The New England Patriots have been to the Super Bowl eight times in the past 17 years under the combined leadership of coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady, and they are favored to win a sixth title Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles.
But it won’t be as easy as some suggest for the Patriots, who are 4 1/2-point favorites. Any reasonable football fan would take New England because of the Belichick/Brady combination (me included), but the Eagles have a good shot at pulling the upset.
They can win if coach Doug Pederson keeps a cool head, if quarterback Nick Foles remains turnover-free and if Philadelphia can pressure Brady with its front four, especially ends-tackles Tim Jernigan and Fletcher Cox. If those three things happen, the Eagles will come away with their first Super Bowl title.
But first and foremost, Philadelphia has to control Brady. There is a blueprint for that, one used by the Seattle Seahawks, New York Giants and Denver Broncos. It’s not just a matter of sacks, but of not allowing Brady to step up in the pocket.
That’s where Cox and Jernigan come in. Brady, like former Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, makes plays simply by moving one or two steps to his right, left or up in the pocket. Cox and Jernigan have to collapse the pocket and force Brady to hold on to the ball longer than usual.
Then it comes down to recognition. The Patriots use motion on offense to figure out whether the defense is in man-to-man and zone. The Eagles have to be able to analyze what New England is doing and then execute its coverages.
Philadelphia is fast enough to slow the Patriots’ quick passing and screen game with linebacker Mychal Kendricks and safety Malcolm Jenkins, but the biggest problem will be the matchups on the outside with receivers Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan and Danny Amendola against cornerbacks Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby. There is a clear advantage for New England, which is even more reason Jernigan and Cox must have success.
On offense, the Eagles should give the Patriots a lot of problems as long as Foles doesn’t commit turnovers. He doesn’t have to play as well as he did against the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC championship game, in which he threw for 352 yards, but if he does, the Eagles have an excellent chance of winning.
The Patriots have struggled on defense all season, allowing 251.2 passing and 114.8 rushing yards per game. The bottom line is that New England isn’t very athletic on defense while Philadelphia has good balance of run versus pass.
The Eagles have two good running backs in Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount, and Blount will be in beast mode playing against his former teammates. The Eagles running game isn’t as strong as the Jacksonville Jaguars’, but the Patriots won’t be able to stack the middle as much against Philadelphia because the Eagles have a lot of pass-run option plays.
If Foles plays well, New England won’t be able to defend the entire field. Foles has completed 49 of 63 passes for 598 yards and three touchdowns in the postseason.
His success is a tribute to Pederson. Former starting quarterback Carson Wentz was getting most of the credit for the Eagles’ success this season, but Philadelphia has continued to play at a high offensive level without him.
The Eagles have a West Coast offense, which is predicated on short passes, but they’ve used use the long ball with Foles spreading the ball around to receivers Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith and Nelson Agholor and tight end Zach Ertz.
Another key to the Eagles’ success has been their ability to attack. They are relentless and at times unpredictable, which is vital when playing against New England and Brady. So many head coaches and opposing players melt down against New England.
Seattle did three years ago in the final seconds in Super Bowl XLIX. Atlanta did last February, when the Falcons blew a 25-point third-quarter lead. Jacksonville became conservative and played not to win in the second half in this year’s AFC championship game.
If that was going to happen to Pederson, it probably would have happened last week against Minnesota, but he continued to pressure the Vikings. At this point, he can coach carefree because he has beaten the odds.
Few people expected the Eagles to be in this position. Even fewer believe they can win Sunday.
Philadelphia has a shot, a lot more realistic than many people imagine.