Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney takes a position-by-position look at how New England and Philadelphia stack up for Super Bowl LII on Sunday in Minneapolis.
We could end this by simply typing Tom Brady vs. Nick Foles. Or seven Super Bowl appearances and five rings and four-time Super Bowl MVP against first-time Super Bowl starter. Or a Hall of Famer who on Sunday could pass Charles Haley for the most Super Bowl wins against a backup who’s only playing because Carson Wentz tore his ACL. We could give you numbers and trends and fancy ratings. But we won’t, because why?
Here’s guessing Jay Ajayi has been smiling since the moment Philadelphia nabbed him in a midseason trade from Miami, and combining him with red-zone stud LeGarrette Blount and rookie Corey Clement gives the Eagles all sorts of balance and versatile threats. New England ran the ball well down the stretch, averaging almost 140 yards over the last six regular-season weeks, but has been slowed in two playoff wins. Dion Lewis. James White. Rex Burkhead. Good but not fantastic.
Before we get to those on the outside, understand two of the game’s most important names come at tight end, where a concussion protocol cleared Rob Gronkowski, Brady’s No. 1 option. Zach Ertz provides similar comfort for Foles. Danny Amendola could be critical in the slot for New England if the Eagles can pressure Brady and Brandin Cooks feasts off baiting others into deep pass interference penalties. We like Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor and Torrey Smith for the Eagles. Just not as much as the other guys.
New England is good and yet vulnerable up front, which should cause us to see Brady use one of his greatest skills — getting the ball out early and often. But it’s also true the Patriots more than stood up to a few of the league’s best pass rushes in playoff wins against Tennessee and Jacksonville. The Eagles sit alongside the Rams and Saints for the NFL’s best offensive lines, even with star tackle Jason Peters going down with a season-ending injury in Week 7. Jason Kelce anchors the front at center, and there might not be a better unit in terms of blocking, athleticism and chemistry.
Guys like Brady and Gronk grab all the headlines during a week such as this, but ones like Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham and Derek Barnett might be as vital. The trio of Philadelphia defensive linemen lead one of the NFL’s best pass rushes, a disruptive force that has a league-best 112 quarterback hits and yet also offers a low blitz rate of 23 percent. New England has been terrific here over the second part of the season, led by Western High School graduate Lawrence Guy and Trey Flowers and Malcom Brown. This is a lot closer call than most believe, but Cox pushes the Eagles forward.
Stress will come for Elandon Roberts, Marquis Flowers and Kyle Van Noy of the Patriots, given no NFL team employs a more efficient run-pass option than the Eagles. New England better know its gaps well, or it’s going to be chasing backs and receivers all day. Mychal Kendricks requested a trade from the Eagles before the season and yet the team wouldn’t comply. A good thing. Philadelphia lost starting middle linebacker Jordan Hicks in October to injury, meaning the play of Kendricks, Nigel Bradham and Dannell Ellerbe have been key to the team’s Super Bowl run.
Did we mention something about Brady and quick throws? It is one strategy that has proven successful against a Philadelphia back end of safeties Malcolm Jenkins (who has a Super Bowl ring with the Saints) and Rodney McLeod. Jenkins will most likely match up with Gronkowski, but if pressure doesn’t come up front from the Eagles, Brady will shred Philadelphia. On the other side, Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore haven’t been great in playoff coverage for the Patriots, but Patrick Chung is outstanding against opposing tight ends (see Ertz).
It’s a veteran place-kicker for the Patriots (Stephen Gostkowski) against a rookie with a cannon for a leg (Jake Elliott) for the Eagles. The key here is New England punter Ryan Allen and if he can come close to his AFC championship game performance, when he dropped three kicks inside the 20 and continually flipped the field on Jacksonville. His counterpart with the Eagles, Donnie Jones, has his own share of playoff coffin-corner efforts. In such a huge game, best to take a returner with sure hands (Amendola) over a guy who has had fumbling issues (Kenjon Barner).
Glance upward and read again what we said about quarterbacks, and apply the same philosophy here when it comes to Bill Belichick against Doug Pederson, against the only head coach to win five Super Bowls against a good head coach but whose only comparison to the guy with the Patriots might be if he also owns a hoodie. The good news for Philadelphia is, Pederson is ultra-aggressive and fearless in how he attacks a game, so maybe his lack of experience in such a setting will be balanced with some exciting moments. The (really) bad news is, Belichick has had two weeks to prepare.
Um, this isn’t close. The Patriots arrived to the Bold North with 32 players who have a combined 60 games of Super Bowl experience. Brady is 5-2 alone in the big game. Of the seven players on the Eagles who own a Super Bowl ring, two (Blount and Chris Long) won theirs with New England last year. Stop with this stuff about it not mattering, that these are new teams in a new season. It’s the Super Bowl. Having been here before matters. Having been here as much as the Patriots really matters.
Patriots 27, Eagles 20.
Contact columnist Ed Graney at email@example.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.