Hello, friends. Long time, no talk.
*Deletes all Eagles-related tweets from December*
What a magical ride it’s been, right? We’ve lost arguably four of our top eight players to season-ending injuries, including the top two. Yet, against all odds, this team perseveres. Might as well end this Cinderella story with the journey/carriage turning into that elusive, vindicating, shiny Lombardi Trophy instead of an all-too-familiar, devastating loss/shitty pumpkin. I, like a seemingly disproportionate percentage of the city and fan base, feel calmly confident about this game. It’s more sanguine than anything else. I have felt it since the flea-flicker pass landed in Torrey Smith’s hands for a touchdown to bury the Vikings, and not in an arrogant, obnoxious, or blind-faith-but-really-I-know-I’m-fooling-myself sort of way. I’m simply resolute in the destiny aspect of what’s going on and have unshakable faith that this is a special squad, with the right mix of players and coaches to get the ultimate job done. Plus, I’m going to wear the same exact clothes (down to underwear and socks) I wore for the Falcons and Vikings games and, same as I did for both, place a $100 bet on the Eagles’ money line. I even told my best friend, who I’ve known since we were a few months old and for whom I’ll serve as the best man in his wedding in June, that I can’t watch the game with him because we watched the last Eagles-Patriots Super Bowl together. I’ve never been a superstitious person, but I’m fucking committed to the cause.
The Eagles obviously have the talent, depth, heart, and internal belief necessary to win this game. They match up well with the Patriots, and I get the distinct sense that they not only know they belong here, but that they’re confident they’re better than the Patriots and should beat them. Then again, we’re talking about the most dominant dynasty in modern NFL history, against whom superior talent hardly seems to matter. The Patriots are in their record 10th Super Bowl, and the eighth time with the best coach and quarterback ever. Whether you want to call it sustained excellence in the face of league parity, some dark-magic mystique, be annoying and whine about CHEATING, or just force yourself to admit they’re better prepared for every possible in-game situation and not a single player panics or screws up when it’s time to execute in the highest-leverage moments, there is indeed something about the Patriots that makes them feel unbeatable. Unless, of course, you’re the Coughlin-era Giants.
Luckily for the Eagles, they’ve got the most important Coughlin-era Giants similarity on defense - a strong defensive line. Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, Timmy Jernigan, Vinny Curry, Derek Barnett, Chris Long, Beau Allen, even Destiny Vaeao. That unit has to get to Tom Brady. Cox and Jernigan have to control the middle of the pocket and not let Brady step up when edge pressure collapses the pocket. That’s where he kills defenses. I expect the Patriots to do what they do: Lots of quick passes, especially to the running backs - to the tune of, like, at least 20 total targets. Dion Lewis, James White, and Rex Burkhead are all excellent receivers, and Lewis is pretty much destined to torment his old team. It got lost in the shuffle as the Vikings game got out of hand, but Jerrick McKinnon had success against the Eagles as a receiver, catching 11 of 12 targets for 83 yards. That said, it is worth accounting for context on those 11 catches, as only three of them came before the Eagles took a commanding 24-7 lead.
You can be sure the Patriots won’t wait as long as the Vikings did to throw to their running backs. Warren Sharp, who provides truly excellent analysis and is worth following if you aren’t already, goes deep on the Patriots’ affinity for the running back-pass catcher option and how it was installed as a panacea for what befell them against the Giants. Just look at James White in the previous Super Bowl or Dion Lewis the past two games, where his nine (against Tennessee) and seven catches (against Jacksonville) were season highs. White, by the way, hasn’t had more than five catches in a game since October 5. Why do I have the sense heavily targeting White and Lewis and looking to get them upwards of 10 catches each (and sprinkling in another handful for Burkhead now that he’s fully healthy) is what the Patriots will look to do?
In the years since their last Super Bowl loss, defeating the Patriots in the playoffs has been as easy as limiting their running backs as receivers. How did the Eagles defense do against running backs as receivers out of the backfield this season? If you read Sharp’s piece, you know his answer isn’t encouraging. Patriots are second in NFL in running back catches and receiving yards, first in touchdowns. Eagles are 28th in receptions allowed to running backs, but 14th in yards per catch allowed. Yet when you look at the game logs and drill deeper into the numbers, you find that the Eagles haven’t been continually gashed by an opposing running back as a receiver this season. In fact, until McKinnon’s stats that were mostly recorded when the game was already decided, you could argue the only time the Eagles were really hurt by an opposing running back as a receiver was by Chris Thompson in Week 1 (four catches for 52 yards and a touchdown). Aside from Thompson, Todd Gurley was the most damaging, averaging 13 yards per catch but on just three receptions. Christian McCaffrey, who’s essentially a wide receiver, averaged just 5.6 yards per catch despite being force-fed 10 receptions (on 14 targets).
Aside from the running backs as pass-catching options, Brady will look for Danny Amendola, another (briefly) former Eagle, to skitter all over the place in the most annoying of ways within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. Then there’s Human Cheat Code Rob Gronkowski, cleared from concussion protocol, abusing whoever dares cover him in the middle of the field and the certainty of Brandin Cooks attempting to smoke our cornerbacks with double moves. If the Eagles can disturb the pocket and disrupt Brady’s rhythm, that will trigger a negative domino effect on the rest of the offense. None of this is rocket science, of course. It’s the strategy that every defense tries to employ against every quarterback. Brandon Graham and friends are hungry, I say let them eat.
On offense, I expect the Eagles’ gameplan to be something between the safer, more conservative approach we saw against Atlanta and the balls-to-the-wall, swashbuckling blitzkrieg we saw against Minnesota. The Patriots defense was as weak as it got against the run in the regular season (4.7 yards per carry allowed, second-worst in the league) but has been stout in the playoffs, as Jaguars running backs had 30 carries for 103 yards (long of 14), and Derrick Henry had 12 carries for 28 yards (long of 4) for the Titans. The Eagles have to try to set the tone early and establish the ground game with Jay Ajayi (NO FUMBLES), LeGarrette Blount, and Corey Clement. We are BETTER than them up front, don’t be afraid to show it. Soften up the defense with physicality, then let Nick Foles settle in with quick passing and mix in the deep shots when you feel the Patriots’ secondary has let its guard down even a little bit. Most importantly, Doug Pederson has to maintain the assured, aggressive mindset that’s been a staple of his and this team’s identity. Go for it on fourth down and short yardage on the plus side of the field. Do NOT abandon what got you here, and do NOT recoil from the challenge of matching the Patriots’ moxie and taking the chances necessary to make the game YOURS (see: OURS). Do NOT be the second-half Jacksonville Jaguars. You are worthy of being in the Super Bowl, and you are worthy of winning the whole damn thing. Act like it. It’s hard enough to beat the Patriots without actively contributing to beating yourself.
Now, more about the Patriots defense. It is... weird in its effectiveness. Aside from being susceptible to the run, they ranked 31st in the NFL in DVOA, 29th in yards allowed (366 per game), and 20th in opponents’ third-down conversion percentage (39%). However, they were fifth in points against (18.5 - Eagles were fourth at 18.4) and haven’t allowed more than 27 since their Week 4 loss to Carolina. That’s because they’re not on the field much (thanks to a clock-consuming offense, ala last season’s Dallas Cowboys) and put the clamps on in the red zone, ranking eighth in opponent’s scoring percentage. The Patriots don’t have the kind of names along the front seven that jump off the page and scare you, yet they ranked tied for sixth in sacks with 42.0 (despite the leader, Trey Flowers, having just 6.5) - four more than the Eagles. If ever there’s been a testament to Bill Belichick’s chops as a defensive wizard (witch?), it’s what he’s done with this mishmash, misfit unit after the first four weeks of the season, when it had quite literally the worst stretch in NFL history.
The Eagles offense, as we all know, ranked first in the NFL in time of possession, maintaining the ball for an average of 32:44 per game. Over 18 games, they’ve had 24 scoring drives that lasted five minutes or more (including five in the playoffs) and another 17 that lasted between four and five minutes. Running lots of plays, keeping drives alive, and chewing clock will be key not only because it’ll wear down an undertalented defense, but most importantly because it’ll keep the Patriots offense off the field and frustrate the hell out of Brady. Here’s another thing about the Patriots defense that’s encouraging and will likely decide the Super Bowl: It doesn’t force turnovers. The unit ranked 25th in the NFL in takeaways with 18 (12 interceptions 6 fumbles recovered) and hasn’t forced a single turnover in their four games since the ridiculous interception in the end zone to defeat the Steelers. Will Eric Rowe, who deflected Ben Roethlisberger’s fateful pass, break that streak by getting an interception because duh? I don’t know, shut up. Anyway, if that turnover-drought streak continues on Sunday - please, football gods, I beg you - the Eagles will win.
Now, could Foles’ hot streak come to a screeching halt and he revert to the rattled, confused, tentative, backpedaling XFL backup-at-best we saw against the Raiders, Cowboys, and in the first half against the Falcons? Sure. After all, it’s Bill Belichick. Will Brady go Full Brady and carve up our defense with a death-by-a-million-quick-slants-and-then-dunk-on-you-with-double-moves approach like Eli Manning and the Giants did this season? Sure. After all, it’s Tom Brady. Could the Eagles look like a totally different team outside the friendly confines of Lincoln Financial Field and be overwhelmed by the moment in what will essentially be a road game thanks to the lamest, most sensitive and pathetic fan base in professional sports? Sure. After all, the game is in Minnesota and, no matter how different everything has felt, this is still the Philadelphia Eagles. Could a Patriots player (or players) make that one swing play on the game’s most critical snap? Sure. After all, it’s the New England Patriots.
So, now that I’ve fulfilled my brand and profusely diarrhea’d from my fingertips, let’s get to the nitty gritty of this bad boy:
1) Eagles wildcards in this game on offense: Corey Clement (as a receiver - just like against Atlanta and Minnesota), Trey Burton (Patriots are going to focus on taking away Zach Ertz), and Mack Hollins (a major threat who had one splash play but otherwise I feel has been saved basically all season - time to tap into his mismatch potential). On defense: Mychal Kendricks (covering running backs out the backfield), Beau Allen (I figure one of the defensive tackles who’s not Cox or Jernigan will be the one to make a big stop/sack or force Brady into a bad throw and also maybe he can catch a touchdown ala Mike Vrabel), and Chris Long (I would be remiss if I didn’t predict a sack-fumble from him). Honorable mention: Vinny Curry (last game as an Eagle so what the hell).
2) Nigel Bradham and his stone hands finally snag an interception - his first of the season after dropping four or five easy ones - and it’ll be off a tipped ball by Mychal Kendricks on a pass intended for Lewis or by Malcolm Jenkins on a pass intended for Gronkowski.
3) The Eagles go for it on fourth down thrice - including once on the game’s final drive - and convert each time.
4) Contrary to my prayers above, the Patriots defense breaks its turnover-less streak and forces one - but only one (an interception). Eagles win the turnover battle, 2-1, by forcing an interception and fumble.
5) Jake Elliott, one of the ubiquitous feel-good stories on this team and the guy who jumpstarted the magic of this season with his 61-yard field goal to beat the Giants, finishes it off by kicking four (4!) field goals, including a 47-yarder as time expires. How does it happen? After Brady leads the Patriots to a touchdown and 24-23 lead with a little over a minute left, Foles, armed with one timeout and his legendary cock - somehow, someway - responds by driving the Eagles 45 yards to the Patriots’ 30, replete with a season-saving fourth-down conversion and punctuated with a 12-yard out to Alshon Jeffery, who lunges out of bounds to stop the clock with :01 remaining (sound familiar?). The Patriots use their last timeout to make Elliott think about the biggest play in the history of Philadelphia professional sports. He thinks about splitting the uprights and recommissioning himself as a hero all over again, exactly 19 weeks to the day he did it the first time. Then he does just that, and our lives are never the same. 26-24, Eagles. Blouses, greased poles, unmatched deliriousness and revelry, Mardi-Gras-mixed-with-Judgment-Day-level mayhem, parade (and ice cream) floats, millions of beers (courtesy of Bud Light), bring it home for Jerome, free Meek.
No matter what happens on Sunday, this team will live on forever and I’ve never been more proud to be a Philadelphia Eagles fan. But fuck that sentimental, it’s-ok-as-long-as-you-tried-your-hardest, loser mindset. This isn’t a mentally-weak Andy Reid team that can’t adjust as the game is played (especially in the second half), that is inevitably going to shit itself and be done in by its own obstinance and unconscionable stupidity. This is the best sports story, period, in recent memory. It’s about greatness, it’s about redemption, it’s about immortality. Let’s exorcise all our demons, finish this thing the right way and start our own dynasty by ending the most powerful one.
Why not us?
Why not now?
This team deserves it, they’ve earned it.
We deserve it, we’ve earned it.