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 Tom Brady and 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’ Quarterback vs Eagles’ Defense
The buzzword for how to stop Tom Brady for the past two weeks has been pressure.
The buzzword for how to stop Tom Brady for the past decade-plus has been pressure.
Pressure is the key for ANY quarterback, but especially Tom Brady. Some quarterbacks struggle against man-coverage. Others cannot decipher certain zone defenses. Brady has seen just about every defensive alignment there is in the NFL.
The type of pressure on Tom Brady matters as well. Teams have to dial-up pressure from both edges and up-the-middle through the A-gap. That kind of pressure is difficult to generate. The New York Giants created that pressure in Super Bowl XLII by winning one-on-one match-ups with the New England offensive line.
With Hall of Fame edge rushers and dynamic young players, they collapsed the edges upon Brady forcing him to step-up into pressure. At the same time, the secondary was flooded with tight coverage and extra defenders as robbers trying to take away passing lanes.
That defensive alignment works–when everything works. The defense has to be stout against the run and have the players to cover the underneath routes.
In Denver in the 2015 AFC Championship game, the Patriots had Sebastian Vollmer playing at less than 100 percent and out of position at left tackle in his last NFL game getting bull-rushed by Demarcus Ware and Marcus Cannon playing on a broken big toe trying to slow Von Miller. Add in Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe inside and the no-fly zone secondary and the Broncos still avoided overtime due to a failed two-point conversion.
Don’t Forget About Rob Gronkowski
Two additional factors that work against those defenses that were not present in the past are tight end Rob Gronkowski and the multi-purpose running backs. New England’s offense has the ability to attack a defense at all three levels with wide receivers Brandin Cooks and Phillip Dorsett deep, Chris Hogan and Rob Gronkowski in the intermediate level and Danny Amendola, James White, Rex Burkhead and Dion Lewis underneath.
In the AFC Championship game against the Jacksonville Jaguars probably served as a great match-up to preview the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl. Jacksonville had a similar defensive line able to generate interior pressure and on the edge.
The Jacksonville linebackers are more dynamic and athletic than Philadelphia’s and individually their cornerbacks were more athletic. Philadelphia has a better safety play with Malcolm Jenkins a Swiss army knife in the secondary, Rodney McLeod grossly underrated and Corey Graham a weapon as the deep safety like Duron Harmon for the Patriots.
The New England Patriots’ offensive tackles held their own against Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue, and Dante Fowler last week. Jacksonville had Marcell Dareus and Malik Jackson inside as well pushing the pocket. Is that defensive line much different than Philadelphia and Fletcher Cox and Timmy Jernigan inside and Vinny Curry, Derek Barnett, Chris Long and Brandon Graham on the edge?
The question is can the New England Patriots’ offensive line again stand tall against a strong defensive front and give Brady time to throw.
How Brady Can Attack the Eagles
Look for Brady to attack the Eagles linebackers. With no one in the linebacker group with comparables to Telvin Smith and Myles Jack at inside linebacker, Nigel Bradham is probably the closest in terms of athleticism and what he lacks there he makes up with his smart play. If Bradham is able to cover the running backs and contain them in the passing game it could be a long day for the New England offense.
The other area to exploit are the cornerbacks. There is a big drop-off from Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye to Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby. The Eagles have Patrick Robinson who has had an amazing year in the slot to match-up with Danny Amendola. Chris Hogan and Brandin Cooks made plays against Bouye and Ramsey and the Patriots can dictate the match-ups with Mills and Darby as the Eagles tend to leave them each on their own side of the field rather than follow receivers.
The final problem for Philadelphia is even if they get pressure on Brady, he still is the best in the NFL under pressure. Per ESPN Stats & Information, Brady completed 59 percent of his passes when under pressure this season with 10 touchdowns and two interceptions. Even if the Eagles’ front four does its job and gets to Brady, just as he did against Jacksonville he will likely find a way to still move the ball on offense and put up points on the scoreboard.
Eagles’ Quarterback vs Patriots’ Defense
Without a doubt, the biggest question mark heading into Super Bowl LII is which Nick Foles shows up for the Philadelphia Eagles?
Will it be the four-touchdown Foles from his first start versus the Giants? The Foles who could not move the football at all against Oakland and Dallas causing the offense to stagnate? The Foles who did just enough against Atlanta in the Divisional round? Or will be the big-play, downfield attacking Foles who stood up to pressure to light-up the Vikings in the NFC Championship game?
To paraphrase Eminem, “Will the real Nick Foles please stand up?”
No one–not in Philadelphia, not in New England, not in the press–absolutely no one has any idea if he will show up on Sunday night and throw for 300 yards and three touchdowns or pass for 150 yards and throw three interceptions. There is no precedent for such an inconsistent performer on such a big stage and an unknown at such a key position.
Philadelphia’s offensive line has been an understated part of the success of Foles in the playoffs. Lane Johnson, Brandon Brooks, and Jason Kelce have been fantastic this season. Stefen Wisniewski has held up well and Halapoulivaati Vaitai has been adequate at left tackle since Jason Peters went down.
Foles Needs the Running Game
The running game is vital for Foles to succeed. Without the play-action passing game and the threat of running the ball the offense struggles. The talk since the win over Atlanta in the Divisional round has been the RPO or run-pass option. That RPO is only effective when the defense is crashing down on running plays and opening space for the receivers.
Again, in the AFC Championship game against Jacksonville the Patriots’ defense got a ton of RPOs in the first half with quarterback Blake Bortles playing the same type of game plan as Nick Foles had been running. Bortles was great in the first half building a 14-10 lead and extending it to 20-10 in the second half. However, once New England adjusted the Jaguars struggled to move the ball once yards on first down dried up.
Nick Foles is a good quarterback who can do a lot for an offense when comfortable. Making him play from behind and having to force passes into tight man-coverage with small windows is not his strength. The Patriots will be trying to put him in that position and force the Eagles to make mistakes and take away big plays.
Early on in the game will be interesting as the Eagles will be trying to get their tight ends Zach Ertz and Brent Celek involved early while trying to establish the running game to open up the intermediate area of the field for their wide receivers. Minnesota got caught overplaying the running game and Foles could attack down the field.
It was almost as if after Minnesota quarterback Case Keenum threw his pick-six that Foles morphed into Keenum and Keenum looked like the overmatched Foles who struggled down the stretch and in the first half against Atlanta. Foles was so good in the NFC Championship game that it seems like lighting would have to strike twice for him to pull off another performance of the like.
Don’t Underrate the New England Defense
The New England defense is continually overlooked each season in the playoffs. Remember, they shut down the Steelers in the AFC Championship game and held the Atlanta offense to just three touchdowns in the Super Bowl this year. They completely shut-down Tennessee in the divisional round and after a frustrating first half held the Jaguars to just six points in the second half.
The Patriots are a bad match-up for Foles and Philadelphia offense because they have been able to slow the running game down the stretch and in the playoffs. They play tight man-coverage which stymies the run-pass option plays and Stephon Gilmore, Eric Rowe and Malcolm Butler have divergent skill sets that match-up well against the Eagles’ wide receivers.
Zach Ertz is the top weapon for Philadelphia but safety Patrick Chung has been able to shut down opposing tight ends down the stretch and in the playoffs. If the Patriots take away Ertz and the running game, can Foles make those tough throws with the pressure of the Super Bowl and the New England pass rush?
–Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01