PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (15-3) vs. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (15-3)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 6:30 p.m. ET, U.S Bank Stadium, TV: NBC, Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya (field reporter). WESTWOOD ONE: Kevin Harlan, Boomer Esiason, Mike Holmgren, Tony Boselli, Ed Werder. SIRIUS: 88 (WW1), 83 (Philadelphia), 82 (New England), XM: 88 (WW1), 83 (Philadelphia), 82 (New England)
SERIES HISTORY: 14th all-time meeting. Eagles lead series, 7-6, but the Patriots won the most important matchup, a 24-21 victory over the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX. The Eagles won the last meeting in 2015, 35-28. But the Patriots won four of the last five meetings, including the Super Bowl victory.
KEYS TO THE GAME:
--The Eagles are confident they can score points on the Patriots' defense. The Pats gave up 18.5 points a game and the Eagles 18.4. Because of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady's uncanny ability to quickly find the available receiver, Philadelphia must exert pressure with its front four, leaving more defenders to mix and match pass coverage. So it is a good sign for Philadelphia that the Eagles compiled 33 of 38 sacks with their front four in the regular season (35 of 42 including postseason). Defensive tackles Fletcher Cox and Tim Jernigan can collapse the pocket, allowing edge rushers to harass from the outside, as did defensive end Brandon Graham, who led the team with 9.5 sacks.
Eagles quarterback Nick Foles, the fill in for injured second-season sensation Carson Wentz, completed 4-of-5 passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air against the Vikings in the NFC Championship Game. Prior to that, he was just 2-for-13 on 20-plus yard throws.
"Everybody knows that Nick is a good deep-ball thrower," offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. "We said it right from the very start. He's not afraid to throw it (deep). He wants to throw it (deep)."
Reich on going up against Belichick, who won five Super Bowls: "I have an immense amount of respect for him and his staff and what he's done and what they have accomplished. We all know how hard that is (to accomplish). But we respect everybody, we don't fear anybody. We like our players. We like our staff and how we are going to game-plan. We're looking forward to the challenge."
--Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski was cleared Thursday from concussion protocol after being held out of duty, or allowed only limited action, since being injured against the Jacksonville Jaguars two Sundays ago. Brady opened the postseason with two impressive performances in which he completed 67 percent of his throws, with five touchdowns, no interceptions and a 105 passer rating. His ability to take care of the ball negates one of Philly's greatest strengths, notching 19 interceptions during the regular season and two more in the NFC title win. With Gronkowski on the field, Brady has a dominant target down the middle. He also has a key slot option in the surging Danny Amendola (18 catches for 196 yards and two scores this January), a dangerous deep threat in Brandin Cooks and a pair of pass-catching back options in Dion Lewis and James White. That gives the Pats the ability to stretch the Eagles' No. 17 pass defense both vertically and horizontally.
Many believe the Eagles' cornerbacks are underrated, but they may be the target of many of Brady's passes on the outside to Cooks, Chris Hogan and others. The biggest issue, as always, is New England's offensive line dealing with the Eagles' dominant interior defensive pressure.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Patriots S Patrick Chung vs. Eagles TE Zach Ertz. Chung is one of the Patriots' most versatile and trusted defenders, but he's coming off a tough game, especially early on against Jacksonville when he allowed an easy touchdown to TE Marcedes Lewis. Chung will very much be in the mix covering Ertz, who not only led the Eagles with 74 catches for 824 yards and eight scores during the regular season, but had a game-high 93 yards on eight catches in the NFC title game.
--Patriots Gs Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason, and C David Andrews vs. Eagles DTs Fletcher Cox and Tim Jernigan. Cox, who had 5.5 sacks during the season, is the linchpin of Philadelphia's line. Often unblockable, he can wreck a game. Jernigan is also a big help, and has recovered from an illness. Andrews will likely have to help on Cox, but the line will have to work to keep the pocket clean for QB Tom Brady.
--Eagles DE Chris Long. The 32-year-old Long, who won a Super Bowl ring with the Patriots last season, has been a key player for coordinator Jim Schwartz's defense. His pressure on Minnesota quarterback Case Keenum in the NFC Championship Game altered a throw and forced an interception that was returned for a touchdown. He also recovered a fumble that set up another score.
--Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski enters Super Bowl LII after 12 days in concussion protocol, which ended Thursday. Gronkowski's health and availability will be key to the Patriots' game plan against the Eagles, both running and passing. In the AFC title game, after Gronkowski was sidelined, the Patriots changed tactics and wide receiver Danny Amendola scored two touchdowns.
--Patriots: QB TOM BRADY is all-time Super Bowl leader in pass yards (2,071), comp. (207), att. (309) & TD passes (15). Set Super Bowl record with 466 pass yards in Super Bowl LI. Is making NFL-record 8th career Super Bowl start & is only starting QB in league history to win 5 Super Bowls. Has won 4 Super Bowl MVP awards (XXXVI, XXXVIII, XLIX & LI), most in NFL history. Is postseason leader in career att. (1,416), comp. (892), pass yards (9,721) & pass TDs (68). Is 27-9 (.750) as starter in postseason, most wins by QB in league annals. Led NFL with 4,577 pass yards & ranked 1st in AFC with 32 TD passes, both most by QB at age 40 or older. RB DION LEWIS led team with career-high 896 rush yards. Has 207 scrimmage yards (103.5 per game) in past 2 postseason games. Has 573 scrimmage yards (114.6 per game) with 5 TDs (3 rush, 2 rec.) in past 5 (incl. playoffs). RB JAMES WHITE has 6 TDs (4 rush, 2 rec.) in past 3 postseason games. Since 2016 playoffs, leads NFL with 7 TDs (4 rush, 3 rec.) & 44 points in postseason play. Tied Super Bowl record with 3 TDs (2 rush, 1 rec.) last year. TE ROB GRONKOWSKI has 10 career TD catches in postseason, most among TEs in league annals & tied for 3rd most in NFL history. Has 856 career rec. yards in playoffs, most by TE in NFL history. Has 7 TD catches in his past 7 postseason games. WR DANNY AMENDOLA has 274 rec. yards (91.3 per game) & 3 TD catches in past 3 playoff games. Had 2 TD catches in 4th Q of AFC Champ Game. LB KYLE VAN NOY had 9 tackles, sack & FF in AFC Champ Game. LB JAMES HARRISON has 11 career sacks in postseason, tied for 5th most in NFL history.
Eagles: QB NICK FOLES completed 26 of 33 (78.8 pct.) for 352 yards with 3 TDs & 0 INTs for 141.4 rating in NFC Champ Game. Is only QB in NFL history to have 100+ rating in each of 1st 3 career postseason starts (min. 20 att/game). In 2017 postseason, is 2-0 with 122.1 rating. Foles is 4th QB in SB era to win 2 postseason games after making 3 or fewer starts in regular season. RB LeGARRETTE BLOUNT has rush TD in both playoff games this season. Has 10 career rush TDs in postseason (incl. 8 with NE), most among active players. RB JAY AJAYI has led club in rushing yards & scrimmage yards in both 2017 playoff games. Averaging 98.5 scrimmage yards per game in postseason. WR ALSHON JEFFERY had 2 TD catches in NFC Champ Game, incl. 53-yard TD. WR TORREY SMITH had 41-yard rec. TD & TE ZACH ERTZ had 8 catches for 93 yards vs. Min. Foles became 1st QB in NFL history with 40+ yard completion to 3 different players in single playoff game: Jeffery (53 yards), WR NELSON AGHOLOR (42) & Smith (41). S MALCOLM JENKINS had 99-yard INT-TD in last game vs. NE (12/6/15). CB PATRICK ROBINSON had 50-yard INT-TD in NFC Champ Game. Rookie DE DEREK BARNETT had sack & FF vs. Min. Since entering league in 2012, DT FLETCHER COX is 1 of 7 NFL DTs with 45+ TFL (45) & 30+ sacks (34). DE CHRIS LONG had FR in NFC Champ Game. Long & RB Blount were both members of NE's Super Bowl LI winning team.
PREDICTION: Before he plays until he is 45-years-old, Brady must survive this Sunday's game. Like others, the Eagles will try to make Brady uncomfortable in the pocket. Many believe if Philadelphia gets more than three sacks, the Eagle will prevail. Maybe so, but the rest of the equation is that Philadelphia must take away Brady's ability to dump the ball to Gronkowski, Danny Amendola, or, as he did in the last Super Bowl, to running back James White. If that were easy, the Patriots wouldn't win so much.
Frank Cooney: Patriots, 27-24
Howard Balzer: Eagles, 24-21