How the Patriots and Eagles match up, plus a prediction
What: Super Bowl LII.
When: Sunday, Feb. 4, 6:30 p.m.
Where: U.S. Bank Stadium, Minneapolis.
TV, radio: NBC, WBZ-FM 98.5, WEEI-FM 93.7
Heading to his eighth Super Bowl in 18 seasons, Tom Brady continues to amaze with his precision play and postseason panache. Brady has put together brilliant back-to-back playoff performances, and there’s no reason to think that won’t continue. He has an encyclopedic knowledge not only of the Patriots offense, but of every defensive scheme in the league. You may fool him once but never twice. Brady, whose mechanics are consistently flawless, is adept at reading through his progressions, exploiting mismatches, and getting all of his weapons involved. He’s cool under pressure and cold-blooded with the game on the line. Philadelphia’s Nick Foles is a big guy with a strong, accurate arm who thrives in this West Coast attack. He has a good presence in the pocket and does a nice job leading his receivers and getting everyone involved. Foles, whose confidence is running at an all-time high, puts a nice touch on short throws and has excellent zip on the intermediate routes. When he’s warmed up and feeling it, Foles will flash a deep ball to demoralize defenses.
New England has a talented tailback trio. Dion Lewis is the lead dog in this pack. A compactly built ball of muscle, Lewis has an elite package of quickness and power. He can squirt through tiny interior creases and right out of the arms of would-be tacklers. Lewis can also turn the corner and get into the secondary in a flash. James White is shifty. He can change directions and speeds seamlessly and is super in space. White will hit surprise runs up the middle, is a superior receiver, and is stout in blitz pickup. Rex Burkhead is another jack-of-all-trades back. He’s a hard-charging runner, a reliable underneath receiver, and an effective chip blocker. The Eagles’ Jay Ajayi is light on his feet but heavy on a defense. He has excellent vision, burst, and wiggle. Ajayi has awesome athleticism and will string together moves in bunches as he navigates his way through a defense. LeGarrette Blount is a beast. He has outstanding size and the strength to push the pile all the way down the field. If he’s within 5 yards of the end zone, he’s getting in. Corey Clement is a shifty runner and a nifty receiver.
Danny Amendola is on a serious roll. Is anyone surprised? The Patriots’ diminutive receiver/returner plays his biggest in the big moments. He’s sneaky quick and fast, bursts in and out of his breaks, finds soft spots, and has great hands. Chris Hogan is versatile, valuable, and indefatigable. An excellent athlete, Hogan lines up everywhere and gives max effort on every route (real and decoy). Brandin Cooks has game-changing speed. He struggles some when corners fight him at the line, but when he gets a step on a defender, he’ll be the one delivering the knockout blows. A healthy Rob Gronkowski still is New England’s most destructive pass catcher. He has rare athleticism for his size, can run every route, and has soft, reliable hands. Philly tight end Zach Ertz also is a handful. He’s a savvy and smooth route runner with good hands and nice power after the catch. Brent Celek is a big, reliable target as well. Alshon Jeffery has speed, size, long arms, and massive mitts. He can thrive underneath or out in space. Torrey Smith is a track star who fluidly flies by defenders and will make some jaw-dropping catches. He’ll drop some bunnies, too. Nelson Agholor is an instinctive and fearless slot receiver who can play the short game but also hit the occasional home run.
David Andrews continues to improve as the man in the middle of the trenches for the Patriots. He’s not the biggest guy on the block but he’s smart, athletic, technically sound, and plays with good leverage. On the left side, tackle Nate Solder is an athletic tower of strength. He’s smooth in his backpedal and has a solid keepaway punch. Sure, he’ll get beat by the occasional speed rusher but you want him on that wall. Guard Joe Thuney is wide, sturdy, and strong. On the right side, tackle Cam Fleming has good footwork and hand placement and will work hard to sustain his block. Guard Shaq Mason is a relentless road grader. Eagles center Jason Kelce is instinctive and athletic. He pops out of his stance and mirrors defenders effectively. He slides well and will pick off blitzers. There’s a lot of muscle — and a lot of vowels — on the left side. Tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai is athletic, plays with balance, and takes great angles. Guard Stefen Wisniewski is smart, strong, and surly. On the right, tackle Lane Johnson has the size and power to fend off rushers and the athleticism to adjust to quicker defenders. Guard Brandon Brooks is a massive man. He has great strength but will wear down.
Malcom Brown, Lawrence Guy, and Ricky Jean Francois have been holding it down the last two weeks against formidable backs Derrick Henry and Leonard Fournette. Brown has brute strength and surprising quickness and athleticism. Guy is a blue-collar brawler who moves well laterally and is always near the ball. Francois is savvy and smooth. Trey Flowers has the versatility and skill set to be effective inside and down the line. He is one powerful and purposeful pursuer. Deatrich Wise (he’s long), Adam Butler (he’s strong), and Eric Lee (he’s slippery) are effective in pass-rushing sub packages. Philadelphia has a formidable and fearsome front four. On the inside, veterans Fletcher Cox and Timmy Jernigan are impactful. Cox is lightning-quick off the snap and can beat his man and draw a bead on the ball like nobody’s business. Jernigan has fast and strong hands, allowing him to stack and shed opponents effectively. Off the edge, Vinny Curry (he has good quickness and shakability) and Brandon Graham (he has a relentless motor) will cause havoc. Chris Long plays with excellent leverage and power. He can dip his shoulder into blockers and drive them back. Long doesn’t have to get to the quarterback to be disruptive.
Kyle Van Noy has become the central communicator of the Patriots’ front seven. Van Noy sets the pieces in place and gets everyone on the same page. Smart and versatile, Van Noy can play inside or outside — and he’ll often loop inside off the edge or outside from the middle. He’s a wrap-up tackler. Elandon Roberts is instinctive, fast, and will deliver thunderous hits. He’s at his best when pursuing the ball (rather than dropping back) and has the speed to be an effective delayed blitzer. James Harrison has pumped some extra juice into this defense. He has the strength to set the edge and the high-powered, high-revving motor to make blockers nervous and pockets collapse. There’s still a lot of fire in this 15-year veteran’s belly. The Eagles feature a pair of productive outside linebackers in Mychal Kendricks and Nigel Bradham. Kendricks is exceptionally instinctive. He’s fast and is able to stealthily sift through traffic and take the most direct paths to the ball. Bradham has a solid combination of athleticism and attitude. Middleman Dannell Ellerbe makes good reads and has excellent short-area burst.
New England’s defensive backfield is deep and talented. The safety trio is the best in the business. Devin McCourty is the leader. McCourty has good size and excellent instincts, speed, and range. He can cover, takes direct angles, and has impressive closing burst. Patrick Chung is a physical player with a unique skill set that allows him to lock down slot receivers, tight ends, and support the run with vengeance all within the same series of downs. Ballhawking Duron Harmon patrols the deep third. Corners Stephon Gilmore (he can mirror and swoop in), Malcolm Butler (he’s agile and aggressive), and Eric Rowe (he has long arms and good playing speed) are a terrific trio. Philly safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod are rangy and fiery. Jenkins has excellent physical skills. He covers like a corner and hits like a runaway locomotive. McLeod has a tenacious temperament and will do anything to make a stop. Both are equally adept at helping in coverage and supporting the run. The corners are playmakers. Jalen Mills (he can mirror), Ronald Darby (he can fly), and Patrick Robinson (he can pick it) are an above-average triumvirate.
Ryan Allen and the New England punt-coverage team were the unsung heroes from the AFC Championship game. The veteran punter was machine-like with his placement, and his mates were swift, consistently pinning the Jaguars deep in their own territory. On the other side, sure-handed Danny Amendola’s 20-yard punt return set up his go-ahead touchdown. Stephen Gostkowski is among the game’s best kickoff men and most consistent field goal kickers, and Dion Lewis is a flash on kick returns. Matthew Slater, Johnson Bademosi, Brandon King, Brandon Bolden, and Nicholas Grigsby are demons in coverage. Eagles punter Donnie Jones has been pretty consistent and effective (with or without sweatpants), averaging 45.3 yards per punt and dropping 21 inside the 20. Kicker Jake Elliott (26 of 31) has been solid in place of injured Caleb Sturgis. Kenjon Barner is the main return man and he has excellent open-field vision and moves and impressive acceleration. Former Patriots draftee Kamu Grugier-Hill has been a standout special teamer for the Eagles.
Eagles DT Fletcher Cox vs. Patriots C David Andrews
The blueprint for success against the Patriots’ aerial attack in the past has been applying pressure up the gut without activating extra blitzers. Cox is one of the league’s best interior rushers. An enormous man at 6 feet 4 inches, 310 pounds, Cox has superior strength (not surprising) and great quickness (somewhat surprising). He can shoot through gaps, create havoc in the backfield, and prevent Tom Brady from stepping up. Andrews (6-3, 295) is giving up some size here. He does have good upper-body strength and athleticism. Andrews won’t stun with his initial punch but he works hard to sustain his block until help arrives. He’ll need some in this one.
Eagles TE Zach Ertz vs. Patriots S Patrick Chung
They classify Ertz as a tight end, but he’s really just a big ol’ receiver. Ertz (6 feet 5 inches, 250 pounds) has excellent size and athleticism. He makes tough catches in tough spots (over the middle) and tough situations (third downs). Ertz is a fluid player, will make all the catches, and will turn upfield quickly after the catch and squeeze out extra yards. He’s not as physical as he should be and isn’t a great inline blocker. Chung (5-11, 215) is exceptionally athletic and physical. He has quickness and closing speed and can be an intimidating hitter. He’ll occasionally get caught looking into the backfield, leading to bad plays. He has a short memory, however, and bounces back quickly.
Eagles’ keys to victory
1. Stick and move: Knocking Brandin Cooks off his route early disrupts his rhythm and timing with Tom Brady and prevents big downfield plays. Allow him a clean break and he’ll break your heart.
2. Gonna fly now: Get the ball into the hands of Corey Clement and Kenjon Barner on quick passes out of the backfield. They match up favorably in coverage against New England’s linebackers.
3. Together we fill gaps: Bring the pressure off the edges. Vinny Curry, Brandon Graham, and Chris Long don’t necessarily have to hit Tom Brady on every dropback, but they can’t let him get comfortable.
Patriots’ keys to victory
1. Cold treatment: Nick Foles thrives in the run-pass option attack. Staying patient and in your assignments is vital to defending the RPO. Clog the gaps — and the middle — to force bad decisions.
2. Cold front: Create an early turnover. The defense has been stout despite the lack of takeaways lately. An early pick could shake Foles’s confidence and lead to a snowball effect.
3. Cold comfort: Get Rob Gronkowski involved early so he can get comfortable and find his rhythm. When he’s fully engaged, there’s nobody on the Eagles roster that can cover him effectively.
PREDICTION: Patriots 31, Eagles 20