BOSTON (CBS) – The New England Patriots take on the disappointing “dream team” from Philadelphia on Sunday with a chance to inch closer to a division title, and possibly the top spot in the AFC.
But despite Philly’s 4-6 record, it will be a battle at Lincoln Financial Field.
“They have so much talent, they can come out there and be an unbelievable team,” linebacker Rob Ninkovich said of the Eagles this week. “You have to make sure you go out there play a great game.”
“The Eagles are an outstanding team,” head coach Bill Belichick said Tuesday. “They’re a talented team in all three phases of the game; they’re very explosive…. This will be a big challenge for us this week.”
“This is a very important game for us,” said quarterback Tom Brady. “It’s a very good team. They’re skilled at every position. Going on the road and trying to win a really tough game on the road at the most important time of the year – that says a lot for what we’re looking for as a team.
While a lot of the headlines have been about the Eagles quarterbacks, and how the Pats are preparing for both Michael Vick and Vince Young, the Patriots defense will also have one of the most explosive running backs in the NFL to deal with. On the other side of the ball, Brady will have to contend with a dynamic set of corners, albeit a little banged up.
With the Eagles injecting a little hope to their playoff dreams with a 17-10 win over the Giants last week, New England will be in for a tough matchup Sunday. Here are a few of the key matchups.
Brady vs. Philly Secondary
While Brady played the QB sneak and tiptoed around injury questions this week (he said he felt “great”), his focus Sunday will be on a dynamic group of corners that will be roaming downfield for the Eagles.
If they play, that is.
Nnamdi Asomugha was carted off the practice field on Thursday with an ankle injury, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie did not hit the practice field until Friday, also hampered by an ankle injury. Both are questionable on Sunday. But don’t think that fact kept Brady from preparing like he is going up against a Pro Bowl secondary, and knows how dangerous both star corners can make throwing the ball.
Read: Is Tom Brady Hurt?
“When you have a pair of guys, that’s what really is tough to go against because they’re two of the best corners that have played for a long time,” said Brady. “They’re experienced, they’re fast, they intercept the ball, they’re looking for interceptions. They’re real playmakers on that defense. They expect those guys to make plays and those guys do it.”
And if one, or both, of the dynamic duo can’t go, that will lead to more Asante Samuel, who Brady and the Patriots are very familiar with.
“He makes a lot of plays and he always has made a lot of plays,” Brady said of his former teammate. “He’s a great player and I loved playing against him because I thought he really brought the best out in our receivers and our passing game. He’s always a threat to intercept the ball. As a quarterback, you’re always paying attention to those guys. He does it as well as anybody that I’ve ever played against.”
“He’s very instinctive, he’s got good balls skills, he’s got quickness,” Belichick said of his former number-one corner. “You just have to be careful. Tom has thrown against him hundreds of times. I think he has a good feel for what it’s like to play against him.”
Samuel returned an interception for a touchdown in the Patriots last meeting with the Eagles in 2007, and would like to get to Brady again. This week, the former Patriot recalled what it was like to play against #12 in practice.
“I guess my best memory of Tom was our competition in practice,” Samuel told Philadelphia reporters this week . “I would like to see him get red in the face when I got the best of him. He’s a diehard competitor, true soldier, true warrior. He’s got a lot of heart and you love to play with a guy like that.”
While it is unclear which corners will be lining up for the Eagles, Belichick is going to make sure his offense is ready no matter who they’re going against.
“We’ll see who plays and who doesn’t play, but the bottom line is that have a lot of depth in the secondary,” said Belichick. “They’ve drafted a couple players back there in the last couple years. I’m sure that they are good players and the guys that they’ve played are good and they have good depth at safety. Whoever is out there, we’ll compete against.”
Brady will have to make sure he distributes the ball, which has never been a problem. One of his favorite targets, Rob Gronkowski, could be out of the equation if Philadelphia has its secondary intact. With their corners doing their part covering receivers, the Eagles safeties are allowed to focus more on opposing tight ends. Philadelphia is one of the best teams in the NFL at defending tight ends, so it will be interesting to see if Brady can change that with Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
If Asomugha or Rogers-Cromartie can’t go, it will be up to Brady to get his tight ends going early. That will make the corners help on Gronk and Hernandez more, freeing his receivers to do their thing. If not, it could be a long day for Brady and company.
LeSean McCoy vs Pats Run D
If Patriots fans thought Buffalo’s Fred Jackson was a dynamic back, wait until LeSean McCory touches the ball on Sunday. The third-year back can do it all. He leads the NFL in rushing yards with 1,019, averaging 5.6 yards per carry. In addition to the 10 touchdowns he has on the ground, McCoy also has 34 receptions out of the back field for 198 yards and two scores.
“I mean, McCoy is a very dynamic player. He makes a lot of yards on his own,” Belichick said of the Eagles back. “He’s a very difficult guy to defend and tackle. He’s a very creative runner. It looks like he’s stopped for nothing and then he ends up with a lot of yards or if he gets into space then 10 yards can easily be 70. He’s really a good player. I’ve been very impressed watching him.”
“He scores a lot of touchdowns; he’s a great player,” linebacker Jerod Mayo said Friday. “He’s never down until multiple people tackle him. He’s a threat out of the backfield to catch the ball as well; he’s a great threat.”
“He makes a lot of tacklers miss him and he breaks tackles. He’s got great vision. He’s an outstanding player. There aren’t too many like him,” added Belichick. “(He’s) unbelievably quick, he’s got tremendous quickness. You don’t see really anybody tackle him one-on-one. You need a group of guys around him. He gets hemmed in and then he gets out of it. He’s got great quickness, good vision but great quickness to be able to avoid people.”
While the Patriots linebackers will be keeping an eye on Vince Young (unless there is a miracle with Vick’s broken ribs), they will have to be aware of McCoy at all times. The Patriots defensive line has been effective against the run, ranking 12th in the NFL, but will need help with McCoy. The line will have to do their best to slow him down, allowing guys like Mayo and Gary Guyton to finish the tackle off. If not, McCoy will break out into the Patriots secondary, whose tackling has already come into question enough.
The Patriots will likely have hard-hitting safety Patrick Chung and corner Devin McCourty back on Sunday, but if they are the ones tackling McCoy, New England will be in some serious trouble.
If McCoy gets going, it will just open the floodgates for Young to look either look towards DeSean Jackson, or keep the ball and do it with his feet.
Tune in to the Patriots-Eagles matchup Sunday afternoon at 4:15pm on 98.5 The Sports Hub and WBZ-TV. Pregame coverage begins on WBZ at 11:30am Sunday morning with Patriots Gameday, followed by 98.5′s coverage beginning at 1pm. Tune in after the game for all the postgame reaction and analysis on 98.5, and over on MY TV38 on Patriots Fifth Quarter.