We’ve finally made it. After 20 Sundays of football, only the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots are left standing in the bid for a Lombardi Trophy. After Sunday night, only one of those teams will have earned the right to call themselves Super Bowl LII Champions. Before the big game, here’s a look at the three factors that could decide the fate of both teams.
The best way to beat Tom Brady is to get to him early and often. However, that’s easier said than done because that pressure has to come from the front four rushers. If a team sends extra defenders at Brady with a blitz, he’ll tear them apart. Luckily for the Eagles, they have perhaps the league’s best group of defenders in their front four.
Led by Brandon Graham (9.5 sacks), the Eagles had four different defensive linemen with five or more sacks (Fletcher Cox, Derek Barnett, and Chris Long were the others) and that doesn’t even include talented linemen like Vinny Curry and Tim Jernigan. The Eagles deep, versatile front four could cause fits for Brady and New England’s offense and if they do, the Eagles could be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy on Sunday.
It’s crucial for the Patriots to get pressure on Nick Foles and disrupt the Eagles’ offense. That’s the best way to rattle any quarterback and Foles took advantage of great protection from his offensive line on his way to an excellent playoff performance against the Vikings. The Patriots defense has struggled to defend the pass at times this season due to a lack of pressure from their defensive front.
As a team that’s heavily reliant on man coverage, New England can’t allow opposing passers to have too much time in the pocket, otherwise somebody will eventually get open. Behind improved play from James Harrison and Trey Flowers, the Patriots have the most sacks of any team this postseason (11) and continuing to pressure the quarterback at that rate would go a long way in helping the franchise raise their 6th Lombardi Trophy.
Third Down Efficiency
In this game the Eagles will want to do whatever they can to keep Tom Brady and the Patriots offense off the field while the Patriots will want to keep the Eagles defense on the field to try and wear them out. The key for both teams in achieving these goals is third down.
This season, the Eagles had one of the NFL’s most efficient third-down offenses, converting 41.7% of their attempts (8th in the NFL). They also led the league in fourth down conversions with 17. While many expected a significant drop-off in their efficiency when going from Carson Wentz to Nick Foles, Foles and the Eagles offense went 10-14 on third downs against Minnesota’s historically good third down defense (their 25.2% rate was the best in league history since they started tracking the stat in 1991). If they can have anywhere near that level of success against New England, they can control the tempo of the game and their Super Bowl fate.
The Patriots finished the regular season at 10th, just a couple spots behind the Eagles in third down efficiency (40.7%). Unlike the Eagles, the Patriots struggled to convert third downs against one of the league’s best defenses, Jacksonville. New England converted just 3 of 12 third downs and none in the first half but they were eventually able to come back in the game by forcing punts from the Jaguars and capitalizing on their opportunities late. In order to beat the Eagles, the Patriots will have to be better on third down than they were against Jacksonville. The Patriots will have to tire out the Eagles defense like they did the Falcons in Super Bowl 51, when they kept them on the field for a whopping 93 snaps. While the Eagles have more depth up front than that Falcons team did, fatigue should play a factor in how well the Eagles will be able to stop Brady and the Patriots offense.
The Run Game
In addition to third down efficiency, running the ball will be crucial in determining which team controls the tempo of this Super Bowl.
Again, the Eagles will benefit on both sides of the ball if they can keep Tom Brady off the field for as long as possible. That means using the league’s third-best rushing attack (132.2 yards per game) to take the pressure off Nick Foles and extend their drives. In Jay Ajayi, LaGarrette Blount, and Corey Clement, the Eagles have a versatile group of running backs that could present New England with numerous problems defensively. Running the ball efficiently and grinding out the clock would go a long way in helping the Eagles secure the franchise’s first Super Bowl win.
Make no mistake, the Patriots offense runs through Tom Brady but establishing the run game could go a long way in securing another Patriots Super Bowl. Doing so, however, will certainly be difficult against the Eagles’ stingy rush defense, a unit that allowed only 79.2 rush yards per game, tops in the league. New England also boasts a deep group of running backs, with Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead having shown the ability to hurt teams both on the ground and through the air, and James White proving to be one of the best pass-catching backs in the league. A big game from Lewis and/or Burkhead on the ground would help create easier third down conversions for the Patriots offense and open up the play action game for New England. Both of these would help the Patriots control the tempo of the game and tire out the Eagles defense, making it even easier for Brady to take control of the game and win it late for New England, if necessary.
The last time these two teams met in the Super Bowl, the Patriots won 24-21 but that final score is a bit deceiving. With 5:40 left in the game, the Patriots led by 10 and the Eagles scored a touchdown with just 1:48 left to give the game its final score. The only people left on either team in that game are Brady and Belichick. I expect this game to be even closer than the last showdown between the teams throughout. The Patriots might start slow as they usually do (they have yet to score in the first quarter in any of their Super Bowl appearances) but ultimately Brady and the Patriots offense, armed with a healthy Rob Gronkowski, will prove too much for a Philadelphia secondary that has been susceptible at times this year. The end result will be the same as it was the first time these two teams met in the Super Bowl: the Patriots’ third title in four years. New England 27, Philadelphia 23