It seems like only yesterday we watched Tom Brady and the New England Patriots fall to the Kansas City Chiefs in the opening game of the 2017/18 NFL season, setting in motion a month of performances that — defensively at least — put the defending champions on course for the worst season in the league’s history.
Spoiler alert, the Patriots turned it around and actually finished the year with the fifth fewest points allowed. Indeed, when they take on the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, it will mark just the third time in Super Bowl history, and the first time in since Super Bowl VIII, that teams-ranked top-five in point scored and points allowed have gone head-to-head for the Vince Lombardi trophy.
For New England, this is a 10th visit to the Super Bowl since coming into existence in 1960. You don’t need me to tell you they’ve won five titles, all of which have come in the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick era. The Eagles, playing professional football nearly 30 years longer than New England, have made the Super Bowl on three occasions, never managing to win it all and falling to the same opposition the last time they got this far; Super Bowl XXXIX 13 years ago.
Of course, the only player from that day still on either roster is the aforementioned Brady which not only speaks to his longevity but his insanely competitive nature. There’s also a nice little symmetry between his win in February 2005 and this year.
Between the 2001/02 and 2004/05 seasons, the Patriots won three of four Super Bowls, beating the NFC West champions in the first, missing out on the Super Bowl, beating the NFC South champions in their third year before defending their title by beating the Eagles in the fourth.
Should they win on Sunday, the Patriots will once again have won three of four Super Bowls by beating the NFC West champions first up, missing out on the Super Bowl, beating the NFC South champions in their third year, and then beating the Eagles to defend the title.
But just how do they beat Philadelphia?
We know that, despite Brady entering his fifth decade this season, the Patriots offense has shown no signs of slowing down. Not only did they finish the year first in yards (394.2 per game) and second in points (28.7), highlighting how prolific they are, but Football Outsiders judged them to be the league’s most efficient offense too, ranking top of the pile in offensive DVOA.
The Patriots play situational football better than any other team in the NFL — they have the five pieces of hardware to prove it — and adapt their game plan match-up by match-up to attack the specific weaknesses of the opposing defense. They are especially good when they have an extra week to prepare, with a league-best 22-4 record after a bye since 2003.
They’ve already faced one of the NFL’s best defenses in this Super Bowl run when they overcame the Jaguars in the AFC Championship game. In that contest, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels used their shifty slot receivers like Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan against slower linebackers while All-Pro cornerbacks AJ Bouye and Jalen Ramsey were left covering running backs who were never likely to see the football.
And they won that game without Rob Gronkowski for the second half.
All signs point to Gronk playing Sunday which might give Eagles’ defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz a couple of sleepless nights this week as, according to Warren Sharp, Philadelphia are giving up an average passer rating of 118 on deep balls to tight ends this season.
Of course, that’s not to say the Eagles don’t have some favourable match-ups on defence. Their defensive line, a front four that actually contains eight really good players all of whom can sub in, is unquestionably one of the best in the league and, according to Pro Football Focus, created pressure on 40.8% of all dropbacks this season, upping that number to 48% against Case Keenum in the NFC Championship Game. And they do it, mostly without blitzing, instead sending just four players to create the pressure.
That said, while collapsing the pocket might give Case Keenum nightmares, Brady has a passer rating of 96.6 when under pressure this season, according to Pro Football Focus. That’s almost 10 percentage points higher than the average quarterback has on any given down. He’s somehow even better against the blitz. Indeed, since 2006, including the postseason, Brady has 71 touchdowns to just one interception when teams send six or more pass rushers.
However even the most die-hard Patriots fans would admit, top-to-toe (quarterback and tight end aside, obviously) the Eagles roster is better than New England’s and that’s really evidenced on the offensive line. Among the most mobile in the NFL, this unit could shape Super Bowl LII, especially if they can establish the run game for Philadelphia. One of my favourite parts of their offensive playbook is when the Eagles pull their center, Jason Kelce. Most NFL teams won’t do that because it leaves them vulnerable to pressure right down the middle but it’s a sure sign their offense is ticking if Doug Pederson calls it.
Combined with their use of run/pass options (RPO) the Eagles — and this is not a slight on them — basically run a very advanced college style offense, something that both the Chiefs in the first game of the season and the Jags last time out used to varying degrees of success.
The problem for Patriots’ defensive coordinator, Matt Patricia, and Bill Belichick is that there’s really no sure fire way to defend RPOs. You can try to look at what the offensive linemen are doing — they’ll have slightly different blocking styles on run and pass plays — but the nature of the play means that the offensive line can think it’s a run, the running back can think it’s a run, and so the defenders play the run. Then the quarterback throws the ball anyway while your safety is down in the box trying to find the running back leaving your corners with no help.
Perhaps the only way of overcoming it is by identifying which defender the offense is keying off and start using him in ways that will confuse the quarterback. If that defender is a linebacker, for example, the defence could use him as a sort of de facto safety in the passing game while they bring their actual safety up late so there are the same number of players defending the run even though, to the quarterback, it looks like the numbers are in his favour to hand the ball off.
Another approach is to do what the Vikings did in the second half of the NFC Championship Game which was to play tight, very tight, man-to-man coverage on the receivers and blitz the, usually, unblocked keyed defender.
This would not only take away the Eagles’ run game but also put the Super Bowl into the hands of Nick Foles. Can Philadelphia really rely on him to complete nearly 79% of his passes for three touchdowns and no picks again?
He is, after all, the same player who completed less than 50% of his passes for five touchdowns and two interceptions in the regular season.
The easy pick in this game is the Philadelphia Eagles, especially as they are getting 4.5 points. They’re the easy pick because nobody’s going to remember anyone picking the Patriots if they go on to win a sixth Super Bowl. Crown the Eagles, however, and you’ll look like a genius if they win while nobody will blame you if they come up short.
I’ve never been one to take the easy option, so I’m actually picking the Patriots to cover the spread in Super Bowl LII. As mentioned above, the Eagles have a better roster, but the best player and coach the game has ever seen is on the other sideline and that has to be worth something.
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