Perhaps it's fitting that the NFL's Year of Attrition is guaranteed to end with a suitable winner in Super Bowl LII. If the New England Patriots prevail, the story will be that the one MVP candidate left standing amid a season overrun by injuries to superstars, Tom Brady, will have been enough for New England to come out on top. If the Philadelphia Eagles pull off the upset on Sunday, they'll be the one team that was good enough to overcome an injury to its superstar and win, after losing Carson Wentz to a torn ACL in December.
It goes without saying that nobody expected Brady to be facing off with Nick Foles in the Super Bowl as recently as a month ago, let alone before the season began. The Eagles limped into the postseason with an offense handicapped by a seemingly hopeless backup quarterback, only for Foles to show signs of life against the Falcons before delivering the second-best conference championship performance in league history in dominating the Vikings. Suddenly, Foles looks like he won't be holding back what had been the best team in football -- before the Wentz injury -- from having a meaningful shot at winning its first title.
A Super Bowl that would have sounded like a mismatch heading into the postseason now seems competitive and full of possibilities. The Falcons dominated the Patriots for the majority of Super Bowl LI, only for their pass rush to gas out under a nearly unprecedented workload and a few mistakes at precisely the most damaging moments. The Eagles are bringing a much better defense with them to Minneapolis, but is the Foles we saw in Philadelphia the one we'll see in the Twin Cities?
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Can the Eagles actually win with this significant of a QB mismatch?
We're often guilty of reducing Super Bowl matchups to quarterback vs. quarterback, but there's a chance that the passing matchup is so lopsided between these two teams as to render any advantages the Eagles have elsewhere moot. If we get a terrible performance from Foles, Brady's floor might be high enough for the Patriots to win on quarterback play alone.
It's also tough to look at the Foles we saw from the NFC Championship Game and project that same guy to appear in the Super Bowl. Foles dominated the Vikings in ways that simply didn't resemble the player we had seen over his seven previous 2017 appearances. Everything that had given Foles problems before the NFC title game suddenly didn't bother him, as we can see from his passer rating in several splits before the Vikings game and during the contest:
As FiveThirtyEight's Neil Paine pointed out last week, there isn't any evidence that a team that dominates in the conference championship is more likely to win in the Super Bowl.
The same is also likely true for quarterbacks. As an example, there are seven instances since 2001 of a quarterback posting a passer rating better than Foles' 141.4 in a playoff win. It's a group that includes Chad Pennington, Ben Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson and two performances each from Peyton Manning and Kurt Warner, all of whom are far more pedigreed than Foles. Those passers went 3-4 the following week with an average passer rating of 82.6. The 10 quarterbacks just behind Foles posted an average passer rating of 137.1 in their wins and then went 4-6 the following week while generating an average passer rating of just 61.9. Not a single player topped a passer rating of 100!
The Foles we saw in the regular season would be an enormous mismatch versus Brady, who will likely win his third league MVP award on Saturday. If we assume that we're going to get an average performance from this version of Foles, should that alone disqualify the Eagles from having any shot of competing?
Well, let's see. To use a better version of passer rating, let's look at the biggest mismatches in Super Bowl history between starting quarterbacks by adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A). The league average for AY/A this season was 6.8 yards per attempt. Brady finished third in the league with 8.4 adjusted yards per attempt, while Foles' mark of 5.4 yards per throw ranked 38th among the 46 passers with 50 or more attempts, slotting him just below C.J. Beathard, Blaine Gabbert and Trevor Siemian.
The difference between Brady and Foles rounds to 2.9 yards per attempt, which is the seventh-largest gap in the history of the Super Bowl. How have similar matchups turned out? Let's look at the 10 biggest mismatches before this season and see what happened, with a game that Patriots fans might not remember fondly looming at the top:
The lesser quarterbacks were certainly able to put up a fight; not only did they win four of the 10 games, but they managed to triumph in four of the five largest mismatches out there (Unitas left Super Bowl V injured after eight pass attempts). Steve McNair also came within a yard of pushing Super Bowl XXXIV to overtime in the sixth-biggest quarterback mismatch of the Super Bowl era.
One of the reasons Foles might be able to enjoy some success on Sunday is that the Patriots' defense simply hasn't been very good in 2017. Raw numbers note that the Pats finished fifth in points allowed at 18.5 per game, which makes them look like a dominant defense. As I mentioned on Monday, New England simultaneously finished 31st in defensive DVOA, suggesting it is one of the worst defenses in the league.
How can a defense simultaneously be great and abysmal? Context. Raw numbers don't account for the fact that the Patriots' offense makes its defense's life as easy as possible. The average Patriots drive on offense included a league-high 6.2 plays, keeping their defense fresh and off the field for long stretches of time. The New England defense faced just 172 possessions this season, the fifth fewest in football and 12 below the league average. Contrast that to the Jaguars, who finished second in points allowed and faced 204 possessions. That's nearly three additional games worth of drives to defend.
In addition, that incredible Patriots offense rarely turns the ball over and delivers the defense consistently excellent field position. Only the Chiefs turned the ball over less frequently than the Patriots on a per-possession basis in 2017. Brady & Co. turned over the ball just 6.9 percent of the time, substantially lower than the league average (11.4 percent). Only two teams went three-and-out less frequently.
As a result, the defense almost never faced a short field. The average defense in 2017 had to face just over 17 possessions that began on its own side of the field. The Patriots went up against just five of those possessions, and two of them were the Chiefs and Dolphins kneeling at the end of their victories. (If we remove drives in the final two minutes to get rid of kneel-downs, the Patriots faced three, and the league average was 15.5.)
During the Brady-Belichick era (2001-2017), the average defense has faced just under 368 short fields. Every team besides the Patriots has faced a minimum of 311 possessions beginning on their side of the field. Belichick's defenses have needed to defend only 227 short fields. The second-place Falcons are closer to the Ravens in 24th than they are to the Patriots. This has been a huge competitive advantage for the Pats.
It's not a huge surprise, then, that the Patriots' defense hasn't lived up to its regular-season numbers when playing against top-tier competition in the Super Bowl. If we use New England's raw scoring averages from the regular season, we would have expected them to allow 121.8 points across their seven Super Bowls. Instead, the Pats have allowed 157 points. The only times the Patriots have held opposing Super Bowl offenses below their defensive average were against the Giants in 2007 (17 points versus an average of 17.1 points allowed) and 2011 (21 points versus an average of 21.4 points allowed). Of course, they lost both games.
The one weapon the Patriots will try to stop and how
The famous assumption we make about Bill Belichick -- going back most famously to the Patriots-Rams Super Bowl -- is that he wants to take away whatever the opposing offense builds around. In that Rams game, it was Marshall Faulk. Last year, Belichick held Julio Jones to four targets and 87 yards, and 27 of those yards required a catch no defense on the planet could have prevented.
On Sunday, my suspicion is that Belichick will be building his game plan around ruining Zach Ertz's day. Julie Johnston Ertz's husband has been Foles' favorite weapon, taking in 39 targets from the Eagles backup across the regular season and playoffs, 10 more than any other receiver. He has been targeted on nearly 24 percent of his routes run with Foles at quarterback, which is well ahead of Nelson Agholor (15.5 percent), Alshon Jeffery (9.4 percent) and Torrey Smith (8.7 percent). No wideout or tight end was targeted on more than 20.1 percent of their routes during the regular season.
Stopping Ertz is easier said than done. Just ask the Vikings, who finished the year allowing a league-low 5.5 yards per target to tight ends without permitting one to score since Week 5. Ertz promptly caught eight passes on eight targets for 93 yards, including the play in which he left All-Pro safety Harrison Smith for dead with a double move en route to a 36-yard gain.
The Patriots haven't allowed a tight end to do anything like that this season. The only tight end to top 70 yards against them was Neal Sterling, who got to 74 yards for the Jets. They admittedly haven't played a devastating slate of tight ends, but the Pats were able to limit weapons such as Delanie Walker (three catches for 49 yards), Jared Cook (two catches for 36 yards) and Charles Clay (seven catches for 57 yards in two games).
The only truly top-tier receiving tight end the Pats faced in 2017 was Travis Kelce in Week 1. Kelce serves as a helpful proxy for Ertz, given that he plays in an offense run by Andy Reid, who is Doug Pederson's coaching mentor. Like Ertz, Kelce is capable of moving around the formation and serves as the most-targeted receiver on his offense. Ertz is 6-foot-5, 249 pounds; Kelce is 6-foot-5, 255 pounds. They're not the same player, but the best insight into how the Patriots will go after Ertz is how they defended Kelce.
Kelce had a relatively pedestrian game by his standards against the Patriots, racking up five catches for 40 yards on 37 routes. The Chiefs didn't exactly struggle without a big day from Kelce -- they scored 42 points and won by 15 against a team some projected to go 16-0 -- but their game plan was built more around option looks and Kelce as a decoy to draw coverage away from Kansas City's receivers than with Kelce as a focal point. The Chiefs moved him around the formation, and while the Patriots occasionally took a shot at Kansas City's tight end, he didn't get the hit-every-play treatment Faulk saw 16 years ago.
Belichick sent a variety of coverages Kelce's way, but the most frequent look the tight end saw was man coverage from safety Devin McCourty, who mostly held his own. The converted cornerback was able to knock away a deep Alex Smith pass on an attempted double move, which was Kelce's most significant target of the night on an out-and-up attempt similar to the one Ertz pulled on the Vikings' Harrison Smith in the NFC title game.
Kelce also saw coverage from Patrick Chung and Eric Rowe, with Chung being burned so badly on a slant that he nearly lost his balance as Kelce accelerated across the field. Alex Smith couldn't get the ball to Kelce. An earlier play saw Kelce create separation on a slant, which distracted Rowe (playing as a robber) long enough to create a throwing lane behind Rowe to Kareem Hunt for a long touchdown catch on a route concept that was similar to the one that resulted in Jeffery's touchdown in the fourth quarter against Minnesota.
Kelce played a bigger role in the Chiefs' success than his numbers indicate. They repeatedly had success running various mesh/wheel concepts involving Kelce, which combine a pair of crossing routes with a wheel route to take advantage of a third defender. The crossing routes create a natural pick on one another and interfere with the defender attempting to chase the running back on the wheel route. Mesh/wheel was a staple of the Chip Kelly offense when Foles was at his best, and the Eagles have had success with it during the postseason, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see Philly go back to it early on Sunday.
Mesh/wheel is designed to get the ball out quickly and with a simple read, which the Eagles have focused on creating for Foles over the past few weeks. Philadelphia has built nearly instant throws for Foles with run-pass options (RPOs), where Foles reads one defender after the snap and makes a throw to an open receiver. Again, they're similar concepts to the ones that resulted in one of the best half-seasons in league history for Foles back with Kelly as his coach in 2013. Foles has seemingly completed a half-dozen throws to Jeffery on a skinny post out of an RPO for easy yardage already this postseason.
The Patriots will have to find a way to slow down the RPOs, which gave them fits in the first half against Jacksonville in the AFC Championship Game. They can try to get physical at the point of attack and disrupt the timing of Philly's receivers, which would be a dangerous game to play given how they can operate after a missed jam at the line of scrimmage. The Pats can alternately try to confuse Foles by showing him one look before the snap and then immediately shifting into another one after the snap, which will require the sort of excellent communication and familiarity the Patriots lacked before the season.
James Light pointed out on Twitter that the Patriots were likely to go to Cover 7 looks to try to combat Philadelphia's RPO game, combining man coverage with safety brackets at multiple levels of the field. As Matt Bowen wrote in 2014, Cover 7 allows the Patriots to disguise their coverage intentions before the snap and create immediate traps for Foles to diagnose after the snap.
You need a cover corner capable of holding his own on one side of the field to play Cover 7, which is one of the reasons Belichick went out in free agency and spent $65 million to bring in Stephon Gilmore last year. Gilmore's size and physicality make him an obvious matchup against Jeffery, and it seems likely that the Patriots will hope that Gilmore can hold up one-on-one against Philadelphia's most expensive wideout. Gilmore and Jeffery were college teammates at South Carolina, making that matchup even more tantalizing.
The Patriots turned to Chung as their primary coverage option against Ertz in 2015, but it wouldn't be a surprise to see Chung split snaps with McCourty against Ertz on Sunday. Gilmore could theoretically take some snaps against Ertz one-on-one, and the Patriots have used their No. 1 corner on a tight end in the past (like when Aqib Talib spent most of a game against the Saints covering Jimmy Graham), but the Patriots will give whomever is in primary coverage on Ertz some assistance, especially on third down and in the red zone.
What has been so impressive about Pederson during this postseason -- really, this season as a whole -- is how he has adjusted from game to game and introduced tweaks his opponents didn't see coming. Think about how the Eagles refocused their running game for one week around trapping with their tackles against the Cowboys. Or the single-wing counter Pederson pulled out of mothballs to create a big play for Agholor against the Falcons. Do you think Harrison Smith was expecting Ertz to turn his out route upfield in the NFC title game? Pederson has done a phenomenal job of creating opportunities for his offensive weapons, even after losing Wentz and Darren Sproles to injuries.
I do think the Eagles will miss Sproles on Sunday, because the best way for Philadelphia to attack the Patriots' defense might be on throws to its running backs. The Eagles might be best in 12 personnel, with both Ertz and fellow tight end Trey Burton on the field, which could encourage the Pats to match up with their base defense. New England's core defense would push Eric Lee and Elandon Roberts onto the field in meaningful roles, and neither has been effective this postseason. The Pats have faced only eight pass attempts so far this postseason in their base set (four defensive backs), but Blake Bortles and Marcus Mariota have gone 8-of-8 for 116 yards on those throws.
Getting Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement matched up against Roberts, Kyle Van Noy or Marquis Flowers would be a win for the Eagles. To see that base defense, they'll need to successfully run the ball against New England's sub packages and prevent it from playing with five or more defensive backs on early downs. The Jags and Titans couldn't run the ball against the Pats' base defense -- their 35 carries produced just 93 yards -- but their 13 rushes against the sub packages produced 73 yards.
Pederson should want to throw when the Patriots are in their base sets and run when they're in sub packages. If the Eagles establish that they can run the ball and force the Patriots to match up accordingly, Philadelphia has the weapons to throw the ball out of those same personnel groupings. It's the same idea behind what the Patriots have done with their two-tight-end sets and Dion Lewis, a former Eagles player. If Pederson has a wrinkle or two Belichick either isn't expecting or the Patriots struggle to defend -- as the Falcons did with their crack toss in the first half of last year's Super Bowl -- it might be enough for the Eagles to get the ball rolling for Foles.
One more thing: While he gives the Eagles a fighting chance, an injury to Foles would likely leave Philadelphia essentially dead in the water with third-stringer Nate Sudfeld under center. Foles is extremely tough, and it would take a truly serious injury for him to leave the Super Bowl, but the 29-year-old was forced to miss time with a broken hand, concussion and fractured collarbone during his previous three-year stint in Philadelphia. The chances of any quarterback getting injured in a single game are relatively minuscule, but Foles -- who went for precautionary X-rays on his ribs after the Vikings game -- is a riskier injury proposition than most NFL passers.
Don't forget about Gronk ... and Brady's history vs. Schwartz
Of course, the Patriots have a pretty good tight end on their side of the field, too. Rob Gronkowski seems likely to play in the Super Bowl despite suffering a concussion during the AFC Championship Game; he has been practicing this week. The Eagles have been a far more effective defense than the Patriots this season, ranking fifth in defensive DVOA and seventh against the pass, but Jim Schwartz's unit ranks 17th in DVOA against tight ends.
Specifically, athletic tight ends have given the Eagles plenty of trouble. One week after Kelce had a quiet day against the Patriots, he followed up with 103 yards and a touchdown in Kansas City's 27-20 victory over Philly. Washington's Jordan Reed racked up 64 yards and two scores against Philadelphia in Week 7, although the second of those touchdowns came after the game was decided. The Giants' Evan Engram generated 87 yards on eight catches and threw in a 14-yard jet sweep in Week 15. Philadelphia was better against the likes of Hunter Henry and Jared Cook, and Engram and Reed were quiet in their other contests against the Eagles, but top-level tight ends have enjoyed success against Philadelphia.
Like the Patriots, the Eagles have a converted cornerback capable of holding up in coverage against slot receivers and tight ends. Malcolm Jenkins might actually present a problem for the Eagles because they're so used to the former Saints first-rounder being able to corral tight ends on his own that they struggle when he's placed against virtually uncoverable weapons like Kelce and Gronkowski, the latter of whom was injured when these two teams played in 2016.
The Eagles didn't consistently plaster Jenkins on Kelce, but he did beat Jenkins early for 44 yards on a double move, although Jenkins held up in coverage on a third-and-4 later in the drive. Kelce's 15-yard touchdown came on a shovel pass and ended with him leaping over Corey Graham from the 3-yard line. A third-down conversion saw Kelce run a stick route versus a zone blitz where the closest defender in coverage might have been, of all people, defensive lineman Timmy Jernigan.
Blitzes have become a bigger part of the Schwartz philosophy this season, but I suspect we won't see many of them Sunday. Schwartz's long-standing philosophy, going back to his days as defensive coordinator with Tennessee, has been to get pressure with his front four and drop seven into coverage. That's borne out in the numbers. ESPN has blitz data going back through 2006, and in 10 years as a defensive coordinator or head coach from 2006 to '16, Schwartz ranked in the bottom five of the league in blitz percentage nine times. The only exception was his first year with the Lions (2009), when Schwartz didn't have much in the way of defensive linemen.
This season, Schwartz has sent pressure 25.5 percent of the time, which is the 16th-highest rate in the league. It's fair to note, though, that he has been selective with the teams he chooses to blitz. He went after Dak Prescott, Brock Osweiler and Kirk Cousins more than one-third of the time, while barely going after experienced quarterbacks such as Eli Manning and Alex Smith. Smith was blitzed on just 8.8 percent of his dropbacks, one of the lowest rates of any game in 2017. Smith is the closest quarterback to Brady that the Eagles faced all season, and it would hardly be a surprise if Schwartz held back on his blitzes a second time.
On the other hand, Schwartz might want to change something, because whatever he has been doing against his former boss hasn't been working. Sunday will mark Schwartz's eighth game against the Belichick-Brady combination. One of those games was a meaningless Week 17 Bills-Patriots tilt in 2014 in which Brady left the game at halftime. In the other seven games, Schwartz is 1-6, with the win coming back in 2002. Strip out the defensive scoring and you can see that Schwartz has allowed Brady and the Pats to score one touchdown per game more than their scoring average against the rest of the league:
Eagles fans might rightfully note that these defenses weren't as good as the one Schwartz will be organizing this Sunday. The only unit that came close to the Eagles' fifth-place finish in DVOA this season would be the 2014 Bills, who finished second that season. Brady threw for 361 yards and four touchdowns without a pick in the first matchup of the season. He hasn't thrown an interception against a Schwartz defense since that 2002 loss. To put how long ago that was in context, Brady was eventually relieved by Rohan Davey, and the Titans were buoyed on offense by one of the last 100-yard games in the career of Eddie George.
The terrible 2017 team the Patriots should copy to win the Super Bowl
As I mentioned in previewing last year's Super Bowl, many of the Patriots' losses in the postseason come down to the opposing team following the game plan of the 2007 Giants and getting pressure on Brady with its front four. The Giants pulled off the feat to win the Super Bowl at the end of the 2007 and 2011 seasons. DeMarcus Ware, Von Miller & Co. bounced the Patriots from the 2015 playoffs on a day when they knocked down Brady 17 times.
Even in New England's recent Super Bowl wins, the opposing pass rush has dictated how its offense has performed. In the comeback victory over Seattle, the Seahawks gave New England fits until Cliff Avril left the game with a concussion, which took away Seattle's best pass-rusher. And last year, Grady Jarrett and the Falcons' pass rush did a great job of pressuring Brady and shutting down the Patriots' offense until the fourth quarter, when they gassed out under the second-largest snap count in NFL postseason history. Their pressure rate fell from 44.7 percent to 20 percent in the final quarter and overtime, and Brady promptly sliced them up.
The Eagles are not the Jaguars, who led the league in pressure rate when they chose not to blitz, but they have a talented group of defensive linemen. Interior disruptor Fletcher Cox is the true star of the bunch and will be a massive matchup problem for Patriots guard Joe Thuney, but where the Eagles excel is with their depth. No team is deeper at defensive end, where the Eagles can run out Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry as starters and bring on veteran stalwart Chris Long and first-round pick Derek Barnett in reserve.
Philadelphia was the only team in the league to boast five players with 10 or more quarterback knockdowns this season, which owes to the frequency with which the Eagles rotate their defensive players. Graham, the team's most active defensive lineman, played only 64.1 percent of Philly's snaps during the regular season. Cox was on the field for 58.6 percent of the defensive plays. The Eagles had seven linemen, throwing in Jernigan and Beau Allen, who took more than 40 percent of the defensive snaps this season. Nobody else in the league was that aggressive about rotating its defenders up front.
Naturally, the Eagles have given their studs more time during the postseason. Graham and Cox played 90 percent of the snaps against the Falcons and were in for 79 percent of the plays during the blowout win over the Vikings. At the same time, though, the Eagles are going to continue to rotate their defensive linemen, especially if they want to get pressure without blitzing. They need all hands on deck against Brady, and having fresh pass-rushers waiting in the fourth quarter would help protect them from wilting in the way that the Falcons' pass rush did in last year's Super Bowl or the Jags did in the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship Game.
There's a way the Patriots can combat the Eagles' rotation patterns, and it involves stealing an idea from a team whose 2017 season nobody wants to emulate. I realize this is going to sound weird, so don't stop reading after I say this: I think the Patriots should copy what the New York Giants did on offense against the Eagles this season.
Still with me? Let me explain why. The Giants were terrible on offense, but they had two of the most impressive games any offense had against the Eagles. They scored 29 points in their Week 3 overtime loss to Philadelphia, the second-highest point total the Eagles allowed on defense this season. Eli Manning & Co. followed it up with a 24-point showing in Week 15 despite playing without Odell Beckham Jr., Brandon Marshall, Justin Pugh and Weston Richburg, and even that required a blocked field goal and a late goal-to-go stand to keep the Giants from winning in an upset. The Giants were the only team to top 400 yards of offense against the Eagles, and they did it twice, in meaningful, close contests.
How? By not huddling, at least in a traditional sense. The Giants went with both a no-huddle offense and what's alternately known as a sugar huddle or a muddle huddle, where the quarterback huddles briefly with his offensive linemen and the receivers get right to the line of scrimmage. Manning would then get to the line with two play calls and have the ability to "kill" the play originally dialed up for a second option.
The Giants weren't always playing fast -- Manning would get to the line with plenty of time to go on the play clock and then take his time diagnosing the defense -- but going without huddling creates advantages for the offense. The defense doesn't have much time to substitute, which keeps the same defenders on the field until the offense throws an incomplete pass. They naturally get tired and are less effective. Defenses also can't be as ambitious with their playcalls and are stuck playing simpler coverages behind their rushers, and are often stuck employing players in unfamiliar positions. The Eagles had Jenkins rushing the quarterback as essentially an outside linebacker on one such play against the Giants.
Offenses can then use motion and personnel packages to create opportunities. The Giants were able to initially use Engram as an in-line tight end and then motion him out into the slot and on the edge for physical mismatches against Patrick Robinson and Ronald Darby. Manning was able to repeatedly find mismatches in man coverage and soft creases against zone for short completions in that Week 15 matchup. The Giants then capitalized on repeatedly hitting those slants with a pair of double moves with sluggo routes for big plays, including a touchdown pass to Tavarres King. A missed tackle by Rodney McLeod on a simple mesh/wheel route combination resulted in a long catch-and-run for a score by Sterling Shepard.
According to the NFL, the Giants went without a huddle on 79 snaps across their two narrow losses to the Eagles. In their other 16 games, the Eagles faced the no-huddle on a combined 65 snaps. They didn't fare well against it in other games, either. They gave up three first downs and 63 yards to the Rams on three no-huddle snaps in Week 14. The Cardinals nearly scored a 29-yard touchdown out of the no-huddle in Week 5, only to fumble out of the end zone for a touchback. Minnesota ran 11 no-huddle snaps last week, but many of them came when the Vikings were down multiple scores in the second half. The Vikings mostly moved the ball effectively on those drives but stalled out in the red zone.
Numbers also back up that the Eagles haven't been as effective when teams have gone up-tempo. ESPN Stats & Info keeps track of how long in real time a team takes from snap to snap. When teams took a minimum of 30 seconds between snaps against the Eagles, Philadelphia's defense was stout, ranking sixth in the league in win probability added. Under 30 seconds, though, and the Eagles weren't as effective; they ranked 29th in win probability added.
Now, I'm sure that NFL coaches watched those Giants games on tape and saw that they had success with the muddle huddle and a no-huddle approach. Implementing an aggressive tempo is easier said than done. It's difficult to install a faster approach over the course of one week, and some quarterbacks simply aren't going to be able to deal with the mental workload. The Giants spent the entire season in the hurry-up, with the fastest tempo of any team in football.
This isn't any normal matchup, though, and the Patriots don't have any normal quarterback. They used to play at a faster pace, but they were still the third-fastest team in football this season, and that's without considering that they were leading in the second half quite frequently. During the first half, when their games were typically more competitive, the Patriots were the fastest offense in football, taking 35.7 seconds between plays. Brady is perfectly comfortable diagnosing defenses at the line of scrimmage.
The Giants flung it around in that Week 15 game, throwing the ball on 22 of their first 30 playcalls. It would make sense for the Patriots to follow in kind, given that the Eagles sport the league's third-best run defense by DVOA. It will be interesting to see how the Patriots line up if they do go no-huddle and how the Eagles respond. The Eagles will get back Dannell Ellerbe, who missed the NFC Championship Game and would start in Philadelphia's base defense. Ellerbe's replacement was Najee Goode, a special-teamer who got lost in coverage on Minnesota's opening-drive touchdown.
Philadelphia would ideally want to sit in its nickel alignment and substitute out Ellerbe for safety Corey Graham, a former cornerback who would mostly play deep and free up Jenkins to move into the slot. The Patriots can dare Philly into going into its base defense by lining up with two tight ends (Gronk and Dwayne Allen) or substituting in fullback James Develin for third wideout Danny Amendola.
The Eagles were still comfortable sticking with a big nickel look against those offenses in 2017, as they went to their base defense only 20.6 percent of the time with two backs on the field and 19.9 percent of the time with two tight ends. Schwartz's defense allowed a league-low 4.0 yards per carry when it was in nickel or dime packages this season. The Patriots can disguise their intentions and throw from those two-back or two-tight-end sets, but they may have to prove they can run the ball against six-man sets to force the Eagles into an exploitable base D.
Regardless of which formation the Patriots line up in and how fast they go, the easy solution is going to be to get pressure up the middle. The Patriots have had an almost shocking run of abysmal interior line play during Super Bowls, with stars like Logan Mankins and promising young players like Shaq Mason producing some of the worst games of their careers on the league's biggest stage. Cox and Jernigan might be more capable of impacting this Super Bowl than any other non-quarterbacks on the field.
What's left: A few things that could end up playing a meaningful role
The Patriots have an advantage in the kicking and punting game. They are better than the Eagles across the board on special teams, per Football Outsiders' special teams statistics. The Eagles haven't done much on returns this season, as their punt and kick returns (mostly from Kenjon Barner) have been worth a combined minus-1.9 points of field position. Stephen Gostkowski and Ryan Allen have combined with an injury-hit Patriots coverage unit to be worth 16.6 points of field position. If we get the version of Foles who doesn't do much beyond 10 yards past the line of scrimmage, the extra 4-5 yards the Patriots get in terms of field position from drive to drive could play an enormous role as the game goes along.
Most of the minor injury concerns are expected to heal up before Sunday. Gronkowski and defensive end Deatrich Wise, a useful pass-rusher, are likely to clear the concussion protocol for New England. The Eagles' Butler and Jernigan were each struggling with an illness, but it would take something fierce to keep them from playing. Ellerbe and Patriots right tackle LaAdrian Waddle should each be back after missing their respective conference title games.
The Eagles have been a totally different defense away from home. Philly typically hasn't enjoyed a dramatic home-field advantage, but its defense has led it to a dominant home record this season. The Eagles went 9-1 at home including their playoff run, with their only loss coming in a meaningless Week 17 encounter with the Cowboys.
The defense has driven their home success. Philadelphia allowed a mere 13.4 points per game at home this season, a figure that drops to 12.4 points per contest if you include the two playoff wins. That's the best home defensive performance we've seen over the past five years. On the road, the Eagles have allowed an average of 23.5 points per game, which is just above the league average of 22.9.
The Super Bowl is a neutral-site game, and the Eagles are only technically the "road" team in Minnesota by virtue of conference rotation, but it remains to be seen whether Philadelphia can keep up its playoff dominance away from home. The Eagles played their past four games in Philadelphia, allowing a total of 33 points, after playing their three previous games on the road. The Seahawks, Rams and Giants combined to score 88 points over those three contests. The home/road split might explain why the Eagles were the second-most-inconsistent defense in football this season per DVOA. It would be wrong to say they're "due" for a bad game -- that's the gambler's fallacy -- but they probably aren't going to look as good in Minnesota as the past month suggests.
The Eagles might have to help left tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai. The hottest pass-rusher of the postseason is probably Patriots right end Trey Flowers, who has seven knockdowns in two games. One of those knockdowns saved what might have been a huge play when Blake Bortles was impacted by Flowers and underthrew a would-be touchdown pass to Leonard Fournette. New England will move Flowers around, especially if Wise and James Harrison are both in the lineup, but he'll line up most frequently at right end, which matches up against the weakest spot on the Eagles' offensive line. Vaitai allowed eight sacks this season, but he did hold up admirably against Vikings star Everson Griffen in the NFC Championship Game. If Flowers gets off to a hot start, the Eagles could adjust their offensive game plan.
Don't expect a lot of pass interference calls. It might seem like the NFL is reacting to the controversy from the PI calls in last week's Jaguars-Patriots game, but the more likely explanation for letting them play in the Super Bowl is the officials the NFL has chosen.
Gene Steratore won't have his typical crew for Sunday, but of the three officials who will be looking for pass interference in this game -- side judge Scott Edwards, field judge Tom Hill and back judge Perry Paganelli -- two came from crews that threw fewer flags for pass interference than league average this season. Steratore's pass interference call rate has been identical to the league average over the past three years.
In addition, officials have shown a reticence to call defensive pass interference on the game's biggest stage. Since the NFL adopted what was known as the "Polian Rule" in 2004, the league's officials have thrown an average of 0.91 pass interference penalties per game during the regular season and hit that exact 0.91 number during the first three rounds of the postseason. During the Super Bowl, though, they've made just eight PI calls in 13 games when we would have expected nearly 12 over the same timeframe. None of those calls has been for more than 20 yards. It wouldn't be shocking if pass interference wizard Torrey Smith drew a flag on Malcolm Butler or Eric Rowe, but it would be out of character for this game to be decided by pass interference in a big moment.
The same is also the case for illegal contact. I find this almost impossible to believe, but in looking over ESPN Stats & Info data and the NFL's official gamebooks, there hasn't been an illegal contact penalty called in the Super Bowl in 13 years. The last guy to be flagged for illegal contact was New England's Roman Phifer in Super Bowl XXXIX, who will turn 50 in March and played just one NFL game after the Pats' win over the Eagles.
If this were the Eagles with Carson Wentz, I'd pick them to win. They're better than the Patriots on both sides of the line of scrimmage, and that played up when the Falcons nearly upset New England last year. That Falcons team had the league MVP playing at quarterback, though, and I'm just not sold that Foles is going to hold up his end of the bargain in carrying the Eagles to victory.
As great of a job as Pederson & Co. have done in sheltering Foles with RPOs and safe throws, this is the same coaching staff that was around Foles during his disastrous end to the regular season and his middling first half against the Falcons, when one of the worst passes of the season bounced off Keanu Neal's body and into the hands of Torrey Smith for what ended up becoming a critical field goal.
The Eagles are good enough to give the Patriots a scare, but this should end up as a sixth ring for Belichick and Brady. Final score: Patriots 27, Eagles 20.