The Super Bowl rematch is on! Back in the 2004 season, the Patriots defeated the Eagles 24 – 21 in Super Bowl XXXIX despite the heroics of Terrell Owens who played the game on one leg. Perhaps if Donovan McNabb wasn’t dry heaving on the field, Philadelphia may have won their first ring. Deion Branch was the MVP of that title match-up after hauling in 11 catches for 133 yards. But that’s ancient history! New England will rely on a different Dion in Super Bowl LII.
The Patriots are favored to win Super Bowl Sunday by about four points. That makes logical sense. It’s tough to bet against the Brady Bunch. However, when you look at each team’s strengths and weaknesses, you begin to see where the Eagles have the edge in certain significant areas. Philadelphia has a nice mix of veterans and young talent that have bought into the system on both sides of the ball.
Defensive Coordinator Jim Schwartz has his defense playing at an extremely high level and they gain confidence with each victory. Even allowing an opening drive touchdown against the Vikings in the Conference Championship didn’t rattle the defensive unit. One quick turnover and the entire momentum of the game shifted in Philly’s favor. The offense and defense feed off each other and believe each unit can get the job done. Even on special teams, the youngster Jake Elliott has proved to be the real deal all season kicking long distance clutch field goals to help win games. Maybe the Eagles will give the Patriots a dose of some of their old medicine as Elliott channels his inner Adam Vinatieri.
While the Eagles have talent all over the field, the Patriots have experience sweeping throughout the locker room. It’s not just head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback of the millennium Tom Brady who have the playoff pedigree. Players like Malcolm Butler who has been to three Super Bowls in four years with New England knows exactly what this stage is all about. Rob Gronkowski, James Harrison, Danny Amendola, Alan Branch, James White, Patrick Chung, Devin McCourty and Nate Solder all have plenty of playoff and Super Bowl experience.
The one player on that list I didn’t mention was Dion Lewis. While White and Rex Burkhead have been excellent at the running back position, it’s really Lewis who gets the offense moving along with Tom Brady. Lewis can run between the tackles, take toss plays to the outside beating fast linebackers and safeties and is an incredible threat catching the ball out of the backfield. The Eagles defense will need to make Lewis a priority and possibly even spy him with Malcolm Jenkins. Philly doesn’t have many weaknesses on defense, but they have allowed running backs to catch the ball and get in the end zone. James White can do many of the same things as Lewis, so Philadelphia can’t lower their guard when the Patriots swap their running back committee in and out of the game.
Speaking of running backs, the Eagles have quite the committee themselves. Since New England’s defense allows 4.7 yards per carry, you can bet that former-Patriot and last year’s rushing touchdown leader LeGarrette Blount will see his fair share of carries. So to will Jay Ajayi who has shown the NFL that last season wasn’t a fluke as he’s averaging 5.8 yards per rush since he joined the team mid-season. Those stats don’t bode well for the Patriots but then again, the master, Bill Belichick always finds a way to stop or slow down his opponents biggest strength.
If New England is successful at containing the rushing attack then the brunt of the offense will fall on Nick Foles’ arm. It’s hard to expect Foles to repeat his near-perfect performance in the Conference Championship against the Vikings. However, if he plays smart, turnover-free football then Philly can and will have success.
We must remember two important things. First is that the Eagles have excellent wide receivers which include Foles’ go-to guy Alshon Jeffrey, slot receiver Nelson Agholor, speedster Torrey Smith and a corps of tight ends featuring superstar Zach Ertz. The second thing to remember is that Philly has speed on the outside as both Jeffrey and Smith can get downfield and create plays against a Patriots defense that gave up the second most yards per play during the season. If Foles gets one-on-one looks down the field, he should take his chances as the Eagles WRs have the height advantage as well. Foles has a big arm with capable wideouts and the possibility of getting a pass interference call is very prevalent in today’s game.
The Patriots can get to the quarterback especially as the game gets deeper into the 4th quarter. Their defensive line seems to get stronger as the opponents offensive line gets weaker throughout the course of a contest. This is a huge aspect in which team comes out on top. Philly has been a little banged up on the O-Line since All-Pro Jason Peters injury at left tackle. Foles isn’t great at sliding in the pocket or using his legs to get out of trouble. Therefore, the Eagles will need to keep their QB protected even if it means bringing in a tight end to the line of scrimmage as an extra blocker. Or they can use their backs to chip incoming blitzing linebackers. The more the Patriots get in Foles face, the tougher it will be for him to keep his composure.
Same goes for Brady as well or any other quarterback in the league for that matter. The difference is Brady can handle it better than most and would either get the ball out quickly or go down to avoid a big shot. Regardless, TB12 gets right back up and moves on to the next play like the professional he is.
As much as Dion Lewis is perhaps the biggest threat to the Eagles defense, Rob Gronkowski is the catalyst for the Patriots offense. Once he kicks it in gear, the whole offensive playbook opens up for Brady to connect with his other play-makers. When Gronk is getting the ball and defenses begin to zone in on him over the middle, the outside receivers, like Brandin Cooks, get one-on-one looks. Guys like Cooks and Amendola can beat almost any defender off the line of scrimmage so Eagles cornerbacks Jalen Mills, Ronald Darby and Patrick Robinson better bring their ‘A’ game.
The Patriots find different ways to win almost every week. If the run game is working, then they stick with it. Whether it’s making Gronk or Lewis the focal point of the offense depends on how their opponents line up. Brady can throw it deep to Cooks or short to Amendola. It’s a pick-your-poison scenario when it comes to trying to defend the masters. This is why all 11 players on defense need to do their job every single play. There’s not much room for error. Especially when it’s highly unlikely that Foles will repeat a near-flawless performance against one of the toughest defenses in football.
The main keys to unlocking the Philadelphia Eagles first Super Bowl championship is having all their defenders on the same page and throwing Brady off his game by disguising the defense to make it tougher for him to get a read on the play. Fletcher Cox will play a big role in that as he’s the man clogging up the middle of the line so his teammates can bust through and sack the quarterback. Offensively, they need to take advantage of New England’s biggest weakness and stay committed to running the ball. Once the Patriots bring more defenders in the box, Foles will need to be accurate getting the ball out quick to his receivers and allow them to make plays.
In order for the Patriots to be successful and get their 6th Super Bowl ring in franchise history, the offense will either go through Gronkowski (who’s dealing with a concussion) or Dion Lewis. If one of them can go off and grab Philly’s attention, the more opportunities will arise for the Pats receivers in single coverage. James White could have easily won the MVP in last year’s Super Bowl victory over the Falcons, so you can expect him to have a significant impact as well. Defensively, the Patriots secondary will need to be on point as I believe they’ll come out stacking the box to stop the run and play tight coverage on the outside as New England penetrates the Eagles offensive line.
My prediction for the game is one we’re used to seeing. The Patriots will look a little rattled early on and probably go into halftime down or tied. Then Bill Belichick will make his in-game adjustments and bam! . . . another Patriots Super Bowl victory. Even though I’m picking the Patriots, I would not be surprised if the Eagles under-appreciated defense controls the game and gets the win. I think Philly will need to either score a defensive touchdown or set up the offense deep in the red zone to have a shot at victory. Either way, Foles will have to play well and make plays through the air for Philly to have a chance.
Prediction: Patriots 24 – Eagles 19