Super Bowl LII is less than 48 hours away, and once again, this game is a haven for football geeks. While most discussions this week have centered on quarterbacks Tom Brady and Nick Foles, dig a bit deeper and it’s clear that there are plenty of compelling elements to this matchup. The Philadelphia pass rush’s pursuit of Brady makes for must-see television. Bill Belichick’s approach to slowing the Eagles ground game could shape the outcome. It feels like there’s an endless amount of fascinating smaller games that will happen within the larger one.
To break down whether the Patriots will win the sixth championship of the Brady-Belichick era or whether the Eagles will claim their first Super Bowl, I’ve laid out three different versions of how everything could unfold on Sunday, complete with projected scores. Let’s get to it.
Version 1: New England’s Varied Offense Confounds the Eagles, and Nick Foles Turns Back Into a Pumpkin
On Thursday’s episode of The Ringer NFL Show, my colleague Danny Kelly and I discussed one of the more intriguing subplots to this game: how the Patriots will attack coordinator Jim Schwartz’s defense by way of formation and tempo. New England lined up with two backs more than any offense in the NFL during the regular season, and that experience could be especially relevant when facing this Eagles defense. By setting up in 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end, two receivers) and presenting a steady dose of James Develin and Dion Lewis, the Pats could force Philadelphia to stick in its base defense. That would have several noteworthy effects.
By keeping early-down defensive end Vinny Curry in the game, Philly’s pass rush would lose some of the bite that it has when sub-package rusher Derek Barnett is on the field at right defensive end. If it’s forced to commit to base defense, this unit could also use more linebackers, thereby leaving itself vulnerable in coverage. New England throws out of 21 personnel about half the time, so a drop-off in the pass defense could present a serious problem for the Eagles. Teams also have fewer pressure packages and defensive calls while lined up in base. New England wants to keep Philadelphia in heavier personnel groupings, because that would both weaken and simplify the defense.
The Pats offense is also likely to deploy a lot of no-huddle tactics. New England loves to go up-tempo with Develin, a fullback, split out as a wide receiver in an empty formation, thus turning a personnel package largely designed for running into a passing alignment. This accomplishes several objectives. First, it allows Brady to identify the coverage. If an Eagles corner follows Develin, it will signal that they’re almost certainly in a zone defense; if a linebacker tracks Develin, Brady can discern that Philly is playing man. Second, this setup lets Brady pick out his matchup of choice depending on which defender lines up over New England’s wide receivers. With their base personnel on the field, the Eagles are forced to make an unenviable choice. The numbers dictate that a linebacker will have to cover Rob Gronkowski, Lewis, or a receiver. Those are mismatches the Pats will take all day.
Philly has struggled guarding tight ends relative to other positions this season: The Eagles were 17th in Football Outsiders’ passing DVOA against them in 2017. Gronk doesn’t need formational advantages to toast this defense down the middle, but there’s a chance he’ll get them anyway.
If New England goes no-huddle, another hidden benefit is that it would prevent the Eagles from dipping into their deep pool of pass rushers. Part of the reason why Jacksonville ran out of gas late in the AFC championship game is that the Pats sped up the pace and kept the same Jaguars front four on the field. One of Philly’s calling cards this season has been its ability to keep its stars along the defensive line fresh via rotation. That edge would disappear if the Patriots rev up the tempo.
On the other side of the ball, it’s reasonable to expect Belichick to do all that he can to put the game in Foles’s hands. The Eagles’ diverse running game has the potential to gash the Patriots in myriad situations, so I expect New England to prioritize taking away the varied methods that Philadelphia uses to block on its runs. Look for the Pats to line up three guys over the Eagles’ interior offensive linemen to prevent them from pulling. Philly could still move the ball when asked to block in more conventional ways, but by limiting Eagles coach Doug Pederson’s flexibility, Belichick would essentially tie one hand behind his opponent’s back.
If the Pats can slow the run and dare Foles to attack them in man coverage, New England’s secondary could overwhelm the Eagles’ stable of receivers.
Final score: Patriots 28, Eagles 10
Version 2: The Eagles Dominate Up Front on Both Sides of the Ball and Win a Slugfest
Saying that the best way to beat the Patriots is to get pressure on Brady with four rushers is about the most tired football analysis anywhere. But it’s true! And it’s particularly accurate considering what this Eagles team does well. Philly’s front four is absolutely loaded. When this defense gets to use its sub-packages and Barnett, Fletcher Cox, Timmy Jernigan, and Brandon Graham are all on the field at the same time, offenses would be wise to run and hide. Any of those guys can make a game-swinging play (see: Barnett’s strip sack in the NFC title game). In this scenario, Cox is the best bet.
Cox is listed at 310 pounds, but all accounts from teammates and coaches indicate that he’s bigger than that. He not only has an edge in athleticism when matched up with Patriots left guard Joe Thuney; he boasts a size advantage, too. Cox repeatedly getting the best of Thuney could go a long way toward the Eagles bothering Brady and making life hard on the New England passing game. Racking up double-digit hits, a handful of sacks, and a takeaway will be the first ingredient in any upset recipe.
It’s borderline unfair that along with having the NFL’s best defensive line, the Eagles also had the league’s best offensive line in 2017. Despite losing left tackle Jason Peters to a torn ACL in late October, this group has been excellent. New England’s pass rush has shown more life during the playoffs than it did in the regular season, but don’t expect Trey Flowers and James Harrison to find the same level of success against Philly that they did in prior contests against Jacksonville and Tennessee.
For as great as Foles was in the NFC championship game, the Eagles’ run game could decide whether Philly reigns supreme. Even if the Patriots do all they can to limit the number of blocking schemes that the Eagles can use, Philly should still be able to move the ball on the ground. No line in the league is more resourceful. It also helps that the Eagles are ideally positioned to run against New England based on previous tendencies and results. Warren Sharp did a terrific breakdown of how well teams have been able to run on Belichick’s crew this season, and found that the Pats have been gashed when opponents run the ball out of 11 personnel (one running back, three receivers, and one tight end). They’ve given up 6.0 yards per carry on such plays. When opposing offenses line up in the shotgun out of 11 personnel, that figure spikes to 6.7.
Nearly 60 percent of Philadelphia’s rushes came out of 11 personnel this season, the third-highest rate in the NFL behind the Raiders and Rams. The Eagles also regularly ran the ball from the shotgun out of 11. The vast majority of Jay Ajayi’s carries have come in these scenarios, and the back, who was acquired at the trade deadline, has proved lethal out of that alignment. He could be in line for a monster day.
Finding success in the running game could make the Eagles’ trademark run-pass options all the more effective. With the Pats scrambling to stop the run out of shotgun formations, Foles could find plenty of simple throws over the middle. That could keep the ball in his hands and out of Brady’s.
Final score: Eagles 20, Patriots 17
Version 3: The Eagles Keep It Close, but Brady Comes Through When It Matters Most
Even if the Eagles offense moves the ball consistently on Sunday, I can’t envision a scenario in which this group scores enough to win big. Foles isn’t the awful passer he appeared to be in regular-season games against the Raiders and Cowboys, but he’s also not the transcendent quarterback he looked like while torching the Vikings in a 38–7 rout. The versions of Foles and this offense that were on display in a 15–10 win over the Falcons in the divisional round are the closest representation to what we’re likely to see on Sunday. Foles can do enough with RPOs to have an efficient day through the air, while the Eagles should lean heavily on Ajayi’s ability to create.
Tight end Zach Ertz is the other key weapon in Philadelphia’s offense, and even though he roasted All-Pro safety Harrison Smith two weeks ago, I’m not sure that he’ll have a huge day against New England. If the Patriots play a lot of man coverage, that’d mean that Ertz would be checked by Patrick Chung, who typically does an excellent job against tight ends. The Patriots ranked eighth in the league in defense versus tight ends, according to DVOA. They finished 20th or lower against every other position.
Philly has what it takes to keep this game close, and that would be welcome news if its opponent were anyone but Brady. Given what we’ve seen the Pats accomplish in two of their previous three playoff games, though, it’s hard not to assume they’ll find a way to pull out a victory down the stretch. Pederson earned his rightful place among the NFL’s best coaches in 2017, but he still isn’t Belichick. If the Pats are within one score in the final quarter of the Super Bowl, the advantage goes to the dynasty.
Final score: Patriots 24, Eagles 20