By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
MINNEAPOLIS (CBS) — The Philadelphia Eagles are excellent. They very well may be “better” than the New England Patriots. But they’re not going to win the Super Bowl.
They’re just not.
I’ll admit, once the matchup was set somewhere in the second quarter of the NFC Championship Game, my initial thought was that the Eagles were already the inevitable Super Bowl champions. Their defense was too good, their offense was suddenly explosive, and the underdog undercurrent was too strong to deny. The Eagles were going to roll right into Minneapolis, smack the Patriots in the mouth, and stun the world. I was going to look so darned smart.
Once the Eagles won, everyone in New England would hold me up on their shoulders and carry me down Boylston Street for my own parade. “Your football acumen!” the adoring folks would shout. “It’s second to none!”
That was my thought process. But then I got thinking. Which is always a dangerous strategy.
And I went back to watch the NFC title game in full. I saw Doug Pederson on the sideline. I said … meh. I saw Jim Schwartz patrolling the sideline. I said … neh. And while Nick Foles was absolutely firing on all cylinders, I’ve seen more than enough uninspiring football from him through the years. He gets a meh-neh grade on the whole for his six-year NFL career.
I also look at cornerback Jalen Mills, safety Rodney McLeod, and safety Corey Graham. I see some opportunities there for Tom Brady. Especially when I go ahead and look at the deep arsenal of weapons he’ll have as targets. Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan, and Brandin Cooks are a unique trio of receivers, and James White, Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead represent the best receiving trio of running backs in the NFL.
Then there’s this guy named Rob Gronkowski. He’s humongous. And he’s healthy. And he just might have the game of his life. If he doesn’t, that’ll only be because he’s drawing extra attention, which could open opportunities for Hogan to have a performance like his 2016 AFC Championship Game.
Even though Gronkowski left this year’s title game early, Cooks was able to catch six passes for 100 yards and also draw two huge pass interference penalties. Amendola caught seven passes for 84 yards and two touchdowns, a worthy follow-up to his 11-catch, 112-yard night against the Titans a week earlier. (In two Super Bowls, Amendola has 13 receptions for 126 yards, two touchdowns, plus a critical two-point conversion. He’s been nails in these games.)
So there’s those guys. And, still, Gronowski. And, still, the running backs. That’s too many people. It’s just too many people.
Defensively, the Patriots are a little bit vulnerable. Blake Bortles was borderline outstanding, throwing for 293 yards, one touchdown, and no interceptions on the road. That was two weeks after he threw for 87 yards and a touchdown at home against Buffalo. Leonard Fournette made his four-yard touchdown run look too easy.
But ultimately, despite a thin linebacking corps, there’s a lot of talent spread out on that side of the ball with Stephon Gilmore, Malcolm Butler, Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Malcom Brown and Trey Flowers, who is the single most underappreciated player in the NFL. Matt Patricia’s not bad, either. That defense should do fine.
And all of this is without getting to a pretty important factor. A man named Bill Belichick. He’s been here so often that it’s really no big deal to him. He’ll stand there and stare down Pete Carroll and pull some Jedi mind tricks to force the Seahawks to throw the ball from the 1-yard line. He’ll calmly and casually send out the field-goal unit with 10 minutes left in a Super Bowl when his team is trailing 28-9, because he’s done the math and he knows he’ll need those three points anyway. He’ll have a handful of two-point conversion plays installed and ready to use, just in case they’re needed.
He’s not going to blink.
Pederson? I don’t know. You don’t know, either. Maybe he’s going to be the greatest coach in NFL history. We don’t know that yet. For now, we know that he employed one of the most indefensible strategies in football history when he last went up against Belichick, and now he’ll be working in the cauldron of the Super Bowl, where there won’t be a spare second to think or breathe. Can he handle it? I’m not sure. But I know the Patriots’ coach can.
Just picture this: The Eagles lead 21-17 with 6:36 to go in the game. The cameras cut to the sideline, showing Belichick, then cutting to Pederson. How do you feel about the way that game is going to go?
All of that being said, these advantages in critical areas won’t mean the Patriots should or can waltz their way to a comfortable victory. The Eagles are very good, and their underdog mentality is a very real motivator. (It’s no accident that everyone from the Patriots this week kept repeating the phrase that there are no underdogs in the Super Bowl, that only great teams make this game, and that the Eagles are therefore a great team.) Zach Ertz can be trouble, and the trio of Ertz-Alshon Jeffery-Nelson Agholor combined to catch 25 touchdowns in the regular season.
Even with Foles, the Eagles should be able to move the ball and score some points. And if the defense with Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Malcolm Jenkins, Chris Long, Derek Barnett and Nigel Bradham can create an impactful turnover and turn it into points? The Eagles can be in position to win this game. They may pull it off.
But ultimately, you’d be a fool to sit here, one day before Super Bowl LII, and say that if this game comes down to the wire, with 100 million people watching, with history on the line, that you don’t trust the team that employs Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.
The Patriots are the “safe” pick to win the game. But they’re the safe pick for a reason.
It’ll still be close, though, and those 4.5 points for the Eagles look perfect.
The Pick: Patriots 24, Eagles 20
Championship Round: 1-1
Regular season: 121-123-12