With kickoff almost a week away, let’s take a closer look at the Eagles’ opponent.
HOW THEY GOT HERE
After coming back from a 28-3 deficit to win Super Bowl LI, the Patriots had an unusually aggressive offseason in 2017. Many thought the team was chasing the only thing they’ve yet to accomplish: a perfect 19-0 record.
Well, that didn’t last too long.
The Patriots lost the 2017 NFL season opener on Thursday night despite playing at home against the Chiefs. Kansas City won that game by a final score of 42 to 27. Along with the New England defense looking porous, Tom Brady looked more mortal than usual.
The Patriots got back on track with a win over the Saints (who dropped to 0-2 at that time) before hosting the Texans back at home. Rookie sensation Deshaun Watson took the Patriots down to the wire in a game where New England only won by a final score of 36-33. One week later, the Panthers came to Foxborough and also dropped 33 on the Pats, this time in a win. New England fell to 2-2 as serious questions about their defense arose.
After that loss, the Patriots would only go on to lose one more game all season: a Monday night road game in Miami against the JAY CUTLER-LED DOLPHINS. I repeat: the Jay Cutler-led Dolphins.
And Dolphins didn’t just squeak by their AFC East rivals. The score in that game was 27-10 going into the fourth quarter. Then it was 27-17 with 53 seconds remaining in the game before the Pats kicked a late field goal and unsuccessfully tried to recover an onside kick. In other words, the Dolphins beat the Pats comfortably.
But despite that loss, New England still finished 13-3 and the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
Some of their wins along the way were not without controversy. Shocking, right? Three questionable rulings from NFL referee Alberto Riveron decided games in favor of the Pats this season. More on that here:
Hopefully officiating won’t be the deciding factor for either team in Super Bowl LII.
BY THE NUMBERS
Here’s how the Patriots rank in some noteworthy categories.
Overall DVOA: 1st
Point differential: tied for 1st (with the Eagles)
Turnover differential: 11th (25th in takeaways, 2nd in giveaways)
Offensive DVOA: 1st
Points per game: 2nd
Overall yards per play: tied for 3rd
Rushing yards per attempt: tied for 14th
Passing yards per attempt: 5th
Defensive DVOA: 17th
Points per game: 5th
Overall yards per play: 26th
Rushing yards per attempt: 31st
Passing yards per attempt: 20th
Special teams DVOA: 2nd
Some guy named Bill Belichick is the head coach of the Patriots. Turns out he’s pretty OK at his job. Including playoffs, The Hoodie is 278-128 in 406 NFL games coached. He’s won five Super Bowl titles, no big deal.
Josh McDaniels is New England’s offensive coordinator. He’s spent the last six seasons with the Pats after he flamed out in his role as the Broncos’ head coach (and one year with the Rams as an OC). McDaniels’ work running the Pats’ offense landed him a head coaching gig with the Indianpolis Colts this offseason.
Matt Patricia runs the Patriots defense. He’s a pretty smart dude who literally could’ve become a rocket scientist. The numbers show that the Patriots’ defense hasn’t been outstanding this year, but it’s been good enough to get them to 13-3. Patricia is set to become the Detroit Lions’ head coach once the Super Bowl is over.
The Patriots’ offense is centered around a guy named Tom Brady. Pretty generic, you’ve probably never heard of him. Anyway, he’s not too bad at football. In 2017, the 40-year-passer completed 66.3% of his passes for 4,577 yards (7.9 average), 32 touchdowns (one fewer than Carson Wentz despite 3.25 more games played), eight interceptions, and a 102.8 passer rating. It’s going to be really hard for the Eagles to keep this guy in check. As we wrote earlier in the week, getting pressure with the front four will be key. You can’t rely really on the blitz often because Brady knows how to beat that. Brady ranks 21st out of the 29 most pressured quarterbacks this season, percentage wise, so getting to him isn’t the easier task. The Eagles have a pass rush that’s capable of doing it, though. They just might not get a ton of opportunities if Brady gets the ball out quick, which he often does. Only 10 quarterbacks got the ball out quicker in 2017.
Dion Lewis — a former Eagles draft pick — is the Patriots’ most dangerous running back. He had 896 rushing yards (5.0 average) and six rushing touchdowns to go along with 214 receiving yards and three receiving scores. Lewis is in the Darren Sproles mold of a shorter running back who can make people miss. The Patriots also get James White, Rex Burkhead, and Mike Gillislee involved in the offense. White isn’t fearsome as a rusher but he ranks fifth on the team in receiving with 429 yards. Burkhead is right behind him at 254 yards. The Eagles’ linebackers will have their hands full trying to cover New England’s running backs.
Rob Gronkowski is the most dangerous offensive weapon that Brady has. He’s a monster. Gronk caught 69 passes (of course) in 2017 for 1,084 yards and eight touchdowns. The 6-6, 265 pound meathead is also a force as a run blocker. Malcolm Jenkins figures to get matched up on him quite a bit. Jenkins usually does well against the bigger guys (as opposed to shifty slot receivers) but Gronk is a different beast.
At wide receiver, Brandin Cooks is a player many Eagles fans wanted their team to acquire last offseason. Instead, the Pats got him, and he’s prospered there. Cooks ranks second on the team with 1,082 yards and seven touchdowns. His 16.6 yards per reception leads the team, which is a reminder that he’s a deep threat. The Eagles will have to be wary of that. The other two receivers Philly has to worry about: Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan. Amendola, another Eagles castoff, sees most of his time in the slot. It’s up to Patrick Robinson to bottles up one of Brady’s favorite check-down options.
When it comes to the offensive line, the Pats are just OK there. Football Outsiders ranks the Patriots No. 1 in run blocking but only 14th in pass protection. Pro Football Focus, meanwhile, has New England’s o-line at 23rd in Pass Blocking Efficiency, which measures pressure allowed on a per-snap basis with weighting toward sacks allowed. Here’s a reminder that Philadelphia finished the 2017 season with the most total quarterback pressures generated.
This isn’t one of the most intimidating defenses the Patriots have ever brought to the Super Bowl.
The weak point of the Patriots’ defense is their linebacking corps, especially with Dont’a Hightower going down. Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts handle the bulk of snaps at linebacker due to the Patriots using a lot of nickel. Those two have been vulnerable in run defense and when it comes to coverage. The Eagles should really look to run up the middle with Jay Ajayi to test those players.
Trey Flowers is the Patriots’ best defensive lineman. He usually lines up on the right tackle, so you have to feel good about Lane Johnson going against him. He also moves inside during obvious passing situations, though, so the Pats could get creative with him. They might also try to get Flowers matched up on Halapoulivaati Vaitai. Malcom Brown is a run-stuffer. No other members of the Patriots’ d-line are really worth writing home about. On paper, the Eagles’ offensive line should be able to get the better of them.
New England has one of the better safety tandems in the league with Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung. Still hard to believe that Chung actually plays well in New England following his disastrous season with the Eagles in 2013. Chung, as you should remember, is a big hitter. McCourty, meanwhile, has great range on the back end.
Stephon Gilmore received a big money contract from the Patriots in free agency. He’s been their best corner this season. Everyone remembers Malcolm Butler from his incredibly clutch interception against the Seahawks a few years ago. Despite the hype, teams are willing to throw his way more often than than Gilmore’s. Butler ranks 63rd out of 86 corners in passer rating allowed. And then there’s New England’s slot corner, a player by the name of “Should of kept! (sic)” No, that’s wrong, excuse me, I mean to say “Eric Rowe.” Rowe graded out as one of the NFL’s worst corners this season, per Pro Football Focus. Based on his time with the Eagles, I never thought the slot was ideal for him. Philadelphia should look to attach that matchup with Nelson Agholor being covered by Rowe.
PATRIOTS SPECIAL TEAMS
Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski tied for 7th in field goal percentage in 2017 at 92%. All three of his misses came within the 40-49 range. He only missed two of his 47 extra point attempts.
Patriots punter Ryan Allen finished the 2017 season with 41.4 percent of his punts downed inside the 20-yard line, which ranked fifth best in the league.
According to PFF, long snapper Joe Cardona “was one of the least accurate long-snappers in the game, inaccurate on 10 snaps this season.” This is a sneaky thing to keep an eye on. The Eagles recorded five blocked kicks/punts in 2017.
Backup wide receiver Matthew Slater was named to the Pro Bowl as a designated special teams player for the seventh year in a row.
In case you forgot, the Patriots got caught cheating several times during the Belichick era. They’re cheaters.
I really like the Eagles’ chances in this one. I don’t even feel anxious about it. That’s not because I think the Patriots are bad. I just think the Eagles are legitimately very good. The Patriots edge out the Eagles in the quarterback department, which isn’t insignificant, but the Eagles edge out the Patriots in how the quarterback deparment is impacted. By that I mean the Eagles can control the trenches.
I also think the Eagles are in a very unique spot. They weren’t supposed to be here. I think they have incredible swagger and confidence. They’re playing very loose and they have a lot less to lose here than the Patriots do. If the Eagles lose, it’s obviously going to suck, but they still way exceeded expectations. If New England loses, they’re going down to Nick Foles and Doug Pederson, two guys no one every really thought all that highly of. What does it say about Brady and Belichick’s legacy if they lose? I mean, it’s still great, yeah, but doesn’t it take some kind of hit? In this way, the Pats have more to lose.
Anyway, it should be a great game. And it really can’t get here soon enough.