Patriots offense vs. Eagles defense

Tom Brady’s hand and Rob Gronkowski’s head are the two biggest injury concerns heading into Super Bowl LII. And they just so happened to involve the two most indispensable members of the New England Patriots’ offense.

Of course, we watched Brady — days after suffering a cut on his thumb that required stitches — take apart the Jacksonville Jaguars’ defense in the AFC championship game. We also saw Brady do it without the services of Gronkowski, who was knocked out of the game in the final minutes of the first half with a concussion. But both players are expected to be in good shape by game time against the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Eagles were in the middle of the pack during the regular season in terms of defending tight ends. Late in the season, they were better in that department. In two playoff games, opposing tight ends caught only three passes (although one was a 25-yard TD by Kyle Rudolph). Expect both safeties and linebackers — perhaps speedy Mychal Kendricks — to be used on Gronkowski.

Gronk is the best mismatch piece the Patriots have. He can line up in line, be split out or be used in motion. Few safeties can handle his size; not many linebackers can run with him. The Eagles must do what they can to take him out of the game early. Gronkowski scored eight TDs and averaged 80.9 receiving yards in 12 games the Patriots won with him on the field and had zero TDs and averaged 56.5 yards in two losses with him. (They were 1-1 without Gronk in the regular season).

Brady has other dangerous pass catchers, including Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola. Both are quick and can dice up predictable zone coverages. Where the Eagles can gain an edge is using press man against the smaller wideouts, which is something defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is not afraid to do.

One advantage the Eagles might be able to exploit — just as the New York Giants did in their two Super Bowl victories over New England — is to get pressure with only rushing four men. Brady tends to kill teams that try to blitz him endlessly and recklessly. The Eagles might not have to do that and can pick and choose their spots wisely.

But that’s not to say the Eagles don’t gamble … they just do it in different ways. The secondary is very aggressive and will squat on routes. Their goal is to make interceptions and make plays on the ball. The Eagles had 19 regular-season interceptions, which was tied for third-most in the NFL, and added two more in the playoffs.

Cornerback Patrick Robinson has five picks, including the playoffs. Four more players — safeties Rodney McLeod and Corey Graham and cornerbacks Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby (in 10 games) — each have three combined. Corner Rasul Douglas and Malcolm Jenkins each have two. That’s seven Eagles DBs with multiple picks stalking Brady, who had only eight interceptions (although six of those came in a five-game span from Weeks 12 to 16).

If the Eagles play man coverage, the Patriots’ go-to passing concept is the rub route. They’ll use Gronkowski, Amendola, Cooks, Chris Hogan and their running backs in different combinations to use pick plays to help separate coming off the line.

The rub route is the bread and butter of this Patriots offense, and wide receivers Danny Amendola, Brandin Cooks, and Chris Hogan thrive in these situations, as does tight end Rob Gronkowski. The Eagles showed some vulnerability to this in late-season matchups against the Seattle Seahawks and Los Angeles Rams especially.

If the Eagles play off coverage, expect the Patriots to unleash more double moves to soften them up that way. This is what the New York Giants did against them in Week 15.

Where the Eagles must improve is on their tackling against short passes. This has been a problem for the unit, and the Patriots thrive with a quick, rhythm passing game and have plenty of candidates to help them test Schwartz’s defense in this way. Playing “off” is usually meant to prevent deep passes, but the Eagles’ sometimes-shaky tackling (especially at corner) can undercut this at times.

Running back Dion Lewis is a great “space” receiver who will be a big part of the game plan after being limited in last year’s Super Bowl. James White, the man who took on the bigger role in the backfield in Super Bowl LI, also can be unleashed in this way, even though he’s not a make-you-miss runner and receiver. The Eagles ranked first in rush yards allowed per game and sixth in yards per carry, so the Patriots’ running backs will be asked to do different things than slam into a wall time and time again.

With a defensive front that features waves of pass rushers, both inside and out, the Eagles might be the deepest defensive line the Patriots have faced. The interior pair of Fletcher Cox and Timmy Jernigan are as good as you’ll find at splitting gaps. On the edge, Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, Chris Long and rookie Derek Barnett all can turn up the heat and keep everyone fresh.

The Patriots’ offensive line is not a name group, but it has improved over the course of the season. They also tend to be assignment-sound, adjust well mid-game and finish strong when defenses start to tire. They must hold up, with help from big blocking tight end Dwayne Allen, in this game for the Patriots to have success.

—Eric Edholm

Eagles offense vs. Patriots defense

While much of the focus in Super Bowl LII will center on the matchup of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots' top-ranked offense vs. the Philadelphia Eagles' fourth-ranked defense, it is unlikely that will be what dictates the outcome of the game.

The Eagles' ‘D’ is outstanding and it will undoubtedly make some plays, but Brady is the GOAT and he and his troops will most likely make enough plays to give the Pats a shot at their sixth Lombardi trophy.

The real mystery in Minneapolis Sunday will be whether the Eagles offense can be the high flying unit it was through the first 13 weeks of the season under the guidance of Carson Wentz and in an other-worldly performance from his backup Nick Foles in the NFC title game, or will it be the group that limped through the final two weeks of the regular season and the divisional playoff vs. the Falcons averaging just 13.3 points per game after Wentz’s season-ending injury?

We know exactly what to expect from the Pats on offense and the Eagles on defense, but when you turn the matchup around things get rather foggy.

Based on the full season’s results, the Eagles would have a clear edge having finished the 2017 campaign seventh in total offense, third in rushing, 13th in passing, tied for 11th in fewest turnovers, eighth converting third downs and third in the NFL in points scored.

By contrast, while Pats supporters can argue they were fifth in the league in the most important defensive category — points allowed — New England flirted with disaster all season playing bend, don't break and finishing 29th in yards allowed, 20th vs. the run, 30th vs. the pass, 25th in takeaways and 21st on third downs.

Yes, New England’s defensive stats were skewed by a woeful opening quarter of the season with the defense ranked last after a 2-2 start.

But while New England led the NFL in fewest points allowed over the last 12 games of the season, and its ‘D’ has been outstanding in the playoffs against Tennessee and in the second half vs. Jacksonville, it still allowed teams to go up and down the field on it all year long.

Much of this matchup will be dictated by the chess match between Eagles head coach Doug Pederson – who clearly orchestrates his offense beyond excellent contributions from coordinator Frank Reich and quarterbacks coach John Defillippo – and Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia — who makes in game adjustments better than any other coach in the league.

What makes this matchup even harder to judge is the way Patricia uses every one of the 25 defenders on his roster — none indispensable and every one a contributor.

Nullify Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Mychal Kendricks and Malcolm Jenkins on the Eagles defense, and you have a good chance of beating them.

Dissecting the Patriot defense is far more problematic.

Patricia will rotate seven or eight defensive linemen and four or five linebackers on and off the field liberally, and every single one of them will make plays.

If the Eagles can dent them consistently on the ground with Jay Ajayi and former Pat LeGarrette Blount, they can grab a significant advantage.

But on successive weekends in the playoffs, the Pats, led by Patrick Chung, Kyle van Noy, Trey Flowers and the ageless James Harrison, have stoned Derrick Henry and Leonard Fournette — and the Eagles backs are not in their league.

New England has allowed just 166 yards rushing on 48 carries, a 3.5 average so far in the playoffs, and the defending champs are still standing.

Still this is a matchup the Eagles can win — and they may have to — because when it comes time to air the ball out the Pats have the edge.

Few teams boast the likes of Stephon Gilmore, Malcolm Butler and Devin McCourty in coverage, and while Alshon Jeffery had a couple big plays against the Vikings, he, Nelson Agholor, Torrey Smith and Zach Ertz won’t strike fear in the Patriot secondary.

Ertz is probably the Eagles' most dangerous weapon in this matchup, but the reason McCourty is one of the few Pats Belichick elected to pay rather than trade or lose to free agency is he is one of the best coverage safeties in the game.

Ertz versus McCourty will be the matchup to watch, although New England’s athletic linebackers and safety Duron Harmon — who will often be a fifth DB on the field in lieu of a linebacker — will get physical with Ertz and try and keep him from getting to McCourty.

Notice I have yet to mention another one of the Patriots GOATs — Bill Belichick — but don’t think for a minute he won’t put his stamp on this game.

While no one moves his pieces/players on the chess board like Patricia, Belichick is the king of devising a scheme and game plan to assure Foles will see some things he isn’t expecting and hasn’t seen before, and how he reacts will ultimately be key in the outcome of this game.

For three quarters, the Jaguars' Blake Bortles played the game of his life in the AFC championship and Jacksonville appeared poised to dethrone the champs, but with the outcome on the line in the final minutes he could not solve the Patriot ‘D.’

Foles in his career has resembled Bortles far more than Brady, and which one he mirrors Sunday could very well dictate the outcome of this Super Bowl.

— Hub Arkush

Special teams

The Patriots have a decided edge in the third phase, where PK Stephen Gostkowski, 34, is kicking in his fifth Super Bowl and comes off one of his better seasons (92.5 FG conversion rate ranked fourth in the NFL).

Jake Elliott, the rookie whom the Eagles claimed off waivers from the Bengals in September, has performed yeoman’s work. He converted 9-of-10 postseason kicks, including 4-of-4 on field-goals, after an 83.9 regular-season accuracy rate, with a long of 61 yards. Both kickers have big legs, but only one has been on the biggest stage.

New England also has the game’s only returner to flourish on the Super Bowl stage, Dion Lewis, who took a kick return 98 yards to the house in last year’s divisional round. Additionally, Danny Amendola delivered in the clutch in the AFC title game with a field-flipping 20-yard punt return.

Johnson Bademosi and Pro Bowler Matthew Slater head New England return units that finished top five on punts and kickoffs; the Eagles were middle of the pack covering kicks during the regular season. Left-footed punters — Patriots’ Ryan Allen and Eagles’ Donnie Jones — had comparable seasons, but Allen has the edge in Super Bowl experience and was outstanding late in helping New England rally vs. Jacksonville.   

Coaching

Bill Belichick, whose seven combined Lombardis as a head coach and assistant already make him the greatest ever, can separate from scout Neal Dahlen with a victory to become the only man in NFL history with eight. He’ll lose both of his coordinators — OC Josh McDaniels and DC Matt Patricia — to head-coaching jobs after Sunday, the first such Patriots occurrence since Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel left after the Super Bowl XXXIX win over the Eagles.

No staff prepares its players and consistently shows an ability to adjust and reinvent within a game, never mind within the two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, like Belichick’s.

But Doug Pederson, in just his second season as a head coach, has done a marvelous job with an Eagles club that lost its MVP-caliber quarterback, future Hall of Fame left tackle and starting middle linebacker, among others, to season-ending injuries.

Pederson in these playoffs has managed to unlock the vertical passing game with backup Nick Foles that had been shackled since Carson Wentz’s injury, and the Andy Reid disciple has built impressive game plans that utilize RPOs (run-pass options) and tempo to help the backup find his rhythm.

Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, like his boss Pederson, is coaching in his first Super Bowl, and will call an aggressive game built around the strength of his fearsomely deep front and playmakers on the back end.

— Arthur Arkush