Column: Versatile Pats on verge of crown, but Eagles defense won’t be easy prey

Brandon Graham
Eagles sack leader Brandon Graham is a leader of one of the NFL's stingiest defenses. He'll be tasked with getting to Tom Brady and helping to stop New England from winning yet another Super Bowl.

By Ryan Arena

The Super Bowl is upon us. Let’s get to work.

Philadelphia has emerged as a popular choice to pull what would have a little more than two weeks ago seemed an unthinkable upset. The Eagles were left dead in the water after the season-ending injury to Carson Wentz in Week 14 of the regular season. Fears that the offense would be rendered toothless with the insertion of Nick Foles into the starting lineup. Those fears were launched into higher gear once Foles struggled mightily in an uninspired Philadelphia offensive effort against the Raiders on national television.

But then the playoffs started. Everyone picked a 6th seeded Atlanta team to travel to Philly and knock off the top-seeded Eagles, but Philadelphia won a defensive slugfest to emerge with a 15-10 decision. Then in the NFC Championship Game …

…well, you saw what happened. A 38-7 destruction of the Minnesota Vikings that served to propel an unlikely team without its MVP to the Super Bowl and that also likely served as catharsis for Saints fans everywhere.

(Yes, it still hurts)

The Eagles’ offensive coaches have been on fire this postseason with their playcalling, revamping the offense to utilize more of the zone-read option plays Foles did so well with under Chip Kelly in the former’s first go-round with the Eagles — remember, Foles has a season with 27 touchdown passes against just two interceptions under his belt. It befuddled and eventually torched to the ground a Vikings defense that had spent the 2017 season virtually eliminating all big plays.  Foles passed for 352 yards and three scores in the win, in what had to be his finest day since tossing an NFL record seven touchdowns passes against Oakland in his first extended run as starter.

Having that same kind of success against New England could be a tall order, though.

The Patriots are coming off of two games against teams that use a lot of zone-read plays in Tennessee and Jacksonville; save for a rough first half against the Jaguars, the Patriots seem to have a good plan in place to deal with that offense. If Foles is as locked in as he has been since halftime of the Atlanta game, the Eagles will by far be the best of those three teams offensively, with talented receiving options, good rushers and a super talented offensive line.

But after a slow start to the season defensively, New England has evolved into one of the league’s better defensive teams, unsurprising given head coach Bill Belichick’s reputation as a guru of that side of the football. Belichick’s always got a deep roster of swiss-army knife players, so it’s unlikely there will be any overwhelming matchup advantage against the gameplan he ultimately employs. The biggest question, for me, is can Philadelphia move the ball relatively consistently and avoid turnovers, or will they implode just as the Vikings did against them in the championship round? I struggle to see the Eagles rolling to a high point total in this one.

Could the Patriots? It’s always possible with this team, though the Eagles defense excellent and will make them work to do it. Philadelphia’s greatest strength is its bottomless pit of talented front seven players, particularly pass-rushers. When asked about how New England could deal with the Eagles’ front four, Belichick responded that he wished it were only four, that it was more like eight or nine.

This isn’t a case like the Tennessee/New England game, where Belichick identified a Titans team that didn’t like to rotate its defensive lineman. Belichick upped his team’s offensive tempo and gassed that front out by the second half. He won’t be able to do that to quite the same effect here, but he might opt to nonetheless; a no-huddle offense could stop Philadelphia from substituting as much as they’d generally like.

The biggest plus for New England here is its short passing game is its bread and butter, with a stable of running backs who are very proficient pass catchers in James White, Rex Burkhead and Dion Lewis. The latter is the best of the bunch and one of the league’s most underrated players. Lewis was injured last season and unable to compete in the Super Bowl. This season represents his coming out party.

For both Belichick and Tom Brady, a win would be an incredible boost for their respective legacies. Brady is aiming for his sixth Super Bowl title, which seems laughably impossible given the turnover created by the free agency era. You’ve heard it a ton the past two weeks but I’ll repeat it anyway: this is Brady’s EIGHTH Super Bowl. As a player. Not combining player, coach and management appearances. Just a player and the quarterback of his football team. He won his first Super Bowl in the 2001 season as a 24 year old. If he wins this one, it will be at age 40.

It’s no less impressive for Belichick, and may actually be more so. This would be his sixth as well — joined at the hip with Brady for the entirety of this Patriots run — and he is the constant within a braintrust that has found a way to keep the team among the league’s very best, year-after-year, for almost two decades. Memes about spying and deflated footballs aside, this is the most brilliant all-around strategist the professional game has ever seen, both in terms of team construction, long-term vision, game planning and in-game decision-making.

The Eagles are talented and are a fun underdog pick. The Pats looked just vulnerable enough against Jacksonville, while Philly romped. Your eyes want to call the upset; probably your heart, too. Don’t listen to either.

Patriots 31, Eagles 19.

 

 

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