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. 

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Awesome NFL video highlights all 36 turnovers forced by Patriots defense in 2019

Awesome NFL video highlights all 36 turnovers forced by Patriots defense in 2019

The New England Patriots defense ranked among the NFL's best in 2019, and a huge reason for this unit's success was its ability to force turnovers.

The Patriots forced the second-most turnovers in the league with 36 during the regular season. They also led the league with 25 interceptions and a plus-21 turnover differential. Veteran cornerback Stephon Gilmore tied for the league lead with six interceptions and was named AP Defensive Player of the Year.

It's safe to say the Patriots defense was aggressive and opportunistic throughout 2019, and it certainly helped overcome some of the team's offensive struggles during the second half of the campaign.

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Check out all of the turnovers forced by New England's defense last season in the video below:

The Patriots' Super Bowl title defense ended surprisingly early with an AFC Wild Card loss to the Tennessee Titans at Gillette Stadium. The defense played pretty well, holding the Titans to just 13 offensive points. Tom Brady and his offense couldn't generate much of anything versus the Titans defense, though, and the Patriots lost 20-13.

New England's defense could look much different in 2020. The unit has several key players eligible for unrestricted free agency, including safety Devin McCourty, linebackers Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy, and defensive tackle Danny Shelton, among others.

Curran: Where things stand for Brady, Pats a month from free agency

Chris Simms' Tom Brady-Ryan Tannehill take may grind Patriots fans' gears

Chris Simms' Tom Brady-Ryan Tannehill take may grind Patriots fans' gears

We can understand Derrick Henry supporting Ryan Tannehill amid speculation that Tom Brady may consider joining to the Tennessee Titans.

Tannehill is Henry's quarterback, after all. He's not going to throw him under the bus.

But Chris Simms has no stake in the game -- and still believes the Titans would be better off with Tannehill than the six-time Super Bowl champion in 2020.

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Here's Simms on Wednesday's edition of NBC Sports PFT Live with Mike Florio:

 

"Everybody out there: You're crazy!" Simms said. "Tom Brady is not better than Ryan Tannehill right now! I'm just sorry! 

"I know Tom Brady is arguably the greatest quarterback ever, certainly the most accomplished. (He's) the man. But that doesn't mean he's the best in 2020."

Simms didn't stop there, suggesting the Titans may not have defeated the Patriots in the AFC Divisional Round if Brady was under center instead of Tannehill.

"The Titans weren't a team that had weapons galore," Simms said "They didn't have great weapons (either). We didn't really know about A.J. Brown until Ryan Tannehill got in there."

Got all that, Patriots fans?

This kind of take is nothing new from Simms, who ranked Brady as the NFL's ninth-best quarterback last summer and put Matthew Stafford ahead of the 14-time Pro Bowler at the midseason point.

He's also not wrong that Tannehill was excellent last season, leading the NFL in yards per attempt (9.6) and ranking second in touchdown percentage (7.7 percent) while going 7-3 as Tennessee's starter.

But 10 starts do not an elite quarterback make -- especially a QB who had the NFL's 2019 leading rusher (Henry) taking the heat off him.

Were Brady's numbers worse than Tannehill's in 2019? Sure. His 6.6 yards per attempt were the second-lowest of his career, while his 3.9 touchdown percentage represented his lowest rate ever.

As Patriots fans will tell you, though, Brady also helped a team with a revolving door of mediocre offensive weapons score the seventh-most points in the NFL while finishing 12-4.

All debates aside, the money could prove Brady's worth compared to Tannehill: The former may command north of $30 million in free agency, while the latter might be several million below that number.

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