Eagles vs. Patriots: Super Bowl LII preview

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The Backstory


Is there much left to say about this Super Bowl #rematch? The New England Patriots are back where they belong, in the big game for the eighth go-around this millennium. The Philadelphia Eagles, for the first time since Bill Belichick's first dynasty shuttered their dreams for a first Lombardi Trophy in 2005. The jersey colors are the same, but other than that, there is little that links this title game to Super Bowl XXXIX. That is except for one player and one coach.

Tom Brady might look younger now than back in '05 -- he can thank Alex Guerrero and walnut meat for his everlasting boyishness -- but at 40 years of age, he's a far different, far better quarterback now. While many of his contemporaries from the early aughts have fallen victim in Father Time's cruel ax (Peyton Manning, Mike Vick, Carson Palmer), Brady is aging like a fine wine, reminding scribes every Sunday that age ain't nothing but a number. Already the winningest quarterback in Super Bowl history, Brady is left competing only against himself.

After completing the greatest comeback in Super Bowl, nay, sports history in Super Bowl LI, having done the impossible in the process, the question has been asked in whispers this season: Are there any doubters left to silence? What else is there to play for? What's left to prove? 

In the aftermath of the Deflategate controversy and his fifth title, Brady responded with a brilliant age-40 season, a historic feat and one that will likely earn him his third MVP award Saturday at NFL Honors. In winning a sixth Super Bowl this Sunday, Brady would raise the G.O.A.T. bar higher, approaching Michael Jordan-esque levels of legend never before experienced in modern football, an untouchable status of godly proportions. What's at stake, what's left to prove this weekend is a legacy, not just in the sport of football and not just Brady's. The Patriots, led by the man-boy wonder, can reach Yankees-like pinnacles in the minds of global sports fans -- impossible dominance in a league designed to discourage it.

With a sixth Super Bowl victory and in completing their second of three-in-four dynasties, the New England Patriots can become what Brady has pined and still pines to be: Immortal.

Philadelphia likes to think of itself as an underdog city, and its football team made clear this week it feels the same way. Despite winning the NFC East with a 13-3 record and securing the top seed in the conference, the Eagles entered the postseason as surprising underdogs, having lost MVP-candidate quarterback Carson Wentz to an ACL tear and replacing him with supposed also-ran Nick Foles.

But something magical, or at the very least unexpected, happened over the course of two weeks. Driven by the national perception that they were doomed, the Eagles embraced the "underdog" role, going so far as to don spooky German Shepard masks as a taunt to their many skeptics, and slew Atlanta and Minnesota in back-to-back weeks.

"Underdog" is a moniker barely warranted by their performance all season, but one that was well worn during the gauntlet that is Super Bowl week. This mentality was best described by Eagles coach Doug Pederson, who before his second season in charge in Philly had his fair share of detractors: "I've been an underdog my whole career, my whole life. Everything I've done, I either haven't been good enough or something negative has been written or said, and I just blow it off. I have confidence in these guys and this team."

The Eagles are taking this personally. Every pregame pick against them, every knock against their quarterback, every shot across the bow of their emotional fan base is a snipe at the individual players wearing midnight green and black. Despite the fact that Philly boasts one of the league's best-constructed rosters, one arguably better built than that of their Super Bowl opponents', many see the Eagles as inferior. Beating the supposed greatest quarterback, coach and organization of all-time would be the ultimate validation of Philadelphia's resolve and city-wide spirit.

Players to Watch


Nick Foles, QB, Eagles: The once-mocked, now-celebrated Wentz fill-in is the most surprising, under-prepared quarterback to play in a Super Bowl since Chicago's Rex Grossman in XLI. NFL Network's Gregg Rosenthal ranked Foles 57th out of 60 quarterbacks to start a Super Bowl, ahead of Sexy Rexy, David Woodley and Tony Eason.

Foles' return to form has been fascinating to watch. Cast off by the Eagles in 2015 following an outstanding 2013 season, Foles was about to give up football altogether and become a pastor after unsuccessful stints in St. Louis and Kansas City. But Philly reacquired him in the offseason to back up Wentz, and Foles was called into duty when the starter went down for the count. Foles shrugged off a poor close to the season with two stellar playoff starts, including his unbelievable NFC Championship Game performance; according to Pro Football Focus, Foles had the fifth-best playoff game by any QB since 2006 in the Eagles' blowout win over Minnesota. So the looming question over Minneapolis this week is can Foles do it again? Is this moment, so distant from his mind just half a year ago, too big for him?

From a football standpoint, the book on Foles is this (we think): He performs poorly under pressure (64.2 passer rating), has outstanding success on run-pass option plays (93.8 comp. pct.) and only recently found his deep ball (158.3 rating last week; 7.5 rating entering the title game). In New England, Foles faces a steadily improving pass rush and a secondary that no longer gives up the big plays it did during the season's first quarter. Still, Foles is the ultimate wild card; there's no telling how Foles will react to the big stage against a team that has had two weeks to game-plan for him. His teammates believe in him, but it's fair to wonder: Will we see the flea-flicking gunslinger or the tepid journeyman?

Dion Lewis, RB, Patriots: This is a quasi-revenge game for the former Eagles back. Drafted in 2011 by Philadelphia and jobless by 2014, the undersized and underappreciated Lewis found a home in New England, where he has developed into a top-10 back. His special combination of elusiveness, speed and YAC-ability made him the Patriots' go-to back in a deep stable of runners down the stretch; his game-clinching third-down conversion against Jacksonville was a picture-perfect look at what makes "The Weapon" special.

Last year, James White got the glory -- and 20 touches -- during New England's comeback attempt. This year, with LeGarrette Blount now on the opposing sideline, the onus will be on Lewis to pick up five yards a touch (his league-leading average in 2017), keep the pressure off Brady and keep New England out of a multi-score hole. Set to be a free agent after 2017, Lewis can prove his worth to New England, the league and his former team in one fell swoop.

Key matchup


It's too easy, and even incorrect, to say this crucial clash will be determined by Philly's front seven versus New England's offensive line. "But that's how you beat Brady! Knock him on his ass! The Giants and Broncos did it!" Shut your face, figment of my imagination. No QB has been better than Brady under pressure this season (95.5 passer rating, per PFF), and Tommy Boy has finished in the top five in passer rating under pressure in the past three seasons.

The more interesting matchup with those units is between New England's receiving weapons and Philly's young corners. As Danny Amendola's title-game performance proved, Brady can dice up any secondary in the league, even without Gronk on the field, as long as he trusts his receivers and anticipates their timing. Amendola reaped the benefits against Jacksonville, but Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan and even Philip Dorsett all played pivotal roles. With Gronk good to go against Philly, New England has a healthy crew of receiving options to attack an Eagles secondary greatly improved since Ronald Darby returned from injury.

After frustrating Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, can Philly's back line (Darby, Jalen Mills, Patrick Robinson) hold up against New England's dink-and-dunk attack, led by the most incisive quarterback of his generation?

Prediction


Philadelphia boasts the better roster, the hotter defense and the sexier story. If Wentz was healthy and under center, the Eagles might even be favored in the minds of Nevadan lever-pullers. But he isn't, and regardless of how Foles has played the past games, Philly has a significant disadvantage under center.

In a QB-driven league, where so much of a team's fortunes in-season and in-game rely on the split-second instincts of one individual, New England holds the ultimate trump card in Brady, a smoothie-sucking cyborg who can overcome any game situation, whether he is up by one score at halftime or down 25 points with 18 minutes to play.

It sounds cliche, but Brady, Belichick and the Patriots will win their sixth title because they have been here before, more often than any QB-coach pairing in NFL history. Their in-game awareness and ability to adapt mid-game or -drive is unparalleled and lethal. Against this dynasty, all teams have been, are and will be underdogs. The Eagles, regardless of how they feel, are no different.

New England Patriots 24, Philadelphia Eagles 19

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