Super Bowl LII foes get reacquainted in the City of Brotherly Love
The Philadelphia Eagles and fellow NFC East division mate New York Giants are the only ones to stymie the New England Patriots during the Tom Brady era. The Patriots are 1-3 against these two franchises in the Super Bowl, but it's their latest loss that hurt them the most: a 41-33 defeat to the Eagles in February 2018. Without it, the Patriots would have three straight Super Bowls and four NFL titles in the past five years.
You better believe that motivates head coach Bill Belichick, Brady and the rest of the NFL's reigning champs coming in fresh after a bye week. The Eagles are rested, too, winning two straight before their bye for a 5-4 record that kept them competitive in their division against the Dallas Cowboys. A renewed focus on the running game has led to a better offensive game plan during their win streak while the defense held opponents to an average of 13.5 points per contest.
But they'll be hard-pressed to keep that going against an angry Patriots team coming off the end of their undefeated season: a 37-20 whipping at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens. That leaves New England 8-1 and holding just a one-game edge for the AFC's top seed, a cushion the Patriots are eager to preserve while dishing out revenge against their recent Super Bowl rivals.
New England at Philadelphia
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 17 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Patriots -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Which Eagles running back is healthy?
That's the biggest question for an organization who's rushed the ball, on average, 38 times over the past two games to great success. Even a bye week hasn't made them healthy as news came out Friday Darren Sproles will miss the rest of the season due to a torn right hip flexor. Sproles, who was supposed to retire at the end of last season, may well make 2019 his last hurrah.
Lead back Jordan Howard suffered a shoulder stinger during the Eagles' last game against the Bears and hasn't yet been cleared for contact, a discouraging sign. If Howard misses on Sunday, that means rookie Miles Sanders will handle the majority of carries but he's been dealing with a shoulder injury all his own.
Sanders has certainly excelled the last two weeks, including a season-high 65-yard touchdown run against the Bills. But he hasn't carried the ball more than 13 times in any game and it's uncertain how he'll perform in a lead role. The Eagles are concerned enough they've brought in former running back Jay Ajayi, left unsigned after a torn ACL ended his year with the Eagles midway through 2018. Ajayi may be signed and play within a 72-hour period, a desperation-type move that should have the Patriots' defense licking its chops.
The past two weeks, a once-formidable Patriots front line has allowed 159 and 210 rushing yards. This hobbled Eagles group may provide the perfect opportunity for this top-ranked unit to get back in rhythm.
2. Does the Patriots' offense get a bounce from the bye week?
New England, despite winning its first eight games, did so with a defensive formula that masked what had become a patchwork offense. Antonio Brown came and left during a tumultuous early-season signing; Josh Gordon underachieved and then was cut. Wide receiver Julian Edelman and running back Sony Michel have been the only two offensive options for Brady active during the first nine games.
The bye week offered a chance for other pieces to both get healthy and get more comfortable with their offensive role: anyone from Phillip Dorsett to recent trade pickup Mohamed Sanu, who quietly posted 10 catches for 81 yards against the Ravens. Tight end pickup Benjamin Watson, with eight catches the last three weeks, is also expected to play a larger role.
Brady can now settle in with confidence he's got all the weapons for his next playoff run. Sunday could be a first look at how he actually chooses to use them.
3. Can the Patriots get back to causing turnovers? Especially early?
The Pats' defense has produced an impressive plus-17 turnover margin over the first nine games. No one else is the NFL is better than plus-nine. Even during the Ravens loss, the defense was able to come up with two fumble recoveries.
The Eagles' defense, by comparison, has less than half the amount of takeaways (13) and an unimpressive margin of minus-one. But their offense played turnover-free ball against the Bears, part of how they were able to open up an early 12-0 lead. Repeating that is crucial against a Patriots team that has averaged more first-quarter points (9.7) than anyone else in the league through 10 weeks.
Up until the Ravens game, the Patriots' defense had no problem taking control and scoring points against their opponents. The Eagles are a team that has struggled during the first quarter since their 2018 Super Bowl victory; jumping out to a hot start on Sunday could help them land that early knockout punch.
The Patriots have won a Super Bowl since their Eagles defeat. But don't be fooled; this team hasn't forgotten what transpired.
"You assume I'm over it? Come on now," Brady said in his WEEI weekly radio spot. "That's a lot of mental scar tissue from that year. They deserved it, and now, a couple years later, we get a chance to play the organization again. Huge game for us. Big game for them. The better team is going to win." (In case you're wondering, "mental scar tissue" is as much trash talking from Brady as you're going to get.)
The Eagles have done a great job of quieting the outside noise in recent weeks, regaining control of the locker room after a Cowboys debacle threatened to tear the season apart. But it’s hard to maintain that rebuilding-type momentum when you face a Patriots team focused on three ugly Rs for the Eagles: Recovery (from a Week 9 loss), Revenge and Rout.
Prediction: Patriots 41, Eagles 17
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.