Philadelphia Eagles (15-3) vs. New England Patriots (15-3)
Sunday, Feb. 3, 6:30 p.m. ET (NBC)
U.S. Bank Stadium, Minneapolis
When the Eagles have the ball: There is no question that Nick Foles is the X-factor. Teammates have voiced strong support for the embattled backup quarterback throughout the week, pointing to his strong performance in the rout of Minnesota during the NFC Championship Game. However, there is also the combined 23-for-49 passing for 202 yards over the final two regular-season games and Philadelphia scraping by with 15 points in the Divisional Playoff victory over Atlanta.
Given two weeks to prepare, Patriots coach Bill Belichick is a proven master of exploiting weaknesses.
New England likes to be varied in how it attacks opponents, but the Patriots are pretty clear in this case — keeping Foles unsettled, which could come in the form of pass-rushing specialist James Harrison & Co. pressuring Foles’ blind side against backup left tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai.
Philadelphia finished third in rushing during the regular season. Belichick will no doubt load up to contain Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement. If the Patriots are successful in those efforts, it will be incumbent upon Foles to step up and makes plays while avoiding turnovers.
When the Patriots have the ball: New England finished the regular season second in points scored, first in total yards and second in passing yards. If there’s a potential weakness, it’s with the ground game that averaged 118.1 yards per game and 3.5 yards per carry. By the same token, the versatile personnel in the Patriots’ backfield does contribute heavily to that passing game — essentially as an extension of the run.
New England’s committee of backs combined to rank second in rushing touchdowns, receptions, receiving yards and scrimmage yards while leading the league in touchdown receptions. The versatility of Dion Lewis and James White likely will factor heavily into New England’s game plan as the Patriots test the Eagles’ linebackers in coverage.
The strength of the Eagles’ formidable defense lies with the pass rush. Having quarterback Tom Brady simply stand in the pocket and wait for receivers to get open is asking for trouble. Expect Lewis and White to be heavily involved from the outset in an attempt to force Philadelphia to adjust its personnel packages, and for the Eagles potentially to counter with three-safety looks.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski has been cleared from the concussion protocol and provides a critical element to the game plan.
He likely will be shadowed heavily by safety Malcolm Jenkins, which is one of the marquee matchups — and Gronkowski’s presence also stresses the personnel charged with dealing with complementary weapons such as Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola.
Notes: The Patriots are appearing in their eighth Super Bowl since 2002, seeking their sixth title during that span. The Eagles are 0-2 all-time in Super Bowls, including a 24-21 loss to New England in Super Bowl XXXIX. … The Patriots seek to tie the Pittsburgh Steelers (six) for the most Super Bowl titles. … This will mark the seventh “rematch” in Super Bowl history. … The Patriots lead the NFL with 10 Super Bowl appearances. … Foles seeks to become the eighth backup quarterback to lead his team to a Super Bowl victory. Brady led the Patriots to a win in Super Bowl XXXVI after Drew Bledsoe was injured. … Brady seeks to become the first player to lead the NFL in passing yards during the regular season and win the Super Bowl. … White had 14 catches and three touchdowns in Super Bowl LI last year.
In Our View: One school of thought is that the Eagles would be wise to build an early lead, turn to their ground game and control the clock. That’s Football 101. But after watching Brady overcome double-digit deficits against Atlanta in last year’s Super Bowl and Jacksonville two weeks ago, Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said he really doesn’t want to see Brady in the four-minute offense.
The Jaguars puckered when they considered putting their season on Blake Bortles’ arm. Philadelphia coach Doug Pederson is far more aggressive by nature, and he won’t be afraid to sink or swim if Foles needs to make a play — or four. Whether Philly is protecting a lead or forced to try to rally for a late score, the Eagles’ hopes for that elusive first Super Bowl title will come down to the backup quarterback who considered retirement this time last year.
Prediction: Eagles 27-24
–Derek Harper, Field Level Media