By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
MINNEAPOLIS (CBS) — After all the bluster associated with Super Bowl week, it can kind of be forgotten that all of the pomp and circumstance exists because there is actually a game to be played.
Fortunately, the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots are going to go ahead and go on with the game as planned, and when they do, it ought to be a pretty good one.
Yes, the quarterback discrepancy between Tom Brady and Nick Foles does call to mind the Peyton Manning-Rex Grossman matchup of 2006. And yes, Bill Belichick has slightly more experience in big games than his counterpart on the Philadelphia sideline, Doug Pederson. There’s no questioning that.
But up and down the Philadelphia roster is a whole lot of talent, and there’s no lack of attitude. There’s really something to be said about a locker room that bands together with a “nobody believes in us” mantra, and folks in New England (who are old enough to remember 2001) know that very well.
So this is far from a cakewalk for the Patriots, and if they’re not careful, they could find themselves on the wrong end of an upset.
Here are the four areas that figure to play major factors in determining the outcome.
Fletcher Cox. Brandon Graham.
For the Patriots’ offense, everything should be centered around Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham. The duo helped make the Eagles the best in the NFL at generating pressure on quarterbacks, and if the Eagles are going to win this game, it will almost certainly be thanks to the work of Cox and Graham.
Thus far in the postseason, the Patriots have prevented Tom Brady from being pressured on roughly 75 percent of his dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus. Considering that came against Jacksonville and Tennessee — teams which ranked second and fifth in the NFL in sacks, respectively — it bodes well for their chances on Sunday.
Add in Derek Barnett (five sacks in regular season, a strip sack in playoffs) and Chris Long (five regular-season sacks), and the Patriots’ offensive line is going to have its hands full with the Eagles’ pass rush.
There will be great strain on Nate Solder, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, Cameron Fleming and LaAdrian Waddle. And they’ll get some help from James Develin, Rob Gronkowski, and Dwayne Allen. But with some physical battles being difficult to win, there will be added stress on Brady and Josh McDaniels to run plays where the ball gets out quickly. That in turn puts pressure on the receivers and backs to get open quickly, so as not to disrupt the timing of the entire play.
That is the effect of a potent pass rush. It extends beyond the line of scrimmage and impacts the opposing offense from sideline to sideline. It’ll take a smart game plan and sharp execution to counteract it.
The Open Receiver … Or Back
Tom Brady never discriminates when it comes to choosing his targets. If you’re open, you’re getting the ball. If you’re consistently open, you might get the ball 15 times.
The question from the Eagles’ side is a tricky one. How do you cover all of those skill players? Brandin Cooks has dynamic speed. Rob Gronkowski is an unstoppable force. Danny Amendola has a knack for finding soft spots in a defense as well as finding the sticks on third down. Chris Hogan can’t be ignored. And then there’s Dion Lewis and/or James White coming out of the backfield.
For any defense, this is trouble. The Eagles are no exception.
The Philadelphia pass defense has been good thus far, limiting Case Keenum and Matt Ryan to 59.5 percent passing for a total of 481 yards, 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. But those were two outdoor games, in the cold, at home. With this game being indoors, and with the MVP at quarterback, and with that arsenal of weapons … the task of limiting that passing attack is monumental.
Realistically, there was no good reason for the Patriots to have been able to win last year’s Super Bowl. After LeGarrette Blount’s fumble when the Patriots were in field-goal range, and after Brady’s pick-six when the Patriots were again threatening to score, that opportunity appeared to have been lost. Instead of scoring anywhere between six and 14 points, the Falcons scored 14 points of their own. Teams don’t typically recover from a 28-point swing in the second quarter.
That’s why the Patriots have to be extra cautious with the football this time around. The football gods may not be so willing to offer up a miracle opportunity for two straight years.
The Eagles ranked fourth in the NFL with 31 takeaways, which included 19 interceptions (also fourth in the NFL). In their big NFC Championship Game victory, they forced three turnovers with a strip sack and two interceptions. They took one of those interceptions back for a touchdown. They didn’t turn the ball over themselves, and that tends to be a recipe for a 38-7 blowout victory.
They can clearly swarm on the football, and Brady certainly hasn’t forgotten about the 99-yard pick six he gave up to Malcolm Jenkins two seasons ago at Gillette.
The Eagles also spread the wealth in terms of interceptions. Cornerback Patrick Robinson led the team with four, followed by Ronald Darby, Rodney McLeod and Jalen Mills, each of whom had three picks. Three more Eagles recorded two picks in the regular season. In the playoffs, Robinson and Corey Graham have one pick apiece.
Again, remembering the pressure aspect from the Eagles’ defensive line, Brady is going to have to make some quick decisions. He’ll do so while understanding that the Eagles employ a number of players who can make plays on the football. Another mistake like last year’s could prove much more costly this time around.
On the other side, getting Nick Foles to throw an interception can prove to be rather difficult. Just two of his 159 passes since becoming starter have been intercepted, a rate of 1.3 percent. Prior to Brady’s 28-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio last year, it was Foles who owned the record with his 27 touchdowns and two interceptions back in 2014. The Eagles were susceptible a bit to fumbles, losing 11 in the regular season and losing two in the divisional round against Atlanta. Foles fumbled on two other occasions that game, but the Eagles recovered them.
Certainly, considering the Philadelphia offense will likely have to score 28 points or more to win the game, whichever way the turnover battle swings figures to make a significant impact on the progress of that task.
The Big Kick
Could The Big Kick decide The Big Game? If it does, you’d figure the Patriots have the edge.
Stephen Gostkowksi successfully kicked 37 of his 40 field goals on the year (92.5 percent) and 45 of his 47 PATs (95.7 percent). His only three misses came in the 40-49-yard range, and he was 4-for-4 from 50 yards or more in the regular season.
Jake Elliott successfully kicked 26 of his 31 field goals (83.9 percent) and 39 of his 42 PATs (92.8 percent). Elliott missed three kicks in the 30-39-yard range, one in the 40-49-yard range, and one kick of 50-plus yards.
Elliott did boom a 53-yarder before halftime in the divisional round, while Gostkowski missed his 53-yarder before halftime that same day.
But Gostkowski has experience in games of this magnitude. He made field goals of 41 yards and 33 yards in last year’s Super Bowl (while going 1-for-2 on PATs). Elliott’s a rookie, who will find himself on sports’ largest stage. How he responds to that pressure just might be a sneaky factor that could make a major difference in the game.