Each week the game comes down to the match-ups. These are the top match-ups that will determine which team emerges victorious.
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 New England 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.
Patriots’ Running Backs vs Eagles’ Linebackers
One of the surprises of the AFC Championship game was the lack of impact from the New England running backs. Expected to run the ball early and often, the Patriots instead passed the ball 39 times while rushing the ball 19 times (five of those kneel-downs/scrambles from Tom Brady). They rushed for just 46 yards (all stats from Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted) for the entire game.
Even more surprising was the way the Jaguars were able to control the running backs in the passing game. Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead, and James White have all been weapons in the passing game in 2017 but the duo of Jacksonville Jaguars linebackers Telvin Smith and Myles Jack played probably their best game of the season. Burkhead had no receptions, Lewis had just three catches for 22 yards and Lewis was held to 32 yards on seven catches.
While Philadelphia has an explosive collection of pass rushers much like the Jaguars, their linebackers are no match for the explosive speed, quickness, and power that Smith and Jack displayed in shutting down some of the most dangerous receiving backs in the league. The Eagles linebackers are solid but lack the athleticism of the Jacksonville duo.
Nigel Bradham is going to bear most of the burden of taking on the role of covering whatever New England running back is coming out of the backfield on passing plays. Bradham–who was always a good player in his four seasons in Buffalo–has elevated his game in the past two seasons in Philadelphia.
Bradham has been excellent in pass coverage allowing just 0.62 yards per coverage snap this year according to ProFootballFocus.com, which is the second-best in the league among linebackers. His seven pass breakups which were the most in the league.
Mychal Kendricks, in his sixth season in Philadelphia, is the other primary linebacker for the Eagles. Although slowed by injuries early in his career in Philadelphia, Kendricks appeared on his way out after seemingly being phased out of the defense last year. This season he forced his way back onto the roster in the preseason and has stepped in since promising young linebacker Jordan Hicks was lost for the season due to an Achilles injury in October.
Kendricks is not a superb athlete or fluid, long and smooth like Bradham. He will be the linebacker the Patriots will scheme to get in one-on-one matchups with the running backs. When Philadelphia is in their Cover-1 or Cover-3 zone defense, the Patriots will look for running backs in his area.
When the Eagles use three linebackers it is usually against a base offensive set (two tight ends and/or fullback) the Eagles will use former Dolphins linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (who has been slowed by a hamstring injury) or Najee Goode (who missed the assignment giving up the touchdown to Kyle Rudolph on Minnesota’s first drive).
With the explosive and hard-charging Eagles front-four, look for New England to force Kendricks and Bradham chase the running backs sideline-to-sideline with screen passes and swing passes out of the backfield. Those plays allow quarterback Tom Brady to get the ball out in a hurry to mitigate the pass rush and put pressure on the Eagles’ linebackers to make plays in space against the slippery Lewis, Burkhead and White.
New England needs to be in position to win this match-up after the running back group barely made an impact in the passing game after being a key component for much of 2017. As a group they mustered just 54 yards receiving despite 14 targets and just ten receptions for a 5.4 yards per reception average.
The Patriots will test the Eagles linebackers with their running backs as they did against Tennessee (much success) in the Divisional round and against the Jaguars (little success). How their game-plan works will go a long way towards whether New England can sustain some early drives and jump out to a lead. Winning those match-ups early will allow the Patriots to use their running backs to run the ball and clock in the second half if they manage a lead.