With two weeks between the AFC and NFC Championship games and the Super Bowl, there’s always risk of over-analysis or rethinking. Now with Rob Gronkowski officially cleared to play and little left to ponder except how many bags of Tostitos to scoop for Sunday, it’s time to preview this game and make the betting picks for Super Bowl LII between the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles.
As usual in Super Bowls featuring the New England Patriots — making a ridiculous 8th appearance in the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era– this is going to be another close one. Those seven previous Super Bowls were decided by an average 3.7 points, the largest margin of victory actually last year in the miraculous comeback over Atlanta, the first overtime Super Bowl and a 34-28 Pats stunner. The Patriots have scored 169 points in their seven trips against 157 for their opponents.
I don’t put too much stock into the predictive value of those figures, but the Pats have routinely played very high-quality NFC opponents and played them close. That will be the case once again. Let’s dig in.
Super Bowl LII Picks, Preview: Philadelphia Eagles vs. New England Patriots: Eagles Against the Spread, Patriots on the Money Line, Total Is Super Close
The line (at most books) as of Thursday evening: Eagles +4.5, total o/u 48.5
When the Eagles Have the Ball: RPO and Jay Ajayi Time!
RPO — meaning run-pass option– is the new “zone read” but more fun because it sounds like C3PO. Here’s a great and simple description by former NFL offensive lineman Brian Baldinger: “It’s just another form of a play-action pass with a more authentic play fake,’’ he told the Philly Inquirer. “I was anxious to see what Minnesota would do to stop it [in the NFC Championship Game], and they were pretty much stuck in quicksand.”
Carson Wentz replacement Nick Foles mostly stunk in the regular season (after taking over in Week 14) before booming in the postseason, thanks largely to success with RPO plays. It allows him to make quick, fairly easy reads and zip it to tight end Zach Ertz, wideouts Nelson Agholor and Alshon Jeffery. Or if he likes what he sees, the QB hands it off to bulldozing running back Jay Ajayi (averaged 5.8 yards per carry in seven games after coming over from Miami) or others in Philly’s deep stable of running backs.
As noted by Connor Allen, the Eagles are first in explosive rush rate (10+ yard runs) and sixth since Foles stepped in. The Eagles have a very good, very athletic offensive line that can push defenders off the ball. And they’ve got a center in Jason Kelce who can pull around and whack anyone.
The Patriots, who lost star linebacker and defensive captain Dont’a Hightower in October (torn pectoral muscle), are left with a shaky, slow-footed linebacker trio in Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts and David Harris (in their base 4-3 defense). They allowed a pretty ridiculous 4.7 yards per carry (T-30th, also ranked 30th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA) during the regular season, although they improved a lot as did the entire defense later in the season and in the AFC playoffs. Per Rotoworld’s Evan Silva, running backs for the Pats last four opponents — Jaguars, Titans, Jets and Bills — combined for just 239 yards on 82 rushes (2.91 average) and one score.
The Patriots didn’t show much of a pass rush in the regular season but have improved there too (eight sacks alone in the AFC Divisional Game vs. Tennessee) thanks in part to this terrifying old man.
— Jeff Fedotin (@JFedotin) January 31, 2018
Few gave the Eagles a chance to make it to the Super Bowl after losing MVP candidate Wentz. Certainly not oddsmakers or sports bettors as the Eagles were home underdogs to both the Falcons and the Vikings, although a bunch of smart money dropped on Philly at +3 or +2.5 in the NFC Championship. But credit Foles and head coach Doug Pederson for implementing and executing a great RPO-heavy game plan that doesn’t ask too much of the not-very-mobile (read: not at all) 6-foot-6 backup.
Unless he’s a robot, Foles is going to have Super Bowl jitters, possibly vomit in the locker room, and come out a bit cold. Maybe he sails one. So we should see a healthy dose of rushing and some short completions early to get him into a groove and forget what stage he’s on.
Overall, I expect the Eagles to have a good amount of success running and on short and underneath throws, where the Patriots have been vulnerable. I think we’ll see a decent amount of running back Corey Clement too, particularly coming out the backfield on passing routes. What happens if the Eagles play with a lead in the second half? Pederson probably was watching Super Bowl LI and knows what to do behind that great O-Line.
When the Patriots Have the Ball: Tom Brady, Fast and Furious
This is not complicated. Tom Brady is going to throw the ball about 48 to 52 times and probably complete about 30 of those attempts. As noted on the Bet the Board Podcast, in their last 10 playoff games, Brady is averaging 47 pass attempts and over 30 completions. The ball is always going to be in his hands, literally and figuratively, and why the heck not. He’s the GOAT.
There’s a lot of hope for an Eagles outright victory and it has a lot to do with the Eagles’ defensive line, which is very good and really deep. Danny Kelly of The Ringer notes: “A league-high seven guys registered 20-plus pressures on the year, with Cox (50 pressures, per Pro Football Focus) and Graham (60) bolstered by Chris Long (51), Vinny Curry (47), Derek Barnett (37), Timmy Jernigan (23), and Beau Allen (21).”
Cox is an absolute beast. Patriots offensive linemen will have their hands full with this group. They don’t have a ton of sacks (misleading) but they’re bringing heat, leading the league in QB hits and forcing opponents to get the ball out quickly (or get swallowed). Tom Brady doesn’t like getting hit.
But as we’ve seen over and over, the Patriots excel at quick, rhythm passing. There’s going to be lots of hitches to Danny Amendola, a variety of formations, Gronkowski over the middle of the field and up the seam, and probably more death-by-short-passes to RBs with Dion Lewis, James White and Rex Burkhead. Also look for New England to go no-huddle at some point, maybe the second quarter, to prevent the Eagles from making defensive substitutions and wear down those linemen.
In what will be his last game as Patriots offensive coordinator (until he returns again), future Colts head coach Josh McDaniels will add some wrinkles and trick plays, but we know what the Pats offense is and it’s darn good.
It’s also a routinely slow starting offense in Super Bowls. As you may have heard before, New England has still not scored a single point in a Super Bowl first quarter under Belichick. Ever. From Pats Pulpit:
In their previous seven trips to the Super Bowl (2001, 2003, 2004, 2007, 2011, 2014, and 2016, just because I wanted to list them), the Patriots have scored a whopping zero points in the first quarter. In fact, on their 13 drives that start and finish in the first quarter, the Patriots have scored -2 points because they gave up a safety to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLVI.
They’d have had more drives if they didn’t always defer, but still. It’s a feeling-out process and perhaps even the Patriots feel some early nerves. On the other end of the game, as ever, we know the Patriots can come back from any deficit.
As for special teams, that’s a perennial Patriots advantage, too. The Patriots prepare smartly for every situation and phase of the game, they pin their opponents deep on kickoffs with those Stephen Gostkowski high mortar shots instead of touchbacks, they cover punts, and Gostkowski doesn’t miss many kicks.
The Eagles goofed against Atlanta in the Divisional Round with a botched punt return after they lost track of the ball and it bounced off Bryan Braman, leading to a Falcons touchdown after four plays and 18 yards. Just one play like that can decide the game. Rookie kicker Jake Elliott has been a revelation for Philly and he gives the Eagles outs with a long range (6-7 from 50+ this season).
Score projection: Patriots 24, Eagles 21
The lean: Eagles +4.5
The lean: Under 48.5 (but I can see this easily being 27-24, so I’m not betting this total)
The pick: Patriots money line at -180 (this is good value with so many huge Eagles money line bets; typically on a 4.5 spread, the favorite is -220 or so).
The other play: 7-point teaser: Eagles +11.5, Under 55.5
The Philadelphia police department should definitely have tasers ready and Crisco for the street lights, but I think we’re going to see New England hoisting the Lombardi Trophy… again.
The SportsHandle props picks are here.