2017 NFL Picks Super Bowl 52: New England Patriots vs. Philadelphia Eagles
Last Week: 0-2
We’ve made it, everyone. Week 21 of the NFL Season, the annual meeting between Tom Brady and Bill Belichick on one side and the NFC team with the best injury and rookie contract luck on the other. This year, it’s the Philadelphia Eagles, led by backup quarterback Nick Foles and one of the deepest, healthiest rosters in the league. Let’s break down the matchup to decide on our pick.
The 2017-18 Philadelphia Eagles
Philadelphia came into the season with a deep defensive front, a second-year quarterback, and a second-year head coach. Optimism outside of the delusional Philly fan base generally settled at slight improvement on the 7-9 record they posted in 2016-17 and a potential wild card berth. Not many people (myself included) expected both the Cowboys and Giants to slip, but the Eagles might have won the NFC East either way. Carson Wentz led them to a 10-2 start, looking like the most dominant team in the league, until suffering a knee injury against the Rams in a Week 14 win. Philadelphia came out of that game ranked 3rd in Total DVOA, 4th on offense and 3rd on defense. They were destroying bad teams (Bears, Broncos, Niners) and beating good teams (Panthers, Rams), but Wentz’s injury brought Nick Foles to the top of their QB depth chart.
No one knew quite what to expect; after all, Foles had a stellar 2013 under Chip Kelly, leading the league in passer rating over 10 starts and throwing 27 touchdowns to just 2 interceptions. He left via trade for the Rams and Jeff Fisher’s quarterback hellscape, where he (and two other 2017-18 playoff quarterbacks) posted ugly numbers in few wins. After 5 appearances this season…we still don’t really know what to expect. Foles led the Eagles to a win over the 11-5 Rams after Wentz’s injury, then struggled mightily against the Giants, Raiders, and Cowboys in his next three starts. It was hard to see him leading the Eagles to victory over the Vikings and their stellar defense last week, so of course he threw for 352 yards and 3 touchdowns in a 38-7 dismantling. The Eagles’ rushing offense ranked in the top 5 in 2nd-level rushing (past the defensive line) and open field rushing, so NFL-average play from Foles makes their offense dangerous. If he executes the way he did against Minnesota, they’re unstoppable.
The quarterback position is still a question mark, but last week proved the Eagles’ offense can still score points. Their defense showed no signs of slipping towards the end of the season, holding the Raiders and Cowboys to 10 and 6 points, respectively, finishing the regular season ranked 5th in defensive DVOA. The two biggest strengths of their defense are a deep, talented line (1st against the rush and 15th in sacks) and a fast linebacking crew capable of covering running backs and tight ends (10th and 17th in DVOA). Their secondary is less reputable but still opportunistic, tying for 4th in interceptions. Counting on your front seven to generate pressure is a common strategy for masking weaknesses on the back-end, and it’s hard to argue with the Eagles’ results so far this season.
The 2017-18 New England Patriots
They’re keeping Jimmy Garoppolo as insurance for Tom Brady’s retirement! Malcolm Butler is unhappy about his and Stephen Gilmore’s contracts! Julian Edelman and Dont’a Hightower are out for the year! The defense is a shambles and can’t stop Alex Smith! ach of those links came from articles published before New England’s Week 6 game against the Jets Since then, Rob Gronkowski has missed time in multiple games, Jimmy Garoppolo was traded for a second-round pick and became everyone’s hot pick for the next big thing, and Tom Brady injured his hand severely enough to require stitches. The Patriots finished the regular season 13-3 as the top seed in the AFC, trounced the overmatched Tennessee Titans in the divisional round, and slowly strangled the life from Blake Bortles and the Jaguars in one of the less exciting double-digit comebacks you’ll ever see.
The Patriots’ offense this year is exactly what we’ve come to expect from them. Here are their offensive DVOA results for this season compared to their average finish over the prior three seasons:
Tom Brady is still fantastic, the coaching staff comes into every game with a sound, defined strategy, and when things get tight, they transform into the hurry-up, death-by-a-thousand-cuts machine we saw exhaust Atlanta’s defense in the Super Bowl last year. Dion Lewis’s fumble last week might drive Belichick to dress just one running back for this game (he doesn’t like fumbles, just ask Mike Gilislee), but it wouldn’t make me any less confident in their ability to score 25 points on any defense in the league. Danny Amendola did his best postseason-hero-Julian-Edelman impression last week, Brandin Cooks is an occasionally spectacular #1 receiver, and Rob Gronkowski reminded us all of the matchup nightmare he creates at the end of the Steelers game in Week 15. Despite a lack of marquee names along the offensive line and among their running backs, the Patriots managed the 3rd-ranked rushing offense and 14th-ranked adjusted sack rate allowed. They are, as usual, infuriatingly difficult to stop.
The defense has been another story entirely. Defensive Coordinator (and future Lions Head Coach) Matt Patricia’s unit finished 31st in defensive DVOA and, despite some late-season improvement, 22nd in weighted defensive DVOA. They don’t fare particularly well against any approach or personnel, ranking 30th against the run and 21st against the pass and no higher than 20th against any type of receiver. Fortunately, the one thing they’re good at is the most important thing any defense can do: prevent points. Despite the numbers above, New England allowed the 5th-fewest points per game and gave up more than 20 points only twice after their opening run against Kansas City, New Orleans, Houston, and Carolina. One reason is their red zone defense, which allowed touchdowns at a 43.8% rate, 4th-lowest in the NFL, and another is the NFL-best opponent’s average starting field position they faced (24.6 yard line). I usually expect a bend-but-don’t-break defense to break dramatically when faced with a strong offense, but New England ranked 16th and 12th the last two seasons they won the Super Bowl.
The ceiling of Philadelphia’s offense is entirely dependent on which Nick Foles shows up, but their floor is respectable. A strong, diverse rushing attack will cause problems for New England’s 30th-ranked rush defense and give the Eagles the chance to control the clock much like Jacksonville did for most of the AFC Championship game. Even an average Foles is better than Blake Bortles, so a few clutch 3rd down conversions and defense-stretching completions to Alshon Jeffery or Nelson Agholor could push Philadelphia over 30 points.
On the other side of the ball, you won’t see me picking the Patriots to score less than 20 points until Tom Brady retires, so I’ll set the floor there. Beyond that, Patriots fans should be concerned with the personnel matchups the Eagles’ defense presents. They’re undoubtedly talented, but their strength this year lies in game plan and execution more than ever. Julian Edelman’s injury robbed Tom Brady of his most dependable target, and Rob Gronkowski suffered a concussion in their win over the Jaguars. Brandin Cooks is a solid #1 receiver, but he isn’t on the same level as some of the league’s real game-changers. With Philadelphia’s ability to generate pressure all along their front four without blitzing, they’ll need to make big plays in the open field to keep their own defense off the field. They managed to do it last week against Jacksonville’s top-ranked defense, but Philly’s attack is deeper and much better against the run (3rd vs. 26th). If Gronk is 100% and Amendola can keep continue his postseason dependability, the Patriots can wear the Eagles out and have another big fourth quarter. If the Eagles' defensive line controls the line of scrimmage like they have most of the season, though, it might look more like the Patriots' loss to the Broncos in 2015..
New England holds a not-insignificant edge on special teams. The Eagles weren't bad, finishing 16th in DVOA, but the Patriots continued a streak of eight straight seasons in the top 10 (only two seasons were outside of the top 5) by finishing 3rd. It's rare for a team to gain a considerable edge in a game through special teams alone, but teams have a strange habit of beating themselves when facing the Patriots. One missed field goal or shanked punt could shift field position, and the Eagles are more likely to suffer from it than New England is.
Both teams protected the ball well throughout the regular season, but the Patriots were second-best in the league, only behind Kansas City, with 12 giveaways in 16 games. The Eagles turned the ball over 20 times, but their defense made up the difference, forcing 31 turnovers compared to New England's 18. Takeaways are usually inflated against bad teams, so I have to give the Patriots a slight edge here for their superior ball protection despite Philadelphia's more opportunistic defense.
New England was, as usual, very adept at avoiding penalties. They've picked up 100 flags for 882 yards through the regular season and playoffs compared to 124 penalties for 1,041 yards against the Eagles. On a per-game basis, that isn't much; 1.33 penalties and 8.83 yards is basically a false start and a half, but it's an edge.
Last year I agonized for days choosing between Atlanta and New England, and ultimately sided with Brady and Belichick. It looked like a really bad choice for most of the game, but we all remember what happened in the last 20 minutes of game time. I think the Eagles are a considerably better team than the Patriots this year, though. Their defense is talented and deep, their run game is strong, and their coaching staff has been aggressive in the right situations all year. Their offense will be able to take advantage of New England's weak defense, and Tom Brady will be under pressure all game long. I know it sounds crazy, but here it is:
Philadelphia Eagles 34, New England Patriots 24
Philadelphia Eagles (+175) vs. New England Patriots
Philadelphia Eagles +5.5 (now 4.5, -110) vs. New England Patriots
Philadelphia Eagles OVER 21.5 points (-110)
That's all for this season! Kick back, grab a drink, and feel free to blame me if you put money on these picks and come out behind. I won't compensate you, but maybe your significant others will send their wrath in my direction instead of yours.