Over the next week, approximately all the ink ever (and its electronic equivalent) will be dedicated to talking about quarterback Tom Brady as he prepares to start in a record eighth Super Bowl. Odds are good that he will be named the league’s Most Valuable Player during Saturday’s NFL Honors show for the third time in his illustrious career.
While Brady will play a significant role in Sunday’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles, the Golden Boy won’t be the biggest deciding factor in whether the Patriots win a sixth Lombardi Trophy and become the first back-to-back champions since 2005.
It also won’t be tight end Rob Gronkowski, whose recovery from the concussion he suffered in the AFC Championship Game will also be the subject of copious conversation in the coming days.
As the old saying goes, “defense wins championships.” And if the Patriots are going to win it all (again), it will be because New England’s up-and-down unit on that side of the ball is able to rise to the occasion and slow down an Eagles offense that ranked second in the league in scoring and just destroyed the league’s top defense.
It’s been an, um, eventful season for the Patriots defensively. Plenty of moments both good and bad.
Much of the bad came early. The 2017 campaign started with the Kansas City Chiefs smoking the Pats at Gillette Stadium. Kansas City rolled for 42 points and a staggering 537 yards of total offense.
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Over the first four weeks, the Pats went 2-2 and surrendered an average of 32 points per contest.
From there, though, a defense that’s long had a reputation for bending without breaking did just that. The Patriots allowed 14 points per game in their last 12 matchups—tops in the NFL. During that span, an opponent had over 20 points only twice, and New England lost just once.
By the time the dust settled, the Patriots had given up the fourth-most yardage in the NFL but the fifth-fewest points—just 18.5 per game.
That roller coaster has also popped up over four quarters of a single game. In last year’s Super Bowl LI win over the Atlanta Falcons and this year’s AFC title game victory against the Jacksonville Jaguars, New England’s defense got beat up early but stiffened late, opening the door for Brady to lead a comeback.
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New England’s facing a tall task defensively in Minneapolis’ U.S. Bank Stadium. There’s been a lot of handwringing over the ability of Eagles backup Nick Foles, but if the NFC Championship Game is any indication, he has it figured out. Philly exploded for 456 yards and 31 offensive points against a Minnesota Vikings defense that ranked first in both yards and points allowed in the regular season.
It was a buzzsaw of a performance that should have Foles and the Eagles brimming with confidence. It also highlights the issues the Patriots face on their defense, which is built around two core principles.
One, as ESPN NFL analyst Matt Bowen told Hank Gola of the New York Daily News, is to take away the other team’s best players.
“Whoever [defensive coordinator Matt] Patricia wants to take out of the game, they’ll take out of the game,” Bowen said. “They’ll make you go someplace else with the ball, and they’ll use their personnel to get that done.”
Against the Jaguars, that meant stacking the box to slow down running back Leonard Fournette. And while Fournette found the end zone, New England succeeded in holding him to 76 yards on 24 totes—just 3.2 yards per carry.
The problem is the Eagles are loaded with weapons on offense, even though they may lack a singular superstar on that side of the ball. Philadelphia boasts a two-headed monster at tailback in LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi, and they spurred the third-ranked rushing attack in 2017 (132.2 yards-per-game average).
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The Eagles also possess one of the league’s deepest receiving corps with wide receivers Alshon Jeffery, Nelson Agholor and Torrey Smith and tight end Zach Ertz. All four topped 50 receiving yards in the 38-7 beatdown of the Vikes.
Add it all up, and you have the No. 7 offense in terms of yardage (365.8 yards per game) and the No. 2 offense in scoring (28.6 points per game—the same average as the Pats).
It’s a pick-your-poison dilemma. If New England loads up at the line of scrimmage or doubles up on Ertz or Jeffery in coverage, one of the other pass-catchers is likely to be running free. If it gets too conservative, Blount and Ajayi will gash the defense all game long.
It’s a potentially hard balance to strike—particularly through the air. New England did a lot of bending in that regard in 2017, finishing the season 30th in pass defense.
The Pats defense is also defined by the fact it allows so few points. New England might allow teams to move up and down the field, but it excels at stiffening inside the 20-yard line.
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Points and possessions are going to be at a premium in Super Bowl LII. As good as the Patriots’ scoring defense was in 2017, the Eagles’ was a bit better—giving up 18.4 points per contest. The Pats pulled off a comeback against a formidable Jaguars defense (16.8 points per game allowed), but falling into an early hole again in the Super Bowl is still a bad idea.
The odds of pulling off two comebacks like that against top-five defenses in successive games isn’t especially good for any quarterback. Let alone a 40-year-old one—even if that quarterback is the Golden Boy himself.
The odds of a close game, however, are better. The average margin of victory in all seven of the Brady/Belichick Super Bowls is 3.7 points per game. The largest margin of victory was six points, in overtime in Super Bowl LI. And the average winning score is just over 25 points.
Like I said…points and possessions are going to be at a premium.
Of course, Patricia knows all this. His prowess as a defensive coordinator is why the Detroit Lions are expected to hire him as their head coach after the Super Bowl, according to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.
And as Bowen told Gola, Patricia and head coach Bill Belichick aren’t reluctant to change things up:
“I don’t think they’re a 3-4 defense, I don’t think they’re a 4-3 defense. I don’t think they’re a Bear front defense. They cater their game plan and their defensive scheme to fit the personnel. It’s not, ‘this is my scheme, you play it.’ No. It’s, ‘You own the scheme. Let’s put you in the best position to play great football.'”
There are going to be wrinkles and packages Sunday that the Eagles won’t be prepared for, even after hours of film review—and even though they have a pair of players on the roster (Blount and defensive end Chris Long) who were in New England in 2016.
One series, the Patriots will play press-man coverage and blitz, though the team doesn’t blitz a lot. The next, they will do rotating zone coverages—anything they can to confuse Foles and keep him from getting too comfortable.
Defensive end Trey Flowers (who may be the Patriots’ best chance at putting pressure on Foles) said before the AFC title game that he knows New England’s defense isn’t mentioned in the same breath as teams like the Jags and Eagles.
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“We don’t look too much into what everybody else says about us,” he said, per Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald. “We understand what type of defense we are and what we’re capable of.”
If there were a single second-half play that turned around last year’s Super Bowl in Houston, it wasn’t a Brady touchdown pass. It was when a blitzing Dont’a Hightower stripped Matt Ryan of the football deep in Falcons territory in the fourth quarter with the Pats down 16.
In Super Bowl XLIX in Phoenix, a Gronkowski catch wasn’t what sealed the deal on New England’s fourth title. It was cornerback Malcolm Butler’s interception of Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson on 2nd-and-goal with less than 30 seconds remaining in the game.
And if the Pats bring home the Lombardi yet another time, Patricia’s ability to adjust a scheme and the players’ ability to execute it will win the day—even if Brady winds up with his 26th (OK, his fifth) Super Bowl MVP award.
It’s happened before. For all the deserved accolades Brady has received through the years for his performances in the Super Bowl, many of those performances were made possible by a defense that kept them in close games.
Even when that defense faltered early (like it did last year against Atlanta), Patricia (and who are we kidding, Belichick) were able to switch things up on the fly, stop the bleeding and put the players in the position to make big plays.
In a way, it would be fitting to see it happen again this year. The Patriots were the last team to win a second straight Super Bowl. They did so by three points in Super Bowl XXXIX. Against the Philadelphia Eagles.
And while wide receiver Deion Branch won the individual hardware in that game, a Rodney Harrison interception with 17 seconds remaining sealed the deal.
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