MINNEAPOLIS — Five things to watch for from a Patriots perspective in Super Bowl LII and how they can topple the Eagles.
Eagles defense is overrated
Make no mistake, the Patriots have already faced the toughest defense they’ll see this season – in the narrow AFC Championship game win over the Jaguars. Much has been made about Philly’s outstanding defensive front four, but statistically their pass-rush was just so-so this year. The Eagles finished just 15th in the NFL this season with 38 sacks. Compare that to No. 1 Pittsburgh (56) and No. 2 Jacksonville (55) and it’s not too impressive. The last team to beat the Patriots in the postseason was the sack-happy Denver Broncos two years ago, and they led the NFL in sacks that year with 52. The Patriots offensive line should at least be able to give Tom Brady enough time to find open targets in Super Bowl LII.
Win the guessing game
A big part of why Philly has been so good this season is the unpredictability of their play-calling on both sides of the ball. The flea-flicker that the Eagles ran to open the second half of their NFC title game win over the Vikings broke that game wide open. The Patriots did not execute their trickery on Championship Sunday quite as well, as while the double pass to Dion Lewis initially looked like it would go for a touchdown – Lewis wound up fumbling the ball on the play and turning it over to Jacksonville. If the Patriots are in a close game in the third quarter, expect them to break out some sort of gimmick play.
Give the ball to your best player
This is the no-brainer of no-brainers, but the Patriots should go out and let Tom Brady win this game for them. The Eagles pass defense is much closer statistically to the Titans than the Jaguars and Brady wound up throwing the ball a season-high 53 times against Tennessee in the 35-14 divisional round win three weeks ago. Brady has been insanely good so far this postseason (61-of-91 passing for 627 yards, 5 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, 105.0 passer rating) and there’s no reason why he can’t hang 30 points on the Eagles D. The Eagles allowed 29 points to Eli Manning and the Giants and 35 points to Jared Goff and the Rams late in the regular season. Brady should be able to figure this out.
Things aren’t always as they seem
The conventional wisdom says the Patriots defense will look to take away the Eagles’ run game and allow Nick Foles to try and beat them. It’s safe to say that Eagles coach Doug Pederson knows that. So what if Bill Belichick flips the script? What if he goes into attack mode against Foles, and instead tries to see if the Philly run game can beat them? All the statistics in the world point to this being a bad idea as Philly finished third overall in rushing this year, and the Pats run defense has been abysmal all year. At the same time, though, should the Pats really be quivering about former Dolphin Jay Ajayi, and old friend LeGarrette Blount? Ajayi never had more than 59 yards rushing in three meetings against the Pats in AFC East play, and Blount had just one 100-plus yard rushing game this season.
Gronk your way to a title
Heading into the AFC title game the concern was whether or not Tom Brady would be healthy with that bloody hand of his. All Brady did was turn in a spectacular performance against the league’s top defense. This week the concern regarding the Pats is the health of Rob Gronkowski as Gronk suffered a concussion in the AFC title game. All signs point to him being good to go, however, and if that’s the case then we may be treated to an all-time Gronk performance. The Pats took a “break in case of emergency” approach with Gronk this year – only throwing to him when they were in desperation mode. In the Pittsburgh game late in the regular season, they were surely in desperation mode – and Gronk wound up having a 168-yard receiving day. All playoff games are considered “desperation mode,” and Gronk had 81 yards receiving with a TD against the Titans. The Pats started throwing the ball to Gronk non-stop in the Jags game when they were down, and before he was injured. Expect No. 87 to make his presence felt in a big way on Sunday.