We’re just two days away from the main event of the NFL season. One team makes a living in the Super Bowl, and the other is a new-kid-on-the-block riding on momentum, a stout defense and their backup quarterback’s magic.
While the Philadelphia Eagles (+4.5) may be betting underdogs going into Super Bowl 52 (via Topbet), they have enough talent in the right places to create favorable matchups against New England. Here is a look at a few of the key mismatches in the big game, not just for Philly, but for the Patriots as well.
Zach Ertz vs. New England’s Linebackers/Safeties
New England has done a decent job against TEs this season; they even managed to keep Travis Kelce (a more physical version of Ertz) to five receptions for 40 yards in their Week 1 loss to Kansas City. However, just because the Pats don’t allow themselves to be dominated by TEs doesn’t mean TEs can’t hurt them. A guy doesn’t need to go nine for 130 on you to have an impactful day.
Houston’s Ryan Griffin (five recptions/61 yards/1TD) and Tampa Bay’s Cameron Brate (5/68/1) are both catch first, block second TEs who managed to have productive days against the Patriots. Even lesser players like Ed Dickson (3/61, 20.3 yards per catch) didn’t set the world on fire, but they made an impact. The key here is that Zach Ertz is far superior to those three players, and he is also a much larger cog in the Eagles’ offense they are to their respective teams.
In the four FULL games Nick Foles has played under center, Ertz is averaging 6.5 receptions and 65.5 yards per game. That includes his best game with Foles (two weeks ago) against a fierce Minnesota squad with excellent linebackers/safeties like Eric Kendricks and Harrison Smith. Ertz and Foles seemed to finally gel against the Vikings, and Doug Pederson will look to keep him heavily involved against New England's linebackers with average athleticism.
Dion Lewis vs. Philadelphia’s (Stout) Run Defense
For all the clichés about Beli-Tricks and his wacky running back schemes, when Bill finds a guy he can trust, he’s not afraid to roll with him. Look at Stevan Ridley or Corey Dillon, for example. It took a few weeks, some injuries (Rex Burkhead) and some fumble issues (Mike Gillislee) for Dion Lewis to establish himself as New England’s bell cow, but once he did, he quietly became one of the best running backs in the NFL.
Lewis didn’t get double-digit touches until Week 6; after that, he was a weekly shoo-in for 13-17 touches a bucket of yards. In Weeks 16 & 17, Belichick showed his full confidence in Lewis as the Pats barreled towards the playoffs, giving Lewis 29 & 32 touches, respectively. In his 13 games from Week 6 onwards (including playoffs) Lewis’ full 16-game pace would look like this:
1,447 yards from scrimmage, 4.83 YPC, 51 receptions, 11 TDs
That gets most guys onto an All-Pro team, or at the very least a Pro Bowl roster. Lewis is also becoming the go-to pass catcher out of the backfield as of late (a role usually reserved for James White). In his last four contests, Lewis has caught 27 passes.
Despite Danny Amendola’s heroics and Rob Gronkowski’s dominant presence, Lewis is the X-factor that makes this offense click. Philadelphia led the league in rush yards allowed (and was 6th in yards per carry) but as they just proved to Minnesota, sometimes a hot hand can overpower an elite unit based purely on facing them at the wrong time. Lewis should move the ball with efficiency and give New England (and Tom Brady) some breathing room.
Philadelphia’s Offensive Line vs. New England’s Pass Rush
Losing an All-Pro like Jason Peters should’ve hurt the Eagles more than it did. The City of Brotherly Love was in full-blown panic mode over second-year man Hal Vaitai taking over at right tackle, but an offensive line is one cohesive machine made up of five smaller parts. If four of the parts are excellent, they raise the efficiency of the fifth based on him not being overwhelmed.
Stefen Wisnewski, Jason Kelce and Brandon Brooks plug up the middle of the field with the best of them. Defensive tackles Lawrence Guy and Malcolm Brown are solid run stuffers but won’t strike fear into anybody. Playing against an elite offensive line, they should be pushed back to create running lanes for Philly’s stable of running backs.
Lane Johnson is one of the finest tackles in all of football, so Nick Foles’ blind side should be well protected. Having plenty of time to throw is what is what Foles needs to be effective… he needs to be comfortable. Johnson’s success in the Super Bowl will be mainly due to his talent, but also to the Patriots’ lack of a true pass rusher. Trey Flowers (6.5 sacks), Kyle Van Noy (5.5) and Deatrich Wise (5.0) led the team in sacks, but none of them have elite strength or quickness. Veteran James Harrison will see snaps, but he hasn’t seen much playing time all season and likely doesn’t pose much of a threat to the younger, spritely Johnson.
Bill Belichick believes in having the RIGHT 53 men on his team instead of the BEST 53. His philosophy has obviously worked over the years, but when you’re taking on a top-tier unit like the Philadelphia O-line, not having an ace-in-the-hole pass rusher is a major weakness. Especially when elite defenders like Everson Griffen, Vic Beasley and Anthony Barr have not been able to get a sack on Nick Foles thus far in the playoffs.
Brandin Cooks vs. Philadelphia’s Cornerbacks
Some may call it recency bias, but I believe Cooks’ six-catch, 100-yard performance against the Jaguars much-lauded secondary in the AFC Championship Game is an omen for the Super Bowl. Many people expect Danny Amendola to continue his playoff dominance, but Eagles slot corner Patrick Robinson has been a sneaky incredible free agent pickup for Philly. He graded out as the #4 corner in the whole NFL according to Pro Football Focus. Robinson should contain Amendola, leaving Cooks to pick up the slack.
The Jaguars were historically great against the pass in 2017, so a 100-yard game against them is nothing to turn up your nose at. Cooks being known mainly as a deep threat does NOT mean he is a one-trick pony. Tom Brady likes to utilize him as a chip-away tool, getting a quick 3-6 yards on early downs to make drives more manageable.
Small but quick receivers like Odell Beckham Jr. and Doug Baldwin have been able to exploit Philadelphia's secondary this season. Of course, those two are elite receivers… but so is Cooks. It’s just easy to forget that because of the Patriots’ team-first style. In just four years, Cooks has three straight seasons with over 1,000 yards and at least 7 TDs. If that’s not elite, I don’t know what is. The smart money is on Cooks getting into the end zone. Gronk will get his, as he always does, but Brady will be looking Cooks’ way plenty in the big game.
Rich probably loves the NFL too much, the NHL too little, and the NBA/MLB just the right amount.