With a tight 24-20 home win in the AFC Championship over Jacksonville two weeks ago, the Patriots have made it to football’s final stage for the eighth time in sixteen years.
As for their opponents, the NFC Champion Philadelphia Eagles, it is their second Super Bowl appearance in the same time frame.
This Eagles team survived massive injuries and made it out of a loaded NFC conference with home victories over the Falcons and Vikings. Their biggest losses to injury include All-Pro guard Jason Peters, starting linebacker Jordan Hicks, and previous MVP candidate QB Carson Wentz.
For a team to suffer through injuries at such key positions, it has to be pretty deep, right? The Patriots know this because they’re dealing with most of the same problems. Down the line of injuries: Pro Bowl receiver Julian Edelman, WR Malcolm Mitchell, Pro Bowl tackle Marcus Cannon, rookie guard Antonio Garcia, rookie defensive end Derek Rivers, tight end Martellus Bennett, Pro Bowl linebacker Dont’a Hightower, linebacker Shea McClellin, running back Rex Burkhead, and possibly, defensive end Deatrich Wise and superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski.
How can such a banged-up Patriots team expect to compete in the Super Bowl? To learn more about the future, we must first travel back to the past…
Halloween, 2004: Just days after the Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years, the 6-0 defending champion Patriots were in Pittsburgh to take on the 5-1 Steelers. At the time, the Steelers held the league’s second-best record, a rookie quarterback named Ben Roethlisberger, and one of the best defenses the NFL has ever seen.
The game did not go well, as the Patriots fell to 21-3 in the first quarter and never came back after two Plaxico Burress touchdowns and a rare pick-six by Tom Brady.
I came back from my Halloween party shocked that the Patriots lost. I was Frankenstein that year, and so became the Patriots defense as they lost cornerback Ty Law for the year. This was two weeks after they lost their other starting cornerback, Tyrone Poole, for the year.
The injuries piled up, even to the point where Troy Brown, a wide receiver, had to step in and play cornerback. Despite the injuries, the Patriots kept winning, capping the regular season with a 14-2 record.
Come playoff time in January 2005, that same Patriots defense held Peyton Manning’s Colts to just three points. The next week, they went back to Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship and turned the tables, going up 17-3 quickly. Rodney Harrison’s 87-yard interception return gave New England the 24-3 lead they needed to take control early and win, 41-27.
And now, get this: a banged-up Patriots team takes on the Eagles for the Super Bowl and the right to repeat as champions, facing an NFC East team in that Super Bowl (the Eagles) a year after defeating an NFC South team in the Super Bowl (the 2003 Carolina Panthers, the 2016 Atlanta Falcons).
I’m obligated to say this too: a Super Bowl rematch against an NFC East team could go the other way. The 2007 Patriots lost their perfect season to the New York Giants, and the 2011 Patriots lost again to the Giants with a banged-up team.
Since parallels can only be parallels if they don’t overanalyze everything, the Eagles have a few players on their 2017 team that may remind Patriots fans of the players from the first Eagles Super Bowl:
Exhibit A: Malcolm Jenkins
Just like last time, the Eagles have a larger-than-life safety that anchors their defensive scheme and does it all: tackle, play in coverage, blitz, you name it. You won’t have to look very hard to find him on TV because he’s always there when the ball is.
And that’s exactly what former Eagles safety Brian Dawkins made a name for. In Super Bowl 39, after being crushed early on by blitzes, the Patriots kept Dawkins and Philly’s pass rush away with bubble screen passes. For these 2017 Patriots, there’s no running back better fit for screen passes and pass blocking than RB Dion Lewis. With Jenkins playing back to help, Patrick Robinson and the Eagles corners can play tighter, riskier coverage and even try for interceptions.
Exhibit B: Alshon Jeffery
Against pass-happy offenses, the main objective of New England’s defensive scheme is to take the other team’s best receiver out of the game. This means double coverage and safety help from McCourty over the top to prevent the receiver from making a big gain after the catch. Additionally, the quarterback is less likely to throw to that receiver in double coverage out of fear of an interception.
The threat this time is Alshon Jeffery, Philly’s big-money free agent to fix a previously poor collection of wide receivers. He’s a big target who can go up for the ball and go deep for a home run pass with his outstanding speed. Already, Jeffery has developed great chemistry with replacement quarterback Nick Foles, and if Foles goes deep, it’s probably going to Jeffery.
If there’s one Eagles player Patriots fans will never forget from Super Bowl 39, it’s Terrell Owens. T.O led the Eagles to be overconfident that they would win the game, and he was almost right. He played with two screws in his legs that game, and he unscrewed the Patriots’ defensive scheme for the entire first half. Owens had unbelievable hands and made plenty of QBs look better than they were. As a quick big target that’s about the only kind of receiver that can threaten the Patriots, Jeffery’s the real deal.
Wide receivers rarely have big games against the Patriots, but it’s hard to forget it when they do.
In last year’s Super Bowl against Atlanta, Julio Jones single-handedly destroyed the Patriots while playing hurt. Malcolm Butler and Devin McCourty did all they could to disrupt Jones and push him to the outside, but he still went up and made incredible grabs. The Patriots survived that game not by containing Jones, but by applying more pressure on quarterback Matt Ryan to keep him from throwing to Jones.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
1. The Eagles offensive line is still good.
While Jason Peters is out for the year, the Eagles still have a solid offensive line. In fact, the best in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus. Lane Johnson and Brandon Brooks have given Jay Ajayi clear running lanes and plenty of time for Carson Wentz and now Nick Foles plenty of time to throw.
2. The Patriots defensive line is their weakness.
Patriots’ front seven struggled mightily in stopping the run against Jacksonville, considered an average offensive line unit. Rookie defensive end Deatrich Wise is in concussion protocol with Gronk, and Trey Flowers has been playing hurt for the past few weeks. On the bright side, defensive tackles Adam Butler, Alan Branch, and Malcom Brown have all had better weeks.
If the Patriots’ pass rush is not effective early on, expect the Patriots to rush up the middle with linebackers Marquis Flowers, Elandon Roberts, and even old James Harrison to keep Nick Foles from getting comfortable. Harrison’s pressure on Blake Bortles helped seal the AFC Championship for the Patriots.
3. Expect a lot of Zach Ertz.
It’s been a while since the Patriots have had to worry about a tight end in their defensive scheme. Ertz is definitely one to look out for, however. The Patriots didn’t think much of Jaguars tight end Marcedes Lewis, who was wide open on Jacksonville’s first touchdown in the game.
Ertz and Jeffery are the top targets for Philly’s pass attack, and with double coverage on Jeffery almost a given, Ertz may exploit his matchup if he’s up against New England’s linebackers, who aren’t really spectacular at pass coverage.
4. Win or lose, it’s about having fun.
Just kidding, Brady needs to win his sixth Super Bowl. It’ll be fun, I promise.
5. Belichick is not leaving after this season and Brady is not retiring, unless God or Giselle Bündchen have other plans.
But if you read Tom Brady’s cookbook, I guess you’ll believe anything, huh?
Image: NBC Sports