Amid the pomp and circumstance of Super Bowl week, there is actually a game that will be played. Let’s allow everybody else to focus on the pageantry of the event. We are going to dive into a position by position evaluation ahead of the big game. Let’s start with on the offensive side of the ball.
If there is one clear-cut advantage for either team in this game, it’s at the quarterback position. Tom Brady is the consummate professional. He will demonstrate great poise throughout the game regardless of the literal and figurative noise around him. Nick Foles played perhaps the best game of his entire life in the NFC championship game against a stellar Minnesota Vikings defense. He will need to replicate that performance to give his team a chance.
The New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles almost mirror one another in the way they use their running backs. As the season progressed, Dion Lewis saw his role expand. He is known for his elusiveness, but he runs with deceptive power as well. James White’s track record in the postseason speaks for itself. He was a savior in last season’s Super Bowl. White possesses great hands and his quarterback has the utmost trust in his abilities. Rex Burkhead is another solid option as he can spell either Lewis or White.
When the Eagles obtained Jay Ajayi, they showed the NFL they were all-in on this season. Ajayi would be a feature back on many teams like he was with the Miami Dolphins. However, Philadelphia has excellent depth in the backfield. LeGarrette Blount is the power option while Corey Clement specializes in the passing attack. Last week, the Jacksonville Jaguars moved the ball easily at New England as they replaced Leonard Fournette with seldom-used Corey Grant. Look for the Eagles to keep the fresh back in the game and do a lot of different things with their halfbacks.
Rob Gronkowski is arguably the greatest tight end to ever play the game. He is hardly the lone threat for the Patriots on offense, though. As we witnessed last week, Danny Amendola is as clutch as it gets. Brandin Cooks added six receptions for 100 yards and one critical drop. Brady has been looking deep more regularly in 2017 than ever before. Hence, if Cooks gets behind the Eagles gambling defensive backs and Brady connects, that could be a game-changer. The Pats’ will try it at least once per half. Chris Hogan and Philip Dorsett are also versatile, useful receivers. New England will be ultra-tough to stop if this game turns into a shootout.
The Eagles have a few weapons of their own. Alshon Jeffery has seen his career rejuvenated by coming over to Philly. He was huge in beating Minnesota’s all-world defensive backfield. His 53-yarder proved to be the dagger in the Eagles rout of the Vikings. Nelson Algohar and Torrey Smith are good second and third options on the outside, but not great. The Eagles’ tight ends have been a strength this season especially Zach Ertz. How many times did Foles hit Ertz on third down in the NFC championship game? Ertz keeps improving and the Eagles will look to exploit this advantage Sunday.
The Eagles from top to bottom have the better offensive line. Their center Jason Kelce is a terrific athlete and perhaps the best screen blocker in the game today. Likewise, Lane Johnson is a powerful right tackle. Since Foles is not as much of a threat to move in the pocket as Carson Wentz is, Johnson’s play has taken on a more magnified role. When watching the film, he has passed with flying colors. Halapoulivaati Vaitai is the weak link on this strong line. Look for Bill Belichick to switch between Trey Flowers and James Harrison over Vaitai to keep the backup tackle off-balance.
The Patriots’ offensive line has experienced some inconsistencies. Cameron Fleming has struggled to step into Marcus Cannon’s large shoes at right tackle. On the other hand, the interior has been stout especially when run-blocking. David Andrews is a star in the making and surrounds himself with Shaq Mason and Joe Thuney. That trio means more time for Brady to pick his poison.
Simply put, Brandon Graham is superb. He is an elite pass rusher who garnered 9.5 sacks and 47 tackles while sharing time with former Patriot Chris Long at defensive end. The Eagles have a nice interior as well with high-priced Timmy Jernigan and Fletcher Cox. The Patriots have experienced multiple injuries along the line, but appear to be at their most healthy coming into the game Sunday.
Malcolm Brown, Alan Branch and Deatrich Wise Jr. all claim to be 100% ready to play. Trey Flowers is the unsung man on the Patriots. He was enormous in the Super Bowl last year. Twice, the Atlanta Falcons could have put New England in a world of hurt. The Pats’ failed to recover an onside kick giving Atlanta the short field. Flowers sacked Matt Ryan ending the threat. Later in the game, Flowers got Ryan again after a miraculous Julio Jones reception set up Atlanta nicely. Flowers will have another big game this year. Adding James Harrison was the most necessary and incredible move Coach Belichick made during the season. Harrison’s phenomenal play in the 2009 Super Bowl against the Arizona Cardinals is one of the greatest moments in professional football history.
The Eagles appear to have the better group at linebacker. The underrated duo on the outside, Mychal Kendricks and Nigel Bradham, are solid tacklers who defend the pass expertly. The Eagles’ linebackers and edge rushers were flying around the field in the second half of the NFC championship game. For the true fan of the intricacies of the game, it was such a pleasure to watch Jim Schwartz defense in action. They play a smart scheme with throwback relentlessness.
New England lacks experience and depth. Julian Edelman’s injury made the headlines, but Dont’a Hightower’s absence is one of the underplayed stories of the week. People close to the organization recognize Hightower’s greatness. While it is more juicy to discuss a perceived riff in the relationship between Brady and Belichick or how the Patriots get all the officiating breaks, there is an actual news item regarding these Patriots. They miss the terrific Hightower. In both the 2015 and 2017 Super Bowls, Hightower made signature game-altering stops. The Eagles have the tight ends and receiving backs to out-man the Patriots linebackers.
Both teams look good on the back end. Everybody remembers Malcolm Butler’s iconic play as a rookie in the 2015 Super Bowl against the Seattle Seahawks. That was a career-builder for Butler, not a one play wonder. Butler is scrappy, turnover-conscious and gives 100% on every play. Hence, Belichick loves him. On the other side, Stephon Gilmore is susceptible to penalties, but has big play ability as was on display in the last minute of the AFC championship game. Safeties Pat Chung and Devin McCourty are in their fourth Super Bowls. Along with Duran Harmon, they epitomize the bend but don’t break style of Patriot defense. New England gives up a lot of yards, but not a lot of points. That is a recipe for victory.
The Eagles are well-positioned at corner as well. Preseason acquisition Ronald Darby and lockdown guy Jalen Mills join nickelback Patrick Robinson to form a trio that stopped Atlanta with a goal-line stand and had a pick six against Minnesota. While the patriots do not possess the star power of a Julio Jones or Adam Thielen, their receiver by committee will be quite the test for Philadelphia’s backfield. Malcolm Jenkins is one of the best in the game at his position and will have his hands full deciding where to help out.
The Patriots typically plan an offensive attack that has not been seen before. Will they feature Gronk like they did when they won in Pittsburgh? Or will they try to get their backs involved in the passing game? Perhaps they will do something totally different. Your guess is as good as mine. When Schwartz was the defensive coordinator for the Bills in 2014, Tom Brady threw for 361 yards and the Pats’ scored 37 points against one of the best defenses in the league that year. The game will be decided by whoever wins the matchup between the Patriot receivers and Eagle defensive backs. One thing is for sure: Coach Schwartz will have a busy week and a stressful Super Bowl night.
Overall, the Patriots have the edge in the kicking game. Veteran Stephen Gostkowski has been doing his thing for New England for 12 seasons. He has a big, dependable leg. Jake Elliott’s highlight came in a Week 3 win for the Eagles over the New York Giants. He boomed a 61-yard field goal at the buzzer. Each team has a reliable, if not spectacular, punter. The Eagles Donnie Jones has a rocket for a leg while the Patriots lefty Ryan Allen does a great job pinning the opposition deep with his directional gems. He flew under the radar with a strong second half performance against the Jaguars. Belichick was content to get into a field position game and it paid off.
As if New England isn’t tough enough to defeat, the Eagles will have to be mindful of two veteran threats. Danny Amendola provided a spark in the punt game against Jacksonville when he set up his own game-winning touchdown with a 20-yard return. Dion Lewis returned a kickoff for a touchdown in last year’s playoffs and another one this season at Denver.
Obviously, these ball clubs match up well. The Patriots have the better offense, the Eagles have the better defense. However, only one of these teams has Coach Belichick. That is a pretty significant factor. The better overall team comes from Philadelphia. The better coach and quarterback come from New England. This should be a fabulous contest.
Brandon Fazzolari is a Super Bowl expert…@spot_Bills