The Philadelphia Eagles (5-4) and New England Patriots (8-1) are set to play at Lincoln Financial Field in a Super Bowl LII rematch on Sunday. In order to preview this Week 11 tilt, I reached out to our associates over at Pats Pulpit. The benevolent Bernd Buchmasser kindly took the time to answer my questions about the upcoming game. Let’s take a look at his answers. Also, don’t forget to check out my side of the Q&A exchange over at PP.
1 - Tom Brady said he isn’t over the Patriots losing to the Eagles in Super Bowl LII. To what extent do Patriots fans feel similarly?
Knowing Tom Brady, I bet he’s still not over that one loss in little league 35 years ago, so…
Seriously, though, I think of all the Patriots’ Super Bowl losses — and there have been five of them over the years — the one against Philadelphia might in some ways be the easiest to swallow for fans: the team won another title since and had previously beaten the Eagles on the biggest stage, all while the New England area generally not have the same rivalry with the city as it has with New York, for example. All that, plus the fact that there were no fluke plays such as the Helmet Catch makes this one comparatively easy to get over.
That being said, I would lie if I said that fans did not still have it on its minds especially because of how the team lost: Malcolm Butler was inactive for reasons we will never truly know, while his replacements — Jordan Richards and Johnson Bademosi — and the rest of the defense never made the plays when it mattered most. I think what stings most about the loss is that it felt like the Patriots were not playing up to their capabilities, something fans are normally used to when watching the game in the playoffs.
But in the grand scheme of things, I feel like the fan base has adapted Brady’s “well, you can’t win them all” approach.
2 - The Patriots are coming off their sole loss of the season. Why did the Pats lose to the Ravens and what’s the level of concern moving forward?
If I had to break down the Patriots’ loss in Baltimore in one sentence it would be this: New England was beaten because it failed to defend the run, fell into an early hole, and made too many mistakes on offense to come away victoriously.That’s what it all came down to, with the run defense certainly the biggest concern as the Ravens seemingly ran all over the Patriots at will — a good plan considering that challenging the NFL’s best secondary is probably not the best plan of attack. Baltimore, however, used misdirection concepts to target New England’s defensive aggressiveness and generate long drives that limited Tom Brady’s time on the field. This approach certainly put the Ravens in a favorable position — especially in combination with the club jumping to a 17-0 lead in the first quarter and some untimely turnovers on the Patriots’ part that doomed the previously undefeated team.
With that in mind, I don’t think the Patriots need to hit the ol’ panic button yet. The Ravens are a really good team (arguably one of the three best in the NFL right now), and the game in Baltimore was itself circled in as a potential loss before the season even began. If the team had played like this in Washington, I think there would be more questions to answer as is the case right now. Ultimately, the game showed what the Patriots still have to work on: they need to find ways to play the run better (set the edge, don’t overshoot gaps), be more consistent when it comes to blocking up front, and start faster when on the road.
3 - What’s the best thing the Patriots have going for them right now?
Bill Belichick. During the offseason, the Patriots lost both their defensive signal caller from a year ago (Brian Flores) and his replacement (Greg Schiano) so Belichick himself took on a bigger role within the defensive preparation — and he has helped build arguably the best unit in the NFL, one that leads the league in most meaningful categories (points, yards, turnovers, per-drive statistics). His involvement with the unit, plus his general abilities to manage the game and New England’s roster is the biggest trump card the team and arguably any team in the NFL has.That is why I go with Belichick as the answer here, but I could also have said Tom Brady. While his numbers may not be all that spectacular compared to other quarterbacks, he is still very much among the game’s elite and capable of finding success against every opponent… well, except maybe Brandon Graham. However, Brady has seen considerable changes in his supporting cast over the last few weeks and he and the rest of the offense have yet to develop a rhythm and quite frankly find their identity. If they do, it’s a strong possibility the answer to this question will therefore look differently ahead of a Patriots-Eagles Super Bowl in February.
4 - If you were building a game plan to beat the Patriots, how would you attack them on both offense and defense?
On defense, I would try to do the following two things:
1.) Challenge the offensive line. Stunts, blitzes, overloads, whatever it is you have in your back pocket, use it to attack the unit’s communication and chemistry. Why? The Patriots’ O-line has been up and down when it comes to seeing the game through one set of eyes, with left tackle Marshall Newhouse in particular a vulnerable piece. Newhouse is a backup that only joined the roster in early September and is now filling in for an injured Isaiah Wynn (he is expected to come off injured reserve after this week’s game). He is the weak link, but the rest of the line has also had its inconsistencies both in terms of performance and personnel. If the Eagles find success in this area, it also brings up another aspect: Tom Brady’s numbers under pressure are significantly worse than his clean-pocket statistics. For starters, his passer rating declines from 109.6 to 47.9.
2.) Force Tom Brady to look elsewhere with the football. Brady targeted Julian Edelman and Mohamed Sanu a combined 24 times against the Ravens, as they are clearly his favored pass catching options right now — and two players that should be at the center of attention when it comes to coverage. Being physical with them at the line of scrimmage and potentially double-covering one of them (Edelman) on crucial downs could be a recipe for success because I’m not sure that Phillip Dorsett and N’Keal Harry will be enough to win a game. Harry, a first-round rookie expected to play in his first game, might be a wildcard here, just like receiving back James White: they certainly have the talent to hurt defenses. But for starters, I would focus on Edelman and Sanu.
On offense, meanwhile, there are also two things I would focus on:
1.) Stay on the field and milk the clock. This is easier said than done, but it is what helped Baltimore win two weeks ago: the team converted the crucial downs, and ran the football very well. This, in turn, allowed the Ravens to keep Tom Brady and company on the sidelines and give their defense a breather against a Patriots no-huddle approach that worked well and took its toll from the second quarter on. Playing New England’s defense and throwing 70% of the time is not the way to win because the secondary is just too good.
2.) Try to target the linebackers when throwing the football. Trying to isolate the Patriots’ linebackers one-on-one against running backs or tight ends in coverage should be the way to go when Carson Wentz drops back to pass. They — Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy — are very good, but I would rather test them than the best secondary in football. Throwing short passes may not be the sexiest way to play the game, but it certainly gives you the best chance to move the football through the air against this New England team.
All in all, however, I think the main thing the Eagles have to focus on is simply not shooting themselves in the foot. Be it turnovers or changing the game plan in case something does not work, the Patriots feast upon teams’ mistakes. Just look at the game against Baltimore: although New England ultimately lost, the team almost came out of its 17-0 hole as the Ravens were unable to adapt to the no-huddle and had a cheap turnover that led to a Patriots touchdown.
5 - Who wins this game and why? Score prediction? And what are your expectations for the rest of this Patriots season?
If there is one thing I have learned in my years of covering the NFL, it is to never count out the Patriots. Especially coming out of their bye. And when coming off a loss. I can see them win a 21-17 kind of game, with the defense registering just that one game-changing takeaway. But I have been wrong many times before (many, many times), and I can definitely see the Eagles pull this one off: the team has strong units in the trenches on both sides of the ball — two parts of the roster that play in their hands if used smartly.
As for the Patriots’ expectations, I would lie if I’d anything other than at least reaching the Super Bowl again. I know the team itself will give its one-game-at-a-time answers, but I am not part of the organization and I can say the following without fearing the Wrath of Belichick: if it remains healthy, this New England team is among the deepest in all of football and it should be able to win the AFC even if it means going up against Baltimore again. And with Tom Brady at quarterback, winning the Super Bowl has to be the goal every single year.