In basketball, baseball, and hockey championships are determined via seven-game series. Those series are built, in theory, so that the better team will win. There are statistical arguments to the contrary, but at its core, that’s the idea.
The one-and-done, on the other hand, is made for chaos, which is why many people regard the NCAA basketball tournament, the World Cup, and the NFL playoffs as the heights of sports excitement. After all, David only has to topple Goliath once.
That both conferences’ top seeds advanced to Super Bowl LII is not extraordinary. What might be, however, is that this year’s Super Bowl features the two teams regarded as the best throughout the course of the regular season. There were no hot streaks, no fluke endings. There were only outstanding displays of team football from both sides since September.
It’s almost as if the Patriots and Eagles were on a collision course from week one.
New England’s season played out as expected. Their role of gilded elder on a path with destiny remained unchanged, as their ageless quarterback defied time and defensive game-planning, using his cerebral nature to outsmart everyone else.
Philly, on the other hand, is the scrappy upstart that traded in a violent and relentless brand of football, whose myriad injuries only fueled the fire in their bellies, that, like no other Eagles team before them, represented the makeup of their city on the field of play to a tee. And rather letting their season die alongside the torn ligaments in Carson Wentz’s knee, the team rallied around Nick Foles, who just a few years ago gave the Eagles and their legions a sense of hope that would soon be dashed and toughed their way to an appearance on Super Bowl Sunday.
We all know the major stats. Should the Patriots win, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick will have to start putting rings on a second hand. If the Eagles win, they’ll capture their first Lombardi despite having been underdogs in each of their postseason games.
(A much less known stat is that should the Eagles win, the NFC East would be the first division with four Super Bowl winners.)
The Eagles, like most of Philadelphia, relish the idea that everyone is picking against them. So ensconced is the city in the underdog mentality that Amazon sold out of the creepy dog masks Lane Johnson donned after the Eagles’ “upset” win against the Falcons on Divisional Sunday.
They go into Super Bowl Sunday as five-and-a-half-point underdogs, a line Vegas bookmakers have said would be a “pick em” if the Eagles still had their MVP-candidate quarterback Carson Wentz. Regardless of Nick Foles’s play over the last two weeks (pedestrian against Atlanta, transcendent versus Minnesota), I think Philly has enough steam, motivation, ferocious talent, and game-planning moxie to overcome the greatest quarterback/coach combo of all time.
David will beat Goliath.
Simply put, the Eagles match up against New England better than any other of the teams that made it past wild-card weekend—yes, even the Vikings and their vaunted defense, whom Philly spent last Sunday eviscerating.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Eagles will hold the advantage based on their short crossing game, as most linebackers in the league can’t keep up with Zach Ertz running north and south, Jay Ajayi coming out of the backfield, and the Eagles’ receivers, who will be employing a variety of drag routes to keep Nick Foles cozy and confident with high-percentage routes as the game wears on.
Not only will it calm Foles and build some steam early in the game, but a short, sideline-to-sideline approach will do what most defenses cannot. It will keep Tom Brady off the field.
If they want to win, the Eagles must dominate the time-of-possession battle.
Defensively, stopping Tom Brady is simple in theory, almost impossible in execution: pressure him all night while only using four defensive linemen.
To employ the blitz is to employ one less defender on the field, as Brady will diagnose—often pre-play—and find the man or the area of the field that the blitzer has vacated. There are few in the history of football who have been better at this than Tom Brady, and it’s a major factor in his unparalleled success.
The New York Giants did this in their historic 2008 upset of the then-18–0 Pats, sacking Brady more times in that game than he had been sacked the entire season, and only using their front four to do it. They wrote the blueprint. Oddly enough, they were the only team to employ their blueprint, as they once again kept Brady pressured all night in 2012’s Super Bowl XLVI.
The Eagles have the personnel and the coordinator to do exactly what the Giants did. In fact, few teams are as efficient as getting to the quarterback using only their front four as this season’s Eagles.
If the Eagles can make Brady uncomfortable for four quarters, if they can force Brady to make one of the rare mistakes that he almost never makes, and if they can keep their offense on the field long enough that New England’s D is too gassed to run by the fourth quarter, there is little doubt that the streets of Philadelphia will be a smoldering, celebratory heap come Monday morning. And if that happens, it’ll take more than a few cans of Crisco to stop championship-starved Philadelphians from swinging from the street lights.
Tomorrow: Why the Patriots are going to repeat.