Since losing starting-quarterback, Carson Wentz, back in Week 14, the Philadelphia Eagles have been busy defying expectations and silencing doubters.
Despite emerging from the regular season as NFC’s No.1 seed, the Eagles have been historic underdogs throughout their playoff run.
A workmanlike performance against last year’s NFC Champion Atlanta Falcons was followed by 38-7 blowout win against the much-touted Minnesota Vikings.
Now, the Eagles must face their biggest challenge of the year: the Tom Brady-led New England Patriots who will be looking to collect their third Lombardi Trophy in four years.
NFL odds expert James Shaw previews this major bout…
The Most Improved Unit in Football
While much of the pre-game talk will centre around the extraordinary Brady-led comeback against the Jacksonville Jaguars, New England would not be in this position were it not for Matt Patricia’s turnaround of the defence.
Through the first four weeks of the regular season, the Patriots ranked dead last in total defence. The formerly-hapless unit provided for league-worst numbers in almost every statistical category including points-per-game, yards-per-attempt, and total touchdowns conceded.
However, the defence that will take to the field at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday is an entirely different animal to that which gave up an eye-watering 42 points to the Chiefs in Week 1.
A series of schematic changes have transformed New England’s defence into one of the most effective Red Zone units in the league. This team might give up yards in the air, but it has developed a healthy habit of making life difficult for quarterbacks when it counts.
Crucially, they haven’t given up more than 24 points since the 33-30 loss to the Panthers all the way back in Week 4.
Eagles’ Offence Hasn’t Missed a Beat
But notwithstanding the Patriots’ defensive improvements, the Eagles should have no reason to panic.
Now bedded into the team, backup quarterback, Nick Foles, is looking comfortable under centre, averaging a 122.1 passer rating in the postseason. Against Minnesota – arguably the best defence in the league – the Eagles’ signal-caller threw for a mammoth 352 yards, along with three touchdowns and no interceptions.
— NFL (@NFL) January 21, 2018
The key to the Eagles’ success in the passing game has been the much-vaunted offensive line. The unit is replete with All-Pro talent and was responsible for maintaining a clean pocket for Foles in the Eagles’ surprising rout of Minnesota.
Despite New England’s many improvements on defence, their pass rush is simply not on the same level as Minnesota’s. Should Philadelphia’s O-line keep the pressure off the quarterback, Foles should be able to do some damage with his arm. (Foles over 244.5 passing yards at 9/10 is one of many smart prop bets to consider).
While Philadelphia’s continued excellence in the air has made them less reliant on the running game, this is a team that can still be devastating in the rushing department.
While somewhat light on touchdowns (11 this year), the Eagles’ rushing attack averaged 132 yards per game throughout the regular season, placing it third overall.
London-born back, Jay Ajayi, should receive plenty of carries against a Patriots’ defence that will be primarily concerned with getting at the quarterback.
Expect to see Philadelphia’s backs provide for crucial first-downs if the going gets tough for Foles and the receivers.
Controlling the Clock
A strong running game could very well be enough to make the difference in Super Bowl 52 – albeit not in the way you might think. The Patriots have become infamous for making slow starts in big spots, and their cool-as-ice approach in the clutch is something of a motif for the Massachusetts team.
Against Jacksonville in the AFC Championship Game, New England found itself with a ten point deficit going into the fourth quarter, and in last year’s Super Bowl the Patriots were down 28-3 before mounting the greatest comeback of all time.
Should Philadelphia follow Jacksonville and Atlanta in taking a healthy lead in Sunday’s encounter, they will need to keep control of the ball in a way that has so far eluded the Patriots’ other Big Game opponents.
The ability to hand-off to the reliable Ajayi and fellow running back, LeGarrette Blount, could be vital if the Eagles need to control the clock late and keep Brady off the field.
Stopping Brady with Four Upfront
Speaking of Brady, the Patriots’ quarterback will be decisive on Sunday.
The 40-year-old thirteen-time Pro-Bowler continues to defy not just the ageing process, but also the ever-quickening speed of NFL defences.
Moreover, when it comes to occasions as big as the Super Bowl, experience counts, and Brady has been here before – a lot, actually. In his sixteen years as an active NFL quarterback, Brady has reached the Super Bowl eight times, an astonishing – and previously unheard of – 50 per cent success rate.
The Eagles will be focused on pressuring Brady in the pocket while leaving seven defenders in coverage. The Patriots QB is the best in the league when facing pressure, and his lightning-quick release necessitates heavy man-coverage downfield.
Fortunately for the Eagles, they have the best defensive line in the league and can apply heavy pressure with only four linemen, allowing the linebackers and secondary to take care of business. The Eagles’ ability to force turnovers with just four up-front could be enough to make the difference in Sunday’s encounter.
Super Bowl 52 will be decided by the effectiveness of New England’s passing game.
— NFL (@NFL) January 22, 2018
If Brady can maintain a clean pocket and get his receivers open, then the Patriots should have no problems coming away with the win.
Such a scenario is, however, far from guaranteed. The Eagles’ defence is elite in almost every statistical category and poses a serious threat to the Patriots’ signature downfield passing game.
Considering the importance of the passing game, it’s worth taking a look at the MVP markets if you like the Patriots to win in a close one. At 13/20, there is more value in taking Brady to win the award than in the Patriots winning straight-up (1/2).
In his five Super Bowl wins, Brady has been named Most Valuable Player in four – and he will likely need to be the best player on the field if he is to pick up his sixth ring on Sunday.
I’ll be taking the Eagles +5.5 on Sunday as well as the game total at over 47.5. Both teams are capable of scoring +24 points, and the Eagles have enough on both sides of the ball to keep the score inside the number.
If the game is consistent with recent history, I would expect the Eagles to take the lead before a dominant fourth quarter performance from the Patriots. With that in mind, my prop bets will include Nick Foles over 244.5 passing yards (9/10), and the Patriots to be the last team to score (10/13).