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Super Bowl LII preview: Solving Brady the key

Posted by Eric Fisher On February 3

We all know the history. The Patriots have won five Super Bowls with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. The Eagles lost both times they reached the Super Bowl. In fact, the Eagles are one of five franchises that have reached the Super Bowl at least twice without winning one.

One of the Patriots’ Super Bowl wins, of course, was a 24-21 triumph over the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX. That Super Bowl is infamous among Eagles fans for the lack of urgency demonstrated by the offense during the fourth quarter and the debate over whether quarterback Donovan McNabb vomited during a fourth-quarter drive.

But very little of that history will matter Sunday (6:30 p.m.) when the Eagles and defending-champion Patriots collide in Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis.

The incredible track record of Brady and Belichick, including last year’s amazing Super Bowl comeback against the Falcons, can’t be dismissed. Limiting Brady’s effectiveness is probably the Eagles’ greatest concern for Sunday’s game. But the rest of that history has nothing to do with the Eagles’ chances of winning Super Bowl LII.

Super Bowl LII is about this year. And this season’s Eagles don’t have to take a back seat to anybody. They have overcome adversity, ranging from early-season criticism of head coach Doug Pederson to a litany of injuries to key players, including quarterback Carson Wentz and All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters. In fact, the Eagles seem to be a team of destiny, with only the Patriots’ dynasty standing between the Birds and the franchise’s first Super Bowl victory.

Perhaps the question isn’t how the Eagles can unseat the defending-champion Patriots, but rather how the Patriots can stop the Eagles.

Here are 10 questions – and we’re going to skip the usual first question about why Sunday’s game is so important – to consider prior to and during Super Bowl LII.

Which team has the better quarterback?

With all due respect to Nick Foles, the answer to this question is Tom Brady. And the answer would be the same if Carson Wentz were healthy – although the gap would not be as great. Brady is, arguably, the best quarterback in NFL history. He has won five Super Bowl titles, the most in history. He holds the Super Bowl record for touchdown passes with 15. And if you think Brady is on the downside of his career at age 40, watch the AFC Championship Game two weeks ago, when Brady led the Patriots to two touchdown drives in the final 10 minutes against a terrific Jaguars defense despite the absence of injured right end Rob Gronkowski. And don’t forget about the Patriots rallying from a 28-3 deficit to defeat the Falcons in overtime in last year’s Super Bowl. Foles can’t match Brady, but if he could match the Nick Foles from the 38-7 NFC Championship Game triumph over the Vikings, the Eagles would be thrilled.

Which team has the better head coach?

With all due respect to Doug Pederson, who should be the NFL Coach of the Year, the edge has to go to Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. Yes, he’s grumpy. Yes, he’s been caught cheating. But what can’t be denied is that he’s won five Super Bowls and that this is his eighth trip to the Super Bowl in 18 seasons as Patriots head coach. Belichick has an incredible ability to take other teams’ castoffs and put them in position to be valuable players.

If the Patriots have the better coach and quarterback, how can the Eagles win?

The Patriots are not a dominant team. That means this should be a relatively close game. And it can be argued that the Eagles have an advantage on both the offensive and defensive lines, which is critical to retaining possession and to pressuring Tom Brady. If the Eagles can win the battles on the line of scrimmage, they can win the football game.

Why is the Eagles’ offensive line so important?

If the Eagles are able to run the ball against the Vikings, they will be able to control the tempo and take some of the pressure off of Nick Foles. Establishing a running game would also enable the Eagles to play keepaway from Tom Brady. Right tackle Lane Johnson and center Jason Kelce were named first-team All-Pro. Right guard Brandon Brooks was selected for the Pro Bowl. One of the most overlooked developments in the Eagles’ rise – until the playoff spotlight created the opportunity for stories about practically everyone on the roster – was the decision to elevate Stefen Wisniewski to the starting role at left guard. The weakest link is still left tackle Halipoulivaati Vaitai, but he has played pretty well during the Eagles’ postseason wins over the Falcons and Vikings. One concern is that Jay Ajayi is only averaging 3.8 yards per carry and LeGarrette Blount only 2.7 yards per carry during this year’s playoffs. Another concern is that the Patriots, who didn’t generate much pressure on quarterbacks for most of the season, have 11 sacks in their two playoff games, with the ageless James Harrison being an effective late-season addition.

Why is the Eagles’ defensive line so important?

The Eagles won’t win Super Bowl LII if Tom Brady has time to survey the field before making a throw. The Eagles need to generate pressure, and they need to generate that pressure with their front four. Blitzing Brady can be a disaster. He’s so good at figuring out where the blitz is coming from and making the necessary adjustments to create open space for his receivers. Defensive ends Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, Chris Long and Derek Barnett must get pressure from the outside, but the push up the middle by defensive tackles Fletcher Cox and Tim Jernigan might be even more important. If Cox and Jernigan can generate pressure up the middle, it will prevent Brady from stepping up in the pocket, which is one of his favorite tactics to gain extra time.

What’s the most difficult matchup for the Eagles?

The most difficult matchup for the Eagles will likely be trying to cover tight end Rob Gronkowski. The 6-foot-6, 265-pound Gronkowski was the leading receiver (69 receptions for 1,084 yards, 8 TDs) this season for the Patriots. His size makes him difficult to cover one-on-one. Safety Malcolm Jenkins (6-foot, 204) will probably be the primary defender assigned to cover Gronkowski, but the Eagles need to give him some help. Gronkowski sustained a concussion against the Jaguars in the AFC Championship Game, but has cleared the NFL’s concussion protocol.

What impact does Rob Gronkowski make?

The attention Gronkowski draws takes away defenders away from other Patriots. For example, if Gronkowski is Malcolm Jenkins’ primary assignment, then he isn’t available to blitz Tom Brady or help out with coverage of the Patriots’ other receivers and running backs. Brandin Cooks (65 catches for 1,082 yards, 7 TDs), Danny Amendola (61 for 659 during the regular season; 18 for 196, 2 TDs during the playoffs) and Chris Hogan (34 for 439, 5 TDs) will have to be covered one-on-one most of the time, which puts a lot of pressure on cornerbacks Ronald Darby, Jalen Mills and Patrick Robinson. That could leave Eagles linebackers matched up against speedy running back Dion Lewis (16 receptions for 111 yards in 2 playoff games) and fellow running back James White (7 for 51).

Which is the most intriguing receiver-cornerback matchup?

The matchups between Patriots receivers Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola and Eagles cornerbacks Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills are probably the most important receiver-cornerback matchups, but the most intriguing one for Eagles fans might be on the other side of the ball. It’s possible that Eagles receiver Nelson Agholor, the Birds’ first-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, could be matched up with Patriots cornerback Eric Rowe, whom the Eagles selected in the second round in 2015. Agholor was drafted 20th overall out of USC. Rowe was drafted 47th overall out of Utah.

Does it matter that the Eagles are seeking revenge for Super Bowl XXXIX?

Although the Eagles players and coaches are certainly aware of the Patriots’ victory over the Eagles in the Super Bowl 13 years ago, none of the players – not even veteran tight end Brent Celek – was a part of that team. Although avenging that defeat would make a victory Sunday even sweeter for Eagles fans, it’s probably not a driving force for Eagles players.

Will the fans matter?

Eagles fans travel well. During several regular-season road games, a huge influx of Eagles fans made it seem as if the Eagles were playing at home. There should be far more Eagles fans than Patriots fans in Minneapolis for Super Bowl LII, creating a pro-Eagles atmosphere. But will that make a difference in the game? A big Eagles crowd shouldn’t rattle Tom Brady, who is playing in his eighth Super Bowl and probably could have handled the frenzied atmosphere at Lincoln Financial Field during the NFC Championship Game. But the familiar “E-A-G-L-E-S!” cheers and supportive crowd could inspire the Eagles.

Prediction: The variety of weapons that Brady has at his disposal is a bit scary. If the defense tries to take away Gronkowski, he can throw to Cooks and Amendola. If the defense takes away deeper routes, Brady can dump passes off to Lewis and White coming out of the backfield. But the Eagles can negate some of Brady’s effectiveness with pressure from their defensive linemen. I envision the Eagles clinging to a lead in the fourth quarter. Everyone will be waiting for Brady to lead the Patriots on a winning drive, just as he did against the Jaguars in the AFC Championship Game, but the Eagles never give the ball back.  The final drive will include Pederson gambling by calling for a pass play instead of running the ball to consume more time – and Foles rewarding him with completed pass for a first down. Brady never gets back on the field. Let the celebrations begin! Eagles 23, Patriots 21

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Side angle of Cody Parkey's missed field goal