Super Bowl LII preview

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Super Bowl LII preview

Super Bowl LII will be played from U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

Super Bowl LII will be played from U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

Courtesy of @MNSuperBowl2018

Super Bowl LII will be played from U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

Courtesy of @MNSuperBowl2018

Courtesy of @MNSuperBowl2018

Super Bowl LII will be played from U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

Jake Novack, Writing Editor

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Believe it or not, it’s been almost one full year since Tom Brady and the New England Patriots completed a miraculous 31-point comeback over the National Football Conference (NFC) champion Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI. The Brady Bunch will return to football’s biggest stage on Feb. 4 in Minneapolis after rolling through the 2017-18 season with a 13-3 record. However, representing the NFC are the Philadelphia Eagles, who followed up a largely mediocre 7-9 2016 season with a 13-3 effort this year, and are starting backup quarterback Nick Foles (yes, you read that right.) This Super Bowl XXXIX rematch brings some serious intrigue, even if the Pats have been the steady favorites. With this in mind, here’s a glance at both sides of the ball for each team:

OFFENSE

New England Patriots

Do you really need me to explain to you why the Patriots offense has found itself days away from another Super Bowl appearance? With five rings already to his name, quarterback/cyborg Brady hasn’t slowed a bit; he led the NFL in passing yards this season with a whopping 4,577. But there’s much more to the Pats’ vaunted offensive attack than Brady. Although dynamic tight end Rob Gronkowski’s status for the Super Bowl is in limbo (again) with a concussion, Brady has two stud receivers in Danny Amendola and Brandin Cooks. Amendola leads the team in postseason receiving yards with 196, while new addition Cooks has petrified defenses with his big-play capability (the massive pass interference penalty he drew on Jacksonville corner AJ Bouye two weeks ago is a solid example of this.) However, I wouldn’t do New England justice by ignoring their rushing attack. Dion Lewis and James White form one of the most versatile  running back combos in recent memory, as they have combined for 160 receiving yards this postseason to complement their two rushing touchdowns. Also, White had a huge game in last year’s Super Bowl with 139 total yards and three touchdowns, so he’s beyond able to handle the pressure of football’s biggest stage. Beyond Brady, New England’s secondary weapons should have Eagles’ defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz struggling to sleep.

Philadelphia Eagles

Now, I can’t talk about the Eagles offense without acknowledging the void left by second-year quarterback Carson Wentz. Wentz was an absolute dynamo in 2017–he led the Eagles to a shocking 10-2 record and was dominating MVP discussion (he finished with the highest quarterback rating (QBR) of a 2017-18 regular season quarterback.) But Wentz’s year was finished after a knee injury in week 13 against the Los Angeles Rams. Fortunately for light pole-scaling Eagles fans, they have possibly the best backup QB in the NFL. Quarterback Nick Foles, in his second stint with Philly, has been on a tear as of late. His performance in the NFC Championship against the Minnesota Vikings was the second-best conference championship start ever, in terms of quarterback rating. Foles also has weapons at his disposal–receiver Alshon Jeffery has used his 6-foot-3 frame to his advantage with two postseason touchdowns, and Pro Bowl tight end Zach Ertz has come alive for Philly in the playoffs, leading the team in postseason receptions. Philly also has a potent running back punch with Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount, who have combined for 167 rushing yards and two touchdowns this postseason.

DEFENSE

New England Patriots

This defensive unit always flies under the radar due to Brady’s prowess, yet the squad helmed by future Detroit Lions coach Matt Patricia still has playmakers. New England cornerback (and Super Bowl XLIX hero) Malcolm Butler has evolved into a bona fide number one corner, and should match up well against Jeffery. Safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung have accumulated a ton of postseason experience, and can challenge Foles with the occasional blitz. And defensive end Trey Flowers has still managed to notch six and a half sacks this season, even after missing two games in December. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF,) Flowers also ranks second in the NFL this postseason in quarterback pressures.  And when New England needs to rotate in second unit players on second and third down, they have new acquisition (and former Steelers mainstay) James Harrison at the ready. Because the Pats have players with big-play capability at many different positions, they’re sure to be stiff competition for a Philly team that lacks Super Bowl experience.

Philadelphia Eagles

Philly’s defensive success is fueled by its secondary, which has definitely come to play in the 2017-18 season. According to PFF, Eagles corner Ronald Darby has allowed a QBR of only 34.5 this season when lined up in off coverage (leaving a “cushion” of at least ten yards between him and the receiver) which ranks third among active cornerbacks. Also according to PFF, cornerback Jalen Mills has allowed an average of only 0.21 yards gained per coverage snap during these playoffs, which could land him among the top three marks by a corner in postseason history. Putting stats aside, strong safety Malcolm Jenkins has also made plays for the Eagles all year, as he earned a 2018 Pro Bowl nod. Philly’s front seven also is strong–defensive tackle Fletcher Cox earned a Pro Bowl spot with 26 tackles and five and a half sacks on the year. In his first year with the Eagles, former New England defensive end Chris Long has also made an impact with four forced fumbles. Like New England, Philadelphia also has talent spread out across its entire defensive unit.

FINAL PREDICTION:

Patriots 27, Eagles 24

Like last year’s Super Bowl, I could easily see the Patriots falling behind early. In both of their playoff games this year, it has taken the Patriots at least one quarter to gain a lead. But even as Courier sportswriter Edward Melsher noted last year, New England has tangible postseason experience, something that Philly noticeably lacks. The entire Eagles roster combined has played in seven Super Bowls, which is the same amount that Tom Brady himself has played. Furthermore, New England’s massive comeback last year has only made them stronger in the limelight. Brady is a mastermind at picking apart defenses over time, and Patricia’s defense will force Foles to take risks and test the Patriots secondary with big passes. With the amount of talent present on both sides of the ball for both teams, Super Bowl LII should be a back-and-forth affair. Don’t be surprised if Pats coach Bill Belichick relies on kicker Stephen Gostkowski, who’s playing in his fifth Super Bowl and is used to the pressure of football’s biggest stage. Again, New England’s Super Bowl experience should be the x-factor that allows them to to take the Lombardi trophy back to Foxborough. Brady’s going to need two hands to hold his football bling when the dust settles on this year’s iteration of the Super Bowl.

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