With the bye week out of our way, the focus of the NFL world goes squarely to Minnesota, where the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots are getting ready for Super Bowl LII.
Of course, that means a lot of speculation about who will win and how that will happen. A series of individual battles will tell us a lot about who will hoist the Lombardi Trophy on Sunday. These are the top battles to focus on.
When looking at this game, it’s hard to go beyond Tom Brady. While he doesn’t feature in any of our individual matchups, he’s quite relevant, to say the least. On defense, Philadelphia needs to get in Brady’s face and limit his top target. On offense, the Eagles need to stay on the field long enough to keep Brady as an observer. So, his shadow lingers over all of this.
The team that scores the most victories in these individual battles will likely have a very happy flight home on Sunday night.
Jim Schwartz vs. Josh McDaniels
While they won’t share the field, the quarterback “matchup” of Nick Foles against Tom Brady is one of the more intriguing ones of Super Bowl Sunday. If Brady is clicking and Foles has to match him pass-for-pass, Philadelphia will be in a lot of trouble. But if Brady is limited, the Eagles have a chance. That really boils down to what Schwartz and McDaniels do in the two weeks of prep.
If the Eagles apply consistent pressure, then we’ll see a lot of sacks, hurried throws, three-and-outs, and maybe even turnovers. Schwartz’s charge will be to dial up a game plan where that happens. McDaniels will be charged with not only keeping the defense off-balance, but not letting Philadelphia’s defensive front vs. New England’s offensive front be the deciding battle.
In-game adjustments are possible, but they are often easier said than done. So, between Schwartz and McDaniels, the one who brings a better game plan to U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday has a good chance of walking away the winner.
Brandon Brooks vs. Lawrence Guy
Of course, what happens when the Eagles have the ball will be important as well. We’ve heard this so often in regards to Bill Belichick, but it’s worth repeating: He likes to take away what the opposing offense does best. In this case, that means he’ll try to neutralize the Philadelphia running game of Jay Ayjai and LeGarrette Blount, making Foles win the game.
Interior line battles are interesting, because we could see several different battles over the course of the game. But one that could go a long way in determining this is Brooks going up against Guy. If Guy can hold onto his blocks and keep the linebackers free, it won’t bode well for the Eagles. Conversely, Brooks is getting through him without any problem, Philadelphia’s running game will be in business. That, in turn, will enable Foles to keep the Pats’ defense off-balance, which will open the passing game up.
So, Guy holding his own against the Pro Bowler will be an important part of this game.
Brandon Graham/Chris Long vs. Cameron Fleming
The aforementioned Schwartz vs. McDaniels battle will focus heavily on the trenches. That said, the players will still be the ones who decide this battle. A lot of attention typically revolves around the battle on the quarterback’s blind side. But here, we’re looking at Brady’s right side.
Fleming will see a lot of Graham and Long on Sunday. Graham recorded 9.5 sacks during the regular season, and we saw how impactful Long’s rush can be during the NFC Championship Game. If Graham and Long are in Brady’s face, it will force the three-and-outs (or better), which will increase the chances of the Eagles winning the field position battle. That will, at worst, leave Philadelphia with a chance in the final minutes.
But if Fleming holds up, then it will allow the Patriots to help out (if need be) at other positions against the dominant and deep Philadelphia line. If that happens, things will be much more favorable for Brady.
Nelson Agholor vs. Eric Rowe
Malcolm Butler didn’t have his best year and it took a little while for Stephon Gilmore to get acclimated to the New England defense. But on balance, we expect those two corners to hold up fine. The problem for them is that Smith, Jeffery, and Agholor are a formidable trio.
Two men can not guard three. Butler and Gilmore will be locked up most of the game with Smith and Jeffery, leaving Rowe to contend with Agholor, who’s been red hot.
That’s definitely a matchup that can be exploited. Agholor went for nearly 800 yards this past season, and he caught eight touchdown passes. His quickness and abilities after the catch make him extremely dangerous, and Rowe will have to be on top of his game to keep him in check. Even with some of the questions around Foles, Rowe figures to be tested regularly in this battle.
Donnie Jones vs. Danny Amendola
Amendola came through in a huge way in the AFC Championship game, catching seven balls for 84 yards and two touchdowns. But for now, we’re focusing on his job as New England’s punt returner. Remember, before he caught the winning touchdown in the AFC Championship Game, Amendola returned a punt 20 yards to set the Pats up with a short field.
The field position battle in this game is going to be key. Philadelphia’s best chance at pulling this upset will be to win it and win it decisively. Yes, pressuring Brady is a big part of that. That’s a given. But another big part of that will be the special teams battle. Jones will need to not only get big punts off, but he’ll need to avoid setting Amendola up for big returns. If Amendola returns the ball well, then the Eagles’ defense will be starting on its heels. That’s a bad place to be. Especially against Brady.
But if Jones can keep Amendola in check and the defense does its job, then Foles and the Philadelphia offense won’t be forced to have many 80+ yard drives. That will be vital in pulling this upset.
Doug Pederson vs. Bill Belichick
We could include Philadelphia offensive coordinator Frank Reich and New England defensive coordinator Matt Patricia in this. But given that we have an offensive coach in Pederson and a defensive minded one in Belichick, the head coaches get our focus.
We can safely assume that Belichick’s goal will be to take Foles out of his comfort zone. Similarly, Pederson will try to make life on his quarterback as easy as he possibly can. The early portion of the game will tell us who came up with a better game plan in the two weeks since the Championship Games. What happens as the game goes on will tell us who adjusts better.
Over the years, Belichick has proven to be marvelous at this part of the game. Some of the greatest defensive efforts in Super Bowl history have come from defenses either coached or coordinated by Belichick. Pederson will have to be up to the task on Sunday.
Zach Ertz vs. Devin McCourty
A good tight end can be a quarterback’s best friend. He can be a safety valve if things aren’t going well. Ertz was the only Philadelphia player to top 800 receiving yards in the regular season. So, he absolutely is a “good tight end,” and his performance will likely go a long way in telling us what kind of game Foles will have.
Of course, McCourty is a pretty darn good safety. If he can keep Ertz in check, we like the chances of New England’s defense. That will enable the Pats to use an extra defensive back to help the corners on the Eagles’ aforementioned formidable trio of receivers. Depending on what Belichick and Patricia want to do, it could also allow New England to bring in safety help up to take away the run from Ajayi and Blount.
The last thing anyone with Philadelphia wants is for Belichick to have flexibility with his defense. If Ertz wins this battle, that won’t happen. If McCourty prevails, it will.
Mychal Kendricks vs. Dion Lewis/James White/Rex Burkhead
Kendricks is going to be tested in a rather big way on Sunday. First of all, we expect to see the Patriots doing a lot of running the ball. That will keep Brady on his feet and will keep the defense guessing. Also, if history is any indicator, the New England running backs will be a big part of the passing attack.
A season ago, White hauled in 14 receptions in Super Bowl LI, setting a record for the game. During the 2017 regular season, he caught 56 passes for 429 yards and has been a lighting rod as of late. Burkhead added 30 receptions for 254 yards, while Lewis hauled in 32 passes for 214. The Pats have found ways to work around a shaky offensive line.
While all of Philadelphia’s linebackers will be tasked with minimizing what New England’s running backs do in the passing game, Kendricks gets most of the spotlight. If he has a big game and takes those check-down routes away, it will force Brady to look more downfield. Not only is that not a real strength of his game, but it will also buy time for the Eagles’ pass rush. If, however, the Pats running backs have strong days, a lot of Philadelphia’s potential advantages get negated.
Fletcher Cox vs. Shaq Mason
While edge rushers are who we usually think about in terms of pressuring quarterbacks, Cox is one of the few who can do it consistently from the inside. Cox is one of the best defensive players in the league. He’s going to make his plays. But Mason can’t let him take the game over.
If Cox dominates Mason, it sets off a chain of events. First of all, it will make life very difficult on Brady and the Patriot offense. A dominating game from Cox will not only mean a lot of pressure in Brady’s face, but it will make life exceptionally difficult on the aforementioned New England running backs. Additionally, if Cox is dominating Mason, it will force the Patriots to help Mason out, thereby putting the tackles in one-on-one situations against Philadelphia’s dangerous edge rushers.
It’s quite the chain. We don’t know that Mason needs to win the individual battle against Cox, but allowing a dominant outing would be tough to overcome.
Jay Ajayi/LeGarrette Blount vs. Patriots linebackers
As we previously detailed, the trench battle is going to be important. But eventually, the New England linebackers are going to have to bring down Ajayi and Blount, who are both hard to tackle in their own unique way. How effectively they do that will likely tell us a lot about which team will be holding up the Lombardi Trophy on Sunday night.
The time of possession battle will be important here. Because just like we feel absolutely confident saying that someone like Cox will make plays, we’re pretty sure that Brady is not going to get shut down. Even his Super Bowl losses featured big drives when his team needed him the most. As such, Philadelphia will have to keep Brady in a place where he can’t make big plays — on his sideline.
That’s where Ajayi and Blount come into play. They need to keep the Eagles on schedule. That will help Philadelphia move the chains, which will turn Super Bowl LII into a game of keep-away. On the other side of the coin, those Pats linebackers can’t let that happen. They need to bring Ajayi and Blount down early, forcing the Eagles into second/third-and-long situations.
Malcolm Jenkins vs. Rob Gronkowski
Assuming he does play, the Eagles will be asking themselves the same question that all of his opponents have asked since his rookie year of 2010. Just how can we slow Gronkowski down? That will be a team effort for the Eagles, but no one player will be as important as Jenkins.
If Brady and Gronkowski get into a groove, then New England might get something that it hasn’t achieved in this historic run, a convincing Super Bowl win. But Jenkins is no slouch. He’s a two-time Pro Bowler and is one of the best safeties in the game.
Generally speaking, the strategy with elite receivers and tight ends is to keep them in front of you. It’s not realistic to think that someone like Gronkowski won’t catch any passes. But Jenkins keeping Gronk in front of him will prevent the big plays from happening. The problem there is that Gronkowski is roughly six inches taller and 60 pounds heavier than Jenkins. So, if he catches the ball, Jenkins will have a hard time bringing him down.
Jenkins has to stay close to Gronkowski. If Gronk catches a ball, Jenkins has to hit him quickly enough that Gronkowski can’t get himself set as a runner. If that happens, it will at least buy some team for the rest of the Eagles’ defenders to come over and help bring Gronk down. If that can’t happen, though, New England will move the ball well and will likely put up a lot of points. That will make life quite difficult on Foles and company.