The New England Patriots are back in the Super Bowl for the third time in the past four seasons. They defeated the Jacksonville Jaguars 24-20 in the AFC Championship game after coming back from a ten-point deficit. Quarterback Tom Brady again led the offense back despite the loss of tight end Rob Gronkowski. The defense shut down the Jaguars defense in the fourth quarter to set-up that come-back and cornerback Stephon Gilmore closed out the game with a spectacular play on fourth down.
They will face an unfamiliar foe in the Philadelphia Eagles. When New England last played Philadelphia in 2015 the Eagles were coached by Chip Kelly and the Eagles featured Sam Bradford at quarterback, Darren Sproles and DeMarco Murray at running back and Jordan Matthews and Riley Cooper at wide receiver. The Eagles dispatched the Minnesota Vikings 38-7 with a stunning performance from quarterback Nick Foles as he shredded the top-ranked Vikings defense.
With a super match-up on tap for Sunday, February 4th in Super Bowl 52 there are too many important match-ups to limit to just five. All of the match-ups are key so we will go through all the match-ups and see which will determine if the Patriots repeat as Super Bowl champions against the Philadelphia Eagles or if Nick Foles and the ferocious Eagles’ defense will pull off the historic upset and vault them to their first Super Bowl.
Eagles’ Wide Receivers/Tight Ends vs Patriots’ Secondary
The Philadelphia Eagles primarily will align in either a three-wide receiver alignment with Torrey Smith, Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor and tight end Zach Ertz or with two tight ends (Ertz and Brent Celek) and two wide receivers (usually Jeffrey with Agholor or Smith). The Eagles will mix in wide receiver Mack Hollins and tight end Trey Burton in certain packages.
The Eagles’ passing attack was among the top in the NFL with second-year quarterback Carson Wentz having an MVP season. Wentz passed for 3,296 yards, completing over 60 percent of his passes with 33 touchdowns and seven interceptions (all stats from Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted). Offensive coordinator Frank Reich and head coach Doug Pederson’s West Coast passing scheme and play-action made Wentz one of the most effective players in the league this season.
The top receiver for the Eagles was actually tight end Ertz with 74 receptions for 824 yards and eight touchdowns. Ertz had his third-straight season with over 70 receptions for the Eagles and has added another 11 receptions for 125 yards in two playoff games this season. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia will be scheming to take Ertz out of the offense after he emerged as quarterback Nick Foles’ safety valve last week. Look for safety Patrick Chung to be matched-up on the six-foot-five and 250 pound Ertz in coverage in the Super Bowl.
The emergence of slot receiver Nelson Agholor opened up the offense in Philadelphia this season. Agholor bounced back from two underwhelming seasons as an outside receiver in Philadelphia with a strong performance this year. Agholor had 62 receptions on 95 targets for 768 yards and eight touchdowns. In the slot, with no Jonathan Jones (on injured reserve) the Patriots will likely move cornerback Malcolm Butler inside to defend him in man-coverage.
These Receivers Deliver
Philadelphia added deep threat Torrey Smith from San Francisco this offseason. The former Baltimore Ravens second-round draft pick may no longer be the receiver who had over 750 yards receiving each season in Baltimore or averaged over 20 yards per reception as he did in San Francisco in 2015, but he is still a speed threat able to stretch opposing defenses. Smith, at six-foot-one and 205 pounds will likely be matched-up with cornerback Eric Rowe in coverage.
Finally, Philadelphia’s big free agent acquisition was former Chicago Bears wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. Jeffery is easily the top receiver in terms of talent on the outside. He struggled to stay healthy in his last two years in Chicago. However, he had 57 receptions for 789 yards and nine touchdowns this season. He played all sixteen games. At six-foot-four and 230 pounds, the massive Jeffery should see a lot of top cornerback Stephon Gilmore in coverage.
In Philadelphia’s West Coast attack the wide receivers and tight ends are both important. Foles will focus on the intermediate level and will not make risky throws waiting for open receivers. The run-pass options inserted into the game plan in the playoffs let him facilitate and not do too much. Against Minnesota last week the Eagles took advantage of the Vikings’ blitzing to make big plays downfield.
Keys for the Pats
New England will need to get up and physical with Philadelphia’s bigger receivers and tight ends. They must throw off their timing and force Foles to hold the ball. The linebackers will be keyed on stopping the run and the cornerbacks and safeties need to win their one-on-one battles against the Eagles’ pass-catchers in order to slow Foles.
New England struggled against the Jaguars in the first half in pass coverage. Jacksonville used a similar offensive game-plan to that which the Eagles used in the Divisional round against Atlanta. Jacksonville rushed for 60 yards. However, Blake Bortles was 13 of 15 for 155 yards finding his running backs six times. His only touchdown pass was to tight end Marcedes Lewis.
New England got Bortles off his game in the second half of the game. They applied additional pressure while clamping down on the running game. Improved secondary play in the second half was a key that will have to carry over into the Super Bowl. Stopping the Eagles means slowing down their passing attack and keeping Foles from keeping pace with the New England offense.
–Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media. He covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01