By Matt Citak
Sunday's Super Bowl LII matchup between the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots should turn out to be quite an entertaining contest. It's not often that both teams competing for the Lombardi Trophy had both a top-5 scoring offense and defense during the regular season. The Patriots finished the regular season ranked second in the NFL in points per game and fifth in the league in points allowed per game. Conversely, the Eagles ended the season with the league's third-ranked scoring offense while its scoring defense ranked fourth in the NFL.
It's difficult to comprehend just how close these two teams were to each other without looking more closely at the above statistics. New England scored 458 total points this season, while giving up 296 points on defense. Philadelphia put up 457 points in its 16 regular season games, while surrendering 295 on defense. Yes, most of Philadelphia's production on offense this season came with Carson Wentz under center. But as he has shown us during Philly's first two postseason games, Nick Foles is no slouch. Foles just completed 78.8 percent of his passes for 352 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in the NFC Championship against the league's No. 1 defense this season in the Minnesota Vikings.
It will be important for the Patriots to give a little extra attention to several Eagles players if New England wants to bring home their second consecutive Super Bowl Championship. Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox racked up 5.5 sacks, a forced fumble, and two fumble recoveries this season, and was an absolute force in the middle of Philadelphia's defensive line. Cox was named to his third straight Pro Bowl, while also picking up the third second-team All-Pro selection of his career. He is likely going to cause problems for New England's offensive line throughout the game on Sunday. In the secondary, Tom Brady is going to have to watch out for cornerback Ronald Darby. Acquired by the Eagles during the preseason, Darby dislocated his ankle during the team's Week 1 victory over the Redskins, forcing him to the sidelines until he made his return in Week 11. Over the final seven games of the regular season, the 24-year-old corner made 33 combined tackles, defended nine passes, and recorded three interceptions.
In order for the Eagles to bring home their first Super Bowl title, they are going to have to attempt to limit the production of a few key New England players. There is no question that Rob Gronkowski is one of the most talented players in the NFL. The 6-foot-6 tight end pulled in 69 receptions for 1,084 yards and eight touchdowns this season. Despite having to leave the AFC Championship with a concussion, Gronk is expected to be cleared to play before Sunday. That is great news for the Patriots, who not only rely on him in the passing game, but also lean on him heavily in the run game.
Gronkowski is one of the best run-blocking tight ends in the NFL, and was a big reason why the Patriots finished the regular season with a top-10 run offense. The three-man running back committee of Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead, and James White combined to carry the ball 287 times for 1,331 yards (4.6 yards per carry) and 11 touchdowns during the regular season, and also played a significant role in the passing game. Brady targeted his running backs early and often throughout the season, as the three backs caught a total of 118 receptions for 897 yards and an additional nine touchdowns. Philly's top-ranked rushing defense will have their hands full with this trio on Sunday.
NFL ON CBS and INSIDE THE NFL analyst Phil Simms weighed in on some of the most important players in this Sunday's Eagles-Patriots Super Bowl LII matchup, and why they are so valuable to their respective teams.
Simms, along with Ray Lewis, Boomer Esiason, and James Brown break down this and other NFL storylines all season long each Tuesday night at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime's Inside The NFL.
CBS Local Sports: Which Eagles player should New England focus on slowing down?
Phil Simms: I look at the Eagles defense- Fletcher Cox is the guy the Patriots need to make sure doesn't disrupt the game. It's not that he's going to get sacks and make outstanding plays. He's going to push the offensive line back near Tom Brady, which makes it hard for him to make a decision and hard for him to throw the football where he wants to go. Fletcher Cox is a guy to watch out for. We know his name, but he can have a tremendous impact on this game, too.
CBS Local Sports: Which Patriots player should Philadelphia focus on slowing down?
Phil Simms: For the Patriots, we have to go on the offensive side. Of course there's Tom Brady, but we all know it's Rob Gronkowski when you talk about the passing game. But let's not forget this about Rob Gronkowski- he is a great run-blocker. The real big key to this game will be running backs Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead, and James White. They're going to be involved in the passing game. Can the Philadelphia linebackers control it? That's going to be a huge part of the game.
CBS Local Sports: Which Eagles defender should Tom Brady keep an eye out for on Sunday?
Phil Simms: Brady will be more worried about the secondary than the defensive line, because that's up to the offensive line. [The guy Brady will be looking out for is] Ronald Darby, No. 41, because he's a very good corner, but he's also willing to take a chance when he thinks the risk is on his side. He has really come through late in the year for the Philadelphia Eagles. He's been outstanding in coverage. He made a couple big interceptions late in the year and [has looked good] in the playoffs. It's going to be calculated, but when he sees an opportunity, he's going to take that chance to get the interception from Tom Brady.
CBS Local Sports: Which Patriots defender should Nick Foles keep an eye out for on Sunday?
Phil Simms: There are a lot of guys, but the one Foles should focus on the most is Devin McCourty. He's smart, has great size, can cover, and can do everything. He's really the orchestrator of their defense. He puts them in position and makes a lot of calls. It went unnoticed last week in the AFC Championship Game, but he made some tackles and adjustments against Jacksonville's offense late that truly won the game for the New England Patriots. Devin McCourty is one of Bill Belichick's favorite players on the football team because he's smart, good, and is able to adjust as the game goes along.
CBS Local Sports: Who wins Super Bowl LII?
Phil Simms: It's hard but I'm going with the Patriots, just because they've been here, and because they have such a complicated offense and defense that can do so many different things. I'm going to say they can pull it out late and win the game.
Matt Citak is a producer for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter or send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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