PHILADELPHIA -- The term "faceless opponent" has been used over and over inside the Philadelphia Eagles locker room this week. Players and coaches are combatting the New England Patriots mystique by keeping the focus on themselves while painting the Patriots as mortal rather than larger than life. That treatment even applies to four-time Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady.
"They put on their pads just like us," said Eagles receiver Alshon Jeffery. "I don't care who it is -- Tom Brady, it don't really matter who's the quarterback -- it don't matter."
But the Eagles are also grounded in reality, and recognize the easiest way to make him play like a mortal is to put him on his back. Veteran defensive end Chris Long, a member of the 2016 championship Patriots team, knows it as well as anybody. So it's no surprise that he decided to address the defensive line during meetings at the start of the work week.
"Let's go out there and make him uncomfortable," he said, according to standout defensive tackle Fletcher Cox.
The Eagles have certainly been effective in putting the squeeze on opponents this season. They rank fourth in opponent points (18.4) and yards (306.5) per game, have the fifth-lowest opponent QBR in the league (45) and had 106 disrupted dropbacks during the regular season, which ranked ninth, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Eagles' ability to harass quarterback Case Keenum in the NFC Championship Game against the Minnesota Vikings -- they registered eight quarterback hits and forced three turnovers -- was the biggest key to victory.
It's a safe bet that the matchup between the Eagles' defensive front versus Brady and New England's offensive line will decide who hoists the Lombardi Trophy next Sunday.
"As I say every week, it's going to come down to the front four guys getting after the quarterback and making him uncomfortable in the pocket," Cox said.
In the Eagles' case, it might be more appropriate to refer to the defensive line not as the front four, but the front seven. The Eagles have one of the deepest defensive-line rotations in the NFL. They had seven defensive linemen record at least 400 snaps this season, the most in the NFL. Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry are considered the starting defensive ends, but two of their rotational edge rushers -- Long (forced interception, fumble recovery) and rookie Derek Barnett (strip sack) -- who came up with some of the biggest plays of the game against Minnesota, evidence that this attack can come at you in waves.
“It’s a lot more than four," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "I wish it was four. It’s about eight, nine.
"It’s a very disruptive group -- hard to run against, hard to throw against, and they’re well-coached."
The last time these teams faced off in 2015, the Eagles had 10 quarterback hits on Brady and sacked him four times in a 35-28 Eagles win. Brady threw two interceptions in that game, including one that Malcolm Jenkins returned 99 yards for a touchdown. Graham, who paced the team with 9.5 sacks this season, had two takedowns and three QB hits in that game.
"He's going to try and take us out of the game. He's going to try and speed it up on us a little bit," Graham said. "I think, for us, we continue to keep conditioning ... and just don't get frustrated when he tries to take us out of the game. We've got to make sure that we tackle well because they're going to be dinking and dunking and trying to take whatever the defense gives them. We know that, and we're going to go out and have fun against Brady."
One of the things that makes Brady an all-time great is his ability to thrive no matter the conditions. Per ESPN Stats & Information, Brady completed 59 percent of his passes when under pressure this season -- by far the best rate in the NFL -- with 10 touchdowns and two interceptions. For comparison, top quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan each finished with completion rates of 42 percent or below when pressured. In other words, even if the Eagles' front does its job, Brady still might find a way to do his job better.
But in order to have a chance against arguably the greatest quarterback of all time, they will have to get home.
"We can't go out and just let him bake pizzas back there," Cox said. "If we do that, it's going to be a long game for the back end."