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?

PHI: 37

NE: 35

I often criticize the New England Patriots for their play-calling. I argue that they throw the ball too much, and the only reason they usually get away with it is that Brady is so good.

But, as a student of the game, it’s only fair I give them credit where it is due.  And at the end of regulation in Super Bowl LI, with the score tied at 28, they ran one of the most brilliant plays I’ve ever seen.

They pretended like they were just going to take a knee to run out the clock and go to overtime. But instead, they either handed off or direct snapped (I couldn’t tell which) to the running back Dion Lewis, who was lined up close to Brady in standard kneeldown formation.

Brady acted like he took a knee, then rolled out and faked that he had the ball while the rest of the team ran to block for Lewis as he ran down the sideline.

The Falcons ultimately ran Lewis out of bounds, so nothing came of it.  Some fans even criticized the play since Lewis seemingly got injured on the run.

 

Even though it didn’t work,the play was a stroke of genius for two reasons:

  1. There are very few situations where a fake kneeldown makes any sense. Obviously, you usually take a knee when you are about to win,so faking in that case is a needless risk. And no one would ever take a knee when they are trailing. The only other time it would make sense to run such a fake would be at the end of the first half. The fact that the Patriots even bothered to think about and practice such a highly specific play shows why they are so dominant.
  2. The logic is impeccable. It is a low-risk, high-reward play.  The risk is a fumble, which would only be a problem if the other team ran it back for a touchdown, since there wasn’t time for any additional plays to be run.  The odds of that were low, especially since Lewis was careful to stay near the sideline.  On the other hand, the potential reward was winning the Super Bowl.  It was very calculated.

So, well done, Patriots play-callers. Good decision.  Now just learn not to throw the ball with the lead in the 4th quarter, and not to send Tom Brady to throw blocks on reverses, and you’ll really have this football thing mastered.

It’s funny; the Buffalo Bills are my favorite team, and yet I know far less about them than about the New England Patriots. I could probably write a book on the subject of the New England Patriots from 2001 to the present.  Even though Michael Holley already did that.

I have written about New England so much because are always on TV and in the playoffs.  As such, I know their strengths and weaknesses pretty well at this point.  Their strengths are Tom Brady’s ability to read defenses and throw accurate passes, and Belichick’s skill at confusing the opponent with coverages.

Their weaknesses are related to their strengths.  Brady is so good that their offensive game plans tend to rely on him almost exclusively. (Unless they are playing the Colts) They will throw in obvious running situations. Usually, it works. But sometimes it blows up in their faces.  But they keep doing it.  This is what is known as”hubris”.

If you want to beat Brady, you need to do two things: take away his favorite receiver with one defender, and get pressure with four, or better yet, three lineman. Do not blitz him and do not attempt to double cover his favorite receiver, unless it is Gronkowski, but Gronkowski is injured as usual, so he isn’t a factor.

As for the New England defense, you can generally beat Belichick’s defenses by being patient and not going for the big play.  Getting pressure isn’t really a priority for Belichick, so if your quarterback is willing to wait around and go for short passes to second or third receivers, you can move the ball against them. But you are not going to get big plays to your top offensive player.  They won’t let it happen.  So you have to plan to win with somebody else.

Can the Falcons do any of that?

I’m much less familiar with them than with the Patriots. But based on what I’ve seen…

Well, their defense is not great. That bodes ill. But they did manage to shut down Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay offense, so perhaps there is hope.  The Patriots have a much better screen passing game than Green Bay, so I don’t expect a similar performance from Atlanta’s defense. Brady is going to have a good game, and LeGarrette Blount probably will too.

So, ok; maybe Atlanta can win a shootout, then?

Atlanta’s major weapons are wide receiver Julio Jones and their running backs, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.  Jones gets the headlines, but my sense is that the RBs are far more critical to their offense.

I suspect Belichick has noticed this too, and will stifle them much as he did Marshall Faulk, the superstar running back at the core of the St. Louis Rams’ “Greatest Show on Turf” years ago.

In the end, it comes down to that old adage: defense wins championships. Atlanta has the number one scoring offense, New England has the number one scoring defense. The Falcons will still manage some points–but they’ll also probably commit some costly turnovers. So it goes.

NE: 41

ATL: 24

All the criticisms I’ve read of the NFL’s ruling on the deflated football scandal have come from angry Patriots fans.  They’re easy to dismiss, since they have something of a vested interest in seeing the punishment overturned.  But because my two favorite teams are the Bills and the Steelers–the first two teams that will face the Brady-less Pats–I think I can say I’m coming at it from a slightly different perspective.

On the four game suspension for Brady: I was surprised they were that harsh.  I expected at most two games, since it has not even been proven he did anything.  But, if the league wants to take a “the-face-of-the-game-must-be-above-suspicion” stance, I can’t really blame them.  I mean, ever since the Ray Rice disaster, Goodell’s judgment will always be suspect in my eyes, but this is the equivalent of a Performance-Enhancing Drug suspension. Fair enough.

Fining them money and a first-round pick, though–that’s where I think they went overboard. I don’t care what Dave Rappoccio of “The Draw Play” says, this “it was a second offense” justification is ridiculous.

In the spying scandal, everyone agreed that Belichick broke the rules for where videographers were allowed to be placed during a game.  Even he admitted it. As the Patriots head coach, it was legitimate–harsh, but legitimate–to take away a draft pick from the organization, as any decision made by Belichick is effectively a decision made by the New England organization. So, it’s fair to take away a draft pick for that.

But you know what else happened only weeks before the spying controversy?  Then-Patriots safety Rodney Harrison was suspended four games for using HGH.  That’s right; the same number of games as Brady has been suspended.  Seems logical.  A player does something to get a competitive advantage, he gets suspended.  The team’s punishment is that they don’t get that player’s services for those games.  This all makes sense.

It wouldn’t have made sense to fine the Patriots for Harrison’s rule-breaking.  Harrison was acting on his own initiative, not on orders from the organization–just as was Brady, according to the report that this is all based upon. He wasn’t doing it at the behest of the organization.  I can’t remember any instance of an organization being punished for a player independently breaking the rules.

This lends credence to the idea that the NFL is trying to punish the Patriots not merely for cheating, but for their success.  This is not as outrageous as it sounds. After all, the NFL draft itself is designed to punish success in the interest of parity.  And it makes sense they would do that–it gives fans hope. (Not that my Bills have exactly taken advantage of it these past 15 years.)

You can’t win for this long without making a lot of enemies. I think the other 31 teams are just sick of seeing the Pats every year, and are resorting to unorthodox means to take them down.

Do I think they broke the rules on football inflation?  Probably the assistants did–whether Brady ordered it or not I don’t know.  I suspect every team does a little rule-bending things like this to gain an edge, but when one team gets too far ahead of the others, the rest use the knowledge that they are doing something against the rules as a convenient way to rein them in.  It is typical cartel behavior. I think we are witnessing the beginning of the end of the NFL. I just hope Buffalo can win at least one championship before it all falls apart.

UPDATE 5/22/2015: Blogger friend P. M. Prescott posted his own thoughts on this scandal. He differs from me in that he favors a stronger punishment for New England.  He also makes the very astute point that other players and the officials should have noticed the footballs were deflated–in which case they should also be punished.

I think it’s interesting that while we differ on how much the Pats should be punished for this, we both think the NFL has mishandled this.  It’s kind of a disaster for the league, as I mentioned in the comments below, because whether the Pats are completely innocent or guilty as sin, the league’s credibility has taken a huge hit.  Personally, it will be hard for me to have as much faith in the legitimacy of everything the league does going forward, because either the best team in football is fraudulent, or the league’s policing/enforcement of its own rules is fraudulent.