Minnesota’s favorite son, Prince, sang about partying like it was 1999. Sunday night, America’s throng of football fans will party like it’s 2005.
It was 13 years ago that the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots met in Super Bowl XXXIX, a game famous for Terrell Owens’ early return from a broken leg and Donovan McNabb’s stomach betraying him.
Although the Pats were favored by a touchdown, the game remained close until New England opened a 10-point lead with 8:40 remaining in the fourth quarter. Seven minutes later, McNabb hit Greg Lewis for a 30-yard touchdown that made the score 24–21, which would stand as the final tally.
Expect another close game this time around. The Pats opened as nine-point favorites but the line shrunk in half over the course of the last two weeks.
For the final time this season, let’s get to the pick.
Philadelphia Eagles (15–3) v. New England Patriots (15–3)
Line: New England -4.5
Rare are the times a franchise quarterback watches his team advance to the Super Bowl while on crutches.
A strange season of football comes to a close as Carson Wentz nursed a torn ACL while his backup, Nick Foles, led the Eagles to the Super Bowl for the first time since losing to the Patriots 13 years ago.
On the opposing sideline are the New England Patriots, for the 10th time in team history and eighth time under Bill Belichick’s watch. AFC championships are becoming as guaranteed in New England as the tax forms we received in the mail this week.
Only Philadelphia’s division rival, the New York Giants, have beaten Belichick and Tom Brady on the biggest stage in the league. Can the Eagles join that exclusive list, or will Brady and Belichick bring home their sixth Super Bowl title?
The Case for Philadelphia
Take a breath, Eagles fans, as I am about to say something that will likely put your heart into overdrive.
The Philadelphia Eagles are built to beat the Patriots.
Now, being built to beat a dynasty and doing so are two completely different things. Philly is halfway there, however, thanks to a dominant defensive line and an offense that can control the time of possession battle.
In both of New England’s Super Bowl losses, the Giants used an elite pass rush to disrupt Tom Brady and, in turn, the entire Patriots offense. Philadelphia led the league in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate while simultaneously leading the league in sacks. The Eagles may not have a future Hall-of-Famer in their midst, but they are, cumulatively, the league’s best pass rushing unit.
The key for Jim Schwartz’s defense will be to get home with minimal assistance. Brady is most dangerous against the blitz, but struggles against an effective four-man rush.
Relying on Brandon Graham, Timmy Jernigan, Fletcher Cox and company to get home on a regular basis without help from the back seven is not the worst strategy in the world. In fact, there may be no unit more adequately built to get the job done.
The Case for New England
In all honesty, I could write “Because they’re the Patriots” here and that would be enough. I won’t do that.
Bill Belichick is a coaching cheat code, and Tom Brady controls New England’s offense better than any quarterback has controlled an offense in NFL history. It is common knowledge, yet is important enough to repeat.
More importantly, however, is the effectiveness of the Patriots defense. New England has held its opponents to 20 or fewer points in four straight contests, and hasn’t allowed 28 or more since Week Four. That success is a testament to defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, who leads a defense with middling talent at all three levels.
Sunday night’s key battle will be between Brady and Philadelphia’s front four. If Brady cannot find a rhythm, especially in the second half, the Eagles will win their first-ever Super Bowl title. A clean pocket for Brady will spell a long evening for the Eagles.
Philly will get home in the first half. Brady will be uncomfortable, make mistakes, and the Pats will trail at the half. But no coach is better at second-half adjustments than Bill Belichick. Those adjustments will lead the Pats to another three-point Super Bowl victory over the Eagles.
The Pick: New England 27, Philadelphia 24
New England’s sixth Super Bowl victory will not only bring an end to the 2017 season. It will bring an end to the Patriots dynasty as we know it.
After the Patriots knocked off Philadelphia in Super Bowl XXXIX, both offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel left New England. Thirteen years later, Belichick stands to lose both his coordinators once again, after another Super Bowl victory over the Eagles. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is expected to be hired by the Colts as their next head coach, while defensive coordinator Matt Patricia is expected to fill Detroit’s coaching vacancy.
Belichick was only 53 years old then. The Hall-of-Fame coach turns 66 this April, and hasn’t had to replace a coordinator since McDaniels and Patricia were hired in 2012.
With six Super Bowl rings to his name, two coordinators to replace, a 40-something quarterback and an heir-apparent no longer on the roster, Belichick will see this as the ideal time to ride into the proverbial sunset, retiring as the greatest coach in NFL history.
Last week: 2–0, 1–1 v. spread
Playoff record: 5–5, 5–5 v. spread