On a fateful February day in 2018, the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles took the field in hopes of being Super Bowl champions. However, the narratives between the two starkly contrasted. Tom Brady and the Patriots were looking for the sixth ring, to tie the Pittsburgh Steelers for most ever and to cement their legacy into stone. The upstart Eagles were looking for their first ring, with their last Super Bowl appearance ending in a loss to the Brady Bunch in Super Bowl XXXIX.
New England Patriots-Philadelphia Eagles Preview
Run It Back
After one of the greatest seasons of all time, the Patriots labored through a tough repeat campaign in 2017, a season in which their defense just simply could not get off the field. The unit put up a DVOA that was second-worst in the entire league and remained a huge burden on the offense all year long. Fortunately, the Patriots had Brady. He took home his third MVP that season and was the captain of the league’s best offense. Brandin Cooks added a deep threat element to the offense that had been missing since the great Randy Moss.
A tight Week 15 victory over Pittsburgh allowed the Patriots to clinch home field throughout the playoffs, and they soundly beat the Tennessee Titans 35-14 in the Divisional Round. The AFC championship game would provide more entertainment. The Jacksonville Jaguars defense, dubbed “Sacksonville”, was the best defense in the league. With time running out early in the fourth quarter, Brady engineered two scoring drives that erased a 20-10 Jaguars lead. The Patriots were going to yet another Super Bowl.
A Superhero’s Origin Story
On the other side, it was a completely different journey. The Eagles hit the ground running in 2017, and were 10-2 going into a matchup with the Los Angeles Rams. They would win that game 43-35 but lost quarterback Carson Wentz for the season to a torn ACL. Their Super Bowl hopes were dashed. Nick Foles would do a decent job of filling in, but were they really going to win the Super Bowl?
They were famously home underdogs against the Atlanta Falcons in the divisional round, despite it being a one-seed vs six-seed matchup. Foles looked like his normal mortal self that day, but Matt Ryan failed to hit Julio Jones on a critical fourth and goal with less than a minute to go, and the Eagles survived with the 15-10 win. A week later, they were home underdogs yet again against the Minnesota Vikings. This time, Foles would dominate and the Eagles would win 38-7 and end the Vikings hopes of playing a home Super Bowl.
Nick vs. Tom
As P!nk sang the National Anthem before the game, NBC cameras cut to Patriots star cornerback Malcolm Butler crying on the sideline. At the time, I thought he was just emotional about the big game. However, this was not the case. Butler was benched, and the details in this decision remain foggy to this day. For whatever reason, Eric Rowe played the entire game in place of Butler. This decision would end up costing the Patriots the game.
Other than Stephon Gilmore, no one else on the Patriots defense did a damn thing all game. Foles destroyed them multiple times and the Patriots played from behind all night. Brady was amazing all night, and early in the fourth quarter, he hit Rob Gronkowski for a go-ahead touchdown. Just one stop from the defense and the Patriots would hoist their sixth Lombardi Trophy. After completing a key fourth down, Foles would not be denied. He drove Philly down the field and hit Zach Ertz for the go-ahead score with just minutes remaining. The Eagles defense would finally get to Brady with Derek Barnett’s strip-sack, and a failed Hail Mary attempt with time expiring would be the final play in the Eagles’ first Super Bowl win in franchise history. Foles won Super Bowl MVP, and the city of Philadelphia collectively celebrated.
A Similar Cast of Characters
The next season, history almost repeated itself. Wentz got injured again down the stretch, and the Eagles rode Foles to the playoffs. After a magical win in the Windy City, the pixie dust would run out in New Orleans, culminating in a 20-14 loss. This loss ended an era. Foles signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars in the off-season and is currently on injured reserve but is set to return in Week 11.
As a roster, the Eagles are surprisingly very similar to their 2017 counterparts. Their elite offensive line core of Brandon Brooks, Jason Kelce, Lane Johnson, and Jason Peters are still going strong. Alshon Jeffery is still on the roster, but he has regressed pretty heavily from his prime. The only real differences on their roster are Dallas Goedert replacing Trey Burton as TE2 and a different batch of replaceable running backs.
Of course, all of that is excluding the quarterback. Wentz is a very good quarterback, but he hasn’t had much success this season. His passing DVOA ranks just 17th in the league, but there are reasons to think he is better than this. He has a fantastic PFF grade of 86.7, fourth in the league among qualifiers. As has been well observed over the year, the limiting factor of the Eagles passing offense has been their receivers. Nelson Agholor was famously criticized by a Philly man who was getting interviewed for his heroics in saving people from a burning building, and this narrative is a true one.
On the other side of the ball, the core of their defense is still firmly intact. It is still a top 10 unit (ninth in DVOA). They did lose very solid production from cornerback Patrick Robinson, but he is the only key player that has departed. Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox are as dominant as ever, and while their secondary is even more questionable than before, their defense is still pretty good.
A Band of Misfits
The Patriots roster has undergone much more of an overhaul than their counterparts. Cooks got knocked out by Malcolm Jenkins in the Super Bowl and did not play another down for the Patriots. He was traded to the Rams in the off-season for a first-round pick. Phillip Dorsett has done a decent job of replacing him, but he has not been the dynamic game-changer that Cooks was.
Gronk was not the same in 2018. He had his moments, but his production in the passing game hit a sharp decline. He was still a solid option, but he was no longer the Hall of Fame talent of years past. His last career catch would be a key play in the game-winning drive of the Super Bowl victory against the Rams, as he would retire in the off-season at just age 29. The Patriots still have a gaping hole at the tight end position, and an over-the-hill Ben Watson is their best option at the moment. Dwayne Allen is also no longer there.
Danny Amendola signed with the Miami Dolphins following the Eagles loss, but a healthy Julian Edelman has easily replaced Amendola. Left tackle Nate Solder got a huge payday in the off-season with the Giants. Trent Brown was very good in 2018, but he quickly chased a bag in Oakland. Isaiah Wynn, who got drafted with the Cooks pick, has been injured for most of his career. On the bright side, he looks to start this Sunday and finally get Marshall Newhouse back to the bench.
A Complete 180
In 2017, the Patriots defense rivaled the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the worst in the league. Through nine games this season, the Patriots have had the best defense by DVOA. Lamar Jackson and the Ravens may have exposed a fatal flaw in New England’s defense in their 37-20 triumph over the Patriots. However, there is only one Lamar Jackson in the NFL. What has made this Patriots defense worthy of the “Boogeyman” nickname? It all starts with the secondary. Jason McCourty, J.C. Jackson, and Terrence Brooks have supplanted a weak defensive back group of Malcolm Butler, Eric Rowe, and Jordan Richards. Those three have supplemented the core of Gilmore, Jason’s twin Devin McCourty, and Patrick Chung. The return of Jamie Collins has been an amazing boost in the linebacking core as well, and he has rounded out a defense that showed many flashes of potential in 2018.
The Patriots have made solid additions, but the driving force of this defensive revolution has been in house development. Kyle Van Noy has gone from an average linebacker to a Pro Bowl talent and personality. Dont’a Hightower has returned healthy and is still a force to be reckoned with in the run game. McCourty has always been good, but even he is having one of his better seasons.
One guy who I have not mentioned yet is arguably the best player on this fearsome unit. His name is Jonathan Jones. The speedy corner from Auburn went undrafted in 2016, one of the more mind-boggling decisions in the draft. He has been solid his whole career, and the Patriots gave him a three-year extension before the season. This was a fantastic move. His 88.8 overall grade from Pro Football Focus is the best for any cornerback. It is most certainly not a hot take to call him the best slot cornerback in the entire league, and he is the glue for this entire defense. Locking down the opponent’s quickest player opens up all sorts of possibilities for the rest of the defense. He and Gilmore are legitimate weapons in the secondary, and he has fortified the coverage unit.
The Patriots should have the upper hand in this matchup. The one concern for Sunday is the mismatch in the trenches. The Eagles still have the top offensive line in the league, and the Patriots defensive line has been their one weakness. When you look between the fumbles, Nick Chubb gashed the Pats and provided a possible blueprint to defeating this defense. The Ravens were all over this the next week and handed them the first loss of the year. However, the bye week has given Bill Belichick plenty of time to figure out a solution to this problem. I expect some new defensive looks to combat the run game, and the Patriots defense could be back to normal in no time.
If the Patriots get ahead early, the Eagles stand little chance. With rookie receiver N’Keal Harry making his season debut, their offense should get a boost that they needed. Mohamed Sanu seemed to have a fantastic connection with Brady against Baltimore. If you look between the Ravens dominating time of possession, and the Edelman fumble, the Patriots offense was great last Sunday Night. Brady was pushing the ball downfield, and this bodes well for the future. I am predicting a statement win this Sunday. Brady will throw two early touchdowns, and the Patriots will win 31-13. I just don’t think the Eagles have the offensive fortitude to compete with the Patriots defense, and Brady is primed for a breakout game. Predictions are meaningless, however, so all that needs to be done now is for the game to be played.