Disclaimer: I am NOT officially picking the Philadelphia Eagles to beat the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII.
Not yet, anyway.
But it might be time to stop harping on the Nick Foles narrative so much. Yes, were Carson Wentz healthy, the Eagles are probably favored in this game and are a much safer bet to secure the franchise’s first Lombardi trophy. Instead, it may be the defense that carries Philly to the promised land.
In two postseason games in which they were home underdogs, the Eagles held the Atlanta Falcons and Minnesota Vikings to a combined 17 points. That is the fewest a team has allowed since the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2002, who held the 49ers and Eagles to 16 in their first two games.
To be fair, the points allowed stat doesn’t always tell the whole story. A year ago, the Patriots entered Super Bowl LI as the league’s top scoring defense. As is usually the case, the top scoring defense won out over the top scoring offense, but the Falcons still put up 28 points. For the Eagles, the 17 points allowed has been combined with some other impressive statistics that should give long-suffering Philly fans reason for hope.
In the divisional round against the high-flying Falcons and last year’s MVP, Matt Ryan, Philadelphia limited Atlanta to just 281 yards of total offense, and only 195 passing. Though the unit did not force any turnovers, it sacked Ryan three times and sealed the win with a goal-line stand.
Things got even rosier against the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC championship game, as the Eagles not only held the Vikings to an opening drive touchdown, but they pressured Case Keenum all day and forced three turnovers.
Is this to say that Philadelphia will smother the Patriots quick-strike offense on the game’s biggest stage? Absolutely not. It would be foolish to expect the Eagles to keep the Patriots in single-digits. Holding New England under 20 would be a major accomplishment, in fact. But it’s a distinct possibility, given the fact that the Eagles had the league’s fourth-best scoring defense in the regular season (18.4, just a tick ahead of the Patriots, who finished fifth with 18.5).
In comparing this Eagles defense to those of the New York Giants teams that took down New England in Super Bowls XLII and XLVI, there are some striking similarities. Both featured a deep and talented defensive line that has the ability to disrupt Tom Brady’s rhythm all game. It is somewhat surprising that the Eagles finished with only 35 sacks in the regular season considering they are at or near the top in terms of how often they pressure the opposing QB.
The 2011 Giants actually finished as the 27th-ranked defense in terms of total yards allowed, but again rankled Brady with their front four the way Philadelphia hopes to on Sunday. The Eagles were the league’s best run defense in 2017, which of course always seems like an obsolete statistic against the Patriots. New England can counter teams with strong run defenses with its quick short passing game, but the speed of the Eagles defense can be the great equalizer.
As is often the case, there isn’t much to compare to for New England entering the Super Bowl in terms of stiff competition. The AFC has been a virtual cakewalk in recent years, and it’s always fair to assume that the NFC team the Patriots face in the Super Bowl will be the toughest one they’ve seen in the playoffs. That was certainly the case last year, and 2017 has taken that to the extreme. The Tennessee Titans were an embarrassment to the playoff field. The Jacksonville Jaguars had a tremendous season, but at the end of the day were a 10-6 team led by Blake Bortles. The Eagles will represent a much grander challenge.
There is no true formula to beating the Patriots, except, as I’ve long postulated, beating the Patriots. One thing that seems to be consistent is that teams are never comfortable with a lead against New England (huh?). As the Giants did in 2007 and 2011, the Eagles almost may be better served just hanging close and hoping they have the ball last with a chance to win. New England will never go away, as the Falcons found out all too painfully last February. But the odds will certainly be increase for the Eagles if they can pound the ball on the ground and harass Brady all game. Under the guidance of coordinator Jim Schwartz, the Eagles defense figures to have an aggressive edge from start to finish, unlike the Falcons, who went very soft late in last year’s big game.
No one knows which Nick Foles will show up in the Super Bowl. No one knows what the Patriots defense will bring to the table, either. Historically, even the bad statistical New England defenses always adjust, tighten up in the red zone, and find ways to come up with sacks in key situations. But let’s get one thing straight: the Patriots’ defense is not a championship unit.
The Eagles’ just might be.