In a year filled with quick team turnarounds and stunning falls-from-grace, the NFL season has reached its ultimate point; the Super Bowl. On February 4th the New England Patriots will collide with the Philadelphia Eagles in a battle of two teams with stark differences. The Patriots will be in their stunning eighth Super Bowl since 2001 and are fighting for their sixth victory in the big game. The Eagles have only been to two prior Super Bowls, losing both, including to these Tom Brady and Bill Belichick Patriots in Super Bowl 39. The Patriots come in as consistent as ever, led by a coach and quarterback who may be the best ever at their craft. The Eagles have a second year head coach and replacement Quarterback Nick Foles leading them into the game. Despite all the focus on the quarterbacks of these teams, if Philadelphia can knock off the mighty Pats, they will have to do it with their strong defensive play, which has been the anchor of this team since starting QB Carson Wentz was injured in Week 14.
New England’s Offense
The Patriots’ offense has some new faces compared to past seasons but are as efficient and deadly as ever. Tom Brady might have looked 40 years old at points in the regular season, but he has been sharp and mistake-free in the playoffs, not exactly a stunning development. He’s had a rotating stable of running backs behind him, some injured or ineffective but they have rounded into health at this critical juncture. Pass-catching backs like Rex Burkhead and James White are unique in their ability to be reliable receivers out of the backfield or split outside, lining up in the slot. Power back Mike Gillislee has seen his playing time slip but has shown flashes both this season and last as a bruising, short-yardage runner. But the Pat’s best runner is undoubtedly Dion Lewis, a short and shifty RB who is averaging a league-best in yards per rushing attempt, 5.0, for running backs with more than 150 carries. Lewis is also a great pass catcher, making the Patriot’s backfield as good at catching the football as it is at running it.
The offensive line, headed by long-time coach Dante Scarnecchia, is solid and reliable in executing a balanced New England attack. With one of their best lineman, Right Tackle Marcus Cannon, on injured reserve, the Patriots will rely heavily on the interior trio of Joe Thuney, David Andrews and Shaq Mason. The Left Guard, Center and Right Guard, respectively, have created rushing lanes and given Tom Brady plenty of time to step up in the pocket to complete passes, something they will need to keep up against a stout Philadelphia defense.
Although New England lost Brady-favorite and slot receiver extraordinaire Julian Edelman in preseason, they still have a plethora of dangerous weapons for Brady to get the ball to. Brought over from the New Orleans Saints this past season, Brandin Cooks has been good if not game-breaking in his first year with the Patriots. Despite some frustrations early over not getting the ball very often, the fleet-of-feet wideout has been a consistent target for Brady and finished with over 1,000 receiving yards and seven touchdowns, plus his best yards per catch average of his career. Danny Amendola has stepped into Julian Edelman’s old role as chains-mover and primary slot receiver, managing to stay healthy and excel in the role during one of the best seasons of his lengthy career. Amendola was masterful in the Pat’s AFC Championship win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, catching seven passes for 84 yards and two touchdowns. Rounding out the receiving corps are Chris Hogan, last year’s playoff surprise, and Phillip Dorsett, a speedy young wideout picked up in a trade with the Indianapolis Colts this season.
The biggest question mark for the New England offense is Rob Gronkowski and his availability. The massive tight end is by far the most talented and dangerous weapon for Tom Brady with his combination of size, speed, intelligence and hands. However, after sustaining a concussion in the AFC Championship game, his status for the Super Bowl is still unknown. He is going to be the x-factor for the Patriots, a player who can change the entire game if he’s healthy for four quarters. If he isn’t, his replacement is solid but not game-altering, that being free agent acquisition Dwayne Allen, another former Colt. While not the dynamic threat and specialist at contested catches like Gronk, Allen is a capable third or fourth option after the wide receivers and running backs.
While no one expected the Philly offense to be as good as it was going into this season, few could doubt the defensive firepower of the Eagles and they certainly haven’t disappointed. With as good a front seven as you’ll find in the league, Defensive Coordinator Jim Schwartz is going to have to have a perfect game plan to disrupt Tom Brady and the Pats’ offense.
At the defensive line, the Eagles have one of, if not the best, starting lineups in the entire league. On the outside, Brandon Graham is their primary starter at defensive end, a slightly undersized player who uses his tremendous speed and power to generate constant pressure and disrupt rushing plays all game long. While Graham terrorizes the right side of the offensive line, Vinny Curry handles the left side, a solid if unspectacular option who is an effective pass rusher. However, the heir apparent on the left side of the line is rookie Derek Barnett, who broke Reggie White’s sack record at Tennessee and has shown flashes of greatness all season long. The Eagles’ cycle their defensive ends heavily throughout games to keep them fresh so expect Barnett to be lining up against the Pat’s offensive tackles consistently through the night. Chris Long is the fourth end on this team and is still a useful rotational piece even though he is in his tenth season.
The Eagles’ also boast a powerful, pass-rushing and run-stopping duo at defensive tackle. Timmy Jernigan, acquired via trade with the Baltimore Ravens, has been paired with All-Pro Fletcher Cox to make the interior of the Eagles’ d-line as intimidating as any unit in football. If the Patriots are going to be able to run the football, they’re going to have to be creative to try and move these two defensive tackles off the ball consistently. That’s no easy task.
Although the Eagles lost one of their best linebackers, Jordan Hicks, to injury they still have a talented and athletic group that should challenge the Pats’ running game and middle of the field passing attack. Mychal Kendricks and Nigel Bradham are the two top playmakers at linebacker while the Eagles line up most often in their nickel defensive alignment (4 defensive linemen, 2 linebackers, 5 defensive backs). Kendricks and Bradham are both athletic linebackers who can move sideline to sideline to cover RBs and TEs or stop outside rushing plays. With Bradham being the better of the two, expect to see him pick up coverage on the Patriots’ dangerous pass-catching running backs, and potentially Rob Gronkowski too.
Finally, the Eagles’ secondary is a solid group of players led by team captain and Safety Malcolm Jenkins. Jenkins may be past his prime but he is a highly intelligent veteran who gets his guys in position and can still get the job done at 30 years old. Across from him, Rodney McLeod mans the other safety spot, an athletic player who has proven himself as capable of shutting down the opponent’s passing game deep downfield.
Cornerback is manned by a combination of young newcomers and solid vets. Jalen Mills and Sidney Jones qualify as the former while Patrick Robinson and Ronald Darby are the latter. Mills, Robinson and Darby don’t fit the recent trend in the NFL of CBs being bigger and longer, each of them are six foot or under, but they are fast and agile corners who should match up well against a similar set of receivers. Jones might just be the x-factor of the group. The rookie returned from injury late in the season and has a ton of talent and polish to be effective right away. But with such little playing time in his first year and in the biggest game of the season, it will remain to be seen if he is healthy and skilled enough to make an impact.
The strength of both teams will be going up against one another in what will likely be the decider of who wins the Super Bowl. The Patriot’s offense will have to hope Rob Gronkowski is healthy if they want to make this matchup a little easier. The Eagles have no one, few teams do, who can hope to cover a healthy Gronk for the course of an entire game. Expect Philly to cycle between Malcolm Jenkins and Nigel Bradham to determine who does the best job of shutting Gronkowski down. New England is going to have to run to the outside of the Eagles ferocious defensive line, staying away from Fletcher Cox and Timmy Jernigan, and using their shifty RBs to keep the Philly defense honest. If Tom Brady can withstand the Philly pass rush and the Pat’s o-line can protect Brady for long enough, the Patriots should be able to put up enough points to win the game.
To triumph in this matchup, the Eagles are going to have to pressure Brady and get to him consistently throughout the entire game. Sacking him three or four times through the first three quarters won’t be enough. Philly will have to maintain this pass rush in the fourth quarter, where Brady cemented his status as the greatest quarterback who has ever played. If they can keep the Pats’ signal caller under pressure, it will go a long way to crippling the New England offense. The Eagles will also have to maintain their run gap integrity, play disciplined and not allow the agile running backs of New England to break tackles and gain big chunks of yardage.
Look forward to this battle, strength vs strength, to determine who will be crowned Super Bowl champion. The Eagles can do what only the New York Giants have ever done, dethroning the NFL-royalty Patriots, it will be on the strength of their defense. If the Patriots win, again, it will be through the arm of their future Hall of Famer Tom Brady.