By Paul West
Hurt or injured?
A big part of the story leading up to Super Sunday has been the health of Brady and Rob Gronkowski. Brady, who reportedly lacerated his throwing hand before the AFC title game, wore a glove on it in the days leading up to said game–then proceeded to sling the ball around as if nothing was amiss; this has led to speculation that the whole thing was a sandbag-trick, a mind game designed to redirect their opponents’ (and the media’s focus). Photos surfaced surfaces of Brady’s hand which seemed to show an injury of some kind, but it seems unlikely that we’ll ever know how bad it was. As for Gronkowski, the hyperkinetic matchup nightmare was just released from the NFL’s concussion protocol after taking a brutal shot to the side of the helmet in the same AFC Championship game. While there was never much real doubt that he’d play this Sunday, the extent of his recovery will only be apparent once he takes the field. The Patriots are a balanced and versatile offense, but they aren’t the same without Gronk; the Eagles’ defense is explosive and dangerous, and could present problems if they don’t have to deal with the ‘polar bear’ at full ability.
Patriots defense not what it once was
Patriots coach Bill Belichick is a renowned mastermind, especially when it comes to big games. Given two weeks to plan, he and his staff always seem to find a way to neutralize an essential aspect of their opponent’s attack. The problem is, in previous years the Patriots’ defense was flat-out better than it is now. For most of their dynasty, the Patriots had the likes of Teddy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison, Richard Seymour, Mike Vrabel, and Vincent Wilfork to execute Belichick’s gamelans, not to mention make their own in-game adjustments. Now, with all due respect to their current talent, the Patriots’ defense–which has, admittedly, stepped up of late–struggles against the run and tends to give up lots yardage. While there is such a thing as a successful ‘bend-don’t-break’ defense, this seems more like a team that’s managed to hold serve in the clutch against less-than-elite offenses. And while the Nick Foles-led Eagles aren’t exactly elite, they’re talented and versatile enough–and, yes, Foles is good enough–to put up points on a defense that’s looked vulnerable for stretches. The Patriots have struggled against the run all year, and the Eagles are well stocked in their ground game: LeGarrette Blount is a red-zone battering ram who won two Super Bowls in New England; Jay Ajayi, acquired from Miami late in the season, is a three-down back who can run both between the tackles and out on the edges; and, Wendell Smallwood and Corey Clement are pass-catching slashers similar to Danny Woodhead and Javorious Allen. This balances out a solid passing attack which doesn’t feature a jump-off-the-page weapon like AJ Green, but does feature Alshon Jeffery, slot hybrid Nelson Agholor, veteran speedster Torrey Smith, and a top-notch downfield tight end in Zack Ertz. Backing up Ertz are Brent Celek and Trey Burton, both solid receiving threats on their own, giving Foles plenty to work with and making it hard for the New England defense to account for everyone. This game has a decent chance of turning into a fireworks show. Another x-factor to consider is that the Patriots’ kicking advantage isn’t as distinct as it often is, as the Eagles’ Jake Elliot can kick it a mile.
Eagles playing with house money
Somehow, there seems to be debate over which teams is under the most pressure this Sunday. Really, only one team faces anything resembling real pressure, and that’s New England. Remember: when Wentz was felled by the knee injury while wrapping up a season which had him on most people’s short list for both MVP and Rookie of the Year, it was widely believed that the Eagles’ Super Bowl hopes were dashed. Nick Foles wasn’t quite seen as a booby prize, but ‘they’re not going all the way without Wentz‘ was a common refrain. This is somewhat understandable: Wentz was dynamic, confident, strikingly athletic, and efficient, and it had begun to seem like the NFC was theirs to lose. But it bears nothing that Foles has done extraordinary things as an NFL quarterback, including a seven-touchdown, zero-interception game during a 2013 Pro Bowl season in which his TD-Int ratio was 27:2. and He’s also 19-11 as the Eagles’ starting quarterback. The man who once almost gave up on football after a couple of injury-riddled seasons and (literal) bad breaks is now matched up against arguably the best quarterback in NFL history, whose achievements overshadow his own. If Foles and the Eagles lose to the dynastic Patriots, the prevailing sentiment will be, ‘hey, it’s not like they were expected to win; ‘ whereas if they win, a popular narrative will be, ‘Brady, Belichick, Gronk, Brandin Cooks, and James White, lost to the underdog Eagles and their backup quarterback.‘ This, and the fact that all dynasties come to an end sooner or later, means the pressure will be on the team looking to sustain a nearly two-decade dynasty.