Well, well, well, I went 0-for-2 in my conference championship predictions. I think that’s the first time that’s happened since I started doing these. The New England victory wasn’t really a surprise, although the Jaguars did pretty much everything they needed to in order to win. It reminded me of the last time the Jaguars were in the playoffs—they played a near-perfect game against the Patriots and lost that one, too.
More shocking to me was the Eagles beating Minnesota. The vaunted Vikings defense looked like they were playing with lead weights in their shoes as the Eagles blew them out.
So now the Eagles draw the most dangerous opponent in all of football—the team that can be down 28-3 with 18 minutes to go in the game and still win. The Eagles knew they had won the NFC championship at halftime when it was 24-7. Even if they have a lead like that at the halfway mark of this game, there will be no such assurance.
The last time the Patriots and Eagles played, back in 2015, was one of the strangest games I can remember. Philadelphia was just playing out the string of the failed Chip Kelly experiment, and New England was, as usual, gunning for the number one seed in the AFC.
The Patriots took an early 14-0 lead, and then some bizarre spell came over everyone at Gillette Stadium and one crazy thing after another transpired. First Belichick made a shocking mistake, punting instead of running out the clock, and Philly blocked it for a touchdown right before halftime. Then in the 3rd quarter, Brady made a rare red-zone mistake and threw an interception that the Eagles returned for a touchdown.
The weirdness wasn’t over. Later on, New England ran a trick play where Amendola threw a pass to Brady. The play gained 36 yards, and then on the next snap Brady was intercepted again.
The Eagles had a 35-14 lead early in the 4th, and then New England rallied with two quick scores to close it to 35-28. The Eagles promptly fumbled the ball back to New England with a minute to go, and at this point, we all knew where this was going: another patented Touchdown Tom Terrific All-American Miracle Clutch Ageless Boy Wonder Comeback was in the offing, right?
And then… nothing happened. The Patriots got one first down and then threw four incomplete passes. Ballgame.
It was one of the weirdest games I’ve seen, and may have cost the Patriots a shot at Super Bowl 50, by causing them to lose homefield advantage to Denver, where they would ultimately lose the AFC championship.
A lot has changed since that game, especially for the Eagles, who have a new coaching staff, and a completely overhauled offense. The Patriots, while still the Brady/Belichick show, are famous for evolving considerably from one game to the next, let alone from season to season. So it might be that there isn’t much to be learned from that 2015 game.
There are still a few veterans from that Philly defense, however–maybe most importantly, defensive linemen Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham. Graham had two sacks in that 2015 game, and everybody knows the key to beating New England is for the line to get pressure on their signal-caller.
The NFL’s final four this year came down to the Patriots and three teams seemingly designed to beat the Patriots: the Jaguars, Vikings, and Eagles all feature the strong defensive lines needed to bring pressure without blitzing. This probably isn’t a coincidence; at this point, everyone knows that if you want to win the Super Bowl, odds are you’ll have to go through the Patriots to do it.
If there’s a ray of hope for the Eagles; it’s this: they match up with New England far better than last year’s Falcons did, and that team managed to get a 28-3 lead. And though the Patriots probably won’t play as badly as they did in the first half of last year’s game, one of the oddities of the New England dynasty is that for all their football expertise and unmatched playoff experience, they never seem to bring their “A” game in the Super Bowl. The only ones where they really seemed to be giving it their best shot against an evenly-matched opponent were the one against the Seattle team that embarrassed Denver the year before, and their very first one, against the mighty St. Louis Rams and their high-powered “Greatest Show on Turf”.
All the other Super Bowls of the Brady/Belichick era (or Reign of Terror, if you prefer) have been weirdly sloppy and played down to the level of their opponent—from the defensive struggle-turned-shootout against an underdog Carolina team in 2004, to their offense’s bumbling first half against Andy Reid’s badly beat-up Eagles in 2005, to their two upset defeats at the hands of mediocre Giants squads, to last year’s furious comeback to beat a prolific but one-dimensional Atlanta team. Throughout all their Super Bowls, these Patriots have never mustered any points in the first quarter—unless you want to count Brady scoring two points for the Giants on an intentional grounding penalty in 2012.
Maybe the Patriots will notice this, come out guns blazing, and score 28 points in the first quarter. At this point, though, an underwhelming first half is starting to look like a pretty consistent habit.
As for the Eagles, while the story line this week is “what chance does unlucky backup Nick Foles have against a Belichick defense”, I’d argue that it’s actually an advantage to the Eagles to have him playing quarterback. There’s not an entire season’s worth of film of how he runs the offense for Belichick to study and learn his weaknesses.
Now, having said that there are reasons for hope if you’re rooting for the Eagles—and pretty much all of America outside of a corner in the northeast is—I don’t want to understate the magnitude of their challenge. They are facing the greatest quarterback and coach in the history of the sport. The Patriots are impossible to rattle, even if they face adversity early in the game. Beating them requires playing perfectly, and sometimes even that isn’t enough.
The Eagles will have to be very bold and aggressive if they want to shock the Pats. I’m reminded of what Sean Payton said about facing the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV and wanting to “steal a possession”. Payton’s way of doing that was a surprise onside kick to start the second half. It will take a similar level of guts to pull off the win against New England.
Do the Eagles have it in them?
Well, if I’m wrong, I’ll just go down as one more football fan who wanted to see somebody outfox Goliath. But if I’m right, I’ll look like a genius. Why the heck not?