The New England Patriots are aiming for their sixth Super Bowl title, while the Philadelphia Eagles are hoping for their first championship since 1960.
As is the case with every Super Bowl, there are a lot of storylines for this one as well. Much deserved praise will be heaped on the Patriots franchise for this amazing run of dominance they are currently on led by Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
Meanwhile, an extremely hungry Philadelphia fan base is one victory away from their first Lombardi Trophy. Will the concussion suffered by Rob Gronkowski keep him out of action? Of course there are many other storylines, but there is one wild card to this game that sets it apart from any Super Bowl in recent memory.
Nick Foles is that wild card. The 29-year-old, six-year veteran has completed almost 1,400 passes in the regular season and has now played in three career playoff games. Before last week, we rightfully thought that the book was basically written on Foles. We thought we knew who Foles was a player.
The scouting report on Foles was that by starting NFL quarterback standards, Foles has very good height and a good frame for the position, but almost everything he did as a quarterback was a beat slow. This includes his foot speed and athletic quickness, his processing, his delivery and the RPMs Foles can put on his passes. The book on Foles was that you wanted him to hold the ball because as the deeper into the down you got, the more uncomfortable he became.
That was until the NFC Championship Game. Foles played like Carson Wentz against an excellent Vikings defense. He made a slew of fantastic throws. He extended plays and killed Minnesota downfield late in the down. Foles finished that day with just seven incompletions on 33 attempts for 352 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. But the tape is even more impressive than that outstanding stat line and he was fantastic on third downs against the NFL’s best third down defense.
Again, this is a wild card or X factor unlike any we have seen in recent Super Bowls and even as great as Belichick is, it has to make preparing for this game more difficult. Which Foles will show up and what is the best plan for defending him now? Has Foles turned the corner in this quarterback friendly system and should now be feared on a Wentz-like level? Or will Belichick and Matt Patricia defend him like they did Blake Bortles, a quarterback (like Foles) that has been hidden by his coaching staff for the majority of the season?
New England will play a lot of man coverage, which is their norm. Alshon Jeffery will probably see Stephon Gilmore, who is playing extremely well and was given big money in free agency to matchup with big star receivers like Jeffery. Nelson Agholor should find favorable matchups from the slot and Zach Ertz should give Patrick Chung a lot of problems when singled up. If Foles is playing at a high level, he should find some matchups to his liking and New England’s linebackers can also be exposed by running backs in the passing game.
Led by Trey Flowers, the Patriots’ pass-rush has clearly improved of late. Still, Foles should be well protected by one of the NFL’s top offensive lines. Belichick likely will not blitz often and allow Foles to play late in the down while making Philadelphia sustain long drives. That is a tough recipe for any offense when you are forced to keep up with Brady and the Eagles surely will try to shorten the game and lean on their stable of running backs.
The Patriots defensive line is stout at the point though and they might put one of their big-bodied defensive tackles head up on Jason Kelce. Kelce is an extremely athletic center that is an excellent player, but can struggle against power and size.
Still, opposing offenses have done a lot of damage running between the tackles against the Patriots. Surely the Eagles plan on doing the same. New England also should dedicate a lot of resources near the line of scrimmage to combat the Eagles rushing attack as well as their RPO game. Philadelphia leans on RPOs more than any offense in the NFL. After losing to Carolina in Week 4, the Patriots defense has allowed just 14.4 points per game and they rarely make mistakes.
What about the other side of the ball? Obviously Brady and Gronkowski present massive problems for any defense they face. But just as daunting in the other direction is Philadelphia’s deep and exceptional defensive line. Clearly the Eagles have a big advantage in the trenches when New England has the ball, especially in the passing game. Fletcher Cox is an ideal guy to get immediate interior pressure on Brady and Brandon Graham not only is destructive off the edge, but also lines next to Cox on the interior on passing downs.
If you blitz Brady, he will find the void in the coverage. It is imperative that Philadelphia gets to Brady with consistency with their four-man rush and the Eagles are well equipped to do so. It should be noted though that New England’s tackles did play very well against an excellent Jaguars pass-rush two weeks ago.
But Belichick knows this of course and surely will not ask his linemen to hold their blocks for an extended stretch of time by design. That isn’t to say that Brady won’t take some deep shots, most likely to Brandin Cooks against an average set of Eagles corners that don’t switch sides, but when they do, New England will keep extra defenders in to block. Danny Amendola was a huge difference maker in the Championship round, but Josh Robinson has had a fine season as Philadelphia’s slot corner. Attacking this Eagles defense will not be easy.
Philadelphia has an active, versatile and athletic group of linebackers and safeties, but there still isn’t a clear answer for Gronkowski. Defending him will be a collective effort. That goes for the Patriots running backs as receivers as well. Much as it was two weeks ago against Jacksonville, Belichick and Brady should minimize the Eagles defensive line advantage as well as any offense possibly could.
In fact, don’t be surprised if as the game goes on, that Brady finds a few matchups to his liking that he exploits without mercy and the Patriots offensive line played very well against Jacksonville.
The Patriots should stay balanced with their run/pass ratio while throwing a lot of different personnel groupings, formations, motions and tempos at Philadelphia. This is also a very good run blocking unit overall for the Patriots.
The Eagles went to a lot of big nickel with three safeties on the field last week as the game went on with great success. That could be an excellent strategy yet again and would help in covering Gronkowski. But New England surely would counter with aligning Gronkowski inline, getting Mike Devlin in the game with heavier personnel to establish a physical edge.
The Eagles are flying high and have clearly embraced the underdog role. But playing in the Super Bowl on the biggest of stages is different than playing in a fantastic home environment in Philadelphia. If the Eagles show early jitters, something that New England is unlikely to encounter, this game could get out of hand quickly. And as the Patriots showed one year ago and in their most recent game, if Philadelphia gets up big by chance, it certainly isn’t over.
This sounds simplistic, but the more snaps are played, the more it favors the Patriots and Brady. We saw how a turnover can turn a game in the Eagles favor in a hurray against Minnesota and they are very opportunistic on that side of the ball. Brady has surprisingly thrown 31 interceptions in his 36 career postseason outings. But still, this is Tom Brady we are talking about here, and clearly the Patriots will stress ball security a great deal leading into this game.
Philadelphia’s coaching staff has done a tremendous job on both sides of the ball, but that edge certainly has to go to the Patriots, especially with game management and situational coaching. New England also has an overall advantage on special teams.
This should be a very competitive game and Brady will take hits for sure. But as a tight game goes on, that favors New England more and more. Expect Brady to find cracks in this excellent Eagles defense in the second half and emerge with yet another Super Bowl victory.
Prediction: New England 27, Philadelphia 17