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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NFL owners words not consistent with their actions with new anthem policy

NFL owners words not consistent with their actions with new anthem policy

Chris Gasper and Michael Holley talk about the inconsistent messaging from NFL owners to their teams' players after they unanimously voted to change the league's policy regarding the national anthem. Watch the video above. 

Rivers feeling good, could help provide Patriots an answer at left end

Rivers feeling good, could help provide Patriots an answer at left end

FOXBORO -- Of all the observations made at Tuesday's OTA practice, one that stood out as sort of an under-the-radar takeaway was that the defensive end position for the Patriots looked nothing like it did back in early February.

Seeing a good deal of the workload on the edges were two players who didn't play a snap for the Patriots last season: Derek Rivers and Adrian Clayborn.

From this, we can deduce a couple of things.

First, a few of the team's most experienced edge defenders weren't available. Trey Flowers' absence from Tuesday's work is worth monitoring as we progress through the spring and move toward training camp. Arguably the team's top defensive lineman, Flowers is headed into the final year of his rookie contract. Dont'a Hightower, who's coming back from a season-ending pec injury and has on-the-line/off-the-line flexibility, was also missing Tuesday.

Second, the participation level from both Rivers and Clayborn would serve as an indication that both are feeling healthy enough to take on a healthy amount of work at this point in the year. Clayborn reportedly tweaked his quad in workouts earlier in the offseason program, but he appeared to be moving fine. Rivers, meanwhile, is back for his second pro season after missing all of last year following an ACL tear suffered in joint training camp practices with the Texans.

Rivers availability is particularly interesting, if unsurprising, since he could be a stabilizing factor for the Patriots' front in 2018. A third-round pick last year out of Youngstown State, Rivers was used as an end, as a stand-up player on the edge, as a pass-rusher and as a coverage player in camp before getting hurt.

Though he missed all of last season, he was able to maintain a positive approach in the Patriots locker room, attending meetings and working diligently on his upper-body strength while his leg healed.

"Nobody ever wants to have an injury, but praise God. It’s all in his plan," Rivers said Tuesday. "My faith helped me get through it. It was a good rehab process. I was able to learn the defense, and I wasn’t away from the building, so I could do everything but be out here on the field. So it was a blessing. It actually made me a better player."

Rivers played on the left side - opposite Clayborn, a right end - in Tuesday's work. That's a position the Patriots had some trouble filling all of last season following Rob Ninkovich's retirement. It requires good athleticism, an ability to set an edge, an ability to rush...but also an ability to track backs out of the backfield.

"I’d say it’s different playing on the left than playing on the right from a responsibilities standpoint," Bill Belichick said last summer. "There’s certainly some similarities, but it’s different. Some guys can play both. Some guys, I would say, are better suited at one or the other. Sometimes that’s a comfort thing. Sometimes it’s really a scheme thing and what we ask them to do. They’re the same, but they’re different more so than say right and left corner or right and left defensive tackle or that type of thing. It’s defensive scheme. It’s a little bit different...

"I think it really becomes more of a coverage discussion – how much and what type of coverage responsibilities would you put them in? You know, Chandler Jones versus Ninkovich or Trey Flowers versus Ninkovich. There’s some differences in their coverage responsibilities. Especially most teams are, for us, defensively left-handed formation teams. Not that they couldn’t do it the other way, but more times than not, there’s a high percentage of situations that come up on the left side that are different from the right side, especially with a right-handed quarterback, which most of them are.

"I mean, look, they both have to know them, they both have to do them, but I’d say there’s definitely more – it’s kind of like left tackle and right tackle. You don’t really see the same player at right tackle as left tackle. Some guys can do both, but there are quite a few guys that are better at one or the other, and that’s usually where they end up."

The Patriots used Hightower off the left side early in the season but eventually moved him back to the middle in what looked like an effort to improve the unit's overall communication. Cassius Marsh got a crack at the spot at times. Kyle Van Noy could be seen there. Eric Lee saw work on the left. It was a revolving door. 

The rotation was heavy at both edge spots, really. Deatrich Wise saw extensive work as a rookie. Harvey Langi looked like he might earn regular snaps before a car wreck ended his season. Trevor Reilly, Geneo Grissom, Marquis Flowers and James Harris all appeared on the edge as the Patriots hoped to find answers. 

In the athletic Rivers, they could have a player who is big enough (6-foot-5, 250) to handle work in the running game on the left edge and athletic enough to both rush (his specialty in college) and cover. It's just a matter of Rivers showing the team he can do it. 

"Obviously, coming in here, your rookie year is almost like your freshman year in college," Rivers said. "So now, it’s just listening to the coaches, staying in the playbook and just getting ready to roll for each practice and just try to get better each and every day.”

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