1. Who will win? Why?
Leo Xie: Patriots
Know that I will be cheering my butt off for the Eagles, because #****thepatriots. Despite having all the support from everyone outside of New England, the Eagles will still fall to the Patriots, because what else is new? Tom Brady will walk off into the sunset on a goat and then wake up the next morning before sunrise ready to win another Super Bowl. That’s just how the script goes. Fingers crossed that Adam Lefkoe’s comparison is true (I love Stephen Gostkowski though).
Rory O’Toole: Patriots
I’ll take Brady, Bill Belichick and their ball boys over a backup quarterback and second-year head coach in a Super Bowl every single time. The Eagles have the better team, but the Patriots have the better player and better coach, and that makes all the difference in a one-game championship. I expect the game to be close, but I think the Pats’ experience, plus the fact that they have Brady, will ultimately swing the game in their favor, probably in heartbreaking fashion for Philly. Plus, they’ve never lost a Super Bowl to a team with a bird mascot. That has got to mean something … right?
2. What are each team’s respective strengths? Weaknesses?
NE: For New England, its strength is the team dynamic. It doesn’t matter who is on the field, the Patriots will find a way to march the ball downfield. It doesn’t matter if they’re down 25 with a quarter and change to go, they will rally the team and put up a fight. It’s a sort of dynamic similar to the Yankees’ mystique of the past century; there just seems to be something about them that makes them nearly impossible to beat in the playoffs.
The Patriots’ weak link is their defense, especially against the pass. For most of the first half of the AFC championship game, they were unable to make game-changing plays and stop the Jaguars from keeping the ball away from them. Matt Patricia’s crew has to find a way to replicate its success against Tennessee.
PHI: For the Eagles, their biggest strength is their belief in themselves. The Eagles were underdogs in both of their home playoff games, and they proceeded to dismantle the defending NFC champions and to follow that up with a blowout against the No. 2 seed Vikings. This could be a battle of heart, grit and determination — one the Eagles are well-suited to fight. And guess what? Vegas has them as 4.5-point underdogs.
As for weaknesses, it’s Nick Foles. You know what you’re getting with Brady, but every non-Patriots fan will have their butt clenched with the ball in Foles’ hands. His inconsistency is troubling, and if the wrong Foles shows up for too long, then this game might be over before we know it.
RO: The Eagles have a strong defense with standouts Fletcher Cox, Mychal Kendricks and Malcolm Jenkins. LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi have averaged more than 100 yards rushing this postseason, and their bruising style allows Philly to unleash its run-pass option offense. The offense, however, is run through a backup quarterback. Enough said.
The Patriots have Belichick, who is the best in-game manager I’ve ever seen, and they’ve got Brady calling the shots. But, their defense kind of blows.
3. Who will be each team’s X-factor?
LX: NE: Whether they will have an X-factor or not is the Patriots’ X-factor. They’ve shown an unparalleled ability to win despite the circumstances. Julian Edelman out for the year? They’re back in the Super Bowl. Brady, Belichick and Robert Kraft in conflict? Averted the media crisis handily. Rob Gronkowski out at halftime against the Jags? No problem at all. If the Patriots do develop an X-factor at all, it may very well lead to their demise.
PHI: The offensive line. Foles goes from Carson Wentz level to Browns QB level when he’s under pressure, as his 23.8 passer rating in those situations elucidates. Foles looked as comfortable as ever against a nonexistent Vikings D-line two Sundays ago, and the Eagles’ O-line needs to give him that time and comfort for a majority of the game.
RO: NE: Dion Lewis. The former Eagles running back led the Pats in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns this season and is their most dynamic weapon on offense. Lewis was named the most elusive player in the NFL by Pro Football Focus, and I expect offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to draw up plenty of screen passes to negate the vaunted Eagles pass rush and capitalize on his agility.
PHI: Derek Barnett. The Eagles edge rusher had a huge strip sack against Minnesota in the NFC championship and provides lightning to the thunder of Cox. The 21-year-old will have to tap into his youthful energy in order for Philly to maintain a consistent rush against Brady. If Barnett has a great game, the Eagles will probably win.
4. How do the Eagles and Patriots match up against each other?
LX: The Eagles have a confident, opportunistic defense that will be put to the test against Brady and the Patriots. Brady is among the best ever under pressure, and that places pressure on the young Eagles’ backs in the spotlight against the Patriots’ more experienced receivers. What might put New England over the top is its selection of pass-catching running backs and, of course, Gronkowski. On the other hand, do not underestimate Philadelphia’s powerful offensive attack against one of Belichick’s worst Super Bowl teams defensively.
RO: This matchup is as even as it gets. You’ve got great players on both sides, and they were both the No. 1 seeds in their respective conferences. The Patriots’ defense is far below Philadelphia’s, but it has been able to bend without breaking. Brady and offensive coordinator will find a weakness in Philly’s defense and exploit it until Philly stops it. Expect a lot of formations like this to isolate Philly’s linebackers against the Pats’ skill players. If Philly’s impressive defensive line can overwhelm Brady’s protection, the Eagles will earn themselves a trophy, even if Foles doesn’t play well.
5. Which Nick Foles will show up on Sunday?
LX: The easy answer is both 9.3-QBR Nick and NFC championship game Foles will show up on Sunday, but what is crucial is which one is going to show up for longer. Philadelphia’s coaching staff has shown its ability to make a game plan in this playoffs thus far, and that itself might provide one half of NFC championship Foles. Whatever happens, Belichick and Co. will for sure adjust to that version of Foles. If Foles can make counteradjustments, even for a drive or two, then we will have a very, very competitive game on our hands.
RO: I expect to see the Nick Foles who showed up against Atlanta in the divisional round, not the Foles who played against the Vikings. Against Atlanta, Foles took care of the ball, completing 23 of 30 passes for 246 yards with no interceptions but no touchdowns either. There’s no question that the stage is going to affect him more than Brady, and so we’ll see him ease into the game with a lot of runs and short passes. He may connect on a few vertical shots via play action, but nothing on the level of Minnesota. Expect a regression to the mean.
6. Where does Brady stand in the GOAT conversation if he wins?
LX: Last year’s performance in Houston has already solidified him as the GOAT of this sport, no questions asked. But if we have to talk GOAT, then he’d still be behind Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and Babe Ruth, because of the nature of American football. We’ve seen Jordan discombobulating Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler in the finals, Gretzky stealing pucks to score on a breakaway, and Ruth firing bullets from the mound, but we’ve never seen Tom Brady sack an opposing quarterback or intercept a pass for a touchdown.
At least not yet.
RO: I’m not a fan of comparing different eras, with the rule changes, skill level and parity differences from one decade to the next, but winning a sixth Super Bowl title at the age of 40 might circumvent all of my usual objections. A sixth ring is unprecedented in football history and would give him the same amount of championships as Michael Jordan. Think about the fact that a 40-year-old is kicking ass in a sport that is predicated on physical violence, and he doesn’t look like he’s lost his mojo in the slightest. A win Sunday puts him in the conversation for greatest American athlete ever.
Rory O’Toole writes for Bear Bytes, the Daily Californian’s sports blog. Contact him at [email protected].