Welcome to Season 8, Episode 10 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, we know. This matchup marks the first meeting of the Patriots and Eagles since Super Bowl LII back in February 2018, when Nick Foles and the Philly offense expertly used every creative trick in their playbook to pull off the upset, 41-33.
Not that it matters whatsoever with regard to Sunday’s outcome at Lincoln Financial Field, but it’s worth noting, given how rare any kind of winning streak against this team in the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era is, that the Eagles have won their last two games versus the Patriots. The previous win came on Dec. 6, 2015, when Chip Kelly’s 4-7 Eagles stunned the 10-1 Patriots, jumping to a 35-14 lead and holding on for a 35-28 win.
The Kelly era in Philadelphia feels like a decade ago, but the flashback to that game — and the Patriots’ Super Bowl loss, too — is a reminder of how fast things change in the NFL.
It’s also a reminder of what didn’t change after Super Bowl LII.
No, we never found out the nitty-gritty specifics on why Malcolm Butler was benched in that game, but we did learn something else more important: It was not, as some speculated at the time, the end of an era for the Patriots. It was merely an aggravating speed bump on the way to further dominance.
Since Super Bowl LII, the Patriots have gone 22-6 (including the postseason) and added a sixth Lombardi Trophy. The Eagles? They’ve been fine, with a 15-12 record and another playoff appearance, but their Super Bowl win was no changing of the guard. It was the result of a spectacular game plan put to perfect use.
As time has passed, the impressiveness of the achievement grows, because that’s what it took to beat the Patriots. And two years later, the story remains the same. To beat the Patriots, like the Ravens did two weeks ago, you can’t hope to be spectacular. You have to be, still.
Kick it off, Bailey, and let’s get this thing started . . .
THREE PLAYERS I’LL BE WATCHING NOT NAMED TOM BRADY
Carson Wentz — He’s good. We know that. Strong arm, mobile, seems to be a respected teammate, totally worthy of being the No. 2 pick in the draft out of mighty North Dakota State. (Heck, I’d wager he’ll have a better career than the No. 1 pick, the talented, currently befuddled Jared Goff, though everyone slept on the No. 135 pick, Dak Prescott.) Wentz was in the MVP conversation in 2017 before suffering a torn ACL and MCL, which sidelined him for the Super Bowl run and set the Foles Fairytale in motion. But the question — yes, as it always was for Joe Flacco for all those years to the point that it became a punch line — is whether Wentz will be truly elite. He’s having a fine season, with 15 touchdowns and only four interceptions, and he’s still a capable running threat even with the scars on his knee, with 144 yards on 37 attempts this season. But he has flaws, too — he’s completing just 62.7 percent of his passes, a lower percentage than the likes of Mitchell Trubisky, Sam Darnold, and yes, Flacco, who ceased being anywhere near elite several seasons ago. Wentz isn’t surrounded by the highest-end receiving talent — deep threat DeSean Jackson is on injured reserve, Alshon Jeffery has 34 catches but is battling injuries, leaving tight end Zach Ertz as far and away Wentz’s favorite target, with 46 receptions on 75 balls thrown his way. If Wentz wants to take another step forward, post-knee injury, to joining that elite status, playing his best against a superb Patriots pass defense (19 interceptions, just three TDs allowed) would go a long way toward doing that. But with limited weapons — the Patriots will be all over Ertz — a tough task becomes even tougher.
Fletcher Cox — The tough and talented eighth-year defensive tackle, a menace way back in Super Bowl LII, has made four straight Pro Bowls and was an All-Pro selection last year. But this season got off to a slow start, due in large part to his recovery from a foot injury suffered in their playoff loss to the Saints last season. He’s also dealt with a calf injury this year, but lately Cox has looked like his destructive self. In the Eagles’ 31-13 win at Buffalo in Week 8, he had six tackles, four quarterback pressures, and two sacks. In Week 9, a 22-14 home win over the Bears before the Eagles’ bye, he had four tackles and five quarterback pressures. This is a player the Patriots are familiar with and respect, which is why their scout team had a player mimicking Cox during practice this past week. His ability, now that he’s seemingly healthy, to apply pressure up the middle against Tom Brady is something the Patriots must be wary of. Brady has been sacked just 15 times this season, but that’s due largely to his own ability to get rid of the ball in a hurry, even if it means giving up on a play. He’s been under frequent pressure, with left tackle Marshall Newhouse a particular weak link, and the Patriots are susceptible to the rush in the interior, as well. Cox is also a crucial part of the Eagles’ run defense, which allows just 87.3 yards per game, fourth-best in the NFL.
Mohamed Sanu — It was tempting to put rookie receiver N’Keal Harry in this spot given that the first-rounder would seem to have a decent chance to make his season debut Sunday. But the Patriots have been so vague, even by their standards, about the progress Harry has (or hasn’t) made and what his role might be that his status for Sunday remains uncertain pretty much until we see him in the huddle for the first time. So let’s go with the sure thing — a remarkable sure thing given that Sanu hasn’t even been a Patriot for a full month yet, having come over in a trade with the Falcons for a second-round pick on Oct. 22. Sanu has 45 catches on the season — 12 in two games with the Patriots. Sanu is not exactly a deep threat — he’s averaging 9.3 yards per catch this season — but he’s given Brady an instantly reliable target in the short and intermediate routes. Brady connected with Sanu 10 times in the loss to the Ravens, targeting him 14 times, more than even Julian Edelman (10 targets). Sanu should be effective against an Eagles defense that has allowed 239 passing yards per game (16th in the league) and 16 passing touchdowns.
GRIEVANCE OF THE WEEK
Know what’s more annoying than a loudmouth who talks trash about you? A loudmouth who talks trash about you, has at least a small semblance of a decent point, and the opportunity to shut him up and gain some vengeance doesn’t come around nearly as soon as you’d wish.
You remember Lane Johnson, the Eagles tackle who seemed to delight more in ripping the Patriots than he did reveling in the Eagles’ victory after Super Bowl LII? Johnson took great satisfaction in telling anyone who would listen that the Eagles had fun while they won, while the Patriots were a joyless operation.
Here’s what he said to the “Pardon My Take” boys after the Super Bowl: “I just think that the Patriot Way is a fear-based organization. Obviously, do they win? Hell, yes, they win. They’ve won for a long time. Do I think people enjoy and can say, ‘I had a lot of fun playing there?’ No, I don’t. That’s just the God’s honest truth. They’re successful, but when they go to interviews, they act like [expletive] robots. Hey, stop being a [expletive] head. We can be cordial for a little bit. You only get to do this job one time, so let’s have fun while we’re doing it. Not to be reckless, but I’d much rather have fun and win a Super Bowl than be miserable and win five Super Bowls. But hey, it is what it is.”
Now, Johnson was right about some things. Hell, yes, the Patriots do win. They have won for a long time. He said it, and he’s right. And the notion that the Patriots can be robotic, or as he implied, joyless. I’m sure Belichick’s remarkably refined “what’s best for the team” approach comes across as too impersonal at times for his players. It seems like it was a smaller factor in Rob Gronkowski’s decision to retire.
But the notion that the Patriots don’t have fun is ridiculous. We know the Belichick behind the scenes is far more willing to deploy humor than the Belichick we see behind a podium during news conferences. We see the “awwwwwwww, yeah!” celebrations Matthew Slater leads, just as Tedy Bruschi once did, in a victorious postgame locker room. We know an expectation of professionalism and responsibility at all times does not necessarily run counter to enjoying what you’re doing, especially when you’re winning at least 75 percent of the time.
It was interesting to discover, after their Super Bowl LIII victory over the Rams, that they seemed to find rather fun, that the Patriots hadn’t forgotten Johnson’s comments. They trolled Johnson after Super Bowl LIII. Kyle Van Noy tweeted about Johnson’s old comments in the aftermath, and safety Duron Harmon said during the victory parade, “When you go to four Super Bowls in six years, that’s fun, baby.”
There’s little doubt that the Patriots noticed Johnson’s minor troll job on Twitter heading into the Eagles’ bye week: “Gonna have some fun at the Linc in two weeks!’’ he wrote. The Patriots know they have their chance to silence Johnson, at least for now, with this truth: In the NFL, there’s nothing — nothing — more fun than winning, again and again.
Patriots defensive line vs. Eagles running game
For all of our talk about Wentz in the buildup to this one, it might be the Eagles’ running game that determines whether they have much success. The Ravens, often using a pistol formation early, ripped through the Patriots for 210 yards (5.1 per carry) in their 37-20 win, which handed the Patriots their first loss. Much of that was due to the electric Jackson, but Mark Ingram did his share of damage running through the middle of the Patriots’ defense. The Eagles have a pair of competent backs with different skill sets in Jordan Howard (525 yards, six TDs) and speedy Miles Sanders (336 yards, including a 65-yard TD). The Patriots have allowed 4.7 yards per rush this season, and in both of their competitive games — the other being a 16-10 win over the Bills in Week 4 in which Buffalo averaged 6.1 yards per carry — their defense was gashed by the run. It’s imperative for the interior of the Patriots’ defense — including linemen Danny Shelton and Adam Butler and inside linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Elandon Roberts, among others — to prove that this excellent Patriots defense had a temporary flaw, and not something that is going to be exposed over and over again.
PREDICTION, OR HOW GREAT WAS HAROLD CARMICHAEL?
I’ve got a theory. Maybe there’s something to it, maybe there isn’t, but I think there’s some truth to be found there right now. I believe the best coach, perhaps by far, on the Eagles’ staff in Super Bowl LII is the current coach of the Indianapolis Colts, Frank Reich.
Head coach Doug Pederson got much of the credit in the days after the Eagles’ win, and I’m sure he deserved a lot of it. It was stunning performance, a total dissection of the Patriots’ defense.
But if you step back and look at what Reich did in preparing Foles at quarterback that night, then take another moment to appreciate how Jacoby Brissett — who some reporters thought would be one of the Patriots’ final cuts before he was traded for Phillip Dorsett before last season — has rapidly developed into an excellent QB on his watch in Indy, it’s fair to wonder whether Reich is already one of the best coaches in the league. I believe he is.
It’s also fair to wonder whether Wentz would be progressing faster if Reich was still in Philly.
Wentz is a good quarterback. Elite? Not this week. Not against this excellent defense, which was left licking its wounds after Lamar Jackson (elite!) and friends torched them for 30 points the last time we saw them. If Reich were still with Philly — winner of two straight but still just 5-4 — I’d believe in the Eagles much more than I do right now.
Brady isn’t throwing for 505 yards in this one like he did in valiant defeat in Super Bowl LII. But he won’t have to. The defense will get back to dominance. Patriots 30, Eagles 17