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Super Bowl LII Predictions

Mat Adler, Staff Writer

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Well, here we are. The Patriots are a powerhouse, and the only thing that stands between them and 3 Super Bowl titles in 4 years is the Eagles, coming off a postseason win over the Vikings and a surprisingly easy championship game, despite one of their best players being severely injured. Coming from Jacksonville, Florida, with Paul McCartney playing the halftime show, Super Bowl 39 looks to be — wait, what? It’s not the 2004-05 season?

Despite the eerie similarities to the Super Bowl 13 years ago, this year’s game looks to be much different. For starters, where the Eagles’ surest path to victory in 2005 was through their quarterback, here it’s likely to be winning in spite of him and relying on their defense. And where the Patriots 2004-05 team was built around their defense, Tom Brady’s transformation into one of the greatest of all time means the team runs through him. The most important difference, though, is in the betting line: though they’re the favorite, the Patriots are favored by 5 points, a somewhat average spread.

In all likelihood, this game will come down to the quarterbacks: whether Nick Foles can elevate his play for another game and whether Tom Brady can maintain his dominance against the Eagles’ defense. But there are still 21 other players on the field, and any one of them could make the difference between winning and losing. Here are the four matchups that could decide the Super Bowl:

  1. Patriots Running Backs vs. Eagles Underneath Coverage

Patriots lead running back and Albany High alum Dion Lewis is one of the very best in the NFL, and the Patriots offensive line has developed into a very good group, but the Eagles’ front seven is too good to be run over. Instead, the Patriots are likely to use one of their favorite concepts: short passes to their running backs. This is technically a pass, but functions as an extension of the running game for the offense. The running back gets the ball quickly and with room to run, and gets to avoid the defensive line, mitigating the offense’s disadvantage in blocking. The Eagles boast a great pair of linebackers in Mychal Kendricks and Nigel Bradham, both of whom have shown the ability to cover shifty running backs, but the Patriots present a uniquely difficult assignment. The Patriots have two of the best receiving backs in the league in Dion Lewis and James White, the latter of which had 110 receiving yards in last year’s Super Bowl. If the Eagles linebackers can contain the Patriots running backs, the Patriots will be forced into more obvious passing downs, making life much easier on their pass rush and, secondly, if they can’t, the Patriots’ offense might just roll through them.

  1. Patriots Deep Threats vs. Eagles Deep Coverage

When the Patriots re-signed James White, traded for Brandin Cooks, and signed Rex Burkhead this past offseason, their intentions seemed clear: they were going to spread out defenses and pass a lot and deep. Despite injuries, that’s just what they did. Brandin Cooks’ first season in New England was a major success, as the Patriots didn’t ask him to make any tough plays- rather asking him to run fast and get open deep, his main strengths. Since coming back in mid-December, the Patriots’ other deep, speedy threat, Chris Hogan, has worked himself back onto the field. Despite not making much impact over the past few weeks, expect the Patriots to try to get him involved on Sunday. The Eagles’ secondary has taken quite a few lumps over this season, with number-one cornerback Ronald Darby playing inconsistently and number-two cornerback Jalen Mills being prone to poor plays. The Eagles do have one of the better safety pairings, with Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod, but they are likely to have their hands full trying to handle the superhuman Rob Gronkowski, and the Eagles elite slot cornerback Patrick Robinson is unlikely to be in deep coverage. If the Eagles can get the Patriots into obvious passing downs, however, they’ll be able to use one of their safeties or Patrick Robinson to help cover the Patriots speedy receivers. But if Darby and Mills are stuck in one-on-one coverage often, Cooks and Hogan will be able to create big plays.

  1. Nick Foles vs. Pressure

Nick Foles’ regular-season quarterback rating is under pressure: 7.6. For reference, literally perfect is 100, and Tom Brady was second-best in the league (and tenth-best in the past 9 years) at 54. Foles was able to do well in the NFC Championship Game, as he was under little pressure on most of his snaps. And if the Vikings — who have two elite pass-rushers, one of the league’s best backup rushers, and the best defensive tackle tandem on the other side of the Mississippi — can’t pressure Foles, the Patriots might not come close. For most of the season, the Patriots’ pass rush has been AWOL, and that’s often let opposing quarterbacks settle in the pocket. Hell, even Blake Bortles was unfazed against them. Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise, their starting edges, are both capable rushers, but neither are good enough to be depended on. But they both are. James Harrison, signed just a month ago after being cut by the Steelers, will need to have the game of his life for the Patriots to be able to consistently put Foles under pressure. He is likely to line up against the Eagles now-starting left tackle, Hal Vaitai, who is one of the worst pass protectors in the league. But don’t expect much pressure to come from the right side of the offensive line, where the Eagles have two of the best pass protectors in the league. This is where the Patriots will really miss Jabaal Sheard, the high-end pass rusher they didn’t re-sign this past offseason.

  1. Eagles Receiving Threats vs. Patriots Matchups

One area where the Eagles clearly outclass the Patriots is in their depth; the Eagles go four deep at receiver, three deep at tight end, and three or four deep at running back. Using their depth to their advantage will be a must for the Eagles to be able to pick apart the Patriots’ defense, which will only go two deep at both cornerback and three deep at linebacker. Patriots starting cornerback Stephon Gilmore has been justifying his contract as of late, but his counterpart on the other side of the defense, Malcolm Butler, isn’t making good on his. Above-average play from him would be fine against the Eagles’ lackluster number two receiver, Torrey Smith, but Butler is likely to find himself matched up with number-one receiver Alshon Jeffery most of the time. Jeffery is one of the best receivers in the league, and, as such, the Patriots are likely to give Butler help from a safety, the one position at which the Patriots have depth. If he does get help, that leaves Patriots slot cornerback Eric Rowe on Eagles slot receiver Nelson Agholor. Agholor has broken out this year after looking like a bust for his first two years, whereas Rowe would not be a starter on most other teams. That’s a matchup the Eagles have to exploit. And if Butler is not helped, Foles needs to be able to recognize that and capitalize on it. The Eagles’ depth at tight end, meanwhile, will make life hard on a Patriots linebacking corp that is solid but unspectacular. The Eagles’ third tight end, Trey Burton, is likely to land a big contract elsewhere to be a starter this coming offseason, but until then, he’s a backup who’s often better than the starters he lines up against. If the Eagles can continue to find ways to get both him and Zach Ertz, the Eagles’ starting tight end and a top-three tight end himself, on the field at the same time, Burton will get very favorable matchups on the Patriots backup linebackers.

At most positions, the Eagles have a clear advantage over the Patriots. The only problem is the massive gulf between them at the most important one — quarterback. Brady’s arm faded down the stretch last year, but hasn’t shown the same wear this postseason. I expect the Patriots to avoid the middle of the field, both on the ground and through the air, and target the Eagles’ cornerbacks early and often. On the other side, I think the Eagles will run a lot and lean on their offensive line, hoping that they can put Foles in favorable situations thanks to both their pass protection and their receiving matchups. The Eagles will probably make this game a competitive one, but ultimately Nick Foles won’t be able to overcome Bill Belichick’s scheme and Tom Brady and the Patriots offense’s ability to consistently score.

Final prediction: Patriots 24, Eagles 16

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