One of the biggest advantages the Eagles have had this season is in coaching and preparation. The team is 15-2 in games it was actually trying to win, and you haven’t seen Jim Schwartz flummoxed by very many opposing offensive schemes. Ditto Doug Pederson and Frank Reich, when it comes to matching up against NFL defenses. (Just ask Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer.)
But now the Eagles head for Minneapolis and a date with the New England Patriots, who will be making their eighth Super Bowl appearance of the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era, looking for their sixth title. This, maybe you have heard, is unprecedented for a coach-QB combo.
Next week when the Eagles get to the land of a thousand frozen lakes, they will encounter a national media corps that can hardly wait to pat them on the head and tell them how absolutely adorable they are, coming into the Super Bowl LII city with their backup quarterback and their underdog masks, thinking they have a chance to beat Belichick and Brady.
The Birds currently are 5-to-5.5-point underdogs, and the only reason the line is that close is the fact that the current Patriots prefer to toy with their victims before ripping their hearts out, as they did with the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC championship game, trailing by double digits in the fourth quarter before winning 24-20. The Pats advanced, but they didn’t come close to covering the nine-point spread.
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It has to be a bit daunting, knowing you are game-planning against the most successful football operation the league has known during the Super Bowl era.
“When we get ready for a game, we’re getting ready for the players that are on the field,” Schwartz said Tuesday, without mentioning that one of those players will be Brady, the 21st century QB with the strongest claim to “best ever” status.
“That doesn’t change, regardless of which team you’re playing. I owe a lot to Bill Belichick, he got my career started; the first three years of my NFL career were with him in Cleveland [1993-95, as a college/pro scout]. But that’s the last thing that we’ll be thinking about in preparation, and that’s the last thing that any of these players [think about].”
Schwartz vs. Brady
Like anyone who has been in the NFL ever since Brady came to prominence in 2001, Schwartz has gone against him, as a Titans defensive coordinator, Lions head coach, and Bills defensive coordinator – but not since 2014, Schwartz’s year in Buffalo.
“You always look at other games you’ve played and stuff like that, but he’s playing with a different cast of characters, and we’re playing with a different cast of characters,” Schwartz said. “What we did in 2003 [when the Titans lost to the Patriots in the regular season and in the divisional round of the playoffs but played well defensively in the 17-14 playoff loss] … the game’s a lot different now.
“You always want to go back in the files a little bit and look at things that have been successful, and things maybe that haven’t been, things that they’ve had success with. But you also need to stay sort of current and stay with how they’re handling things. They’re going to look a lot different with No. 87 [Rob Gronkowski] out there than with him not out there. They’re going to look different with Brandin Cooks than with Cooks not out there. And I think the same thing can be said for us. We’re different this year, as opposed to last year. We’re probably a little bit different now than we were in the first game of the season. Everybody evolves.”
Reich vs. Belichick
Reich, too, has had his bouts against Belichick and Brady, in a coaching career that includes stints with the Colts, Cardinals and Chargers. The Colts-Patriots rivalry was intense when Reich was in Indianapolis, from 2008-11.
“I have an immense amount of respect for him and his staff and what he’s done and what they have accomplished,” Reich said, when asked if it isn’t hard to keep from being cowed by the prospect of facing Belichick in the biggest game. “We all know how hard that is. But we respect everybody, we don’t fear anybody. We like our players. We like our staff and how we are going to game plan, as well, so we look forward to the challenge.”
Defensively, the Patriots are known for taking away the weapon the opposition depends upon most. That’s hard to do with the Eagles, as Reich noted. They have no go-to receiver or 1,000-yard running back.
“[Belichick] does that better than anybody, or certainly as good as [anybody]. … Obviously, they are a very well-coached team,” Reich said. “I coached in Indianapolis for a few years, and we had a lot of offensive weapons, so I’ve seen different ways of how they will try to take players away and they are very good at it.
“I think the unique thing about our offense is, we spread the ball around. Sure, we’ve got a couple workhorses, but that hasn’t really defined us as an offense, and we have always used the analogy, we have five guys that can score and win the game for us on any given night, and we feel confident about that.”
In answer to another question, about game-planning, Reich said Pederson “has literally put together the best staff you could possibly imagine.”
For the Eagles to win on Feb. 4, that might need to be the case.