MINNEAPOLIS -- Here are some quick-hitting takeaways from what went down at US Bank Stadium in Super Bowl LII . . .
1) The Patriots made their transition away from Malcolm Butler (No. 21 above) at corner one game earlier than anticipated. Eric Rowe (No. 25) got the start over the hero of Super Bowl XLIX and impending free agent, and the Eagles went after him. The results were . . . mixed. Rowe was targeted three times on the game's opening drive. He gave up big gains to Alshon Jeffery (on a whip route) and Torrey Smith (on a play that was reminiscent of David Tyree's helmet catch from 10 years ago). On the third pass, he broke up a third-down throw in the end zone to force a Philly field goal. On the next drive, Nick Foles threw a jump ball to Jeffery with Rowe all over him. Rowe was in position but was out-jumped and gave up a 34-yard score. Rowe had two more pass breakups in the first half -- one on a two-point conversion -- but it was clear the Eagles liked the matchup wherever Rowe was situated. Why was he playing over Butler? His size allowed him and Stephon Gilmore to play sides in the first half and not worry about where Jeffery, Philly's biggest receiver, would align. Butler seemed to be a decent matchup for Nelson Agholor or Smith, but the Patriots clearly wanted to keep him off the field through the game's first 30 minutes. The fact that Johnson Bademosi saw playing time over Butler in the second half indicated that Butler's benching was not matchup-based. We'll try to find out what happened postgame. Butler did not travel with the Patriots to Minneapolis, arriving on Tuesday instead of Monday with the team. He was listed on the injury report this week with an illness.
2) Brandin Cooks left the game in the second quarter with a concussion, and was quickly ruled out for the remainder of the contest. Cooks caught a Tom Brady pass near the left hash and worked his way back toward the Patriots sideline. He never saw Malcolm Jenkins coming and took a head-to-head shot that seemed to knock him unconscious on the field. Cooks lay motionless for several moments before being helped to his feet by Patriots staffers and helped to the locker room. The Patriots called Cooks' injury a "head" injury, but players who exhibit a loss of consciousness are considered to have suffered a concussion and are not permitted to return to action, per the NFL's concussion protocol. Losing Cooks changes the game for the Patriots. Without their best deep threat, they weren't able to stress the deep defenders in Philly's zone defense quite as effectively. Phillip Dorsett didn't serve as Cooks' one-for-one replacement, but he took the field for the Patriots in three-receiver sets.
Cooks has been ruled out. Part of the NFL concussion protocol is that if you exhibit a loss of consciousness, you are to be taken to the locker room and may not return to play on the same day under any circumstances. pic.twitter.com/pcKgLqrLBq— Phil Perry (@PhilAPerry) February 5, 2018
3) The first half of play was marred by Patriots special-teams miscues. Stephen Gostkowski booted a low line-drive kick to start the game, usually a sign that he's looking for a touchback. The liner headed right into the arms of Eagles return man Corey Clement, though, and he took it to the Philly 26-yard line. Gostkowski missed a chip-shot field goal in the second quarter when Joe Cardona's low snap sailed through Ryan Allen's hands, and then Gostkowski hooked an extra point after what appeared to be a sound snap and hold.
4) Doug Pederson's most courageous call may have been his best. Late in the first half, facing a fourth-and-goal situation from the Patriots' 1-yard line, he called for some trickery. And it worked. Foles feigned calling out signals to his linemen as the ball was snapped directly to Corey Clement. The ball was then flipped to former college quarterback (and current Eagles tight end) Trey Burton, and he found Foles wide open in the end zone for the touchdown. Hard to know who should have been in the area for the Patriots on that type of play, but Kyle Van Noy seemed to be in no man's land in the middle of the field as the ball bounced back and forth in the Eagles backfield. It was a tremendous call and extremely well-executed by Pederson's players. "We had just gotten all the way down the field," Pederson told NBC at halftime, "and I wasn't going to stop . . . It was a play we'd been working on the last couple weeks and our guys executed brilliantly." Pederson went for it on fourth down again in the fourth quarter, facing a fourth-and-one from near midfield. Foles found Zach Ertz for two yards and a first down.
5) The Eagles simply had no answer for Rob Gronkowski in the second half. On New England's first drive of the third quarter, Gronkowski caught four passes for 68 yards and he reeled in a touchdown near the goal line after selling a back-corner fade with corner Ronald Darby on him. Early in the fourth quarter, he caught the go-ahead touchdown. Darby was on him again. This time Gronkowski did run the fade, and Darby played it well . . . but he simply couldn't compete with Gronkowski at the catch point. Gronkoski spiked the football five or six rows into the stands and the Patriots led, 33-32, after Gostkowski's kick.
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