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

We’ve Seen These NFL Playoffs Before

Brad Rempel/USA Today

Heading into the divisional round of the NFL playoffs, there were eight teams alive and they could have easily been broken up into two groups of four.

The first group would comprise the teams with great quarterbacks; this group includes the Atlanta Falcons, New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, and New Orleans Saints. Four of the top six quarterbacks in passing yards over the last five seasons come from these teams, and if you believe that quarterback play is the most important factor in deciding playoff games, then you would have thought that these teams would win and move on to their respective conference title games (none of these four teams played each other).

The other group consists of the Philadelphia Eagles, Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Minnesota Vikings. These teams are playing less-heralded signal-callers, and all of them ranked in the top half of the league in total defense this year. The Vikings, though, were the only team to get legitimately excellent play from their quarterback position, as unlikely starter Case Keenum finished second in the league in QBR this year (71.3); that figure comes in first among all quarterbacks who have started in the playoffs this season (bet you didn’t predict that going into the season).

Speaking of “bet you didn’t predict that”, guess which group is sending three of its teams to the AFC and NFC Championship games? If you went with the one with the great quarterbacks, you would be awarded no points, and may God have mercy on your soul. If you went with the latter group, however, you would be correct. The second group’s success this weekend is also part of a larger trend this season, one that tells us that you don’t need elite quarterback play to be successful, whether that is in October or January.

Consider this: out of the top ten passers in the league this season, only one (Tom Brady) is still alive in the playoffs. However, out of the top four defenses in the league in 2017, three of them are still alive (the Denver Broncos are the only top-four defense to miss the playoffs). Brady led the league in passing this season with 4,577 yards, a figure that would have put him in fourth in the same category last season and wouldn’t have even landed him in the top five in 2015. Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, prior to mangling his knee in Week 14 against the Rams, led the NFL in QBR at 74.4. Similarly, that figure would come in sixth in 2016 and fourth in 2015. The theme is simple enough; quarterback play has gone downhill this season.

But, in addition to quarterback play, the NFL’s offenses have generally declined in 2017 as opposed to the past four years. This year, every team combined to score 11,110 points, for an average of just under 22 points per game. Both figures are the lowest in this decade and both figures are most similar to the 2002 season, one that ended with quarterback Brad Johnson and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeat quarterback Rich Gannon and the Oakland Raiders. You may know where I’m going with this.

That season, Johnson finished just 17th in the league in passing but came in third in passer rating, then the most sophisticated statistic for evaluating quarterback play. Tampa Bay also had the league’s best scoring defense and are still the most recent team to concede less than 200 total points in a season. The team that had the best scoring defense in the league in 2017? The Minnesota Vikings. And their quarterback, Case Keenum, is eerily similar to Johnson:

Player Season YDS/G TD INT Passer Rating
Case Keenum 2017 236.5 22 7 98.3
Brad Johnson 2002 234.5 22 6 92.9

For what it’s worth, I nearly fell to the floor when I figured this out. And, if you’ll recall, the Buccaneers beat the Eagles in the NFC Championship game that season. And the week before that, the Eagles beat the sixth-seeded, wait for it, Atlanta Falcons, while the second-seeded Buccaneers beat the fourth-seeded San Francisco 49ers. The Vikings were the two seed in this year’s NFL playoffs and beat the fourth-seeded Saints yesterday in one of the most shocking finishes in the history of the sport. I’m not saying that the Vikings are necessarily going to win the Super Bowl, but the precedent is there.

If you also look at the final four teams in the ’02 postseason and their quarterbacks, there are similarities abound to this year’s proceedings:

  • Tennessee Titans
    • Quarterback: Steve McNair; a mobile quarterback with a turnover problem (comparison: Blake Bortles. NOTE: please know that McNair is one of my favorite quarterbacks ever, and though I hate to make this comparison, their numbers are very similar)
  • Philadelphia Eagles
    • Quarterback: Donovan McNabb; a quarterback played just ten games but managed the game effectively when he did play; also had the second-ranked scoring defense in the league (comparison: Nick Foles; another comparison I’m not wild about, but it sort of fits)
  • Oakland Raiders
    • Quarterback: Rich Gannon; a 38-year-old gunslinger who led the league in passing that season and took home MVP honors when it was over; spearheaded the league’s second-ranked scoring offense (comparison: Tom Brady)
  • Tampa Bay Buccaneers
    • Quarterback: Brad Johnson; a journeyman starter who played for three different teams before winning his first Super Bowl; Johnson ranked near the top of the league in efficiency and managed the game well enough to allow his defense to carry the team (comparison: Case Keenum)

The Patriots currently own the league’s second-best scoring offense, just like the Raiders did. This has gotten very bizarre in a very short period of time.

The precedent is there. It sounds crazy, and part of it probably is, but we’ve seen this before in the NFL playoffs. Of course, all of this would have been for naught had the Saints not completely blown their coverage in the last ten seconds of yesterday’s game, but they did, and we have one of the most fascinating final fours in the recent history of the NFL because of it.

Of course, there are marked differences between 2002 and 2017. If you want the most stark and noticeable difference, remember that 2002 was the only year in this millennium that the Browns made the playoffs. The Jets were also in the playoffs that season and beat the living daylights out of Peyton Manning. Neither of those things are happening this year, but there is a lesson to be learned here; expect the unexpected. And the unexpected is what we’ve gotten in this year’s NFL playoffs.

Upon further examination, the final four teams in the NFL playoffs all bear comparisons to teams of yesteryear. Thanks to a miraculous finish, we can see this legitimate resemblance, and if the Vikings beat the Patriots in this year’s Super Bowl, you can thank me later.

We’ve Made It: A Summation of Deflategate

Tom Brady during Super Bowl XLIX at University of Phoenix Stadium on February 1, 2015 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Photo Credit: Elsa Hosk/Getty Images

Tom Brady and the “Deflategate” saga have received plenty of attention over the past year and a half.  I even wrote about it last September; like many others, I was completely and unequivocally done with the Deflategate story at that point.  If you told me that we’d have to go through another ten months of it after the United States District Court reversal of his four-game suspension last year, I would have politely informed you that you were insane.

Yet here we are, and there really isn’t an end in sight.  Today, the 2nd Circuit United States Court of Appeals denied Brady’s request for a rehearing of the case.  In case you’re new to this story (God love you if you are), the 2nd Circuit Court overturned the District Court’s, and Judge Richard Berman’s, decision to overturn Brady’s original suspension.  Brady and his legal team appealed for a rehearing of the case and now we’re here.

But with all of that decided and well out of the way, Brady still has one legal move left.  If you guessed that his last move would be to appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States of America, you would be correct.  Yes, our long national nightmare of under-inflated footballs, circumstantial evidence, and weight loss is about to reach the highest court in the land.  Move over Marbury v. Madison, Plessy v. Ferguson, Roe v. Wade, and McCullogh v. Maryland.  We may now have the most famous (or infamous) Supreme Court Case ever: Tom Brady v. the NFL, or something like that.

Many, including myself, will probably die from laughter if this case reaches the Supreme Court.  But this is the question we must all ask ourselves: why are we still dealing with this?  And why did the NFL decide it was a good idea to go after Brady the way it did, especially when the league has other, far bigger, problems to address?

As for the first question, we are still dealing with this story because of the collective greed of Brady and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Both parties have wanted to maintain their integrity throughout this laughable process, even as courts have ruled one way or another and the affairs of the matter have become increasingly complicated.  It’s no secret that Goodell, in particular, has taken measures to increase and fortify his power over the course of his tenure as NFL commissioner; the most infamous of these measures was a change to the league’s Personal Conduct Policy that gave the commish more wide-ranging authority to levy discipline on players, coaches, and teams.

However, it’s also true that the Players’ Association had the opportunity to check Goodell’s power during the negotiations of the Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2011 (hint: they didn’t exactly do that).  They were more interested in returning to the field before the start of the season, which was more than understandable at the time, but they also made a very large concession to get the agreement done.

That can’t be forgotten here: the same players complaining about Goddell’s despotic power are the ones who signed off on the CBA that enabled it five years ago.  While we can all agree that Goodell has far too much power and has abused it on more than one occasion, the players who were involved in that negotiation have no right to gripe after the fact.  They had the chance to make Goodell relinquish at least some of his authority, and they completely blew it.  That’s on them, not the league.

And now we move on to the matter of Brady and the New England Patriots.  The exact reason why Brady was originally suspended was because of the use of under-inflated footballs in the 2015 AFC Championship game.  The balls were found to be under the 11 to 12 PSI that the league requires of its regulation footballs.  Almost immediately after the game, the league launched an “independent investigation” into the events of that game and how the game balls ended up how they were.  I air-quote the words independent investigation because while the NFL claims it really was independent, it also paid Wells lots and lots of money to conduct the investigation. To me, that’s not really independent at all.

But, much more importantly, why is the NFL so concerned with Brady when it has far bigger issues?  For example, recently-retired wide receiver Calvin Johnson admitted that doctors would distribute painkillers in the locker room “like candy”.  It’s generally a bad idea to treat Vicodin and Percocet the same way you would Sour Patch Kids, but that’s just a rule of thumb.  Anyway, the league is also engrossed in other issues such as quality of play, what to do with the Pro Bowl, and, of course, player safety.

And then there’s this obvious issue: did Tom Brady and the Patriots definitively and knowingly do anything wrong?  While it is plausible that Brady knew of the deflation of the footballs, we can’t conclude that for sure.  Even the Wells Report admitted that it was “more probable than not” that two equipment officials tampered with the game balls in a deliberate manner.  The report also stated that Brady was more likely than not “generally aware” of the process of the deflation.

This, though, is far from a definitive statement and it leaves room for much speculation on what actually happened on January 18, 2015. For example, how can we know for sure if Brady knew about the tampering of the game equipment?  And how can we be 100% sure that no external, natural forces such as weather meddled with the footballs?

There are many questions that are still, even 18 months later, left unanswered.  I’ll give you my opinion: I think Brady is innocent of guilt.  I don’t necessarily feel sorry for him but I believe he is innocent based on reasonable doubt.  We can’t prove for sure that he fully knew of what was going on.  In my book, if he was not fully aware and there is no concrete link between him and the equipment officials, the NFL has no right to suspend him.

He really was witch-hunted in this case; the NFL decided to make an example out of him when it had much bigger issues to deal with. However, it probably won’t go away anytime soon, nor will our fascination with it.  We can’t seem to stop talking about it and it looks like we’ll pay close attention to the case until the very bitter end.  Our country seems to love obsessing with certain things; after all, the New York Times just released this article about how we can use Pokemon Go, the latest app craze, as a personal tour guide.  All you need to know about Pokemon Go is that it is an addiction, one we’re hooked to and won’t be getting off of anytime soon.

We’re hooked to Pokemon Go in the same way we’re hooked to Deflategate.  Let’s hope that it doesn’t take 18 months for Pokemon Go to, well, go.  Away.

And let’s hope Deflategate goes away, too.  My bet is that it won’t anytime soon.