Breaking down Sunday's big game in U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis
Before we get to my breakdown of Super Bowl LII, just in case you are new to these articles, I'm a Philadelphia Eagles fan who couldn't be prouder of his team. This writeup will be as unbiased as I can be.
Record: 52-32-3 (9-1 in selections; 8-2 straight up in the playoffs)
It's a rematch of the 2004 Super Bowl when New England beat Philadelphia 24-21. The biggest storylines from that one was the late comeback by the Patriots, Donovan McNabb puking on the field and the question of whether or not New England had the Eagles’ plays before the game. Thirteen years later the two teams face off in the final game of the NFL season again, and they couldn't have gotten to Minneapolis in more different ways.
Philadelphia went 13-3 in the regular season, winning the top seed in the NFC despite some significant injuries. Carson Wentz, who was playing like an MVP, went down in Week 14 and many thought the Eagles’ season was lost after that. Nick Foles stepped in and beat the Giants in New York before laying two eggs against the Raiders and Cowboys at home to wrap up the regular season.
Despite being the No. 1 seed, Philadelphia was a home underdog against both Atlanta in the Divisional Round and then Minnesota in the NFC Championship Game. Let’s not forget this team had already lost Darren Sproles, Jason Peters, Jordan Hicks, Chris Maragos, Joe Walker and Caleb Sturgis to injuries. These players are key members across all three phases of the game – offense, defense and special teams.
However, in two playoff games Foles has completed almost 78 percent of his passes for 598 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. His story is great considering he was ready to retire after playing for the Rams. Foles has developed a good rapport with wide receivers Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor as well as tight end Zach Ertz. They also rotate a healthy stable of running backs in Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement, who each bring something different. Those three run behind the best offensive line in football. That group manhandled the Vikings, who have one of the best defensive lines in the league.
The one thing that everyone seemed to forget about this Eagles team with so much of the focus on the loss of Wentz is how good this defense is under coordinator Jim Schwartz. All-Pro defensive tackle Fletcher Cox leads a deep rotation of guys up front and they get after the quarterback. Chris Long has been a great veteran pickup and he'll be a good guy to have in the locker room come Sunday. The linebacking group is very good with Nigel Bradham and Mychal Kendricks, but if either gets hurt then this defense is in trouble. The secondary is shaky although the safety pairing of Rodney McLeod and Malcolm Jenkins is the best in the league. Cornerbacks Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby have had their moments (good and bad), but Patrick Robinson is very good in the slot.
The biggest key for the Eagles comes from their leader Doug Pederson. There were many in Philadelphia who originally panned the hiring (author included), but he's made a huge fan out of me. Pederson has masterfully pushed all of the buttons and said all of the right things on his way to this game. He's also shown a fearlessness that I think you need if you hope to beat the Patriots. Jacksonville got conservative after building a lead in the AFC title game and it bit the Jaguars in the behind. So did Atlanta last year, but I don't think the Eagles will do that.
On the opposite side you've got New England, who hasn't really had to deal with that much in the way of adversity. Outside of the big losses of wide receiver Julian Edelman and linebacker Dont'a Hightower, the Patriots have been relatively healthy. Tom Brady is putting up incredible numbers at the age of 40 and he's doing so without his No. 1 wide receiver. As long as Rob Gronkowski is on the field, then Brady will be happy. The tight end continues to be a game-changer, although he is an injury risk himself after getting knocked out of the AFC Championship Game with a concussion. Although still potent, this offense is entirely different when it’s Gronk-less.
Being completely honest, this Patriots offense has made the likes of Dion Lewis, Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan better then they really are. If you held a draft based purely on talent, those guys would not be drafted that high. Lewis joins Rex Burkhead in the backfield, but New England's offensive line doesn't scare many people. Lewis could have some extra motivation for this game since he was drafted by Philadelphia in 2011 and spent two non-descript seasons with the Eagles. New England will probably feature a pass-heavy attack on Sunday considering running on the Eagles just doesn't happen.
The Patriots’ defense has allowed almost 361 yards per game but this unit has shown quite a bit of improvement since the start of the season, especially against the pass. The cornerback duo of Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore has been solid, although the latter has had his shares of ups and downs in his first season with New England. The front seven is exploitable, but defensive coordinator Matt Patricia has done a good job with wrinkles and with putting offenses in bad positions. Patricia and head coach Bill Belichick have had two weeks to work on a scheme that should confuse Foles. Giving Belichick two weeks to prepare typically doesn’t work out well for his opponent.
With regards to Sunday, we've seen a lot of money come in on the Eagles early. Some of it is sharps who want the value, but I think a lot of it is square money from the city of Philadelphia. Remember, the Patriots win a lot of these Super Bowls, but they don't cover these games. I think this game has a slow start with the Eagles probably getting an early lead. The key will be how Philadelphia’s defense comes out because this unit has allowed points on the opening drives in each playoff game. The other key is if the Eagles can maintain their aggressiveness all game long. Philadelphia cannot be intimidated by the Patriots and their mystique. People forget how good this team was for the majority of the season. I think the Eagles win their first Super Bowl by knocking off the reigning champs.
Eagles 24, Patriots 20
MVP: LeGarrette Blount
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Josephs prefers non-Power 5 college football and may be the only one wagering on the Sun Belt. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.
(Top photo courtesy of www.usbankstadium.com)