Patriots

Foles shocks Vikings to set stage for Patriots and Eagles in Super Bowl LII

Foles shocks Vikings to set stage for Patriots and Eagles in Super Bowl LII

FOXBORO -- Nick Foles reached deep down inside, way down, like, into the small intestine, to pull out a performance that had him looking like Nick Foles of 2013. 

Putting together one of the greatest quarterback games in the history of the NFL's conference-championship weekend -- yes, you read that correctly -- Foles threw for 352 yards and three touchdowns and recorded a rating of 141.4 to help Philly beat up on Minnesota, 38-7, ruining the chances of a Vikings home Super Bowl in the process.

It's been four years since Foles, who had a 27-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 2013, looked like one of the best quarterbacks in football. But what he did to the league's top-rated defense has to have boosted his confidence headed into a Super Bowl matchup where his club will be underdogs for the third consecutive playoff game. 

The Patriots have opened as 5.5-point favorites, making the Eagles the heaviest Super Bowl dog since 2009. That number could shift if it looks like the Patriots could be without Rob Gronkowski, who suffered a head injury in the second quarter against the Jaguars and did not return. 

Here are a few quick-hitting thoughts on the Patriots-Eagles matchup for the Lombardi Trophy . . . 

WHY THE EAGLES ARE BETTER THAN YOU THOUGHT

When Carson Wentz went down with a season-ending knee injury on Dec. 10, it looked like Philly's chances at a Super Bowl went with him. Because they were without not only Wentz but also starting left tackle Jason Peters and running back Darren Sproles. But their suffocating defense, led by a ferocious front-seven, has carried them. Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox is one of the most dominant players at his position the NFL has to offer. Defensive end Brandon Graham is a consistently-bothersome presence off the edge and an analytics darling because of an absurd number of pressures -- 158 over the last three seasons and counting. Vinny Curry, Timmy Jernigan, rookie Derek Barnett and former Patriots end Chris Long round out a  group that will have a very real chance to get after Tom Brady without defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz dialing up blitzes. For the second straight game, the Patriots' offensive line will have its hands full.

WHY THE EAGLES ARE WORSE THAN YOU THOUGHT

This really comes down to Foles. Which version will show up in Minnesota in two weeks? Will it be the one who shredded the Vikings? Or will it be the one who skated by the Raiders in Week 16 with a 50 percent completion mark and a rating of 59.4, the one who couldn't hold onto a starting gig after his historic 2013? If it's the latter, his weapons -- which are good but not dominant -- probably won't be enough to save him. Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount make up a hard-headed rushing attack. Zach Ertz is a talented receiving tight end but is more receiver than tight end. Alshon Jeffery, Nelson Agholor and Torrey Smith all are capable of picking up explosive gains on the ground, but they need their quarterback to be able to get them the football. 

HOW THE PATRIOTS MAY HANDLE THINGS

Defensively, this could get interesting for the Patriots. On the one hand, they're going to have to stop the run. They could pull a page from each of their last two defensive game plans to sell out against hard-charging backs. On the other, what Foles did against the No. 1 defense in the NFL complicates the equation. They probably can't dare Foles to win from the pocket the way they did with Marcus Mariota. They can't have breakdowns on short dump-offs the way they did against Blake Bortles. They'll have to pressure Foles up front and then compete at the catch point with Foles' talented down-the-field wideouts. Offensively, the Patriots may want to steer clear of the running game. The Eagles were No. 1 in the league against the run this season, allowing just 79.2 yards per contest. When the Patriots throw, they'll have to contend with safety Malcolm Jenkins and corner Ronald Darby on the back end, and they'll have to protect against Philly's tough front. But keeping Brady upright in the passing game may be easier than trying to grind out yardage on the ground. Patriots backs and receivers ran for just 3.28 yards per carry against the Jaguars. 

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Ready or not: Ja'Whaun Bentley will factor into Patriots plans after Dont'a Hightower opt-out

Ready or not: Ja'Whaun Bentley will factor into Patriots plans after Dont'a Hightower opt-out

Maybe it's not fair. But, as they say at One Patriot Place, it is what it is.

Ja'Whaun Bentley, in his third season, may be the primary fill-in for one of the most important Patriots defenders of the last decade.

Dont'a Hightower was one of the most indispensable Patriots in 2020 prior to opting out. He has long been the link between the front-seven and the secondary for the Patriots defense.

Download the MyTeams app for the latest Patriots news and analysis

He relays the plays. He directs traffic pre-snap, adjusting defensive linemen and reminding teammates of their coverage responsibilities with equal aplomb. And then there's his own personal unique skill set as a mauling run-defender, who also serves as the team's most talented pass-rusher. 

In Hightower's absence — he opted out after becoming a father in July — there is no one-for-one replacement available to Bill Belichick. Fair or unfair, Bentley will factor heavily into the equation. At the moment, he looks like the favorite to take over from Hightower the defensive play-calling duties.

"This wouldn't be the first time I'm wearing the green dot," Bentley said in a conference call with reporters Wednesday, "but obviously that's the head communicator. That's the one who relays the calls to everybody. If that's the role I have to take on — which is highly likely — we have to be able to adjust to that. Everybody has a role to play. If that's what mine would be, I would have to do that and do it very well."

Bentley's career began inconspicuously enough, going to New England out of Purdue as a fifth-round draft choice. He wasn't even on the draft boards of some linebacker-needy teams in 2018, according to NFL sources, because his size (he was listed at 260 pounds at one point as a collegian) made him the antithesis of the "new age linebacker" who is smaller and excels in coverage. 

The Patriots didn't mind, of course. They like their linebackers beefy. And Bentley made an impact almost immediately — in the run and pass games. He stood out as one of their best players at the position in training camp that year, and he earned two starts in his first three games as a pro. In Week 3 of his rookie season, after picking off Matthew Stafford for his first-career interceptions, he suffered a season-ending injury. 

In his second year, his opportunities waned after the Patriots brought in Jamie Collins to serve as an off-the-ball linebacking partner to Hightower. 

Now, Bentley knows it'll be up to him to help make up for all the linebacker losses the Patriots will have to account for in 2020. Collins, Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts all departed via free agency prior to Hightower's opt-out.

"Shout out to Jamie and High, all those guys," Bentley said. "Obviously respect the decision that Hightower made, he had no choice but to do that. But nonetheless we gotta come in here, try to work, we gotta work, guys gotta figure out their roles and we gotta keep pushing forward."

Patriots Talk Podcast: Should Pats give Newton a raise with newfound cap space? | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

However the Patriots linebacker room shakes out this season, Bentley has apparently done enough through two years to be viewed as one of the voices of the defense despite his inexperience. On the McCourty twins' "Double Coverage" podcast, they looked to Bentley as one of the young leaders of what's long been a veteran-laden defense.

In a linebacker group that'll include rookies Josh Uche and Cassh Maluia, Bentley has quickly become one of that unit's most experienced players.

"To me, Bentley's been a great player for us," Devin McCourty said on the July 26 episode. "Especially coming in as a rookie. He stood out right away, his knowledge. I think one of the best things about Bent is just his versatility. Whether it's against the run — obviously he's a stout, physical player — but even in the pass [game]. He was covering tight ends, covering backs out of the backfield. 

"I think for every guy in the NFL, when you come in, and there are other players who've played for a while, and you get some playing time and things change each year, I know he's excited to work his butt off . . . You look around, he's gonna be one of our young, kinda leadership-type of guys. We'll count on him to really kinda try to [work] with those young guys. He's always done a good job of that since he's been here. I'm excited for him, along with some other good players that we have, just to get an opportunity to get out there and play a little bit more."

For Bentley, as he treads into an unusual season, he knows he can call on Hightower to help guide him along. No better source to draw from if Bentley is in fact going to be the primary answer to Hightower's absence.

"We're always talking," Bentley said. "He's definitely on my list of people to talk to, whether that's on leadership or anything. We have a lot of great vets I've been surrounded with over my past two years in New England so you're always picking those guys' brains, seeing what you can bring to your game. That's been my approach since Day 1."

Patriots' Jonathan Jones clarifies tweet about COVID-19 and NFL season

Patriots' Jonathan Jones clarifies tweet about COVID-19 and NFL season

About three weeks ago, New England Patriots cornerback Jonathan Jones pointed out in a tweet that you "can't social distance football," seemingly voicing his concern about playing the 2020 NFL season amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The two Patriots players who responded to Jones' tweet -- linebacker Dont'a Hightower and safety Patrick Chung -- both have opted out of the season. Will Jones follow suit before Thursday's 4 p.m. ET opt-out deadline?

The Patriots cornerback didn't seem ready to jump ship Wednesday, explaining in a video conference that his tweet was more a reference to somewhat fruitless NFL safety protocols like eliminating jersey swaps after games.

Download the MyTeams app for the latest Patriots news and analysis

"When I tweeted that, it was more (about) some of the protocols they started enforcing like the jersey swap and things like that," Jones said. " ... As far as being in the facility and being in meetings, they've gone to great lengths to make sure that we're safe in those regards.

"Referring to my tweet, it was more, when you're out there on the field and you're (playing), there's no social distancing in that. So, trying to eliminate jersey swapping and things like that, I kind of saw no point to that."

Jones is right: NFL players collide with each other on every play, so preventing players from fraternizing after games hardly would limit the spread of COVID-19 any more than calling off the games themselves.

Patriots Talk Podcast: Should Pats give Newton a raise with newfound cap space? | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

Concerns about safety have led more than 50 players to opt out of the season, to the point where the NFL moved the opt-out deadline up to this Thursday. Patriots safety Devin McCourty saw the league's move as a nefarious tactic to pressure players into making an important life decision, but Jones was a bit more diplomatic.

"We were able to come in and see the facility for a few days," Jones said when asked if he felt the NFL gave him enough time to make a decision about playing.

"I know a lot of guys don't like that they kind of went back on the agreement. That's kind of tough. But as far as just coming in and getting to see how things are working, at least for now, the step that we're in, we got to see the facility and see how things operate on a daily basis."

So, that means the 26-year-old cornerback plans to play this season ... right?

"I'm here ready to go to work every day," Jones replied when asked directly whether he plans to opt out. "Just show up ready to go to work."