Going into the last pick of the year, I stand at 7-3 in winners and 6-4 against the spread. Not what I’d like– but the Steelers, Falcons and Andy Reid have more explaining to do than me.
There isn’t a lot I can say about this game, but I’ll bear those three losses in mind and not shortchange this.
New England (-4) at Philadelphia
I have no idea why the spread is where it is. Obviously New England is favored to win by only four points because t’s the point that evened out the bets. But why does anyone in his right mind imagine the Eagles are on roughly even footing?
Because they won 38-7 last week? Meaning no disrespect to Philadelphia– they put up a lot more points than I expected they would– but that looked much more like Minnesota running out of pixie dust. Case Keenum finally played the sort of game that everyone expected him to play (28-48, 5.6 yards per pass, two interceptions and a fumble).
And let’s give Pat Shurmur props for his part in that performance, He called the the sort of game (48 passes, 18 runs) that got him into trouble in Cleveland. Doing that against a defense run by Jim Schwartz (who learned defense from working under Jeff Fisher and Gregg Williams) just encourages him to come after you,
And talk about making your life difficult. Shurmur could have had a lot of jobs, but he takes the Giants’ jobs (a team whose talent isn’t nearly as good as people think it is) and he’s going to call his own plays. This stint as head coach should be over pretty soon.
Or is the confidence based on Nick Foles having the kind of day (26-33, 352 yards, 3 TDs no picks) that he used to have every week in 2013– but has rarely had since? That’s pretty optimistic.
Foles is the anti-Deshone Kizer. Never in his career has he thrown interceptions; if he had thrown 114 more passes (he has 1,386) he’s 2.% percentage would be seventh-best. Early in his career, he’d take too many sacks (7.0% and 8.1% in his first two seasons)– now he just throws the ball away or checks down if the play isn’t there.
That approach has hurt Foles’s stats. In three of the last four years, his completion percentage has been below 60%– and he has thrown for 6.3 yards per pass or less (it should be over 7.0). On the other hand, he doesn’t make the sort of game-killing miscalculations the Browns have been plagued with over the last two years.
In the NFC Championship, the Vikings didn’t get any pressure on Foles (some of that was the performance of his line), they didn’t cover his receivers very well and there was no adverse weather holding his passes up in the air. He got to stand back and pick their defense apart.
It also helped to have RB Jay Ajayi (who was nearly as inconsistent as Isaiah Crowell this year) have one of his occasional good games.
Of course part of the spread is due to the underwhelming showing New England had against Jacksonville in their 24-20 win.
Having picked New England to win– but not cover– I’m less shocked about that result than most people. Jacksonville could run the ball– New England allowed opponents a 4.7-yard rushing average in 2017 (31st) and gave up more than 100 yards rushing in 10 of the 16 regular-season games. Four of those games were decided by less than seven points.
New England stopped Fournette (76 yards on 24 carries)– but they had to keep 8-9 men in the box. That let Jacksonville throw a ton of dink passes– about 10 of which turned into long gainers.
Jacksonville has a hell of a pass rush; the Patriots are missing a couple of starters. The Patriots have no power running game to speak of; Tom Brady had his hand jacked up. Rob Gronkowski missed much of the game.
New England had to figure out what they could and could not do– it took them a while to get he game under control. But they didn’t panic and they got it done.
The question that will determine the result of this Super Bowl is “To what extent is this game’s opponent comparable to the team they played against in the AFC Championship?”
The answer, to my mind, is “Not a lot.” The Eagles are a poor doppleganger for Jacksonville; New England doesn’t resemble the Vikings much. Let’s look at the Eagles first.
Philadelphia v the Jaguars
Running the ball
The Eagles’ top back is LeGarrette Blount— who, at this time last season, was with New England. They know him and won’t be afraid of him. Good back? Yeah. Not as good as Fournette (when healthy). He averaged 4.3 yards a carry with the Patriots (not in 2016, but for his career there) and 4.4 this year (at age 31).
Ajayi gives Philly a speedy back– but he was playing for the Dolphins until they cut him and he landed in Philly. New England knows him; in three career games, he gained 75 yards on 28 carries (2.68 a crack). Philly has a better line than Miami, but there’s no reason to think it’s that great.
Phill used Corey Clement and Wendell Smallwood in spots (121 total carries; 495 yards). Are they gonna use them in the championship game? Usually teams don’t.
The Patriots won’t be able to run the ball, so they’ll need to throw. Jacksonville had six Pro Bowl players– three linemen, a linebacker and two pass defenders. They had 55 sacks and two players with more than 10, so that was difficult.
Philadelphia allowed only 18.4 points per game (fourth best), but that happened mostly because the offense would score early and often– taking the opponent’s running game out of the picture and letting Schwartz call a bunch of blitzes.
Philadelphia has two Pro Bowl players and got only 38 sacks; their top threats are DE Brandon Graham (9.5 sacks) and DT Fletecher Cox (5.5; one of the Pro Bowl players), with Chris Long and Derek Barnett tied at 5.0 each.
The game will probably turn on how well the Eagles can stop Gronkowski. We don’t know how healthy he is, but two of the four backfield defenders are over 30. S Malcom Jenkins made the Pro Bowl for the second time in three seasons, but he’s one of the old guys. The other is CB Patrick Robinson. CB Jalen Mills is 23, but he’s a #7 pick who has exceeded expectations, more than a good player.
Foles is a more consistent quarterback than Blake Bortles, but that isn’t a complement. Bortles is erratic. When he’s off, you’re lucky if he contributes nothing– if he doesn’t flush the game away, But when he’s having a good day, he can look like an All-World player.
You can’t work out a defense for an opponent who might run the ball, or might drop bombs right and left or might pick you apart. Foles always looks to do the same things. That makes him easier to predict.
None of the Jacksonville receivers are significantly better than ordinary. TE Zach Ertz is a Pro Bowler; WR Alshon Jeffery used to be (when the Bears had a quarterback). They both hurt the Vikings– who have a better secondary than the Patriots.
The Jacksonville line is good, but it’s designed to run-block. Philly’s line is better– it is designed for a passing game. New England will find it harder to get after Foles.
New England v the Vikings
I doubt I need to belabor this. Adam Thielen is an excellent receiver– superior to either Danny Amendola or Brandin Cooks. But there are two of them. And Gronkowski. RB James White caught 56 balls; Kevin Hogan and Rex Burkhead can catch. New England will have people open.
It’s a difficult decision at quarterback. But my intuition is that Brady is a better quarterback than Keenum.
Minnesota plays a fairly predictable scheme based on Pittsburgh’s zone blitz. The line supplies most of the pressure, the backers make most of the tackles and the secondary keeps opponents in front of them and away from the sidelines. It is a very aggressive unit, always looking to force turnovers and make big plays. It can take control of a game– but if it misses, it can give up big plays.
New England doesn’t gamble– they play percentages, figuring that if they keep you from scoring as many points as their offense, they win. They don’t have a “style” of defense. They don’t look to win with sacks; sometimes they get pressure from the line, sometimes the linebackers. The secondary usually doesn’t blitz– it rarely plays man-to-man.
The goal on pass defense is to knock receivers off-stride at the line and then cover the quarterback’s favorite routes, using the scheme most suited to that. The run defense simply tries to cover all the holes and swarm the ball.
The biggest gap between New England and Minnesota is that New England is smaller. They can’t play smashmouth– on either side of the ball– and have to win with technique and discipline. If the Eagles can force the Patriots into a game of “Who can hit harder?” they win.
Also, while the Vikings wanted to win, the Patriots have an additional incentive, Both their offensive and defensive coordinators will be leaving to become head coaches after this game. I also continue to hear a small voice in my head saying that head coach Bill Belicheat (who can be spiteful and petty) might want to stick it to owner Bob Kraft by announcing “Oh, I’m going to leave too.”
I’m not going to say the Eagles have no chance. Of course they have a chance. Bill Belicheat has lost two Super Bowls. In both cases, he was favored by wide margins, and his opponent was weaker.
If the Eagles had Carson Wentz, they’d be capable of scoring a lot more. I’d still wonder how well they would do in the pressure of the Super Bowl, but I might think they could beat New England on sheer ability.
I don’t know how Nick Foles puts enough points on the board to win– unless the Patriots make a lot of mistakes. Historically that has not happened. And since the spread is so small, I’d give the points, so….