6:30 PM EST, NBC – Line: Patriots -4, Over/Under: 48
After another marathon of a season, the final Sunday of the NFL is finally upon us, as the reigning champion New England Patriots look to add a sixth Lombardi Trophy to their war chest against the Philadelphia Eagles, who will attempt to achieve the rarest of the rare: winning a Super Bowl with a Backup Quarterback. Despite sewing up the NFC East before Thanksgiving, the Eagles (13-3, 1st in NFC East) are in all honesty an unlikely participant in this contest, due to the unfortunate season-ending injury to Sophomore Phenom Quarterback Carson Wentz (60.2%, 3,296 YDS, 6.70 NY/A, 33 TD, 7 INT, 74.4 QBR), who tore his ACL back on December 10th. Undertaking the unenviable task of replacing the MVP Candidate was Nick Foles (56.4%, 537 YDS, 4.65 NY/A, 5 TD, 2 INT, 31.4 QBR), who now in his second stint with the Franchise who drafted him back in 2012 holds the golden opportunity to channel his inner Jeff Hostetler, and come out of the proverbial Bullpen and lead the Eagles to their first ever Super Bowl Championship. Needless to say, despite owning the NFC’s No. One Seed (along with Home Field Advantage), Doug Pederson’s charges initially entered the Playoffs with barely a lukewarm buzz in making it to U.S. Bank Stadium this weekend, with Foles being the prime reason for the pessimism. And based off of how the 28-Year old performed over the final three games of the campaign, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone outside of the City of Brotherly Love that would express much confidence in this team; After replacing Wentz, Foles struggled to complete 54.6% of his Attempts for an average of 160.3 Yards on a miserable 4.59 Net Yards per Attempt, with Five Touchdowns in comparison to Two Interceptions, while the Offense in general became less and less productive, scoring Thirty-Four Points followed by Sixteen Points, and Zero Points in the Regular Season Finale. Momentum is a precious commodity when dealing with the Postseason, folks, and for all intents and purposes this team had lost it after coasting through three-quarters of their schedule, which is precisely how Pederson and Co. became the first side to own the distinction of being both the No. One Seed in the Playoffs and an Underdog in their Division Round Matchup with the Atlanta Falcons, and then the following week at home against the Minnesota Vikings, with both contests being played at Lincoln Financial Field. And it’s with that said, that the Eagles shockingly changed the narrative and bested both teams, edging the reigning NFC Champions in a glacial 15-10 affair, before humbling the Vikings in a 38-7 blowout a week later to book their trip to Minneapolis. We’ll get into the defensive side of the football shortly, but plenty of credit must go to Pederson and his Staff for the work they’ve done with Foles, who has shown impressive strides in the Playoffs, serving as a catalyst for the Offense rather than the detriment that so many predicted. After weeks of struggling to push the ball downfield, let alone complete a high percentage of his throws, the Sixth-Year Signal-Caller has turned back the clock to resemble the young Quarterback he previously was in Philadelphia, completing an efficient 77.8% of his Passes for an average of 299.0 Yards on a vastly-improved 9.27 Net Yards per Attempt, with Three Touchdowns and Zero Interceptions in the two victories. He looks much more comfortable in the Pocket than he did at any time during the Regular Season, seeing the field clearer and getting the ball out of his hands much more quickly than before.
The Playcalling has helped immensely as well, which was certainly apparent in the win over Minnesota; Pederson and his Staff couldn’t have called the game any more even, with their troops rushing the ball thirty times for 110 Yards, while Foles attempted Thirty-Three Passes, completing all but seven of them for 352 Yards and a trifecta of scores. The Running Game, which had been a huge component of the Offense throughout the campaign, wore down one of the better Defensive Fronts in the league, with the three-headed monster of Jay Ajayi (18 CAR, 73 YDS), LeGarrette Blount (6 CAR, 21 YDS, 1 TD), and Corey Clement (2 CAR, 20 YDS) grinding the visiting side into dust behind a mammoth Offensive Line, that has continued to play at a high level despite the loss of perennial Pro Bowl Left Tackle Peters, who tore his ACL nearly two months ago. This is truly where everything begins for this unit, with Philadelphia routinely dominating the opposition in the trenches; on the season, the Rushing Attack churned out 132.2 Yards per Game on the ground (3rd Overall) on a healthy 4.5 Yards per Carry (4th Overall), while Pederson continued to stay true to it, attempting 29.6 Rushes per Game (6th Overall). Furthermore, they’ve been excellent from a situational perspective, converting 41.7% of their Third Downs (8th Overall), while leading the entire league in Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (65.5%). Balance is the key here, folks, with their success on the ground parlaying to a wealth of opportunities in the Passing Game, no matter who the Quarterback appears to be. The Eagles made a concerted effort in the Offseason to bolster their Receiving Corps, adding the likes of veteran Wideouts Alshon Jeffery (57 REC, 789 YDS, 9 TD) and Torrey Smith (36 REC, 430 YDS, 2 TD) to a group that already had a stud in Tight End Zach Ertz (74 REC, 824 YDS, 8 TD) and a blossoming youngster in the form of Nelson Agholor (62 REC, 768 YDS, 8 TD). If they can once again establish their dominance on the ground, then look for these guys to have plenty of opportunities against New England’s Secondary. On the other hand, Philadelphia’s superiority in the trenches isn’t exclusive to the offensive side of the football, for the Defense has been fierce throughout the campaign, for all intents and purposes carrying the team to this point once the aforementioned Wentz went down for the count. On the year, Jim Schwartz’s unit has allowed 18.4 Points (4th Overall) on 306.5 Total Yards (4th Overall), including 227.3 Yards versus the Pass (17th Overall) on 5.7 Net Yards per Attempt (7th Overall), and another 79.2 Yards against the Run (1st Overall) on 3.8 Yards per Carry (6th Overall), all the while permitting opponents to convert on just 32.2% of Third Downs (3rd Overall). Much of their success is owed to their group up front, where arguably the deepest Defensive Line in football has regularly terrorized opposing Quarterbacks. Despite registering Thirty-Eight Sacks, the unit goes about nine-deep, with Schwartz doing a masterful job of splitting Snaps between his charges. Just how deep is Philadelphia’s Defensive Line, you ask? They were the only team in the league to sport over seven Lineman to play at least 400 Snaps this season, with Brandon Graham (47 TKL, 9.5 SK, 2 FF, 1 FR, 1 TD) participating in just over 60.0% of those all plays, the most on the team. This should certainly play to their advantage against the Patriots, who so often employ the quick- hurry-up approach in an attempt to quickly fatigue their opponents. In addition to Graham, the Defensive Front has plenty of studs including the likes of Pro Bowl Tackle Fletcher Cox (26 TKL, 5.5 SK, 1 FF, 2 FR, 1 TD), veteran Edge-Rusher Chris Long (28 TKL, 5.0 SK, 4 FF), and new acquisitions such as Timmy Jernigan (29 TKL, 2.5 SK) and Rookie Derek Barnett (22 TKL, 5.0 SK, 1 FF, 2 FR, 1 TD). The havoc that they’ve managed to create up front, has led to a wealth of opportunities for big plays, with the Eagles capitalizing on Thirty-One Takeaways this season (4th Overall), including Nineteen Interceptions (4th Overall), while even scoring Six Touchdowns, the second-most in the NFL. Their heady play was on full display against the Vikings in the NFC Championship Game, in which they turned Case Keenum (28-of-48 for 271 YDS 1 TD, 2 INT, 1 FL) over on three occasions, with Cornerback Patrick Robinson returning an Interception for a score midway through the First Quarter.
Meanwhile, Meanwhile, there really is something to be said in regards to the old adage of poking the bear, for once again the Patriots (13-3, 1st in AFC East) have responded in dominant fashion after a reported scandal/controversy. Back in 2007, Bill Belichick’s charges put together the first 16-0 campaign since 1972 after the fallout from the SpyGate scandal of Super Bowl XXXVI, only to go 14-2 last year in route to their Fifth Lombardi Trophy after the frustratingly persistent DeflateGate Scandal stemming from the 2014 AFC Championship Game. Of course, that latter example resulted in a 4-Game Suspension of Tom Brady, for the legendary Quarterback’s role in the controversy, a jab from the NFL that would light the proverbial flames of motivation for a team that is always looking for one in an attempt to avoid the dreaded complacency that inevitably comes with such outstanding success. Prior to their Divisional Playoff meeting with the Tennessee Titans, reports broke about a purported rift in the organization between their three pillars, namely the aforementioned Belichick and Brady, along with the Owner, Robert Kraft. It was a fascinating tale revolving around Brady’s desire to play well into his 40’s (which is unprecedented at his position), the role of his erstwhile Personal Trainer, whose influence in the Lockerroom has certainly ruffled the feathers of Belichick, and the fact that Kraft decreed that his longtime Head Coach swiftly trade Backup Quarterback (and presumed heir to Brady’s throne) Jimmy Garoppolo for just a Second Round Pick (seriously?), because Brady felt “threatened” by his understudy’s presence (again, seriously?). While that is definitely a lot to digest, what makes the story so interesting is the fact that one of the most successful runs in sports history could be felled by nothing more than the disparate egos of three men, which is absolutely shocking given the franchise’s hallmarks of teamwork, chemistry, and unity, each of which serving as a foundational piece of the Patriot Way. And then there is the general feeling that this is indeed the end of an era, with things naturally running their curse, as each of Belichick’s chief Lieutenants, Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels and Defensive Coordinator Matt Patricia, who have served in those respective posts for each of the past six years, with the former being unofficially hired by the Indianapolis Colts, and the latter accepting the same position with the Detroit Lions. It’s akin to the last hurrah for the cast of a wildly successful Movie Franchise or Television Series, or the final album or tour of a beloved band. With that said, we can all put away our respective Soap Opera Digest, for their performance on the field throughout this Postseason has quelled any and all doubt in their singular vision in obtaining a historic sixth Super Bowl Championship. After dumping the Tennessee Titans in the Division Round with relative ease (35-14), their 24-20 comeback victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars the following week was textbook New England Patriots. Falling behind 14-3 midway through the Second Quarter, the Pats methodically climbed their way back into the game, scoring a crucial Touchdown shortly before Halftime to cut the lead to 14-10 at Intermission. This particular Drive was notable for a number of reasons, for up until that point, the Offense was largely lethargic, only to see the hosts travel Eighty-Five Yards on just Six Plays, thanks in large part to a pair of HUGE Penalties, a 15-Yard Unnecessary Roughness Flag on Safety Barry Church for leveling a Helmut-to-Helmut hit on All-Pro Tight End Rob Gronkowski (which also knocked him out of the contest with a Concussion), immediately followed by a controversial Pass Interference on Pro Bowl Cornerback A.J. Bouye, who was rerouting Wideout Brandin Cooks out of bounds Thirty-Two Yards downfield. Essentially, New England went Forty-Seven Yards in just two plays.
Like they’ve done so often in the past, the Patriots emerged from Halftime after making the requisite adjustments to turn the table on their opponent, outscoring Jacksonville 14-6 over the final two stanzas of play, with none other than Brady featuring prominently on their decisive, game-winning Drive. After forcing yet another Jaguars’ Punt, the home side received favorable Field Position courtesy of Danny Amendola (7 REC, 84 YDS, 1 TD), who returned the Punt Twenty Yards to the opponent’s 30-Yard Line, followed another masterclass from Brady, who went 2-for-2 before hitting Amendola for a 4-Yard Touchdown to effectively win the game with 2:48 left to play. Coming as absolutely no surprise to anyone, Brady was fantastic in his seventh consecutive AFC Championship Game, overcoming a slow start to torch one of the nastiest Defenses in the league for 290 Yards and a pair of Touchdowns on 26-of-38 Passing, made all the more impressive that he persevered throughout the Second Half without the services of Gronkowski. Then again, more so than any other season beforehand, the 2017 Patriots have been defined by the play of Brady (66.3%, 4,577 YDS, 710 NY/A, 32 TD, 8 INT, 70.2 QBR), who at 40-Years Old figures to be the frontrunner for the MVP award at this point. The 2-Time MVP has absolutely carried the weight of the Offense, a burden that isn’t necessarily ideal for a Quarterback in the twilight of his career, leading the NFL in both Passing Attempts (581) and Passing Yards (4,577) in 2017, steering an at times one-dimensional Offense to 28.6 Points per Game (2nd Overall) on a league-best 406.8 Total Yards (1st Overall). Of course, when you throw the football so much, pressure becomes something to keep an eye, for protecting him is of the utmost priority at this stage; after being sacked a scant fifteen times in 2016, Brady was dropped thirty-five times this season, behind an Offensive Line that is missing Right Tackle Marcus Cannon (Ankle), who was placed on Injured Reserve. Ironically, this is where Gronkowski’s status becomes so important; look for him to help their Offensive Line by employing Multi-Tight End formations, subtly using the position as extra blockers to run the football with greater success, something they’ve used frequently over the years. While everyone is aware of the 5-Time Pro Bowler’s prowess as a Receiver (69 REC, 1,084 YDS, 8 TD), Gronk is also one of the better blockers in the league at his position, and when combined with fellow Tight End Dwayne Allen (10 REC, 86 YDS, 1 TD) grant the Patriots a solid boost in both Pass-Protection and in the Running Game, which will both be crucial in tonight’s contest. And this is what makes this matchup with the Eagles so intriguing, for it should be a proverbial Chess Match between he, the aforementioned McDaniels, and Philadelphia’s Defense. Few units in the league are better at wearing opposing Defenses down through the use of tempo as New England, with Brady having demonstrated his mastery of the No-Huddle throughout his storied career. Just look back to his last two Super Bowls, in which he tormented the Seattle Seahawks and the Atlanta Falcons with a flurry of short, quick passes out of the Shotgun to negate the Pass-Rush, all the while leaving them dangerously fatigued in the latter stages of each affair; in those two pivotal contests, Brady completed a whopping 80-of-112 Attempts (71.4%) for 794 Yards (7.09 Y/A), Six Touchdowns and Three Interceptions, despite taking Seven Sacks, though much of that pressure effected him earlier in those respective outings.