The Philadelphia Eagles versus the New England Patriots.
Nick Foles, who considered retiring after a disappointing stint with the St. Louis Rams, versus Tom Brady, who’s playing in his eighth Super Bowl and going for his sixth ring.
Second-year Eagles head coach Doug Pederson versus Bill Belichick, who’s revered as one of the game’s best coaches.
The Eagles have lost MVP candidate Carson Wentz, Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters, starting linebacker Jordan Hicks, running backs Darren Sproles and Donnel Pumphrey and kicker Caleb Sturgis while New England is mostly healthy, with Julian Edelman and Dont’a Hightower as the lone true contributors on injured reserve.
Top-seeded Philadelphia has been home underdogs in each one of their postseason games while the Patriots have played their two playoff games as heavy favorites — by at least seven points.
This is a true David versus Goliath matchup.
Destiny versus dynasty.
“I definitely respect (Tom Brady) and all that he’s done in this league,” Eagles All-Pro right tackle Lane Johnson told The Associated Press. “I’m not going to go into the Super Bowl worshipping this man and make him more than what he is. No disrespect.
“As far as bulletin-board material, they can put it on their nightstands for all I care, in their bathrooms, I don’t care. I don’t think you need any motivation to play in the Super Bowl. They know that.”
EAGLES: THREE KEYS TO VICTORY
Win the battle in the trenches
The Patriots have beaten their opponents by getting after the quarterback this offseason.
Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota was sacked eight times for 52 yards in the divisional round while Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles was sacked three times for 20 yards in the AFC Championship Game.
Those sacks, especially in the divisional game, played a significant role in New England’s victories.
Trailing 21-7 to start the third quarter, Mariota was sack three times in Tennessee’s first two drives. The Titans amassed negative-9 yards, while New England, after forcing a three-and-out on Tennessee’s second possession of the third quarter, drove down the field 56 yards — thanks in part to two Mariota sacks — for a Brandon Bolden touchdown to take a 28-7 lead with four minutes and two seconds remaining in the third quarter.
Tennessee’s third drive? The Titans lost six yards thanks to another Mariota sack. New England then drove the ball 90 yards, ending in a Rob Gronkowski touchdown reception on their very next possession to put the game away for good.
Even after the loss of Jason Peters, the Eagles feature the league’s best offensive line, according to Pro Football Focus.
The lone week spot along the line is left tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who replaced Peters. The left tackle earned a PFF grade of 39.1 during the regular season while the other four offensive linemen earned a grade of 72.5 or above. Three of the five offensive linemen — Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks and Lane Johnson — all graded out at 83.9 or above.
PFF grades on a scale of 1 to 100, with 70 being average.
The Eagles offensive line will have some advantages against New England’s defensive front. Two of the four Patriots defensive linemen — Eric Lee and Adam Butler — graded out with a 52 or lower.
If the Eagles offensive line can keep Nick Foles upright and pave the way for Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount, they’ll have the upper hand offensively.
Take advantage of RPOs
Philadelphia led the league in run-pass options this season, according to Pro Football Focus.
The Eagles ran 207 RPOs for 981 yards. That’s more than triple the league average, which was 66 plays during the regular season.
“You never know when it’s coming because everything looks the same,” Foles said, via The Star Tribune.
New England, on the other hand, struggled to defend the RPO against the Jacksonville Jaguars in the conference championship game.
Jacksonville ran the same run-bubble screen option four separate times. Each play was a first down and went for close to 20 yards.
If the Eagles can stretch the field like Jacksonville did, they’ll have the opportunity to have similar success.
“It’s hard because they do a great job,” Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy said. “It starts with their O-line. Their run-pass fakes, half of the line is pass dropping, the other half is run blocking. So you just have to pay attention to your keys. They make a lot of hay with it.”
Philadelphia’s success of running RPOs could be the difference between victory and defeat.
Shorten the game
Sporting a 20-10 lead with 14:52 remaining in regulation, the Jaguars made a crucial mistake.
They went away from what made them so successful this season. Jacksonville abandoned the run.
In their final three drives, which either ended in a punt or a turnover on downs, the Jaguars ran the ball three times as the Patriots stormed back to take a 24-20 lead. Blake Bortles threw 10 passes, going 4-for-10 for 61 yards. He was also sacked on a critical second-and-10 from the New England 38.
If the Jaguars ran the ball more during their final three drives, the Eagles might be facing a different opponent in Minneapolis.
Doug Pederson can’t make the same mistake Jacksonville coach Doug Marrone did. He has to stick to his guns.
Jay Ajayi is at his best when he’s fresh.
Look no further than the divisional round against the Atlanta Falcons. Ajayi rushed for 54 yards on 15 carries but was also a factor in the passing game. He hauled in three balls for 44 yards.
Ajayi played an even bigger factor in the NFC Championship Game against the Minnesota Vikings. The former Miami Dolphins running back amassed 99 yards on 21 touches.
If the Eagles can run the ball efficiently, it will keep Tom Brady on the sidelines.
That is the key.
Like Bill Parcells did with a backup quarterback against the high-flying Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV. He kept Jim Kelly and Co. off the field.
That’s exactly what Pederson needs to do.
PATRIOTS: THREE KEYS TO THE GAME
Unleash Rob Gronkowski
Rob Gronkowski has been cleared from concussion protocal.
“We knew the whole time I was gonna be good to go,” Gronkowski said, via The Associated Press. “We just knew I’d be ready and we’ve been practicing like we always do.”
While the Patriots are full of playmakers on offense, it all starts with Gronkowski.
There isn’t another tight end in the league like him and the Eagles haven’t faced a tight end with that mixture of size and talent this season.
“He’s a dynamic player. He means a ton to our offense,” Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said.
However, the Eagles did face a trio of tight ends that draw similar comparisons — Kyle Rudolph, Jordan Reed and Evan Engram. And all three tight ends found success against the Eagles.
Rudolph caught one pass, a 25-yard touchdown, in the championship game, Reed caught 13 passes for 100 yards and two touchdowns in two games and Engram finished with 13 receptions for 132 yards and a touchdown in two games.
In fact, the Eagles finished 15th against tight ends during the regular season, allowing 745 yards and five touchdowns.
Philadelphia’s safety position is topped out by Malcom Jenkins, with a 83 grade in coverage by Pro Football Focus while the linebackers are topped out by Nigel Bradham’s 87.7. However, the remaining linebackers on the Eagles’ roster graded out in the 70s or lower.
“We’re just going to have to understand where he’s at and what they are trying to do based on where he lines up,” Eagles safety Rodney McLeod said, via The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, “play with good technique, and just compete.”
Opportunities will be there for Gronkowski against the Philadelphia defense. Tom Brady just has to take advantage, like he did against Jacksonville before he was knocked out.
Force Nick Foles to beat you
Bill Belichick is known best for one thing — defensive.
He’s going to take away your best player or aspect of your offense. For Philadelphia, that’s the running game.
Expect Belichick to be comfortable, and even accept the fact, if it’s Foles that beats him. He’ll likely take his chances of forcing Foles to replicate his 352-yard NFC Championship Game performance in the Super Bowl.
It’s a bigger stage, the biggest of Foles’ life, and at a neutral site.
While Foles struggled heading into the NFC Championship Game, it was against the Vikings when he got back on track. The former backup quarterback graded out three straight games less than 50 before earning a 92.6 from PFF against the Vikings.
“Everyone wants to hate on Nick Foles, but he’s done a great job,” Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy said, via The Associated Press. “He’s still a high-caliber quarterback, like Carson Wentz. Nick Foles is a great quarterback who’s done a great job. They distribute the ball really well and their run game is at a high level.”
Foles’ key to success? His ability to take advantage of Minnesota’s pass rush. In 11 plays while pressured, Foles threw two touchdowns and registered a 152.1 pass rating, according to PFF.
New England has the talent on the back end, led by Stephon Gilmore and Malcom Butler, to rush just four and still contain Foles and the Philadelphia offense.
If Matt Ryan, Russell Wilson and Ben Roethlisberger have struggled to beat the Patriots in big-time postseason games, it’s likely that Foles will, too.
This final key builds off of making Foles beat you.
If New England can put Philadelphia in a hole, the Eagles could have trouble getting out of it.
As a run-first offense, the Eagles are built to take the lead early and then run the clock out with their vaunted rushing attack. But if they’re behind, it’ll force Foles to air it out more than Philadelphia would like.
While Philadelphia was able to overcome deficits in both rounds of the playoffs, the New England offense has much more firepower than both the Vikings and Falcons.
The running game is dynamic. Dion Lewis and James White have been special this season. The passing attack can take apart any defense. With the weapons in Tom Brady’s arsenal — Gronkowski, Brandin Cooks, Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan — the Eagles will have their hands full.
“He’s clutch,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said of Amendola, via Newsday. “You don’t worry about him being prepared. You don’t worry about him having to show up. He’s going to go out there and do whatever it takes, whether that is punt returning or making a tough catch over the middle. He shows up when we need it the most.”
And even when New England is down late in a game, it has the talent to storm back — a la the AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl LI.
If the Patriots score first, especially if it comes on their first possession, this game could get out of hand quick.
Reach DJ Eberle at 570-991-6398 or on Twitter @ByDJEberle