Super Bowl LII Preview

Five Quick Hits

* Case Keenum commited 3 turnovers, but that sounds worse than it is. He was hit during the throw that led to his first interception, his fumble was caused by a blocking breakdown, and the final pick was pure desperation.

* Nick Foles was sensational against the league's best defense, passing for 352 yards, 3 TDs, and a 141.4 rating. It's hard to imagine that Carson Wentz might have been any better.

* Curt Menefee stated after the Eagles' win, "When Carson Wentz went down, everyone was writing the Eagles off." I guess Curt doesn't read my column, which isn't all that surprising, but apparently he doesn't even watch NBC.

* FOX showed that Foles' 352-yard performance was only the 4th-highest in Philadelphia postseason history. That surprised me, so I looked it up. It's true! The top three are Randall Cunningham in 1988 and Donovan McNabb twice, all three coming in losses.

* Minnesota punter Ryan Quigley didn't have a single touchback during the regular season, in 71 punts. In the postseason, he had 2 touchbacks in six punts.

Championship Roundups

New England Patriots 24, Jacksonville Jaguars 20

Bill Belichick lost the first three games he coached against the Jacksonville Jaguars, as head coach of the Browns in 1995 and defensive coordinator of the Jets in 1996. Since then, his teams are 8-0 against Jacksonville, including 3-0 in the playoffs.

In some ways, this game went as well as possible for the Jaguars. Rob Gronkowski missed half the game with a concussion, while Blake Bortles had "the game of the year for him," according to Tony Romo in the third quarter, later upgraded to "the game of his life." I don't know about that — Bortles couldn't have been much better in this year's blowout wins over the Ravens, Colts, and Texans — but he certainly played well, exceeding expectations with 293 passing yards, 16 first downs, a touchdown, no turnovers, and a 98.5 passer rating. The Jaguars took an early 14-3 lead, and led 20-10 in the fourth quarter. Having held the Patriots to 10 points in the first three quarters combined, they had to like the chances for their great defense to hold that lead in the final 15 minutes.

Nonetheless, a number of factors worked against the Jaguars, including three critical penalties late in the first half. Nursing that 14-3 lead, the Jags saw a first down in field goal range wiped out by a delay of game penalty. Moments later, a 15-yard penalty — for the hit that knocked Gronkowksi out of the game — was followed by a 32-yard pass interference that set up New England for a touchdown before halftime. In the final five minutes, with Jacksonville still clinging to a 20-17 lead, two starting defensive players, Myles Jack and Marcell Dareus, got injured and left the game on the consecutive plays.

Many of the stories about this game will highlight intangible factors about the Patriots' poise and experience, and that's certainly valid, but that manifested in practical ways that are worth pointing out. Leonard Fournette averaged just 3.2 yards per carry, and Blake Bortles didn't run at all, after rushing for 124 yards and 8 first downs in the previous two games. The Jaguars went 0/5 on third downs (and 0/1 on fourth down) in the fourth quarter, when the offense might have been able to put the game away simply by controlling time of possession and dictating field position.

The Jaguars played well on Sunday, and they went three games this postseason without turning the ball over. Against the Bills and Steelers, that was enough. Against the Patriots, Jacksonville needed a little more — a big play from its offense, a tough defensive stop in the fourth quarter, maybe just an extra second on the play clock at the end of the first half — and it wasn't there.

Philadelphia Eagles 38, Minnesota Vikings 7

Well, I guess dome teams are now 0-13 playing outdoors in conference championship games. This one was a blowout, with Philadelphia dominating in all phases. Early in the game, the opposite appeared true. The Vikings drove for an easy touchdown on their opening possession, facing only one third down. The Eagles' first drive was defined by missed opportunities: a deep pass dropped by Torrey Smith and a potential first down on which Trey Burton only got one foot in bounds. On the ensuing punt, Shelton Gibson ran into Minnesota's returner before he could catch the ball, a 15-yard penalty.

The Eagles didn't blink. After Minnesota picked up another first down, Chris Long hit Case Keenum while he was throwing. The ball fluttered to Philadelphia cornerback Patrick Robinson, who returned it 50 yards for a game-tying, momentum-flipping touchdown. The Vikings wouldn't score again all game, while Philadelphia ran off 38 points in a row. It was the most points allowed by the Vikings all season. If you forecast the Eagles, who scored 34 points in their last three games combined, to drop 38 on the league's best defense, take a bow, Nostradamus. Nick Foles passed for 208 yards and 11 first downs in the first half, against a pass defense that averaged 192 yards and 10.5 first downs per game.

Jim Schwartz's defense controlled the Viking offense, forcing three turnovers, but that was less significant and less surprising than Minnesota's defensive meltdown. The Eagles dropped 456 yards and 27 first downs on the visitors, almost all of it in the first three quarters, since they took their foot off the pedal with a 38-7 lead in the final quarter. Philadelphia went 10-of-14 on third downs, against the best third down defense of the last 40 years, and had four offensive plays of more than 35 yards.

This was the fourth year in a row with a Conference Championship Game blowout. In 2014, New England beat Indianapolis 45-7. The next year, Carolina forced 7 turnovers and beat the Cardinals 49-15. Last season, both Championship Games were one-sided, with the Falcons leading 24-0 at halftime and coasting to a 44-21 victory, and the Patriots leading 36-10 before a garbage-time TD made the game look closer than it was. At this point in the season, you expect the remaining teams to be so good that every game is close, but it definitely doesn't work out that way.

The Crystal Ball

Super Bowl LII: New England Patriots vs. Philadelphia Eagles
Minneapolis, Minnesota
February 4, 2018

This is a rematch of Super Bowl XXXIX, 13 years ago. New England's key pieces, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, were already in place. The Eagles were coached by Andy Reid, whose protege and former assistant, Doug Pederson, will face off with Belichick this time around. It's the Patriots' 10th Super Bowl appearance, which is mind-blowing. If you're like me and remember following football 25 years ago, no team had six Super Bowl appearances. A win would be New England's sixth, tying the Pittsburgh Steelers for most all-time. The Eagles, meanwhile, have never won a Super Bowl, one of only eight such teams active prior to the 1966 season, when the first Super Bowl was held.

This is the fourth time in the last five years that the top seeds from each conference meet in the Super Bowl. That might be a bummer if you cheer for the underdog, but if you're a fan who likes to see good matchups, it's gratifying after top seeds met in the Super Bowl only once from 1994-2012.


This is a fascinating matchup. It's a terrific offense (1st in yards, 2nd in scoring) vs. a terrific defense (3rd in yards, 4th in scoring), but it's also really unclear who has the matchup advantage. "Styles make fights" and the styles at play here could favor either team. The Eagles led the NFL in rush defense, the only team in the league to allow under 80 yards per game. If you're a New England fan, that might be encouraging, since you probably feel more comfortable with Tom Brady than with Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead.

But the Eagles also have Brady's kryptonite: a front four that can generate a consistent pass rush without blitzing. Philadelphia has four linemen with at least five sacks, including Pro Bowler Fletcher Cox. Historically, the way to disrupt Brady — or any of this generation's great QBs, really — is to keep him under pressure without creating openings by blitzing. The Eagles can do that. If they win, Brandon Graham or Chris Long or Cox could easily be MVP.

For the Patriots, the key is to keep Brady comfortable. That means runs, chips and extra blockers, or misdirection — probably all three. Josh McDaniels has impressed us for years, and he'll need to do it again in Minneapolis. For the Eagles, the plan is comparably simple: shut down the run and get pressure with your front four. It's easier said than done, but it's straightforward. If Rob Gronkowski is back in the lineup, you can't let him break the game open. Again, easier said than done. But you have to make the Patriots beat you with Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola and James White. They absolutely can do that, but you've got a better chance than if Gronk goes off for 150 yards and 2 touchdowns.


It seems like this will be where the game is won or lost. Which Nick Foles do we get, the one from the NFC Championship Game and the 2013 season, or the one we saw in Weeks 16 and 17? The Nick Foles who dissected the Falcons can do the same thing to New England. The Nick Foles from the Raiders and Giants games could turn this into a Patriots blowout.

The Patriots, therefore, have essentially the same defensive mission as Philadelphia: shut down the run and make the quarterback uncomfortable. The how of it will differ. New England's defensive front is solid, but considerably less impressive than Philadelphia's; there's no Cox or Graham on that unit. The Eagles also have an excellent offensive line, so Belichick and coordinator Matt Patricia will probably generate pressure by blitzing and by disguising coverages. They'll take away Alshon Jeffery or Zach Ertz and force Foles to go to his second and third looks to string drives together.

If the Eagles turn in an offensive performance like they did against Minnesota, they could really surprise people. That probably means hitting a big play early, but the key is avoiding negative plays. The Eagles proved on Sunday that they can bounce back from a slow start. A three-and-out on their first series isn't the end of the world. What they can't do is put themselves in a hole with sacks and turnovers. Keep calm, trust your defense, and let the game come to you.


This looks like an advantage for New England. Their special teams are good across the board, but Stephen Gostkowski's experience contrasts with Philadelphia rookie Jake Elliott in a way that would make me nervous if I were an Eagles fan. New England had a kickoff return touchdown in Week 10, and the Pats have the best coverage team in the league. If there's a big play on special teams, you'd expect it to favor New England.


The Eagles are underdogs, for the third game in a row. As of Sunday night, the line is 5 or 5½, depending on where you look. I don't buy it. The Eagles are really good. They've been really good all season. They've got a stout defense that makes a blowout loss unlikely. I know five points is hardly a blowout, but it's a big spread against a team that looked unbeatable on Sunday night.

One thing potentially working against the Eagles is the venue. A week ago, it looked like the homefield might work against the AFC champs, but now, bitter Viking fans may cheer for anyone but Philadelphia. On the other hand, I think a lot of the country is sick of the Patriots' success and would like to see a team for whom the victory is more meaningful, so maybe I'm wrong. Certainly there's no confusion about which team to back if you're rooting for the underdog.

Last week, I went with my head rather than my gut feeling, and picked Minnesota to beat the Eagles. Now my head says the Eagles, based on their dominance against the Vikings, should be too much for the Patriots to handle. My gut says the Patriots always find a way.

One intangible factor I haven't discussed concerns New England's coaching exodus. It's a poorly concealed secret that offensive and defensive coordinators Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia are leaving to coach the Colts and Lions, respectively. Actually, I've never seen teams so brazen in their winking deals with coaches under contract to another team. By the time you read this, the Giants may have already announced the hiring of Minnesota OC Pat Shurmur, which falls into the same category. Anyway, it's plausible that McDaniels and/or Patricia could be distracted, less than 100% focused on the upcoming game.

There are good reasons to forecast an upset. If the game is a blowout, I think it's more likely to go Philadelphia's way. But I don't see a rout; instead, I'll call for an exact repeat of Super Bowl XXXIX: Patriots 24, Eagles 21.

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