Perhaps it's fitting that the NFL's Year of Attrition is guaranteed to end with a suitable winner in Super Bowl LII. If the New England Patriots prevail, the story will be that the one MVP candidate left standing amid a season overrun by injuries to superstars, Tom Brady, will have been enough for New England to come out on top. If the Philadelphia Eagles pull off the upset on Sunday, they'll be the one team that was good enough to overcome an injury to its superstar and win, after losing Carson Wentz to a torn ACL in December.
It goes without saying that nobody expected Brady to be facing off with Nick Foles in the Super Bowl as recently as a month ago, let alone before the season began. The Eagles limped into the postseason with an offense handicapped by a seemingly hopeless backup quarterback, only for Foles to show signs of life against the Falcons before delivering the second-best conference championship performance in league history in dominating the Vikings. Suddenly, Foles looks like he won't be holding back what had been the best team in football -- before the Wentz injury -- from having a meaningful shot at winning its first title.
Super Bowl LII Coverage
It's Eagles vs. Patriots in the Super Bowl, and ESPN.com has you covered for the 2017 NFL playoffs.
A Super Bowl that would have sounded like a mismatch heading into the postseason now seems competitive and full of possibilities. The Falcons dominated the Patriots for the majority of Super Bowl LI, only for their pass rush to gas out under a nearly unprecedented workload and a few mistakes at precisely the most damaging moments. The Eagles are bringing a much better defense with them to Minneapolis, but is the Foles we saw in Philadelphia the one we'll see in the Twin Cities?
Click the links below to skip to each section:
Can the Eagles actually win with this significant of a QB mismatch?
The one weapon the Patriots will try to stop and how
Don't forget about Gronk ... and Brady's history vs. Schwartz
The terrible 2017 team the Patriots should copy
What else could play a meaningful role in the outcome?
Final score prediction
Can the Eagles actually win with this significant of a QB mismatch?
We're often guilty of reducing Super Bowl matchups to quarterback vs. quarterback, but there's a chance that the passing matchup is so lopsided between these two teams as to render any advantages the Eagles have elsewhere moot. If we get a terrible performance from Foles, Brady's floor might be high enough for the Patriots to win on quarterback play alone.
It's also tough to look at the Foles we saw from the NFC Championship Game and project that same guy to appear in the Super Bowl. Foles dominated the Vikings in ways that simply didn't resemble the player we had seen over his seven previous 2017 appearances. Everything that had given Foles problems before the NFC title game suddenly didn't bother him, as we can see from his passer rating in several splits before the Vikings game and during the contest:
SPLIT PRE-VIKINGS VS. VIKINGS
Versus blitz 87.9 142.3
Versus pressure 39.3 128.3
Third down 71.3 158.3
15-plus-yard throws 23.8 141.4
As FiveThirtyEight's Neil Paine pointed out last week, there isn't any evidence that a team that dominates in the conference championship is more likely to win in the Super Bowl.
The same is also likely true for quarterbacks. As an example, there are seven instances since 2001 of a quarterback posting a passer rating better than Foles' 141.4 in a playoff win. It's a group that includes Chad Pennington, Ben Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson and two performances each from Peyton Manning and Kurt Warner, all of whom are far more pedigreed than Foles. Those passers went 3-4 the following week with an average passer rating of 82.6. The 10 quarterbacks just behind Foles posted an average passer rating of 137.1 in their wins and then went 4-6 the following week while generating an average passer rating of just 61.9. Not a single player topped a passer rating of 100!
Nick Foles had a 31.4 Total QBR in the regular season, but in two playoff games his Total QBR is 74.0 Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports
The Foles we saw in the regular season would be an enormous mismatch versus Brady, who will likely win his third league MVP award on Saturday. If we assume that we're going to get an average performance from this version of Foles, should that alone disqualify the Eagles from having any shot of competing?
Well, let's see. To use a better version of passer rating, let's look at the biggest mismatches in Super Bowl history between starting quarterbacks by adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A). The league average for AY/A this season was 6.8 yards per attempt. Brady finished third in the league with 8.4 adjusted yards per attempt, while Foles' mark of 5.4 yards per throw ranked 38th among the 46 passers with 50 or more attempts, slotting him just below C.J. Beathard, Blaine Gabbert and Trevor Siemian.
The difference between Brady and Foles rounds to 2.9 yards per attempt, which is the seventh-largest gap in the history of the Super Bowl. How have similar matchups turned out? Let's look at the 10 biggest mismatches before this season and see what happened, with a game that Patriots fans might not remember fondly looming at the top:
YR BETTER QB AY/A LESSER QB AY/A DIFF. BETTER
2007 Tom Brady (NE) 9.4 Eli Manning (NYG) 5.5 4.0 No
1970 Craig Morton (DAL) 8.7 Johnny Unitas (BAL) 5.2 3.5 No
1989 Joe Montana (SF) 9.5 John Elway (DEN) 6.3 3.3 Yes
2015 Cam Newton (CAR) 8.3 Peyton Manning (DEN) 5.0 3.2 No
1974 Fran Tarkenton (MIN) 6.8 Terry Bradshaw (PIT) 3.8 3.0 No
1999 Kurt Warner (STL) 9.2 Steve McNair (TEN) 6.2 3.0 Yes
1982 Joe Theismann (WSH) 7.5 David Woodley (MIA) 4.6 2.9 Yes
1979 Terry Bradshaw (PIT) 6.6 Vince Ferragamo (LAR) 3.9 2.7 Yes
2006 Peyton Manning (IND) 8.3 Rex Grossman (CHI) 5.7 2.5 Yes
1994 Steve Young (SF) 9.2 Stan Humphries (SD) 6.6 2.5 Yes
The lesser quarterbacks were certainly able to put up a fight; not only did they win four of the 10 games, but they managed to triumph in four of the five largest mismatches out there (Unitas left Super Bowl V injured after eight pass attempts). Steve McNair also came within a yard of pushing Super Bowl XXXIV to overtime in the sixth-biggest quarterback mismatch of the Super Bowl era.
One of the reasons Foles might be able to enjoy some success on Sunday is that the Patriots' defense simply hasn't been very good in 2017. Raw numbers note that the Pats finished fifth in points allowed at 18.5 per game, which makes them look like a dominant defense. As I mentioned on Monday, New England simultaneously finished 31st in defensive DVOA, suggesting it is one of the worst defenses in the league.
How can a defense simultaneously be great and abysmal? Context. Raw numbers don't account for the fact that the Patriots' offense makes its defense's life as easy as possible. The average Patriots drive on offense included a league-high 6.2 plays, keeping their defense fresh and off the field for long stretches of time. The New England defense faced just 172 possessions this season, the fifth fewest in football and 12 below the league average. Contrast that to the Jaguars, who finished second in points allowed and faced 204 possessions. That's nearly three additional games worth of drives to defend.
In addition, that incredible Patriots offense rarely turns the ball over and delivers the defense consistently excellent field position. Only the Chiefs turned the ball over less frequently than the Patriots on a per-possession basis in 2017. Brady & Co. turned over the ball just 6.9 percent of the time, substantially lower than the league average (11.4 percent). Only two teams went three-and-out less frequently.
As a result, the defense almost never faced a short field. The average defense in 2017 had to face just over 17 possessions that began on its own side of the field. The Patriots went up against just five of those possessions, and two of them were the Chiefs and Dolphins kneeling at the end of their victories. (If we remove drives in the final two minutes to get rid of kneel-downs, the Patriots faced three, and the league average was 15.5.)
During the Brady-Belichick era (2001-2017), the average defense has faced just under 368 short fields. Every team besides the Patriots has faced a minimum of 311 possessions beginning on their side of the field. Belichick's defenses have needed to defend only 227 short fields. The second-place Falcons are closer to the Ravens in 24th than they are to the Patriots. This has been a huge competitive advantage for the Pats.
It's not a huge surprise, then, that the Patriots' defense hasn't lived up to its regular-season numbers when playing against top-tier competition in the Super Bowl. If we use New England's raw scoring averages from the regular season, we would have expected them to allow 121.8 points across their seven Super Bowls. Instead, the Pats have allowed 157 points. The only times the Patriots have held opposing Super Bowl offenses below their defensive average were against the Giants in 2007 (17 points versus an average of 17.1 points allowed) and 2011 (21 points versus an average of 21.4 points allowed). Of course, they lost both games.
Zach Ertz has been Nick Foles' favorite target since Carson Wentz went down. Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports
The one weapon the Patriots will try to stop and how
The famous assumption we make about Bill Belichick -- going back most famously to the Patriots-Rams Super Bowl -- is that he wants to take away whatever the opposing offense builds around. In that Rams game, it was Marshall Faulk. Last year, Belichick held Julio Jones to four targets and 87 yards, and 27 of those yards required a catch no defense on the planet could have prevented.
On Sunday, my suspicion is that Belichick will be building his game plan around ruining Zach Ertz's day. Julie Johnston Ertz's husband has been Foles' favorite weapon, taking in 39 targets from the Eagles backup across the regular season and playoffs, 10 more than any other receiver. He has been targeted on nearly 24 percent of his routes run with Foles at quarterback, which is well ahead of Nelson Agholor (15.5 percent), Alshon Jeffery (9.4 percent) and Torrey Smith (8.7 percent). No wideout or tight end was targeted on more than 20.1 percent of their routes during the regular season.
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Stopping Ertz is easier said than done. Just ask the Vikings, who finished the year allowing a league-low 5.5 yards per target to tight ends without permitting one to score since Week 5. Ertz promptly caught eight passes on eight targets for 93 yards, including the play in which he left All-Pro safety Harrison Smith for dead with a double move en route to a 36-yard gain.
The Patriots haven't allowed a tight end to do anything like that this season. The only tight end to top 70 yards against them was Neal Sterling, who got to 74 yards for the Jets. They admittedly haven't played a devastating slate of tight ends, but the Pats were able to limit weapons such as Delanie Walker (three catches for 49 yards), Jared Cook (two catches for 36 yards) and Charles Clay (seven catches for 57 yards in two games).
The only truly top-tier receiving tight end the Pats faced in 2017 was Travis Kelce in Week 1. Kelce serves as a helpful proxy for Ertz, given that he plays in an offense run by Andy Reid, who is Doug Pederson's coaching mentor. Like Ertz, Kelce is capable of moving around the formation and serves as the most-targeted receiver on his offense. Ertz is 6-foot-5, 249 pounds; Kelce is 6-foot-5, 255 pounds. They're not the same player, but the best insight into how the Patriots will go after Ertz is how they defended Kelce.
Kelce had a relatively pedestrian game by his standards against the Patriots, racking up five catches for 40 yards on 37 routes. The Chiefs didn't exactly struggle without a big day from Kelce -- they scored 42 points and won by 15 against a team some projected to go 16-0 -- but their game plan was built more around option looks and Kelce as a decoy to draw coverage away from Kansas City's receivers than with Kelce as a focal point. The Chiefs moved him around the formation, and while the Patriots occasionally took a shot at Kansas City's tight end, he didn't get the hit-every-play treatment Faulk saw 16 years ago.
Belichick sent a variety of coverages Kelce's way, but the most frequent look the tight end saw was man coverage from safety Devin McCourty, who mostly held his own. The converted cornerback was able to knock away a deep Alex Smith pass on an attempted double move, which was Kelce's most significant target of the night on an out-and-up attempt similar to the one Ertz pulled on the Vikings' Harrison Smith in the NFC title game.
Kelce also saw coverage from Patrick Chung and Eric Rowe, with Chung being burned so badly on a slant that he nearly lost his balance as Kelce accelerated across the field. Alex Smith couldn't get the ball to Kelce. An earlier play saw Kelce create separation on a slant, which distracted Rowe (playing as a robber) long enough to create a throwing lane behind Rowe to Kareem Hunt for a long touchdown catch on a route concept that was similar to the one that resulted in Jeffery's touchdown in the fourth quarter against Minnesota.
Kelce played a bigger role in the Chiefs' success than his numbers indicate. They repeatedly had success running various mesh/wheel concepts involving Kelce, which combine a pair of crossing routes with a wheel route to take advantage of a third defender. The crossing routes create a natural pick on one another and interfere with the defender attempting to chase the running back on the wheel route. Mesh/wheel was a staple of the Chip Kelly offense when Foles was at his best, and the Eagles have had success with it during the postseason, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see Philly go back to it early on Sunday.
Mesh/wheel is designed to get the ball out quickly and with a simple read, which the Eagles have focused on creating for Foles over the past few weeks. Philadelphia has built nearly instant throws for Foles with run-pass options (RPOs), where Foles reads one defender after the snap and makes a throw to an open receiver. Again, they're similar concepts to the ones that resulted in one of the best half-seasons in league history for Foles back with Kelly as his coach in 2013. Foles has seemingly completed a half-dozen throws to Jeffery on a skinny post out of an RPO for easy yardage already this postseason.
The Patriots will have to find a way to slow down the RPOs, which gave them fits in the first half against Jacksonville in the AFC Championship Game. They can try to get physical at the point of attack and disrupt the timing of Philly's receivers, which would be a dangerous game to play given how they can operate after a missed jam at the line of scrimmage. The Pats can alternately try to confuse Foles by showing him one look before the snap and then immediately shifting into another one after the snap, which will require the sort of excellent communication and familiarity the Patriots lacked before the season.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson, who spent several years under Andy Reid with the Eagles and Chiefs, is 22-12 in two seasons (including the playoffs) as head coach. Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
James Light pointed out on Twitter that the Patriots were likely to go to Cover 7 looks to try to combat Philadelphia's RPO game, combining man coverage with safety brackets at multiple levels of the field. As Matt Bowen wrote in 2014, Cover 7 allows the Patriots to disguise their coverage intentions before the snap and create immediate traps for Foles to diagnose after the snap.
You need a cover corner capable of holding his own on one side of the field to play Cover 7, which is one of the reasons Belichick went out in free agency and spent $65 million to bring in Stephon Gilmore last year. Gilmore's size and physicality make him an obvious matchup against Jeffery, and it seems likely that the Patriots will hope that Gilmore can hold up one-on-one against Philadelphia's most expensive wideout. Gilmore and Jeffery were college teammates at South Carolina, making that matchup even more tantalizing.
The Patriots turned to Chung as their primary coverage option against Ertz in 2015, but it wouldn't be a surprise to see Chung split snaps with McCourty against Ertz on Sunday. Gilmore could theoretically take some snaps against Ertz one-on-one, and the Patriots have used their No. 1 corner on a tight end in the past (like when Aqib Talib spent most of a game against the Saints covering Jimmy Graham), but the Patriots will give whomever is in primary coverage on Ertz some assistance, especially on third down and in the red zone.
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What has been so impressive about Pederson during this postseason -- really, this season as a whole -- is how he has adjusted from game to game and introduced tweaks his opponents didn't see coming. Think about how the Eagles refocused their running game for one week around trapping with their tackles against the Cowboys. Or the single-wing counter Pederson pulled out of mothballs to create a big play for Agholor against the Falcons. Do you think Harrison Smith was expecting Ertz to turn his out route upfield in the NFC title game? Pederson has done a phenomenal job of creating opportunities for his offensive weapons, even after losing Wentz and Darren Sproles to injuries.
I do think the Eagles will miss Sproles on Sunday, because the best way for Philadelphia to attack the Patriots' defense might be on throws to its running backs. The Eagles might be best in 12 personnel, with both Ertz and fellow tight end Trey Burton on the field, which could encourage the Pats to match up with their base defense. New England's core defense would push Eric Lee and Elandon Roberts onto the field in meaningful roles, and neither has been effective this postseason. The Pats have faced only eight pass attempts so far this postseason in their base set (four defensive backs), but Blake Bortles and Marcus Mariota have gone 8-of-8 for 116 yards on those throws.
Getting Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement matched up against Roberts, Kyle Van Noy or Marquis Flowers would be a win for the Eagles. To see that base defense, they'll need to successfully run the ball against New England's sub packages and prevent it from playing with five or more defensive backs on early downs. The Jags and Titans couldn't run the ball against the Pats' base defense -- their 35 carries produced just 93 yards -- but their 13 rushes against the sub packages produced 73 yards.
Pederson should want to throw when the Patriots are in their base sets and run when they're in sub packages. If the Eagles establish that they can run the ball and force the Patriots to match up accordingly, Philadelphia has the weapons to throw the ball out of those same personnel groupings. It's the same idea behind what the Patriots have done with their two-tight-end sets and Dion Lewis, a former Eagles player. If Pederson has a wrinkle or two Belichick either isn't expecting or the Patriots struggle to defend -- as the Falcons did with their crack toss in the first half of last year's Super Bowl -- it might be enough for the Eagles to get the ball rolling for Foles.
One more thing: While he gives the Eagles a fighting chance, an injury to Foles would likely leave Philadelphia essentially dead in the water with third-stringer Nate Sudfeld under center. Foles is extremely tough, and it would take a truly serious injury for him to leave the Super Bowl, but the 29-year-old was forced to miss time with a broken hand, concussion and fractured collarbone during his previous three-year stint in Philadelphia. The chances of any quarterback getting injured in a single game are relatively minuscule, but Foles -- who went for precautionary X-rays on his ribs after the Vikings game -- is a riskier injury proposition than most NFL passers.