Eagles

Super Bowl LI: Patriots-Falcons predictions by our (cough) experts

Super Bowl LI: Patriots-Falcons predictions by our (cough) experts

The big day is here.

After two weeks of media coverage, hype and dodging Donald Trump questions, the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons will finally square off tonight in Super Bowl LI. With that said, here are our (cough) expert predictions for Super Bowl LI.

Reuben Frank (9-7)
Every time I look at the matchups, I like the Falcons. They have a better running game. They have more dangerous wide receivers. They have Julio Jones. They have a defense that's played really well the last month and a half. They have Matt Ryan putting up ridiculous numbers.

The Patriots? They have the usual collection of journeymen, castoffs, free agents, late-round draft picks and street pickups. They also have Tom Brady, and I just can't pick against Tom Brady in a Super Bowl. On paper, the Falcons win. But I'm going with the Patriots, just because it's Tom Brady, it's the Super Bowl and I can't pick him to lose.

Patriots 31, Falcons 28

Dave Zangaro (8-8)
I think we're in for a good Super Bowl. At least I hope so. 

On its face, it doesn't make much sense to pick against Tom Brady and Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. I mean, they know what they're doing. 

But this season, they're about to run into an absolute buzzsaw. I know the Patriots are known for taking away their opponent's best weapon, so they'll try to stop Julio Jones on Sunday. The problem with that is there have been eight games this season where Jones either didn't play or had four or fewer catches. The Falcons are 7-1 in those games, so taking away Jones doesn't mean stopping the Falcons. 

I just think the Falcons' offense is performing at too high a level and their defense has been steadily underrated all season. 

(Also, a friendly reminder: the Eagles have beaten both these teams within the last two years.) 

Falcons 38, Patriots 36

Derrick Gunn (8-8)
Super Bowl LI has the makings of a real shootout. Atlanta's offense appears unstoppable right now. Not only did the Falcons lead the league in scoring during the regular season with 33.8 points per game, they're on a six-game win streak that inclues two playoff blowouts. HotLanta has averaged 39 points per game during the streak.

As for New England, ever since Tom Brady returned from his suspension in Week 5, the Patriots have averaged 30.7 points. So much attention has been given to the offense, but both defenses should be given props.

New England's No. 1-rated scoring defense has been consistent, while the young Falcons' defense, which has four rookies starting, has generated 13 turnovers and 14 sacks in its last six games.

Matt Ryan richly deserves the MVP award he won on Saturday night, but Bill Belichick is the best in the business at neutralizing an opponent's strength and exploiting weaknesses. The one big question for me is which team's defense can rattle the quarterback?

Because Belichick and Brady have been down this Super Bowl road so many times before, I give the Pats the edge on Sunday.

Patriots 31, Falcons 27

Ray Didinger (8-8)
The Falcons are red hot, winning their last six games and scoring more than 40 points in half of them, including a 44-21 beat down of Green Bay in the NFC title game. But history is not on their side this week. They had the top scoring offense in the NFL this season, but the New England defense allowed the fewest points. This will be the seventh time the Super Bowl will feature a No. 1 vs. No. 1 matchup, and in five of the previous six games, the team with the No. 1 defense won. That's a pretty strong trend.
 
Also, I can't shake the memory of the Falcons' 24-15 loss to the Eagles. The Eagles ran the ball down the Falcons' throats (38 rushing attempts for a season-high 207 yards) and Ryan Mathews ran for 108 yards, most of them between the tackles. The Eagles controlled the ball for more than 38 minutes and limited the explosive Atlanta offense to 11 first downs. I could see the Patriots doing much the same thing with LeGarrette Blount hammering away at the swift but smallish Atlanta defensive front.
 
So while the pregame conversion focused on Tom Brady going for his fifth Super Bowl ring — and, of course, getting his jollies at the expense of Commissioner Roger Goodell — the Patriots' quarterback may not be the key to winning this game, after all. I think it will be New England's running game and its underrated defense (which will limit the big plays by Julio Jones) that will make the difference in the end.
 
Patriots 27, Falcons 23

Andrew Kulp (9-7)
Five times before, the No. 1 scoring offense in the NFL has met the No. 1 scoring defense in the Super Bowl. On four of those occasions, defense won.

That said, the Patriots don't feel like your typical No. 1 defense. Just look at some of the teams they played this year: the Browns, the 49ers, the Rams, the Bengals, the Broncos, the Jets (twice), the Texans (twice), the Dolphins without Ryan Tannehill and the Steelers without Le'Veon Bell for three quarters of the game. I have seen some dominant, all-time great defenses flat out carry teams to championships in my lifetime — the 2000 Ravens, the '02 Bucs, the '13 Seahawks and the '15 Broncos — and I'm just not sure I view this group in that light.

It's also tough to bet against Bill Belichick — if anybody can scheme a way to stop Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman, Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel, it's that guy — nor can you count out Tom Brady. For that reason, I'm genuinely torn on which way to go, but my gut is telling me it's the Falcons' time.

Falcons 28, Patriots 27

Corey Seidman (9-7)
Part of me wants the Patriots to win just so we can all definitively state Tom Brady is the greatest QB of all time and Bill Belichick is the best coach. It would pretty much end any debate there, and I'm all for ending hot-air debates.

But Brady has been super unlikeable the last couple weeks. His political affiliation is his business, but it's pretty lame to call attention to who you support with a "Make America Great Again" hat in your locker, only to subsequently refuse to answer questions about it. Either keep it to yourself or answer questions, you don't get it both ways.

So, perhaps my judgment is clouded now because I'm actively rooting against Brady, but the Falcons have so much offensively and are playing so fast on defense that I think they pull this one out. If the game was being played outdoors, I'd go Pats all the way. But it's in the dome in Houston and we all know how fast the Falcons move indoors.

Falcons 31, Patriots 27

Andy Schwartz (9-7)
To beat the Patriots, as the Giants and others have proven, pressuring Tom Brady is a must.

Bill Barnwell elaborates on that — in exhaustive detail — here

The Falcons, who boast NFL sack leader Victor Beasley, beat Green Bay two weeks ago by rattling Aaron Rodgers. But Rodgers, as Eagles fans saw in November, excelled by adeptly navigating the pocket and extending plays. He wasn't able to do that against Atlanta.

Will the Falcons get to Tom Brady? I'm not betting on it. Brady is mobile — but not as mobile as Rodgers — and will get rid of the ball quickly. This Falcons' D is hardly a juggernaut, especially not in its home dome and especially against a Patriots team given two weeks to prepare. 

The only way the Falcons win is in a shootout. Could happen, but I'm not going with any team the Eagles beat this season to win the Super Bowl.

Patriots 31, Falcons 20

Redskins dealing with numerous injuries heading into Week 7 vs. Eagles

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USA Today Images

Redskins dealing with numerous injuries heading into Week 7 vs. Eagles

ASHBURN, Va. — Quinton Dunbar takes pride in the way Washington Redskins defensive backs coach Torrian Gray makes every member of the secondary prepare as though he's starting.

"When you get in, you are expected to play like a starter," Dunbar said.

That approach has come in handy this season. Already 2015 All-Pro Josh Norman, fellow cornerback Bashaud Breeland and safety Stefan McClure have gone down with injuries, and second-year safety Su'a Cravens left the team to contemplate retirement.

It's possible Breeland, who sprained his left knee Sunday against San Francisco, and Norman, who has been out with a broken rib, play Monday night.

If they can't go, Washington will lean heavily on Dunbar, Kendall Fuller and rookies Montae Nicholson, Fabian Moreau and Joshua Holsey against quarterback Carson Wentz and the NFC East-leading Eagles.

"It'll be a great challenge because he's playing extremely well," Gruden said.

"Our guys will have to step up. That's just the way it is. There's a lot of teams around the National Football League this time of year that are dealing with key injuries at certain positions and we just had a couple of them at the corner spot. Fabian, Dunbar, they'll have to step up and play well (along with) Holsey, Fuller."

Breeland began the 49ers game as the top cornerback with Norman out and took a block at the knee from offensive lineman Joe Staley. Gruden said Breeland escaped serious MCL damage and is a quick healer, so he could be ready to face the 5-1 Eagles.

Norman will ramp up his running and exercise this week, and Gruden said "there's a chance" he plays Monday.

The news isn't so good for rookie defensive lineman Jonathan Allen, who could miss three weeks or more with a Lisfranc sprain in his left foot, and kicker Dustin Hopkins, whose right hip rotator muscle strain will force the Redskins to work out free agent kickers this week.

Even with all the injuries in the secondary, Washington hasn't yet had to look for external help because it has four 2016 or 2017 draft picks on the roster and able to take on extended roles.

"We are as strong as our weakest link and we always talk about not having the drop-offs," said Fuller, a 2016 third-round pick. "Anybody who is in there, we trust to make plays."

The Redskins have had no choice but to trust their young players, including Dunbar, a 25-year-old converted receiver. Injuries to D.J. Swearinger and Nicholson on Sunday almost forced Fuller to move from cornerback to safety where he saw no snaps at practice, and Moreau had to take over on the outside when Breeland was hurt in the second half.

Moreau, a third-round pick who missed the start of training camp with a torn pectoral muscle, said players follow Swearinger's lead to be ready for any situation.

"We got dogs," Moreau said. "We all trust each other. We all feed off of him, and we know that."

Of all the young defensive backs, no one has made a bigger leap than Dunbar, who was a receiver at Florida. Gruden joked that Dunbar isn't "really smart enough to know the magnitude of the situation he's in" and just goes out and plays.

Dunbar said after what he went through growing up that football's a pleasure for him and he doesn't blink. But he has made incredible strides since shifting to cornerback.

"Mentally I'm a thousand times better," Dunbar said. "I always had the physical attributes, man. It was more mental for me -- just breaking down the offenses, learning what's coming and stuff like that."

That'll come in handy against Wentz as the 3-2 Redskins try to close the gap and keep this a competitive division race.

From the coverage to the pass rush, Washington's defense must be better against Wentz than it was in a 30-17 loss in Week 1.

"We've got to figure out a way to contain Wentz," Gruden said. "He killed us with the off-schedule plays, and he's been doing that consistently throughout the year. That's why they're 5-1. It's a big game for us. We know that."

Roob's Random Points, part 1: Eagles' power ranking, playoffs, I-95 traffic tips

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USA Today Images

Roob's Random Points, part 1: Eagles' power ranking, playoffs, I-95 traffic tips

Are the Eagles the best team in football? Parking in Northern Liberties? Carson craziness? And Modern Baseball's final shows?

You can find it all in Part 1 of this week's 25 Random Points! Look for Part 2 at some Random time in the near future!
 
1. Watching football all day Sunday, it was impossible to ignore the reality that the Eagles are as good as anybody out there. One after another, the teams you wondered where the Eagles stacked up against lost. The Packers lost Aaron Rodgers and then lost meekly to the Vikings. The Falcons, once unbeatable in Atlanta, lost at home to the Dolphins. The undefeated Chiefs lost at home to the Steelers. The Broncos, who come to the Linc in a couple weeks, lost at home to the winless Giants. The Redskins barely hung on at home against the winless 49ers. And meanwhile, the Eagles just keep on winning. If I had to rank the 32 teams right now, the Eagles would be at No. 1. I'm sure the Chiefs would have something to say about that based on a head-to-head win and an identical 5-1 record. But as far as where everybody is today? You can make a compelling case that the Eagles are the best team in football. Yep.
 
2. A big theme on Twitter since Thursday night has been fans saying, "Calm down, don't get carried away, settle down, it's only six weeks." You know what? This team hasn't done anything since 2008 and they're now 5-1 with four straight wins, a hot quarterback and the best run defense in the NFL. There's nothing wrong with getting excited!
 
3. Of all the areas he's improved, Carson Wentz's interception ratio is the most dramatic and most important. He's seeing the field better but more than anything he's just not forcing throws like he did last year. With three INTs in 207 attempts, he's got the sixth-best INT ratio in the NFL out of 33 qualifying quarterbacks (1.45 per 100 attempts). This after ranking 17th out of 36 last year (2.31). Based on all 281 QBs in NFL history who've thrown 750 passes, Wentz now has the eighth-best career INT ratio at 2.09.
 
4. I'm crushed that they shut down the giant free parking lot behind the Acme across the street from the Piazza where Germantown Avenue hits 2nd Street. There is now officially nowhere to park in Northern Liberties.
 
5. Once the Phillies were eliminated from playoff contention, Philly's streak of consecutive seasons without a team advancing in a postseason series increased to 21. That goes back to a 76ers team led by Andre Iguodala, Lou Williams and Jrue Holiday eliminating the Bulls in an Eastern Conference first-round series on May 10, 2012. That streak includes six Phillies seasons and five 76ers, Flyers and Eagles seasons. Not only is that streak about to be smashed to smithereens, I also wouldn't be surprised at all if all four teams advance in a postseason series over the next year.
 
6. Speaking of the Smithereens, they are without a doubt one of the most underrated American rock bands of the last quarter century. Here's my Smithereens Top 10: 1. Strangers when we Meet, 2. Behind the Wall of Sleep, 3. A Girl Like You, 4. Only a Memory, 5. Blue Period, 6. Yesterday Girl, 7. Top of the Pops, 8. Time Won't Let Me, 9. Drown in my own Tears, 10. House we used to Live In.
 
7. The Eagles are only the 10th team since 1970 with 750 or more rushing yards gained and fewer than 400 rushing yards allowed after six weeks.
 
8. Wentz's current streak of eight straight games with one or more touchdown passes and one or fewer interceptions is the longest by an Eagles quarterback since Randall Cunningham had a 12-game streak in 1990.
 
9. If he throws three touchdowns Monday night, Wentz will become the first Eagles QB to throw three TD passes in three straight games in 64 years — since Bobby Thomason in 1953 (three at Pittsburgh, four vs. the Giants, three vs. the Colts). Only one QB has thrown more than one TD pass against the Redskins this year. Wentz. Of course.
 
10. Attending one of Modern Baseball's final three shows over the weekend was a genuinely moving experience. Modern Baseball — or MoBo, as they're affectionately known because MoBa looks stupid — is a beloved Philadelphia pop-punk band whose lyrics by co-songwriters Brendan Lukens and Jake Ewald are deeply personal and resonate in a powerful way with the 17-to-22-year-olds who make up most of their massive world-wide audience. MoBo over the past seven years made a completely unexpected and meteoric rise from playing basements at Drexel to 20,000-seat arenas opening for Brand New. But the band is going on hiatus — perhaps temporary, perhaps permanent — because, as Ewald wrote on the band's Facebook page, "The project we started as a source of joy and positive expression had become something that was slowly eating away at our mental health and our friendships." But I'll tell you what … seeing 1,500 fist-pumping, body-surfing kids at Union Transfer joyously singing along to literally every word to every song Friday night really makes you realize just how much this band meant to so many people. A powerful, profound experience.
 
11. I once sat on a flight next to the manager of a Hard Rock Café. He had a great quote: "We're not a restaurant. We're a T-shirt store that also sells hamburgers."
 
12. LeGarrette Blount played in his 100th career regular-season game on the final day of last year with the Patriots. Thanks to the wonders of the Pro-Football Reference, we can compare his rushing average in all his games since No. 100 with every other running back since 1950. The result? Blount's rushing average of 5.6 after his 100th career game is the highest by any NFL running back in Game 101-on since Doak Walker averaged 6.2 yards from 1953 through 1955.
 
12½. Pro Tip: When there's an accident on 95 South near Center City, take the 2nd Street ramp off 95 and then turn left on Market and get back on 95 South. Even if you haven't passed the accident, the ramp is so long — 9-10ths of a mile — it will get you past a ton of blocked traffic before dropping you back on 95 South.