By Kevin McGuire
The Philadelphia Eagles will face the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI in Minnesota. When they take the field on Sunday, the Eagles will be facing just the 53 men in Patriots uniforms. But leading up to the game, they are facing the Patriots knowing they have a chance at winning the first Lombardi Trophy in Eagles' history in a game that could begin the downfall of the NFL's most recent dynasty.
Because this is the Super Bowl, this is not just any other opponent for the Eagles. Philadelphia is going up against a defending Super Bowl champion with arguably the NFL's best quarterback of all time coached by arguably the best coach in NFL history. The Eagles have an opportunity to begin their own run of success while bringing the Patriots' dynasty to a close. It is quite the David Vs. Goliath matchup.
Here is a closer look at the New England Patriots, champions of the AFC, as they look to capture their sixth Super Bowl championship to tie the Pittsburgh Steelers for the most in NFL history.
Record: 13-3 regular season, 2-0 postseason
The Patriots have won no fewer than 12 games in each of the past eight seasons, and they have a streak of 15 consecutive seasons with at least 10 wins. They truly have been the gold standard of the NFL over the course of their incredible run. This year, the Patriots took the top seed in the AFC playoffs after going 13-3 in a run that included a critical victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers to gain the edge in the AFC playoff seeding. To reach the Super Bowl, the Patriots handled Marcus Mariota and the Tennessee Titans in the AFC Divisional Round and then rallied at home to top the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC Championship Game.
This will be the Patriots' third Super Bowl appearance in the last four seasons, with two wins including last year's comeback against the Atlanta Falcons. The Patriots beat the Eagles in the 2004 season on the strength of a 10-7 advantage in the fourth quarter after the game was tied at 14-14 after three quarters. The Patriots have also won their two most recent games played in Minnesota by a combined score of 61-14 (30-7 vs. Vikings in 2014, 31-7 vs. Vikings in 2006), although the Eagles did win their last postseason game played in Minnesota with a 26-14 victory in the NFC Wild Card Round in 2009.
Patriots on Offense
When discussing the Patriots offense, the conversation starts with one of the best quarterbacks of all time. Tom Brady continues to impress at the age of 40. Stopping Brady is nearly impossible, so the Eagles will have to work hard from start to finish to make him as uncomfortable as possible for a chance to win.
Brady passed for 4,577 yards and 32 touchdowns this season, with tight end Rob Gronkowski as the top target more often than not. Gronkowski has accounted for 1,084 receiving yards and eight touchdowns to lead the Patriots, although Gronkowski's status for the Super Bowl will be highly scrutinized after being knocked out with a concussion in the AFC Championship Game. It looks like Gronkowski will be available for the Patriots, giving the Eagles defenders a big target to lock in on. Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola still present some concerns as well.
Dion Lewis will be the go-to running back for the Patriots. Lewis rushed for 896 yards and six touchdowns this season. Rex Burkhead and James White will be the other rushing options for New England. The Eagles have fared pretty well against the run this season though, so the key to the game will come with what the Eagles can do against Brady and the passing game.
Patriots on Defense
Early on in the season, the Patriots looked absolutely lost on defense. The season opened with Andy Reid's Kansas City Chiefs shredding the Patriots defense in a 42-27 shellacking. The early-season struggles were highlighted a couple weeks later against the Houston Texans and rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson, and then a home loss to Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers the following week. Since then, however, the Patriots defense has been solid.
New England held 10 of their final 12 opponents to fewer than 20 points. The defense showed some weaknesses in the AFC Championship Game, but managed to take care of business in the clutch as the Patriots stormed back against the Jaguars. Experience is a big factor for the Patriots defense. Adding James Harrison to the roster shortly after the Steelers released him only added to the Patriots depth on defense.
The Patriots may not be giving up too many points, but they will give up yards. At the end of the regular season, New England allowed an average of 366.0 yards per game, ranking the Patriots 29th in the NFL ahead of only the Colts, Giants, and Buccaneers. The Eagles may find success on the ground against a Patriots team ranked 20th in the NFL against the run.
Patriots Players to Watch
Rob Gronkowski, Tight End: If Gronkowski plays and is 100 percent, he is a massive threat for the Eagles. But the Eagles have managed to prevent the leading receivers from hurting them in the playoffs this season. Gronkowski will get his touches, but the Eagles must avoid letting him be the difference in the open field.
Kyle Van Noy, Linebacker: The fourth-year product out of BYU has played well this season with 5.5 sacks. The Eagles must be careful around Van Noy, because his athleticism can lead to some key plays on defense.
There is no disputing the Eagles are up against a well-oiled machine in the Patriots. New England may have consistency with Bill Belichick and Brady, but over the years the Patriots have proven more than capable of filling out a roster of players that can win on a regular basis. They have been through this time and time again and will be well prepared to go for another Super Bowl championship.
If the Eagles are going to stand in the Patriots' way, their defense must continue to play as well as they have this postseason. Philadelphia will need to put Nick Foles in a position to keep the offense moving methodically and sustain enough scoring drives to come away with the win. The Eagles got the game of a lifetime from Foles in the NFC Championships and should not expect that to happen again, but Foles is more than capable of leading this offense against the Patriots. This one should be a good game, and the Eagles have a real shot at cracking the Patriots' dynasty on the biggest stage possible.
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