Super Bowl LII is fast approaching and this year it will be a matchup between the Top Seed in each conference; the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles. For many years, the rule of predicting the NFL Playoffs was to pick someone other than both of the the Top Seeds. From 1994 to 2008, at least one of the Top Seeds failed to qualify for the NFL’s biggest game.
In 2009, the Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints met in Super Bowl XLIV. The last time it happened before that was 1993, when the Buffalo Bills faced the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XXVIII. That trend reversal was short lived, as the Top Seeds failed to meet each other in the Super Bowl again until the 2013 season, when the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks met in Super Bowl XLVIII. That has started a run where the Top Seeds have met in the 2014, 2015 and 2017 seasons. Only the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons bucked the trend of Top Seeds facing each other in the Super Bowl when they played in Super Bowl LI last year. The Patriots were the Top Seed in the AFC and the Falcons were the Second Seed in the NFC.
While there have been several all Top Seed Super Bowls, this is an unusual Top Seed versus Top Seed meeting, because the Philadelphia Eagles have been playing without their starting quarterback, Carson Wentz for the entire NFL Playoffs. Therefore the Eagles were the underdog in both the Divisional Round and the NFC Championship Game, even though they had the better regular season resume and home field advantage. They were definitely not the favorite at the beginning of the playoffs to win the NFC and they will be the underdog in the Super Bowl.
The Eagles are going to have to play a flawless Super Bowl LII if they want to bring home the Lombardi Trophy this year against a Patriots team that has won five Super Bowls since the 2001 season and two of the last three since the 2014 season. Here are five things I think the Eagles need to accomplish in this Super Bowl if they want to be NFL Champions for the first time since the 1960 season, which was six seasons before the first Super Bowl was played in Los Angeles.
1) Can the Philadelphia Eagles hold New England to less than 20 points? – If you look at the two Super Bowls the New England Patriots have lost with QB Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick, there are some reoccurring themes there. When the New York Giants beat them in 2007, they did so by a score of 17-14. When they beat them again in 2011, they won 21-17. The Patriots offense was not its normal explosive self in their two defeats and the Giants defensive line really controlled those games and frustrated the Patriots on offense. That put the Giants in position to win the game in the fourth quarter and the Patriots D was not able to stop them at the end of the game. The Giants outscored the Patriots by a combined score of 20-7 in those two Super Bowl wins for the Giants.
In the Patriots other five Super Bowls, they won 20-17, 32-29, 24-21, 28-24 and 34-28. Everyone knows that the Eagles are not going to be able to shutdown Brady and the offense. Teams just have to accept that Brady is going to score some points and they have to be able to adjust when the Patriots offense suddenly catches fire and puts a big touchdown on the board.
The same is true in his non Super Bowl postseason losses. In the games they have lost in the postseason, they have lost them 33-14, 28-13, 27-13, 26-16, 28-21, 38-34 and 20-18. Brady has only lost one shootout in the postseason and that was in Indianapolis in the 2006 AFC Championship Game to Indianapolis Colts QB Peyton Manning, an all-time great NFL quarterback. That may be the best postseason game ever played in the history of the NFL between two of the best signal callers to ever wear a NFL uniform.
The Eagles do not have a quarterback of Manning’s caliber playing in this game. Therefore, if they are going to win, they would probably be well advised to hold Brady to less than 20 points in the Super Bowl like the other opponents that took down Brady in the postseason. The Eagles were (8-1) in the regular season and postseason when they held opponents under 20 points and that one loss was in Week 17 to the Dallas Cowboys when they sat their starters and lost 6-0. They will need to show up big in this game and help lead them to victory again.
2) Can they put pressure on QB Tom Brady with just four guys? – The Patriots offensive line has a lot of question marks this year compared to previous Super Bowl seasons. In 2016, Brady had a sack percentage of just 3.4 percent. In 2014, it was 3.5 percent, in 2011 it was 5.0 percent, in 2007 it was 3.5 percent, in 2004 it was 5.2 percent, in 2003 it was 5.7 percent and in 2001 it was 9.0 percent.
Those earlier years probably do not mean much in this year’s Super Bowl, because Brady was a young quarterback that was not able to read defenses like he can at 40-years old. If we look at the last two Super Bowl Championship teams, Brady won with an offensive line where the sack percentage was 3.4 and 3.5 percent. This year, he was sacked 35 times and he had a sack percentage of 5.7 percent. The offensive line was just not quite as good at protecting him this year.
The problem for the Eagles is that it really has not impacted the Patriots, because Brady is so good at reading defenses. Football Outsiders has a chart of how quarterbacks handle pressure. Brady was fourth in the NFL in ESPN’s QBR when under pressure at 67.4. Even when Brady is being pressured, he understands when to throw the ball and to what spot, because he has seen everything a defense can throw at him over his career. He is the rare individual that has the wisdom that nearly 20 years in the NFL has given him, but he is also still able to physically perform at a MVP level at that advanced age for a quarterback.
The Eagles are not among the best defenses in the NFL at pressuring the quarterback. They ranked 19th on Football Outsiders Charts of Defensive Line Pressure with an adjusted sack rate of 6.3 percent. However, Pittsburgh and Jacksonville had the best rates at 9.8 and 9.1 percent and the Steelers lost to the Patriots at home in the regular season and the Jaguars lost to them on the road in the postseason.
Pressure is overrated against Brady, because he understands pressure better than any quarterback in the NFL. The best bet for the Eagles is if they can create enough pressure on Brady with four guys that they can drop their other players into coverage and try to cover the Patriots receivers downfield. If they can make Brady uncomfortable with four guys and maximize the few chances they take with blitzes, that is going to give them the best chance to slow down the Patriots offense. That is really how the Giants beat the Patriots in their two Super Bowls, their defensive lines dominated the game and allowed their other seven players to keep the Patriots skill position players in check.
3) The Eagles must control the run game on both sides of the ball – I do not think is that important to keep the ball away from Brady, because Jacksonville dominated time of possession and they lost anyway. It would help to keep him off the field and on the sideline, because the Patriots cannot score from their bench area. They should not construct a game plan where they become so interested in keeping the ball away from him that they handicap their own offense. Brady can win this game being on the field for only 25 minutes, so there has to be more to the Eagles game plan that just ball control.
The Eagles offense is predicated on running the ball and with Wentz out of the game, it is even more important that they have success in the running game to help QB Nick Foles maintain balance on offense. They need an offense that is not trying to have Foles win the game on his own. The Eagles were sixth in rushing attempts (473), third in rushing yards gained (2,115), and fourth in rushing yards per attempt (4.5). In games where they gained over 120 yards on the ground, they were (8-0). They are going to have to run the ball against this New England Patriots team to establish their dominance on the game and keep their offense at peak efficiency.
The Eagles were also the best team in the NFL at stopping the run. They allowed a league low 1,267 yards rushing on a league low 337 rushing attempts. They allowed only 3.8 yards per rushing attempt, which was sixth best in the league and they gave up only seven touchdowns, which was third best in the NFL.
The Eagles do not want a track meet where they are trying to match scoring drives with the Patriots. They want to turn New England into a one-dimensional offense and they want to make sure they are staying with their running game on offense. That is how they beat other teams in the regular season and the postseason. It is incredible that they had a run yard differential of 848 yards during the regular season.
If you look at the Eagles rushing totals and rushing yards allowed on the season, I thought this one statistic was very interesting. In the five games where they had a negative rushing yard differential, they were (2-3). In the 13 games where they gained more rushing yards than their opponents, they were (13-0).
That stat could change this Sunday, because the Jaguars lost to the Patriots 24-20, despite out gaining the Patriots on the ground 101 yards to 46 yards. New England does not need to run the ball to win. The Eagles need to run the ball and to stop the run if they are going to win. The bigger they can make that gap, the closer the game should be for them.
4) The Eagles must avoid turnovers and dumb mistakes – If you look at Atlanta last year, they only made a couple mistakes, but it cost them. Up 28-12, they took a sack and QB Matt Ryan fumbled the ball and that led to a quick New England touchdown to cut the lead to 28-20. Then up 28-20 with 4:40 left in the game and with the ball at the 22-yard line of New England, Ryan took a 12-yard sack and a subsequent holding penalty completely knocked them out of field goal range and a ruined a chance to give them an 11-point lead. That was enough for New England to take their new lease on life in that game and score the game tying touchdown and two point conversion and later win the game with a touchdown in overtime.
The Patriots do not blow teams out in the Super Bowl. If you look at the San Francisco 49ers in their dynasty between 1981 and 1998, they won three of their Super Bowls by the score of 38-16, 55-10 and 49-26. That is not how New England has won their five Super Bowls. They have won by three points, three points, three points, four points and six points. They lost their two Super Bowls by four points and three points.
The Eagles should remain competitive in this game, unless Foles decides to start turning the ball over repeatedly or the defense just cannot stop anything. I really do no think that will happen, the defense has been consistently good all year and Foles has allowed them to remain competitive in all his starts. But when a team has the Patriots on the ropes, they have to execute and close out the game. They cannot have delay of game penalties, holding penalties, sacks and clock mismanagements in the fourth quarter.
Brady has 43 fourth quarter comebacks and 54 game winning drives in his career. Eight of those have come in the postseason and five of them have come in the Super Bowl. At a certain point, it is not luck. He could easily be (0-5) in the Super Bowl, they have trailed in the fourth quarter of three of their Super Bowl wins and they have been tied in the other two Super Bowls in the fourth quarter. When other players seem to make mistakes in those pressure cooked situations, he just makes plays that win the game for his team. He is undeniably the most clutch quarterback in the history of the NFL and the only other player that is really in that conversation is Hall of Fame QB Joe Montana.
The Eagles have to be aware of that and not allow his history of being clutch to make them do stupid things with the game on the line. If they have a seven point lead in the fourth quarter, they need to keep executing and converting first downs, manage the situation and come away with points. Teams allow the Patriots to freak them out in the fourth quarter, because they are scared of giving the Patriots back the ball. They end up being too aggressive, which results in taking sacks or turning the ball over in situations where they need to execute, run clock and come away with a field goal (2016 Atlanta). They pass the ball from the one-yard line and throw interceptions late in the fourth quarter (2014 Seattle). They ground and pound down by 10 points in the fourth quarter, because they want to play for an onside kick and not give them back the football (2004 Philadelphia).
If the Eagles are going to win this game, they need to do what the Giants did in those two Super Bowls upsets. No glaring mistakes in the fourth quarter, execute on both sides of the ball and making timely plays. Mistakes in the fourth quarter are detrimental against this Patriots team and lead to defeat.
5) The players on the offense need to step up to help Nick Foles – I think the beauty of the NFC Championship Game is that no one player dominated the game on offense. This was not a situation where one running back tore apart the Vikings D or one receiver was a complete mismatch. TE Zach Ertz led the team with eight receptions for 93 yards. RB Jay Ajayi led the team with 18 carries for 73 yards. Three skill position players scored four touchdowns, led by WR Alshon Jeffery, who had five receptions for 85 yards and two touchdowns. Eight players on their offense had at least 20 yards from scrimmage.
Nick Foles is not going to win a shootout with Brady where he does everything himself. They are not going to have one player that is an absolute mismatch. The Eagles have one of the deeper teams in the league in terms of skill position players that can contribute at any time in any situation. Similar to the Patriots, they can create mismatches with their depth. Those mismatches allowed them to torch a Minnesota D that was first in points allowed, first in yards allowed, second in pass yards and rush yards allowed and first in third down conversions. The Patriots defense is not as talented as Minnesota, so they plays should be there in the Super Bowl. The difference is that New England will play smarter and with more poise and the Eagles have to be ready to play a chess game.
They need to stay with that approach of using all their players and everyone contributing in the Super Bowl. As long as everyone tries to play the best game he can play and nobody tries to do more than they are capable, the Eagles should be able to hang around in this game. They won 13 games for a reason and went (4-1) without Carson Wentz in the regular season and the playoffs. They were able to survive that injury, because of all the talent they have at their other positions.
Head coach Doug Pederson has shown that he is an innovative play caller that can use a wide variety of his players to create great results on Sunday. The Patriots have a good defense and run great schemes, but the Eagles are going to be hard to game plan against, because stopping the Eagles in not taking one player away from them. They do so many things well that this is going to be a game of who can exploit mismatches better. If the Eagles stick to what has worked for them all season, they should be in a position to win the game.
Prediction: The Patriots are opening as a five-point favorite, which I think is fair given the experience the Patriots have playing in this game. The Over Under is 48 points, which is also fair, seeing both teams have good defenses that can keep the score down, but good offenses that can also score points.
The one Wild Card heading into the game is the health of TE Rob Gronkowski. He suffered a concussion in the AFC Championship Game, but he was at practice on Saturday and seems very likely to play in the Super Bowl. I think the Patriots are good either way. They were down 10 points to one of the best defenses in the league in the AFC Championship Game and they still scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter without him. It would be nice to have a future Hall of Fame tight end in the game, but the Patriots can score points without him and they have won without him in past seasons.
I just think Brady and Belichick have been here too many times and won too many big games to count them out against a team playing without their starting quarterback. I think the Vikings overlooked the Eagles thinking their defense could just dominate the game showing up. Belichick is not going to look past anyone. He was a key part of a 1990 New York Giants team that won a Super Bowl with a backup quarterback and he is not going to underestimate Foles. This figures to be a chess game between two coaches trying to create mismatches on offense. Belichick is the best in the history of the league at doing that and he has the best quarterback ever executing that game plan. It is hard to pick against the Patriots in a chess match.
I would not be shocked if the Eagles pulled the upset and I think it is going to be a competitive game that is in doubt in the fourth quarter. My pick at the beginning of the season was the Patriots beating the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl. When the postseason started, the one team I thought could beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl was the New Orleans Saints. Even though the Eagles have proven me wrong and shown they could survive that injury to Wentz, I just do not think the Eagles will make enough plays in this game and they will not have enough stops against Brady to win the game. I am going to go with the Patriots to win their sixth Super Bowl Ring. New England Patriots 27 Philadelphia Eagles 20