by Rob Joyce
It’s officially Super Bowl week as the sports world turns its focus towards Minneapolis, where the Patriots will face the Eagles. Despite the two being the number one seeds in their respective conferences, given the circumstances – a dynasty facing a backup quarterback – there is quite a bit of David vs. Goliath heading to U.S. Bank Stadium.
There will be an entire week of prognosticating about every little thing. But as you prepare for the game, here are the five questions that, upon answering, will ultimately decide who lifts the Lombardi Trophy:
5) Will the Eagles turn opportunities into touchdowns?
Much has been made of the Patriots’ defense this year, given how bad they looked at the start of the year. However they’ve rounded into form and turned into a pretty good “bend but don’t break” unit. They’re starting to put pressure on the quarterback. And despite allowing the second-most yards per play in the NFL this year, they finished fifth in points allowed. A large reason for that is a red zone defense that allowed touchdowns just 44 percent of the time, fourth-best in the league. If Philadelphia gets inside the 20, with big LeGarrette Blount, jump-ball threat Alshon Jeffrey, tight end Zach Ertz and others, it has to get seven, not three.
4) Which Patriots’ secondary options steps up?
Tom Brady and Bill Belichick obviously get all the accolades (and for good reasons), but a staple of the Patriots is that “secondary” weapons step up in the big moments. Last year it was James White (14 receptions, 110 yards, two total touchdowns) in Super Bowl LI. Against Jacksonville, with Rob Gronkowski sidelined, it was Danny Amendola who caught two fourth quarter touchdowns, including his tip-toe grab to win the game.
Whether it’s one of those two, Rex Burkhead, a banged-up Chris Hogan, Dion Lewis or someone else, one of these non-Gronk/Brandin Cooks options will have to step up.
3) How healthy will Rob Gronkowski be?
A vicious, penalized hit in the AFC title game led Gronk to miss the second half with a concussion. He has practiced, but as of Monday has not yet cleared concussion protocol. If it was another injury, like a sore or sprained extremity, it’s almost certain that the All-Pro would tough it out, but he has no control over a concussion. New England has proven time and again it can win without him, but the task will certainly be harder without its top weapon.
2) Can the Eagles pass rush get to Brady?
It’s no secret that the way to throw off Brady is to either get him on the ground, or at least hit him enough where he’s uncomfortable in the pocket. That’s where the Giants found so much success in their Super Bowl triumphs, but it’s far easier said than done. Even looking at the AFC title game, Jacksonville made Brady uncomfortable in the first half, then didn’t at all in the fourth quarter, leading to their eventual demise.
Philly’s front four is perhaps the best in football, leading the league in pressures per game. Pressure, though, isn’t enough with Brady. Sacks and quarterback hits are needed.
1) Which Nick Foles shows up?
When Carson Wentz went down in Week 14 it, the presumption was that Philly’s season was finished. Even with a one-seed and home-field advantage, there was no way Nick Foles could lead the Eagles to the Promised Land.
Well, here we are. It begs the question: which Foles will the Eagles get? The one who threw for four touchdowns in Week 15 against the Giants and has a 122.1 quarterback rating this postseason? Or the one who went 23-of-49 for 202 yards in Weeks 16 and 17 combined? If it’s the former, the Eagles have a shot, especially if he repeats his performance against Minnesota: 26-of-33, 352 yards, three touchdowns, no turnovers. If the latter Foles shows up, it’s going to be a long night.