Going the Distance: Super Bowl Preview

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The Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots met in Super Bowl XXXIX on February 6, 2005. The game was quietly one of the better Super Bowls of all time; the Patriots won 24-21, but the Eagles kept the game close throughout and likely would have won had it not been for four turnovers, three of which were committed by quarterback Donovan McNabb. The Eagles also got 122 yards from Terrell Owens, who played that game with two screws and a metal plate in his ankle and deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. Anyway, the two teams meet in the big game again, two days short of thirteen years later.

The stakes are as follows. If the Patriots win, they will seal their sixth Super Bowl championship and tie the Steelers for the most Super Bowl victories in NFL history. Tom Brady’s sixth ring will add to his already-ridiculous résumé as the greatest quarterback the sport has ever seen, and Bill Belichick will add his sixth championship as an NFL head coach and eighth as a head coach or an assistant.

If the Eagles win, it will be their first Super Bowl victory in three appearances (1980, 2004); Philadelphia is one of thirteen NFL teams without a Super Bowl victory. The win would be head coach Doug Pederson’s first as an assistant or head coach in the league; Pederson won a Super Bowl ring as a backup quarterback for the Packers in 1996. Philadelphia would also be the eighth team to win a Super Bowl with a different quarterback than the one they had at the start of the season, as Nick Foles took over for MVP candidate Carson Wentz in Week 14. The odds are undoubtedly stacked against Philadelphia, but their pole-climbing, dog-mask-toting fans wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Patriots are a five-point favorite for tomorrow’s game, and many experts are picking them to win. But should they be? Let’s look at a few keys to this one for both sides.

RPO Sightings

The Eagles have been deadly with run-pass options this season, and they carved up the Minnesota Vikings with them in the NFC Championship Game two weeks ago.

Quarterback Nick Foles (who, mind you, is a backup) cooked Minnesota for 352 yards and three touchdowns while completing nearly 80% of his passes. Run-pass options were a large part of his success. Why is this important, other than because the Eagles have run more run-pass options than any other team in the league this season? It’s important because they’re playing the Patriots, a team that didn’t do well against RPOs in the AFC title game.

Here is a clip, compiled by Pro Football Focus’ Mike Renner, of the Jaguars deploying the same run-pass option four different times against the Patriots in the first half of the AFC Championship game. On all four occasions, the Jags were successful:

Of course, games are not won in the first half, and the Patriots can deploy man-to-man coverage to combat the success of the RPO. However, the Eagles will look to capitalize on short passes like the Jaguars did two weeks ago, as Blake Bortles completed 18 of his 27 passes of 15 yards or fewer for 211 yards against New England in the AFC title game. What was particularly interesting about that was that Bortles was 10-13 for 102 yards when throwing short and to the right side of the field. Foles was 9-10 for 74 yards against the Vikings on the same types of throws, but was a perfect five-for-five for 42 yards when throwing short and over the middle, usually in the form of a slant route to a wide receiver (Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith) or an angle route to tight end Zach Ertz.

This is a matchup the Eagles can exploit if Foles is accurate like he has been in the team’s first two playoff games. He’ll need to continue to play at a high level, but the Eagles can make some noise in the RPO game.

Tom vs. Time vs. the Eagles D-Line

Another thing the Eagles must do if they want to pull the upset is pressure Tom Brady.

In the Patriots’ two Super Bowl losses to the Giants, Tom Brady was sacked a combined seven times. In the team’s five Super Bowl wins, Brady has been sacked ten times in total. The point is simple: if you give Brady time to settle into the pocket and survey the defense, he will destroy you. The Panthers found that out in Super Bowl XXXVIII. So did the Eagles the next year, the Seahawks three years ago, and the Falcons in the second half of last year’s Super Bowl. The formula for beating the Patriots involves making Brady uncomfortable.

The Eagles are facing an uphill task in that regard.

Philadelphia sacked Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan three times in the divisional round but only got one sack on Case Keenum in the NFC title game. Philly did force Keenum into a pick-six at the hands of pressure and a strip-sack in the second quarter, but situational pressure won’t suffice against the Patriots’ offense. Pass rushers like Fletcher Cox, Derek Barnett, Brandon Graham, Timmy Jernigan, Vinny Curry, and many others will need to force the ball out of Brady’s hands quickly. If they don’t, the Eagles will have a hard time tomorrow night.

Brady has been given an average of about 2.7 seconds to throw this season. The Eagles can’t allow him any more time than that, and it will be interesting to see how aggressive defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is early in the game with his blitz packages.

There are two ways the rest of the Eagles can help their pass rushers. The first is by performing well in coverage; the Eagles are middle of the pack in the league in passing yards allowed and may need to settle for containing the Patriots’ offense if they hope to win this game. The other, more realistic way the Eagles can stop Tom Brady is by sustaining drives and time of possession, something Philadelphia knows a thing or two about.

The Eagles lead the league in total time of possession this season and have out-possessed their opponents in their two playoff victories. The best way to stop the Patriots’ offense is to keep it off the field, and if the Eagles can maintain possession for 35-40 minutes in this one, they may very well be on their way to a victory. This may be the Eagles’ best chance at containing the Patriots’ offense, one that only gets better and sharper as the game progresses.

How to Stop Gronk

This is the other clear problem the Eagles are facing in this one. Rob Gronkowski is a matchup nightmare for anyone, and the news that he is playing in the Super Bowl will come as a disappointing formality for a defense that is already scrambling for answers. The Eagles will have to be especially on-guard for Gronk’s exploits down the field and in the red zone, which means that safeties Rodney McLeod and Malcolm Jenkins will likely have to provide over-the-top coverage on the Patriots’ all-world tight end. This opens up one-on-one opportunities underneath for the likes of Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan, and Philadelphia cornerbacks Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby will need to play blanket coverage to ensure that Amendola and Hogan don’t get theirs, which is a daunting proposition.

Another option for the Eagles would be to play zone, but against a quarterback who operates on defenses like a surgeon, this probably isn’t a sustainable option.

The Play of Nick Foles

This is probably the area Eagles fans would least like to talk about, but Nick Foles is still a backup quarterback who, despite back-to-back excellent performances, is somewhat unproven.

While the Eagles have done a masterful job building their schemes to ensure that Foles would not be asked to do too much, he will need to play to the level he has been performing at if the Eagles want to win their first Super Bowl. There are reasons to believe he can pull it off, though.

Foles was 4-6 in the NFC Championship Game on passes of 20 yards or more downfield. When he was afforded time to throw last week, he made the most of his opportunities. The Patriots, though, have gotten eleven sacks in their two playoff games and will be sending extra rushers at Foles to make sure he doesn’t get in a rhythm in the pocket.

That being said, much of the Eagles’ offense is predicated around the run-pass option, and because many of the passing elements of those plays are screens and slant routes, Foles should have no problem getting the ball out of his hands quickly. While the Patriots may take away the downfield shots from Philadelphia’s game, they are a defense that is speed-deficient and finished 30th in the league in passing yards allowed, ahead of only the Giants and Buccaneers. Not good.

Because of this lack of speed, the Eagles’ running backs could also run loose in this one. The Jaguars rushed for over 100 yards on New England last week, and if the Patriots are overly cognizant of the pass, the Eagles’ troika of Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount (a former Patriot), and rookie Corey Clement could gash the Patriots. New England’s is a defense that has bent without breaking all season long, but with the various weapons the Eagles have on the outside and in the running game, the Pats’ defense could be in for a long night in Minneapolis.

The Pick

I’ve thought about this one considerably for the past two weeks. And while the Patriots are favored (and rightfully so), they face many matchup problems, particularly on their defense, that make me lean towards the Eagles here. Of course, if Nick Foles reverts to the Foles of December, one who completed just 54% of his passes for only five yards per attempt, then the Patriots will win easily. But I don’t see that Foles reappearing in the Super Bowl, mainly because of the outstanding work of Doug Pederson, offensive coordinator Frank Reich, and the Eagles’ coaching staff of utilizing the team’s weapons at the skill positions and making the demands on Foles slightly easier.

While it’s hard to fathom picking Nick Foles to defeat Tom Brady and even harder to wrap your head around taking Doug Pederson over Bill Belichick, that’s what I’m doing here.

Eagles 28, Patriots 23