To pull off their Super Bowl upset Sunday night, the Philadelphia Eagles out-Patriots-ed the New England Patriots. The stories we all know by heart about the Patriots are the ones we’re telling about the Eagles this morning. How they’re never out of any game, even if they’re missing a star player. How they come up with critical plays at the exact moment when they need one. How they leverage a coaching advantage by taking risks the other team is afraid to take.
The Eagles won a shootout Sunday night by slipping off their underdog masks and playing like they had nothing to lose.
The Patriots weren’t out-schemed. They weren’t overwhelmed by a dominant defensive line, as they were during their Super Bowl defeats against the New York Giants. They were out-executed. Bill Belichick’s team made sloppy mistakes throughout the game and left the door open just wide enough for the Eagles to fly on in. For a team whose mantra is famously “Do Your Job” — for a team that relies on a nearly mechanical emphasis and focus upon getting the little things right — the Patriots were napping at work far too frequently to win.
Doug Pederson’s team didn’t win the Super Bowl as a result of the Patriots’ mistakes; the Eagles won because they executed in many of the exact ways in which the Patriots specifically struggled. Philadelphia didn’t play a perfect game, but it was far more consistent and made critical plays far more frequently than the Patriots.
More Patriots than Patriots
Where did the Eagles outdo the Patriots? Let’s run through some of the ways the Eagles stood out — and the Patriots fell short — in Super Bowl LII:
Third down. We’ll get to Nick Foles‘ game later, but the biggest question about Philadelphia’s quarterback heading into the contest was whether he would be able to keep up his stunning performance on third down after posting a perfect passer rating and converting nine of his 11 third-down tries against the best third-down defense in recent league history during the NFC Championship Game.
Foles and the Eagles’ offense delivered in spades. The Patriots weren’t expected to be as stout as the Vikings, but the same offense that went 1-of-14 on third down on a Christmas night struggle against the Raiders went 10-of-16 (62.5 percent) on third downs against the Patriots. Philly converted a pair of third downs to start its first drive, including a third-and-12 to Torrey Smith, and went on its way from there.
The Eagles went 5-for-8 on third down in the first half, but despite the Patriots’ much-ballyhooed reputation for halftime adjustments, coordinator Matt Patricia never stumbled upon anything which seemed to get the Patriots’ defense off the field. The Eagles were also 5-for-8 after halftime, and that includes their third-down run at the end of the game in which they were trying to run clock in advance of a field goal try.
The Patriots weren’t exactly awful on third down, going 5-of-10 with a sixth conversion via penalty, but they left several big plays on the field. On their second drive, a pressured Tom Brady scrambled and found a wide-open Danny Amendola streaking down the sideline on a wheel route against a blown coverage, but Brady wasn’t able to get enough on the football. A 50-yard completion isn’t a negative play, but a cleaner pocket and a stronger throw would have produced a touchdown.
Later on the same drive, the Patriots lined up on a third-and-1 and dialed up a jet sweep to Brandin Cooks. It was the perfect playcall: the Patriots had two blockers on the edge and just needed Cooks to beat Eagles safety Rodney McLeod one-on-one with momentum coming off the edge and a full third of the field to work with. A speedy, agile receiver like Cooks should probably turn this play into a touchdown, let alone a first down. Instead, Cooks bizarrely decided to run at McLeod and hurdle him, resulting in no gain on a drive in which the Patriots did not score.
This ended with Cooks trying to hurdle and failing pic.twitter.com/kXCW2RhmVZ
— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) February 5, 2018
On the next series, the Patriots dialed up a trick play nobody was expecting: a reverse with the option to throw a wheel route to Tom Brady. The Eagles, who could not possibly have fathomed a play in which a receiver might take the ball and throw a wheel route to a quarterback, let Brady slink out into the flat uncovered, but the 40-year-old failed to bring in what would have been his third career reception. It was, indeed, Brady’s first professional drop, and it cost the Patriots what would have likely been a red-zone opportunity.
You might argue that the Patriots shouldn’t have thrown a pass to a quarterback who was coming off of a hand injury and didn’t appear to have a consistently great grip on the ball at his normal position, and I wouldn’t disagree. From offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ perspective, though, all those third-down playcalls got somebody open for a would-be touchdown or a significant gain.
Fourth down and Pederson’s game management. When the Patriots did come up with stops, the Eagles simply converted on fourth down. Philadelphia converted two critical fourth-down plays, most notably a carbon copy of that reverse pass to free up Foles for a touchdown catch on what has to be the gutsiest decision in Super Bowl history since Sean Payton’s unexpected onside kick against the Colts.
You can only imagine the tweets and expletives that were being readied as we saw the Eagles pass up a field goal nobody would have faulted them for taking and attempt the same cutesy play the Patriots failed on earlier, only for a play the Eagles have been saving all postseason. (You can also imagine the chill that must have run down Pederson’s spine when the Patriots ran a virtually identical version of their money play earlier in the half!)
Later, the Eagles would respond to a rare third-down stuff by the Patriots on a blown-up swing pass by going for it again on fourth-and-1, this time down a point on their own 45-yard line with 5:39 to go. In a situation in which teams almost always punt — 42 of 47 times in roughly similar situations going back through 2007, by my count — Pederson lined up to go for it, called timeout, then resisted the urge to give the ball back to Brady and called for mesh, a Chip Kelly crossing-route staple the Eagles repeatedly went to throughout the game. Foles found Zach Ertz for a key first down.
Pederson has been doing this all season. The Eagles are among the most analytically inclined teams in the league and have been for more than a decade, going back to the days of Andy Reid and Joe Banner. They converted 17 fourth downs during the regular season, which was tops in the league and the most of any team since the 2008 Patriots. Their successful fourth-and-goal try from the 1-yard line against the Falcons in the divisional round ended up as the margin of victory in a 15-10 win.
Indeed, ESPN’s win expectancy metrics loved Pederson’s aggressiveness. The fourth-down call on the goal line was worth 3.4 percentage points of win expectancy, while the less conventional fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter was far more valuable and worth 7.3 percentage points of win expectancy even before the Eagles converted. Given that Philly came into the game with a 42 percent chance of winning, those two play calls alone might have swung the game Philadelphia’s way.
It will be interesting to see if Pederson’s success will change the way the league thinks about fourth-down opportunities. Ron Rivera helped turn around both his career and the Panthers in 2013 by adopting his Riverboat Ron persona, but there weren’t any coaches at the time who drastically upped their aggressiveness on fourth down as a result, and Rivera hasn’t been particularly risky on fourth down since. Coaches who spend countless hours in the film room desperately looking for an edge are leaving pieces of wins on the table.
On the other hand, the Patriots weren’t as effective on fourth down and didn’t manage the game as well as you might expect a team led by Belichick. They failed on an early fourth-down try after the Brady drop, with their Hall of Fame quarterback unable to hit Rob Gronkowski on a contested fade pattern down the sidelines. Belichick chose to attempt a field goal on fourth-and-1 inside the Philadelphia 10-yard line after the Cooks stuff, a suboptimal call that went disastrously when a poor hold from Ryan Allen threw off Stephen Gostkowski‘s timing and resulted in a 26-yarder bouncing off the uprights. Belichick also failed to take a timeout after a 55-yard Corey Clement catch (again out of mesh/wheel) set up the Eagles with first-and-goal just before halftime, which allowed 30 seconds to bleed off the clock and prevented the Patriots from launching a meaningful drive once they got the ball back.
Special teams. New England came into the game with the league’s third-best special teams and a reputation, going back to Adam Vinatieri, as a team that presses its advantages on special teams during the postseason. When the Eagles failed to convert an extra point after their first touchdown of the game, everyone (myself included) made a verbal note about making a mental note of that lost point down the line.
It didn’t matter, because the Patriots weren’t good on special teams themselves. They failed on a 26-yard field goal and later on an extra-point try, marking the second Super Bowl in a row in which Gostkowski has missed an extra point. Late in the game, the Pats tried to dial up a miracle on a kick return reverse, only for the gambit to fail miserably and force New England to start the final drive of its season from the 9-yard line. For a team that routinely controls games with field position, the average Patriots drive started six yards farther from the end zone than that of Philadelphia’s on Sunday.
Tackling. After a pair of impressive tackles on the opening drive from Kyle Van Noy, the Patriots whiffed on far too many arm tackles and got turned around too easily by Philadelphia’s skill-position players. The Patriots allowed an average of 2.45 yards after contact per pass play and 3.41 yards after contact per run play. Both of those were the highest averages the Pats allowed in any game this season.
One tackle that stands out in hindsight came on third-and-6 in the third quarter, when the Eagles ran mesh/wheel yet again and Foles hit Nelson Agholor two yards short of the sticks. What should have been an easy, drive-ending tackle from substitute defensive back Johnson Bademosi turned into an adventure and a 19-yard gain for Philadelphia’s impressive slot receiver. Two third-down conversions later, Foles hit Clement streaking past Marquis Flowers with a perfect throw for a 22-yard touchdown.
The Butler didn’t do it
While Flowers is a special-teamer who was on the field as a situational linebacker to presumably take advantage of his speed, he’s only really in the lineup because of the early-season injury suffered by Donta’ Hightower. While Hightower was playing as an edge rusher early in the season, it’s likely that one of the most impactful postseason defenders in recent memory would have been playing in a more familiar role at inside linebacker against this Eagles team.
Bademosi’s case for being in the lineup wasn’t quite as clear. The former Browns player had some success earlier in the season as a replacement for an injured Stephon Gilmore, but Bademosi mostly stuck to special teams once Gilmore returned to the fold. He took just 29 defensive snaps over the second half of the season and then didn’t play a single defensive snap during the postseason before Sunday.
Nominally, Bademosi was on the field because Belichick didn’t want to play Malcolm Butler, which forced Eric Rowe into the starting lineup and Bademosi onto the field as the Patriots’ third cornerback. Neither had an impressive game. Rowe was beat badly early in the game by Alshon Jeffery for a touchdown before the Patriots moved Gilmore to cover his former college roommate on a more regular basis, which led the Eagles to pick on Rowe, Bademosi, and Patrick Chung with other receivers throughout the game.
The talk during and after the game was that Belichick chose to keep Butler on the sideline for football-related reasons as opposed to disciplinary concerns. Butler struggled with the flu this week, but Belichick insisted after the game that Butler was healthy and he chose to play other cornerbacks because they would be better. Butler, in contrast, was brought to tears during the national anthem and said after the game that the team “gave up on [him],” while his teammates on the defense deferred to Belichick’s decision.
Something here doesn’t add up. Butler certainly had a down season, but it’s difficult to believe that Belichick thought Butler was worth playing as a starter all throughout the regular season and playoffs and only suddenly realized that he was their fourth-best cornerback in time for the Super Bowl. At the very least, given how his corners were struggling to keep up, it’s impossible to imagine that Belichick wouldn’t have given at least one defensive snap or series to the guy who played nearly 98 percent of New England’s defensive snaps this season.
If Belichick wanted to discipline Butler, though, why was he active? Butler hadn’t taken a single special teams snap since 2015. The Pats didn’t have another cornerback on the roster, but if Butler wasn’t going to play, New England could have opened up a roster spot for Alan Branch or Kenny Britt. And if he was available, what was Belichick waiting to see before he inserted Butler back into the game? Does he really need evidence of what Butler can do in the Super Bowl coming off the bench? Will Belichick really be able to make it through this offseason without wondering whether Butler might have been able to make some difference?
The truth is that the Patriots’ defense wasn’t good enough to overcome injuries to contributors like Hightower and the selective benching of Butler. As I mentioned in the Super Bowl preview, the Patriots’ fifth-ranked scoring defense belies a unit that ranked 31st in DVOA. In addition to Bademosi, the Patriots gave significant snaps during the postseason to 39-year-old James Harrison, who had been cut by the Steelers, and waiver-wire acquisition Eric Lee, who went from the Bills’ practice squad without having played an NFL game to starting for the Patriots within two weeks.
Last year, Hightower came up with the strip sack of Matt Ryan that gave the Patriots a crucial short field during their comeback. Against Seattle, Butler came up with the most famous interception in recent league history. This year, with the Patriots about to launch their own would-be comeback drive late in the fourth quarter, it was the Eagles who came up with a critical turnover exactly when they needed a big play when they shifted Brandon Graham inside for a strip sack of Brady.
New England simply didn’t have the bodies. Hightower was playing out of position and got hurt. Trey Flowers had a great postseason but was erased from existence on Sunday night by Halapoulivaati Vaitai and the Eagles’ offensive line, which went with six offensive linemen for several plays with some success, including the 21-yard touchdown from LeGarrette Blount. The Eagles have a great offense, and the Patriots’ defense couldn’t keep up. Gilmore had a great game, but the Patriots will need to address their front seven this offseason.
With even a little bit of resistance from their defense, the Patriots probably would have won this game. That’s how incredible their offense performed. Given that the Eagles came into the game ranked fourth in scoring defense and fifth in defensive DVOA, I think you can make a reasonable case that this was the best offensive performance in any loss in NFL history, let alone Super Bowl history.
The big number here is 600: The Patriots became the first team in league history to rack up 600 yards in a game and lose, finishing the game with 613 yards from scrimmage. The 600 Club had previously gone a combined 38-0-1 before Sunday, with the previous record for most yards in a defeat coming when the 49ers racked up 598 yards in a 34-31 loss to the Bills in September 1992.
Yardage isn’t the best statistic, though, and a better measure might be that the Patriots never had to punt on Sunday. They scored six times, missed a field goal, had a drive end on downs, fumbled away the ball, and had a possession end at the conclusion of each half. Teams occasionally lose without punting, but it’s usually because they turn the ball over a bunch. The Pats turned the ball over only once.
You won’t be surprised to hear that teams that don’t have to punt and don’t turn the ball over usually win, too. No team has ever lost a game in which it didn’t have to punt and didn’t turn the ball over. Only one team in modern league history before Sunday had lost with no punts and one turnover, a list that now includes the Patriots and the 2003 Chiefs, who fell 38-31 to the Colts at home in the divisional round. Those teams were previously a combined 39-1-0 since the merger.
An even better measure is points scored, and while teams have certainly scored more than 33 points while losing, no team has scored more points and lost in a Super Bowl than New England just did. Teams that had gotten to 33 points in the Super Bowl were previously 19-0. Teams that have dropped exactly 33 points in any game over the past decade had gone 67-12 (.848). The Pats’ offense did enough to win.
It was even more impressive that New England did it without Cooks, who left the game in the first half after being seemingly concussed by a legal hit from Malcolm Jenkins. Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz never really had an answer for Brady, who threw for 505 yards and three touchdowns. Schwartz pulled the tactical gambit of sticking Jenkins on James White and New England’s running backs instead of Gronkowski, and while White mustered only 21 yards receiving (and Lewis failed to catch a pass), Gronkowski feasted on cornerbacks and nickel safety Corey Graham for 116 yards and two touchdowns.
McDaniels borrowed judiciously from the Giants’ success against Philadelphia and went with heavy doses of the no-huddle, which kept Philadelphia from substituting as frequently on defense as it might like. The Giants abused Jalen Mills with a sluggo route for a touchdown, and the Pats went at Philadelphia’s young corner with double moves, including the sluggo for a 43-yard completion to Chris Hogan. Brady became the first quarterback in league history to throw for 500 yards in a playoff game, which naturally made him the first passer to lose a 500-yard playoff game.
The 40-year-old finished the game with a Total QBR of 88.3, which was his third-best game of the season. It was the fourth-best QBR posted by a quarterback in a playoff loss in the history of the statistic, which goes back through the 2006 season. Two of the three other losses were Patriots wins: David Garrard’s performance against the Patriots during the 2007 playoffs, and Russell Wilson‘s Super Bowl XLIX performance against New England three years ago. Both of those quarterbacks were unfortunate to go up against a superstar on the opposite sideline those days. On Sunday, so was Brady.
Chip off the Foles block
The biggest surprise of the Super Bowl for me — and the reason the Eagles won this game — was that we saw something much closer to the Nick Foles who dominated the Vikings than the one who was inconsistent and mediocre heading into the Minnesota game. The two-week layoff didn’t faze Foles, who picked apart the Patriots on shorter throws and then delivered on enough of his shots down the field.
Early in the game, Foles wasn’t quite as good as the numbers might suggest. He was getting loads of help from his receivers. That third-and-12 dig route was thrown well behind Smith, who had to go back against his momentum to bring the ball in. The 34-yard bomb to Jeffery for the game’s opening touchdown hung in the air and forced the former Bears wideout to drift around in the end zone to track it down. Foles sailed a crossing route to a wide-open Jeffery, perhaps out of jitters. The 22-yard fade out of the slot to Jeffery later in the first half was a better throw but required an incredible catch from Jeffery.
Much like the Vikings game, though, Foles got better as the game went along. His interception — Foles’ first of the postseason — was on a reasonably thrown ball that Jeffery unfortunately tipped in the air to Duron Harmon. Foles hit Clement on a wheel route for the 55-yard completion that set up the quarterback’s first NFL reception — and receiving touchdown — just before halftime.
And after the half, Foles went drive-for-drive with Brady and lived to tell the tale. Brady posted a 95.6 Total QBR … and got outplayed by Foles, who racked up a 97.6 Total QBR while going 15-of-21 for 158 yards with two scores. Foles’ big plays after halftime were a thing of beauty. The touchdown pass to Clement on another wheel route was a perfect throw, one in which Foles identified his mismatch and delivered a pinpoint pass. Unlike the mesh/wheel combo from the previous drive, Clement wasn’t Foles’ first read on this play. The catch arguably should have been ruled incomplete by the letter of the law given this postseason’s calls, but thankfully, common sense and the definition of clear evidence required for an overturn prevailed.
Foles kept on. He hit Agholor on a fade out of the slot for 24 yards, a staple of the Pats’ playbook from Super Bowl LI. On the next drive, Foles went with a near-sidearm throw to convert a third down to Ertz, then kept his head against rare Patriots pressure to hit Ertz on mesh/wheel to keep the drive alive on fourth-and-1. Foles scrambled to hit Agholor for another first down at the sticks and then beat Cover 2 with an inch-perfect throw to Agholor to get in what would have been range for a lead-taking field goal. Turning the ball over to Brady there with a two-point lead would have been dangerous, so Foles responded by hitting Ertz on slant versus Devin McCourty (who spent most of the day against Ertz as opposed to Chung) for a touchdown.
I mentioned in my preview how most quarterbacks who played as well as Foles did during the conference championships fail to keep that level of play up in the next game. Foles dropped off too, but by far less than most other passers. Here’s every quarterback who posted a passer rating of 130 or higher in a win during one of the first three rounds of the postseason since 2001 and what they did in the following game. Foles finished with the fifth-best follow-up passer rating from these 22 previous games, which includes just about every Hall of Fame quarterback from the past 20 years:
Pederson will be given credit for preparing Foles, and he certainly deserves some. Offensive coordinator Frank Reich and quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo, who were fired as offensive coordinators after the 2015 season by the Chargers and Browns, respectively, also are in that conversation. Andy Reid drafted Foles and helped convince him to stay in football when Foles thought about quitting in 2016. And Chip Kelly, with whom Foles had massive success in 2013, originally installed many of the RPOs — notably mesh/wheel — with which Foles ripped teams apart during the playoffs.
At the same time, though, Foles isn’t a creation of his coaches. The 29-year-old deserves a ton of credit and was counted out by a ton of people after his ugly end to the regular season, myself included. When I wrote that the Eagles still had a chance to win the NFC after Carson Wentz‘s injury, that argument was predicated upon home-field advantage, a great defense and Foles doing just enough to win games.
Maybe the Eagles won the Atlanta game that way, and maybe this all breaks differently if the duck Foles tossed up just before halftime is picked off by Keanu Neal as opposed to dropping into Torrey Smith‘s hands to help set up a field goal. Over the past two games, though, Foles has been a bona fide superstar. He finished with the second-best QBR over the conference championship and Super Bowl in the past 10 years, second to Matt Ryan‘s performance from last season. On Sunday, he won a game on a neutral field where his defense allowed one of the best quarterbacks in league history to rack up 600 yards of offense. The story used to be that the Eagles might be able to win despite Nick Foles. It was wrong. They just won a Super Bowl because they had Nick Foles.
What to do with the spare Super Bowl MVP you have lying around
Now, the Eagles find themselves in a funny predicament that just about every team in the league would love to worry about. While I joked about it during the game, there’s no quarterback controversy in Philadelphia. Wentz was the favorite to win league MVP before he went down with a torn ACL. Foles pieced together an incredible postseason, but Wentz is going to be Philly’s quarterback for the next decade.
The rest of the league just watched Philadelphia’s backup tear apart the NFC’s best defense and outduel Tom Brady in a shootout to win the Super Bowl. Foles is under contract for one more year at a cap hit of $7.6 million, with his contract set to void in April 2019. That’s big money for a backup (money the Eagles will never regret spending), but it’s well below market value for a starter, even as a stopgap or a bridge to a younger quarterback.
Given that the Eagles will likely lose Foles in 2019 to another team, should they at least be willing to listen to trade offers for their Super Bowl MVP?
The argument against the idea is clear. Wentz tore up his knee in mid-December, and while initial reports suggested it was a clean ACL tear, it also now seems likely that Wentz suffered damage to additional ligaments in his knee as part of the injury, which complicates his recovery period. There’s no guarantee Wentz is ready for Week 1 of the 2018 season, let alone prepared to play at a similar level to the MVP-caliber form we saw from him this past season. Foles is a hedge against any setbacks to Wentz. Eagles fans can sleep comfortably all spring and summer knowing the floor for their quarterback spot is Super Bowl MVP.
At the same time, though, trading Foles doesn’t preclude the Eagles from investing in another backup to replace Wentz. While Foles does deserve the credit I mentioned, the same infrastructure that helped raise both Foles and Wentz up during the 2017 season is set to return for 2018, with the Eagles likely to run this back with all three of their key offensive coaches, every one of their major receiving weapons, and all of their offensive linemen pending what Philadelphia does with left tackle Jason Peters, who is coming off of a torn ACL and MCL.
Philadelphia would save $5.2 million on its cap by trading Foles, which would be plenty of money to target a replacement. The Eagles are missing second- and third-round picks in this year’s draft as a result of the trades for Wentz and Ronald Darby, although they have an extra fourth-rounder from the Pats as a result of the Rowe trade. Howie Roseman is the most aggressive general manager in the league when it comes to swapping veterans, so I wouldn’t put the idea past him, even if the trade doesn’t actually happen.
Like anything, I think it depends on the compensation. Some team is going to have to give up a lot to make the Eagles think about it. Roseman probably would look toward the top half of the second round, where the Jets (37), Broncos (40) and even the Dolphins (42) could theoretically look Foles’ way. The Cardinals (47) have no apparent options at quarterback and the sort of cap stress that would make Foles’ relatively low salary palatable. The Bills have two back-end second-rounders at 53 and 56, and you wonder if they might call about Foles if they cut Tyrod Taylor. Or maybe the Eagles look to acquire a young downfield threat at wide receiver (assuming they plan on declining Smith’s option) or a tight end to replace free agent Trey Burton as part of the deal.
In the end, I doubt anything happens. The Eagles can’t really justify dealing Foles given Wentz’s injury unless a team blows them away with a trade offer, and given that we just saw Jimmy Garoppolo go for a second-rounder and Alex Smith join Washington for a third-rounder and Kendall Fuller, it’s difficult to see a team dealing a more valuable pick for Foles. The Eagles return virtually all of their core for 2018. At this point, even though he’s a backup, Foles is part of that core.
He probably deserves to have a shot at starting somewhere, but after he lived through the horror of a Jeff Fisher season, you can imagine Foles might appreciate his situation in Philadelphia. After he saved their season and helped lead the Eagles to their first Super Bowl trophy, he might be the only backup quarterback in football with his own statue in town. Covered in Crisco, of course.
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