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OPINION: Super Bowl LII Preview and Prediction

By Hogan Lepore, Columnist

The New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles will face off in Super Bowl LII Sunday, Feb. 4, in Minneapolis.

The Patriots look to tie the Pittsburgh Steelers for the most Super Bowl wins in the NFL– six– while the Eagles are looking for their first Super Bowl victory. The Eagles have been in two Super Bowls before, including a matchup against the Patriots in 2004, where New England beat Philadelphia 24-21. That victory was the Patriots’ third Super Bowl win in four years, which they will be trying to repeat on Sunday.

In an injury-riddled NFL season, it makes sense that a backup quarterback would make it to the Super Bowl. With superstars like Aaron Rodgers out with significant injuries for the majority of this season, backup quarterbacks like the Eagles’ Nick Foles had a chance to show that they, too, were starting-caliber players.

Foles, an alumnus of the University of Arizona, will match up against one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the position: Tom Brady, with more Super Bowl wins (five) than any other quarterback in NFL history.  

Brady and the Patriots are once again at the top of the NFL, playing in their fourth Super Bowl in the last decade and their eighth with head coach Bill Belichick. The team may be led by Brady, but the future Hall-of-Famer leads a cast of talented playmakers. The key playmaker for the Patriots is tight end Rob Gronkowski, who sustained a concussion in the AFC Championship game and is still in concussion protocol. Gronkowski’s readiness for Sunday remains in question, Running back Dion Lewis may be the most important to the Patriots’ on the offensive side of the ball .

The running game for New England has been well below average in the postseason thus far– the team has a combined 147 yards rushing in two games. Their ground game averages only 3.19 yards on 46 carries.

Lewis leads the team in rushes (24) and yards (96). To be fair, New England executes their running game through swing passes, screens and check downs in the passing game, which can be seen in the box scores. Two of the top five receivers for the Patriots in this postseason are running backs, including Lewis, who is second on the team in receptions (16). Lewis is also third in receiving yards (111), behind receivers Danny Amendola (196) and Brandin Cooks (132).

The Eagles’ defense was one of the top five in the NFL in total defense this season, and ranked number one in rush defense, giving up only 79.2 yards per game on the ground. Philadelphia’s defensive line is stacked, as they are led by interior linemen Fletcher Cox and Timmy Jernigan, along with defensive ends Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry.

According to Pro Football Focus, Graham and Cox finished with the third and fourth-highest pass-rushing productivity marks at their respective positions.

The Eagles have young stars in their defensive front seven as well, as Derek Barnett has burst onto the scene. The rookie from Tennessee has recorded five sacks and a forced fumble during the regular season and a sack and a forced fumble in their two playoff contests. The Nashville native not only rushes the passer, but also helps to set the edge for the Eagles’ top rush defense. Barnett is a great asset for head coach Doug Pederson and the rest of the staff, as the young pass rusher does not have to play every snap due to all the talent on the defensive line. He can therefore come fresh onto the field in critical situations. Cox even called Barnett, “one of the greatest rookies I’ve ever seen,” during the Super Bowl Media Day on Tuesday, Jan. 30.

Barnett will be a player to watch on Sunday, as he could be very impactful and integral to the Eagles winning their first Super Bowl.

There are three keys to victory for the Eagles in Super Bowl LII.

First, Philadelphia must establish a ground game with Jay Ajayi. If the Eagles can get the Patriots to respect their running game it will force New England to bring eight plus into the box and which will allow Foles to attack their secondary, who ranked thirtieth in the NFL’s regular season in passing defense. It will also help the backup quarterback manage the game, as long drives will keep Brady off the field.

The second key comes down to the previously mentioned interior defensive linemen. If Cox and Jernigan can get a pass rush through gaps in the Patriots’ line, then Brady will not be able to step up and climb the pocket. Brady rarely scrambles outside the pocket. This will ultimately lead to higher pressure rates, which is the key to defeating Brady. Opponents have to hit him.

The last key for the underdog Eagles to dethrone the Super Bowl Champions is by simply not shooting themselves in the foot. Yes, the Patriots have had some great comebacks over the past couple years, but they have benefited greatly from mistakes by the opposition. For example, in last year’s Super Bowl, the Atlanta Falcons gave up a 28-3 lead. But this year, if one holding penalty by the Falcons is not committed late in the fourth quarter, then the Falcons win the Super Bowl and halt a New England comeback.

The same can be said about the Jacksonville Jaguars just two weeks ago in the AFC Championship game. If the Jaguars had rushed Brady in the fourth quarter, instead of what they did — playing preventative defense — then New England would have punted and Jacksonville would have been able to put that game away.

The Patriots were fourth in the league this year in points off of turnovers. If the Eagles can minimize or eliminate turnovers, then they can reduce the number of opportunities the Patriots have to score easy points.

The Patriots’ key to victory is to get their running game going because it has lacked in the playoffs thus far. The other key is getting to Foles. As long as the Patriots can rattle Foles and not allow him to get comfortable, they should not have a problem stifling the Eagles’ offense.

Although at first glance the game may seem one-sided, as Brady faces off against a backup quarterback, but it will be very entertaining. Both teams are evenly matched and it will definitely be entertaining to watch the Patriots’ offense try to methodically drive on the Eagles’ defense.

Brady has been able to escape pressure before, but Philadelphia’s secondary may be able to make the quarterback hold the ball for a few more seconds with complex zone coverages and safety shades, which can lead this monstrous front seven defensive line to get to the Michigan alum. Foles has enough talent around him to score points on New England’s defense and go on extensive drives to keep Brady off the field. All these scenarios can ultimately lead to the Eagles’ first NFL Championship.

Prediction: Eagles 31, Patriots 27