The year is 2018. We are on the brink of World War III, Elon Musk just sold $10 million worth of flamethrowers, and Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are still dominating pro football. The absurd level of success achieved during the Brady-Belichick era is something that we will probably never see again in the NFL, and perhaps in all of professional sports. On Sunday, the duo will appear in their eighth Super Bowl together, as Brady attempts to pick up his sixth ring. Whatever your feelings about the Patriots are, you have to respect such an awesome feat.
After the Super Bowl XLVI loss to the Giants in 2012, many wondered if this was the end for Brady and Belichick. The last-gasp victory over the Seahawks in 2015 led some to believe that this was the last hurrah for Tom and Bill. When they pulled off the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history against the Falcons in last year’s Super Bowl, the prospect that a now 40 year-old Brady would be able to continue that dominance throughout the 2017 season was unfathomable. But here we are.
After a shaky 2-2 start, it has been business as usual for the Patriots this year. At age 40, Brady finished the season with the most passing yards in the league, a 102.8 passer rating, and a 32:8 TD-INT ratio. Brady’s ‘gradual decline’ (h/t Dan Hanzus) has been anticipated for years, but he shows absolutely no signs of slowing down. His arm is as strong as ever, his pocket movement remains exemplary, and mentally, he is at his sharpest.
Brady has an abundance of explosive weapons at his disposal, which is something that couldn’t have been said in years past. The Brandin Cooks trade has been a resounding success, providing the offense with a much needed deep threat. Chris Hogan is another important big-play receiver in this offense, and while he has only recently returned to action after a shoulder injury that wiped out the latter part of his regular season, he averaged over 100 yards per game in last season’s playoff campaign. Most importantly, Rob Gronkowski appears to be healthy and ready to make an impact on Sunday’s game, having missed last year’s Super Bowl through injury. His presence on the field will be huge, not just for the colossal mismatches he creates but because of the attention he will draw away from the Patriots’ outside receivers while he cleans up between the numbers.
BRADY v EAGLES DEFENSE
Brady faces a very tough test against this ferocious Eagles defense. The strength of the defense lies in their front four, which will be key in making Brady uncomfortable throughout the contest. Fletcher Cox is a household name at this point of his career. He is an extremely disruptive force on that defensive line, and he is the player that the Patriots’ interior offensive linemen will have to account for on every play. He blows up runs in the backfield and makes life hell for quarterbacks by applying pressure up the middle. He is flanked by Timmy Jernigan, primarily a run-stuffing specialist but a great one at that.
Brandon Graham is one of the most underrated edge rushers in the entire league, and has racked up 9.5 sacks this season. He, along with Vinny Curry, rookie Derek Barnett and veteran Chris Long, will look to apply the heat to Brady early and often. If the Patriots have a weakness on their offense, it is the offensive line. The Eagles front seven will look to capitalise on this by disrupting the Patriots’ passing attack. They also have the ability to shut down the run game completely, having allowed less than 80 rushing yards per game during the regular season (best in the NFL).
If the Eagles want to force Brady to get rid of the ball quickly, expect to see a heavy dose of Danny Amendola and their trio of pass-catching backs: Dion Lewis, James White and Rex Burkhead. Allowing Brady time in the pocket would spell trouble for the Eagles’ secondary. Statistically, their pass defense has been average this season (17th in the league), but the cornerback duo of Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills have plenty of speed and ball skills. However, as with any great quarterback, if you give Brady time in the pocket there will be busts in coverage.
NICK FOLES’ TEAM
The fact that the Eagles are here despite Carson Wentz’ season-ending injury is a testament to Doug Pederson and the mental toughness of the entire team. They have rallied behind Nick Foles as their leader, and have shown that their roster talent around the quarterback is among the best in the league. Foles’ performance will be the biggest factor in determining the outcome of this game. The Philly defense is good enough to keep the Patriots comfortably under 30 points – the question is whether Foles can deliver the same kind of performance as the one he delivered in the NFC Championship game (352 passing yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs). His passer rating since becoming the starter is quite interesting when analysing it from a number of angles, as outlined in the image below (credit to the Washington Post).
Granted it is a small sample size, but his passer rating when blitzed is remarkably high. For reference, Brady’s passer rating when blitzed is 84.0. I’m sure that the first instinct of many Patriots fans when considering how to stop this Eagles offense is to send the house and try to force Foles into mistakes. It’s generally unwise to place a great deal of emphasis on passer rating, but it does have some significance here. The Patriots best approach may be to send four for most of the game, play tight man coverage, and see if Foles can pick you apart.
Foles has plenty of help around him in the form of dynamic tight end Zach Ertz, the big-bodied Alshon Jeffery, and surprising breakout star Nelson Agholor. His offensive line is among the best in the league despite the loss of Jason Peters earlier in the season, and they have consistently been opening up holes for Jay Ajayi, who should be in store for a heavy workload. I would expect Foles to be given adequate time to put the ball in the hands of his receivers, but whether he can capitalise in the redzone will be huge. The Patriots defense adopts a bend-but-don’t-break philosophy; they are among the league’s worst defenses in terms of yards allowed, but boast a top five scoring defense. They may allow Foles to dink and dunk his way down the field, but if the Pats can force the Eagles to settle for field goals, they will be well on their way to victory.
It is very hard for me to look past the Patriots. The Eagles defence may be the most talented unit on the field, but Brady and Belichick have been here too many times to let Nick Foles tear down the dynasty. This will be Josh McDaniels’ & Matt Patricia’s final games coaching for the Patriots, and they will not want to go out on a sour note. I have the utmost respect for what the Eagles have done over the past number of weeks in trying circumstances, but I firmly believe that the fairytale comes to an end on Sunday. These are the New England Patriots. This is Brady and Belichick. It’s as simple as that.
Score prediction: New England 27-19 Philadelphia
NFL TALK predictions:
Ciarán: New England 24-27 Philadelphia
Jack: New England 27-24 Philadelphia
Seán: New England 27-Philadelphia 17
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