against the Vikings in the NFC Championship Game. One of them is going to have to make a big interception when it really counts.
In his very well-written Super Bowl preview article, ESPN’s Bill Barnwell suggested the Patriots emulate the plan the Giants did against the Eagles this year by essentially going no-huddle and forcing the Eagles to keep their same core of defensive linemen on the field. Either way, it’s likely Brady throws the ball at least 45 times, and probably 50. The average quarterback sees a serious dip in his efficiency when he throws the ball that many times, and in the history of the NFL, only three quarterbacks not named Brady have thrown the ball at least 50 times in a playoff game and won. Brady? He’s done it six times. He’s done it four times since 2014. He’s actually 4-1 in 50-attempt playoff games since ’14. That shouldn’t happen.
The Patriots are a solid running team, having actually finished top 10 in the league in rushing yards and touchdowns, and 12th in yards per carry. Lewis has been the main back, handling 180 carries for 896 yards, a healthy 5.0 clip. The Eagles are predictably stout on run defense though, having finished first in the league in fewest rushing yards allowed. If New England wants to move the football, it’s likely going to have to come through the air.
The Coaching Matchup:
Bill Belichick vs. Doug Pederson seems like it would be a major mismatch, right? I mean, Belichick entered the season with five Super Bowl rings and a legacy as arguably the greatest coach of all-time. Before the season, Pederson was questioned by NFL.com’s Mike Lombardi as the most unqualified hire in history. Now?
Well, you have a head coach in Pederson and a team quarterbacked by a backup in Foles, and they’re only 4.5 point underdogs against a dynasty for the ages. That’s a testament to what Pederson has done with his playcalling. He’s seemingly always one step ahead of the opposing head coach. He ran circles around Mike Zimmer in the NFC Championship Game. After turning Wentz into a league MVP candidate, he’s now winning football games with Foles at quarterback. Nick Foles, a guy who was cast off by the (then) St. Louis Rams two years ago and almost retired.
Pederson’s best attribute may be his aggressiveness. He’s fearless in going for fourth downs, and the Eagles normally convert when they go for it. You know the Super Bowl will see a big fourth down opportunity, and it’s likely the Eagles will go for it. Expecting Pederson to go head-to-head with Belichick in a battle of wits is no small ask, and Pederson doesn’t quite have Brady or Gronk on his side either.
When you’re playing Brady and the Patriots, you can’t let up. No lead is ever safe. Just ask the Atlanta Falcons. Pederson will need to keep his foot on the gas. Two weeks ago, he dialed up a flea flicker up by 17. He will need more tricks like that to win this game. After turning in the finest coaching performance of his career in the NFC Championship Game, he will need to be even better against the Patriots.
What Pederson has done with the RPOs this season is special. What he’s done in keeping this team alive is special. He will have his hands full against Belichick. All seven Super Bowls with Brady have come down to the final minute. All seven have been decided by six or fewer points. The Patriots have amazingly never scored in the first quarter, a trend that Philly will try to keep alive.
I think the Patriots take an early lead in this one. They go up 3-0 on the opening drive, their first such first-quarter points in the Super Bowl. The Eagles counter with a long touchdown drive, punctuated by a run by Jay Ajayi, and then the Eagles force a turnover and score on a 60-yard bomb of a touchdown pass to Nelson Agholor. A Brady-to-Gronk touchdown pass makes it 14-10 Philly at halftime.
The Eagles go up 21-10 in the third quarter on a touchdown pass to Zach Ertz, but a Dion Lewis touchdown makes it a 21-17 game. A 50-yard Jake Elliott field goal makes it 24-17, and then the Patriots counter with a field goal of their own.
We head to the fourth quarter with the Eagles protecting a narrow 24-20 lead. A Brady-to-Gronk touchdown (again) makes it 27-24 New England before Foles engineers a career-defining 80-yard touchdown drive punctuated with a brilliant escape and a 13-yard touchdown pass to Jeffery to put the Eagles up 31-27 with 2:08 left. From there, Brady gets the ball with one last chance to lead a touchdown and earn him his sixth Super Bowl ring.
And he’s picked by Jalen Mills with 50 seconds on the clock.
Eagles 31, Patriots 27