Which under-the-radar player or variable could play a vital role in determining the outcome of Super Bowl LII?
There will be plenty of storylines to go around this week heading into Sunday’s Super Bowl LII matchup between the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles. Most of them will be centered around quarterbacks Tom Brady and Nick Foles, as well as other marquee players such as Rob Gronkowski, Jay Ajayi, Alshon Jeffery, Brandin Cooks, Zach Ertz and Dion Lewis to name a few. And more than likely, one of these well-deserved players will be named MVP following the big game.
However, it’s not unprecedented for an unsuspecting player or underlying scenario to take center stage on Super Sunday. These under-the-radar anomalies are commonly referred to as x-factors. And Super Bowl LII has no shortage of candidates that could ultimately fill that role. Here now are five x-factors that have the potential to steal the show on Sunday in Minneapolis.
New England Patriots WR Danny Amendola
Amendola scored only two touchdowns during the regular season and ranked just third on the team in both receptions (61) and receiving yards (659). But he has proven to be far more than just another Tom Brady security blanket during the postseason. Amendola has already matched his regular season touchdown total in two playoff games to go along with 18 receptions for 196 receiving yards. He even completed a 20-yard pass against Jacksonville, giving him a higher passer rating (118.8) than Brady (105.0) for the postseason.
For whatever reason, things just seem to be clicking for Amendola in the playoffs. His rapport with Brady appears to be at an all-time high. And with Eagles’ defenders focusing most of their attention on the likes of Rob Gronkowski, Brandin Cooks and Dion Lewis, don’t be surprised if Amendola emerges to steal the Monday morning headlines as the star of Super Bowl LII. The versatile wide receiver and punt return specialist may even get an opportunity to improve on his already stellar postseason passer rating.
The Eagles’ front four on defense
There’s a widely accepted theory that they key to beating the Patriots is to get pressure on Brady with the front four alone, allowing the other seven players to drop back into coverage. That’s easier said than done, which is one reason why the Patriots rarely lose. That being said, there may not be a better equipped defensive line to put that theory to the test than that of the Eagles.
Philadelphia ranked just 15th in the NFL during the regular season with 38 sacks. But 33 of those sacks came via the front four, and the Eagles’ defensive front is the best in the league when it comes to getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Seven different players in the Eagles’ defensive line rotation had at least 20 QB pressures on the season, the most in the NFL.
You aren’t likely to see Fletcher Cox (right), Brandon Graham, Chris Long, Derek Barnett, Vinny Curry, Tim Jernigan or Beau Allen holding up the MVP trophy following Super Bowl LII. But collectively, this group could be the x-factor that leads the Eagles to victory on Sunday.
New England Patriots RB Rex Burkhead
Patriots’ running back James White’s three-touchdown performance proved to be the x-factor in Super Bowl LI. And while White is once again flying under the radar to some degree, it wouldn’t be like Bill Belichick to lean heavily on the same “sleeper” two years in a row. That’s why my money would be on Burkhead to play the unlikely hero role in Super Bowl LII.
Despite a sneaky-impressive season that included a 4.1 yards per carry average and eight total touchdowns, Burkhead is the most unsuspecting Patriots running back in the fleet. He’s also just as dangerous with the football in his hands as any of his backfield counterparts.
Philadelphia Eagles RB LeGarrette Blount and DE Chris Long
Blount (above, right) and Long are both standout players that will likely have an on-field impact in Super Bowl LII. But it might just be their contributions off the field that provide the most significant benefit for the Eagles on Super Sunday.
Not only do Blount and Long bring valuable Super Bowl experience to an Eagles’ team in short supply in that regard, both are former New England Patriots and were part of last year's championship team. And it’s very likely that they will have no reservations when it comes to spilling the beans on their former employer. That level of insight and intel could prove invaluable to an Eagles’ team in search of any edge it can get against the reigning champs.
The Patriots’ pass rush
The New England pass rush usually isn’t among the prominent talking points when it comes to discussing the reasons why the Patriots will beat an opposing team. However, it could prove to be the single most important factor for New England on Sunday.
The Patriots have racked up 11 sacks in two playoff games alone. In their last eight games combined (postseason included), they have compiled 35 sacks. That’s more sacks than 12 NFL teams had for the entire season, and more than double the Patriots’ 16-sack total through the first eight games of the regular season.
If the Pats can continue the trend, it could be a long night for Nick Foles and the Eagles’ passing attack. Foles had a laughable 7.6 passer rating when under pressure during the regular season. And while the Eagles’ offensive line has been solid so far in the postseason, only six NFL teams allowed more QB hits (107) during the regular season.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.