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Who will win Super Bowl LLII?

Posted Feb 1, 2018

talkSPORT's Mike Carlson make his picks for the weekend games.

Ever since the Conference Championship games finished, I've been amazed at how decidedly the Eagles were named underdogs, by a margin which suggested we were supposed to shrug off the Patriots' habit of winning big games by close margins, as well as the Eagles' romp over the Vikings.

Now I know the Eagles' game hinged on a couple of early turnovers and big plays that let them build a big lead, and the Vikes were not really designed to stage a huge comeback, but the fact is that their D made those plays, Nick Foles made some big throws, and they didn't open the door to a Vikings' comeback. I think the Eagles are probably the best team the Patriots have played all season. I think they have the kind of defense that, pace Jacksonville, will give New England trouble. And I think they're better coached than the Jags, and will likely make it harder for the Pats to play their game.

Strangely enough, there was exactly one point's difference in the two teams points scored and points allowed, though the Pats allowed more yardage they gave up only one point more than the Eagles. Going down the roster, you'd give the Eagles the advantage player by player most of the way. Of course with the Pats you get a sum that is always more than its parts, and if they can get big games out of Malcolm Butler and ex-Eagle Eric Rowe along with Stephon Gilmore in the secondary, they can make life harder. In the end of course, you can rate players or units and compare, but the real difference, and the reason the Pats are the favourites they are, comes down to quarterbacking. The edge is down to the known skills of Tom Brady versus the doubts about Foles.

WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL

The Eagles may have had the best O line in the league this season, and the falloff since Jason Peters' injury and his replacement by Big V has not been as severe as you might have though watching Vaitai at right tackle last year. Part of that is down to scheme: the Eagles pass protect in large part by using play action, something they've done more of with Foles and the run/pass option plays. They are a great zone blocking line: Jason Kelce is one of the best second-level blockers out there, Steve Wisnewski has been great and Lane Johnson is probably the best right tackle in the league. By the way, next time you hear the whining about 'Belicheats', ask why Johnson missed ten games last season. Clue: it wasn't injury.

Lots of that pass game is relatively safe slant patterns, but Doug Pederson always keeps the deep option open, and Torrey Smith has bedeviled the Pats since his Baltimore days. Alshon Jeffrey wins possession catches and Nelson Agholor has played like the playmaker the Eagles thought they were drafting in 2015. On top of that, the Eagles have three tight ends who can get downfield; Zach Ertz is probably the number three TE in the league. All of this becomes more effective because you have to respect Jay Ajayi and LaGarrett Blount, the ex-Pat, who can break short runs, and the way they use undrafted rookie Corey Clement, who's not a speedster but catches the ball well out of the backfield.

The Pats have been good at stopping the run in the late season and playoffs. They gave up the outside in the first half against the Jags, but closed that option off in the second. Pederson is a creative coach who will keep probing throughout the game, and that will test the Pats linebackers and edge guys: they will probably play most of the game in heavy nickle, a 4-2-5 or 3-3-5 look, and when there are six in the box, watch those tight ends or slant patterns or backs to catch the ball.

WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL

Philadelphia have, for the scheme they play, as good a front four as anyone in the league including Jacksonville. Fletcher Cox is a beast, and Tim Jernigan is the perfect foil inside; either guy can absorb two blockers or take on one and win. This allows Jim Schwartz to spread his ends wider, and he has four guys—Chris Long, a key for the Pats in last year's Super Bowl, Vinny Curry, rookie Derek Barnett and especially Brandon Graham, who has finally found a system that brings out his great playmaking. The Eagles rotate their guys to keep them fresh; I imagine the Pats will go no-huddle to try to tire them out, and probably to keep Beau Allen, who's more a nose tackle type, on the field. The Pats' O line doesn't knock people over or push them around, but they execute. The weak link is Cameron Fleming at right tackle, but he held up against the Jags.

No one in football wins more plays before the snap than the Pats. Watch the Jacksonville game and see how they used formation and motion to discover the best matchup on any given play, usually a receiver on a linebacker. They also weren't afraid to challenge the Jags' corners downfield—partly because they knew the aggressive hands-on style could also draw penalties (think Torrey Smith when he played with Joe Flacco). The Eagles have assembled a good secondary: getting Ronald Darby from Buffalo gives them a stopper oppoiste Jalen Mills (a draft steal), and free agents Patrick Robinson, Rodney McCloud, and especially Malcolm Jenkins have been crucial. Jenkins could see some time on Gronk (assuming Gronk plays, which I am doing here) but Mychal Kendricks may also come into play.

Gronkowski is crucial to the offense, because the Pats need to stretch the Eagles, and he can do it up the middle. Brandin Cooks will likely draw Darby whenever possible, but look for him to get more work underneath. I suspect James White and ex-Eagle Dion Lewis will catch some passes behind the rushing ends; if they can establish Lewis as a runner, that could be key.

SPECIAL TEAMS: The Pats rely on special teams and they have an advantage here. Stephen Gostkowski scored 1.18 on my cock-up kicker evaluation; he missed three kicks in the 40-49 area. Rookie Jake Elliott, a good pickup from the Bengals' practice squad, was at 1.10; his trouble zone was between 30-39 (4 for 7). Gostkowksi was 45/47 on extra points; Elliott 39/42. Recall Gostkowski's missed XP last year. But Gostkowski is the best in the league at situational kickoffs, forcing returns the Pats feel they can cover. Their philosophy is similar on punts. Ryan Allen's net average is mid-pack (as is Donnie Jones') but Allen put 24 of his 58 punts inside the 20, allowed only three touchbacks and a paltry 4.6 yards per return (a tribute to coverage working in synch with the kicker). Jones' returned punts went for 7 yards on average. Neither team has an exceptional returner. Kenjon Barner is the Eagles' man on both punts and kickoffs. I expect the Pats will have Dion Lewis out for kickoffs and Danny Amendola for punts; each is capable of breaking one, but they tend to play it safe and let the offense do its work.

THE OFFICIALS: Gene Steratore is the referee. He's famous this season for using an index card to measure a first down call (that won't happen Sunday) but he was also the guy who made the calls on both the Dez Bryant and Calvin Johnson 'maintain possession' non-catches. How the officials call the game will be crucial: pass interference, holding (downfield and pass blocking) have become basketball-style judgement calls, and things like chucking beyond five yards (on slants) or pick plays (both teams) could be crucial. In games Steratore has refereed, the Eagles are 10-3, the Pats are 12-5, so a slight edge to the Eagles whose record hasn't been as good as the Pats until this season.

THE PICK: I currently would be sixth among NFL pundits on the major US sites, and I hate to follow the herd, who are following the odds, and largely picking New England. I am tempted to give the edge to the Eagles on both sides of the ball. Absent crucial turnovers or controversial penalties, the real question is how well both quarterbacks hold up: Brady against the Eagles' more explosive pass-rush, Foles against whatever the Pats can scheme to take him out of his comfort zone. People forget Foles is a successful NFL starter, whose limitations the Eagles scheme around. But he played best when the Eagles got a lead and he could feel less pressure. I can see a scenario where the Eagles build a lead and Chris Long destroys Tom Brady, and I have gone back and forth on this for two weeks, but pick: Pats

LAST WEEK:a 2-0 PLAYOFFS 6-4 REGULAR SEASON: 173-83

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