Good morning, Eagles fans. It's Super Bowl Sunday and the Eagles are playing. That sentence has only been uttered on three days in the history of the franchise. A storybook season that started when the team reported for the offseason program in April; that continued through training camp and the preseason in July and August; that stretched through a 16-game test before two memorable postseason victories in January; and that lasted through the past two weeks will end on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
This is a Super Bowl Sunday edition of the Early Birds newsletter. If your friends haven't subscribed, it's free to sign up here to receive the newsletter in your inbox. I want to know what you think, what we should add, and what you want to read, so send me feedback by email or on Twitter @ZBerm. Thank you for reading.
— Zach Berman
The Eagles' edge in this game is along the line of scrimmage. Their defensive line is the biggest reason they can pull off the upset. The Eagles need Fletcher Cox to win one-on-ones against Shaq Mason and push the pocket, and the edge rushers must hit Brady. In the two Super Bowls that New England lost with Brady, the Giants' four-man pass rush was the main reason. The Eagles won't win this game if Brady has a clean pocket and time to find his receivers, who will have the advantage downfield against the Eagles secondary. Facing Rob Gronkowski, Brandin Cooks, Danny Amendola, and Chris Hogan – and Brady passing, of course – the Eagles will have a tough time in coverage. The pass rush is the way to neutralize that matchup, which otherwise favors the Patriots.
Look for the Patriots to try to throw the ball to their running backs and challenge the Eagles' linebackers. It's important that the Eagles don't allow significant yards after the catch. In order to do that, they'll need to have their best tackling game of the season. Jim Schwartz makes this a point of emphasis, and the Eagles have mostly been good tackling in the open field. Schwartz wants the whole defense – including defensive linemen – swarming to the ball. I don't think you'll see much base defense on Sunday. My guess is they play their sub packages, including a heavy nickel with Corey Graham on the field.
The Eagles won't stop Gronkowski. He's a difference-maker at tight end. But they can make it more difficult for him. I expect Malcolm Jenkins to see a lot of time on Gronkowski. Jenkins a smart, versatile defender. He's giving up size, but you can't question Jenkins' toughness and intelligence. He'll need both against Gronkowski. The Eagles can't give Gronkowski a free release at the line. If they can disrupt his release, that could buy some time for the defensive line or force Brady to look elsewhere. Then Jenkins can be waiting for him. On third downs and in red zone, the Eagles might need to turn to bracket coverage on Gronkowski and trust their coverage elsewhere on the field.
On offense, the Eagles must find early success running the ball. This will help take pressure off Nick Foles and will put the Eagles into more manageable third-down opportunities. It will also help the Eagles in time of possession, which will be beneficial against Brady and the Patriots' high-powered offense. The Patriots allowed 4.7 yards per rush this season, which was one of the worst marks in the league. Jay Ajayi's usage rate continues to increase, and he's coming off his most carries with the Eagles in the NFC championship game. Don't be surprised if the Eagles try to run against the Patriots' sub packages, spreading the Patriots out and relying on the offensive line to open holes up front. I've written before about riding the "Jay Train." This is another chance to do it. (By the way, I also expect Ajayi to have a role as a receiving back, along with Corey Clement.)
This is not a great matchup for the outside wide receivers on Sunday. When the Eagles pass the ball, I think tight end Zach Ertz and slot receiver Nelson Agholor will be the focus for Foles. Ertz should see Patrick Chung in coverage – Chung is much better than his brief Eagles career suggested, but Ertz is a Pro Bowler for a reason. He won his matchup against Harrison Smith in the NFC championship; he can win this one, too. Agholor should see time against former Eagles cornerback Eric Rowe in the slot. Agohlor's quickness will be a benefit and the Eagles would be wise to try to find ways to isolate Agholor.
This will be a game of third downs. I think the winner is the team that does better on third downs. The key for the Eagles against the Vikings was going 10 of 14 on third downs, and those included some long conversions. I don't see the Eagles using a big-play offense, but instead relying on longer drives that require third-down conversions. And on defense, Brady can turn to a quick-passing game if he's in third-and-short situations. Longer third downs will force Brady to allow plays to develop, and that's when the Eagles' pass rush can excel. If it doesn't, good luck beating the Patriots. The Eagles were better in third downs than the Patriots on both sides of the ball this season, but the Super Bowl takes on its own identity.
There's a reason why the Patriots rank No. 29 in total defense and No. 5 in scoring defense. It's because they're so good in the red zone. The Patriots allow touchdowns on only 43.8 percent of red-zone trips, which ranks No. 4 in the NFL. The Eagles had the best red-zone offense in the NFL, scoring touchdowns on 65.5 percent of their trips. This is where the Doug Pederson vs. Bill Belichick chess match will be so fascinating. The Patriots bend but don't break. The Eagles need to break them to score touchdowns.
When I watch Patriots games, I marvel at how efficient they are at the end of the half. The Patriots scored in the final minute of the first half in 12 games this season, plus two more times in the final two minutes of the half. That's such an advantage – especially if they're receiving in the second half. This is something Pederson tries to do, too – he's usually aggressive in the final minute of the half, as he was against Minnesota. It'll be interesting if the coaches manage the clock to try to keep the other team from a scoring chance going into the break.
You likely read this week about how the Eagles prepared for the extended halftime by pausing Wednesday's practice for 30 minutes. But it's not just halftime that's long. The entire game takes on a different rhythm than a typical game with television timeouts and commercial opportunities between drives and quarters. Plus, everything is magnified, and the Eagles will likely be energized early in the game. They must make sure they pace themselves. Many of the Patriots are used to this. It's one of the reason the Patriots are so good late in games in the Super Bowl.
Here's a question I heard during the past two weeks that fascinates me: Would it better if the Eagles had the ball late in the game with a four-point deficit, or if the defense was on the field late in the game with a four-point lead? In other words, how scared are you of Brady? Just about every time, I'd say take the lead and trust the defense. But Brady is that good. If were the Eagles, I would take the deficit and a chance to score on New England's defense. How would you feel if Brady had the ball in the final two minutes with a chance to win? Clock management will be fascinating. Obviously, teams want the lead. We've all watched basketball games when offenses play for the last possession, though. That approach could be applicable on Sunday. I expect this to be a close game. And I wouldn't be surprised if the team that has the ball last wins the game.
Zach Berman: Before the season, you said "optimistic counts for nothing." What have you learned about the team during the past 20 weeks that you didn't know before the season?
Malcolm Jenkins: I think I've learned, what you never know about a team, is how much grit you have. What are people going to do when facing adversity? And not just, we're down by 10 points-type of adversity. But some real issues, whether it be losing a game you feel like you should have won, or losing leaders, or losing guys to injury. And the way that this team responded this year is something I couldn't have predicted. I knew we had tough guys, a mentally tough team. And what we've been able to do is special. I've been in this league for nine years. I've seen how teams interact throughout this season. This team has had numerous times where we could have easily just folded up the tent, and nobody would blame us. We'd have every excuse to gave up or quit. But this team just continuously decides to invest more, invest more into each other. Block out all that was being said outside of the building. And trust in the process, trust in each other, trust in the coaches, and the next guy up. It's been special to watch.
Zach Berman: It seemed, at least publicly, that you never wanted to get ahead of yourself. But at what point in your mind did you really believe this could happen?
Malcolm Jenkins: I think people misconstrue humility with doubt. For us, we never wanted to talk about the future because we were focused on the here-and-now. The future doesn't happen until we take care of business today. That doesn't mean we didn't think we were going to be there. We just understand that talking about a Super Bowl before you get there is a waste of time, energy, and thought. We wanted all our energy to be on our task, right here and right now. But I think early in the season, I feel like we all realized we had exactly what we needed, which is why the mantra, "we're all we've got, we're all we need" came. We recognized pretty early that we have everything we need to accomplish our goals. Let's just stay in the moment week after week.
Zach Berman: It's seemed throughout the year that the moment hasn't been too big for this team. How do you anticipate the Super Bowl being in that regard?
Malcolm Jenkins: I'm not curious anymore. I was curious with the playoffs or a couple big games. But now I know that guys will be ready, they'll be poised. They've done it time and time again. The message from me to them is that this is no different than any other stage we've been on.
You shouldn't be worried about players missing the game; it doesn't seem like it will reach that point. Tim Jernigan, Ronald Darby, and Nelson Agholor have all been affected by an illness this week. Doug Pederson told a pool reporter on Saturday that all three players are feeling fine and that it's customary to be given I.V. fluids. Unless something changes in the next few hours, all inactive players should be healthy scratches. I don't know how or if the players who were ill will be affected Sunday, though.
Good — They must be good on third downs on offense, like I said above. They don't need to be 10 of 14 like they were against the Vikings, but they need to convert around half of them. Otherwise, there will be too many stalled drives and the Patriots would have too many shots.
Great — The pass rush must be great. It can't be mediocre. It can't be good. It must be great. This is the best quarterback of all time on the other sideline. The only way to beat them is by hitting Brady. Anything short of great play from the pass rush will mean an Eagles loss.
Competent — I'll say Nick Foles' performance. And maybe better than "competent," but I don't think he needs to play at an MVP-level for them to win. But he can't be the "bad" Nick Foles. In his career, he's played the extremes too much. The Vikings game was one extreme; the Christmas game against the Raiders was another. He can be somewhere in the middle and they can win. But if he's bad, whether it's with turnovers or missed passes on third downs, the Eagles won't have the firepower to hang with the Patriots.
My prediction was in our preview section in print on Friday and will be on Philly.com on Sunday morning, but I'll take this question to explain my thought process here. When the Super Bowl matchup was set, I thought the Patriots would win. I wasn't going to pick against Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. We've all seen this movie before.
Then during the bye week, I started to study the game. It seemed there were matchups that kept favoring the Eagles — especially along the lines of scrimmage. That matters. And so I asked myself: If you took away those intangibles — the Patriots' experience, the history winning these types of games, the "mystique" they've earned — and just looked at the game matchup-by-matchup, who do you think is the better team? The answer was the Eagles.
With that said, intangibles matter. And maybe the analysis is as simple as, "the Patriots have Brady, the Eagles have Foles." But I do think matchups are important, and you cannot overlook the lines of scrimmage. That's why I picked the Eagles to win a close game.
I don't offer that prediction with a whole lot of confidence, though. This is a tough one to predict. And I can't begin to explain how highly I think of Brady. He has five rings for a reason. This game comes down to the fourth quarter, and if I was Pederson, I wouldn't want Brady to get the ball last.
I look forward to being in the building watching on Sunday. And I can't wait to write about whatever happens.