- By D. Orlando Ledbetter The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The New England Patriots are favored to add to their Vince Lombardi Super Bowl trophy collection and cement a place in NFL history as a modern-era dynasty.
The Patriots (15-3) will play for a sixth Super Bowl against the Philadelphia Eagles (15-3) in Super Bowl LII at 6:30 p.m. Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
With a sixth Super Bowl title over a record 10 appearances, the Patriots can comfortably take their place tied with the Pittsburgh Steelers of the Super Bowl era and can look up at the group of all-time NFL champions Green Bay Packers (13 titles), Chicago Bears (nine), New York Giants (eight) with respect.
The Patriots would leave behind the group with five Super Bowls in the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers and three Super Bowls in the Washington Redskins.
The Eagles have won three NFL titles (1948, 1949 and 1960), but are 0-2 in the Super Bowl-era.
“Like everybody else, I sit back here and marvel at the Patriots,” said 49ers general manager John Lynch last week during a break at the Senior Bowl. “(In the AFC championship game) they are down 20-10 in the fourth quarter and they get the ball taken from them, but yet you still feel like they are going to figure out a way to pull it out. (Quarterback Tom) Brady, (coach Bill) Belichick and that group is tough to beat. It’s a big challenge for Philly.
“I’m looking forward to a real interesting game.”
The Atlanta Falcons, one of the 10 franchises to never win a NFL title, know all too well about the Patriots’ ability to comeback from the supposed dead. They had them down 28-3 in Super Bowl LI before Brady led a rally and the Falcons collapsed in overtime, 34-28.
“What can you say, whether if you are a general manager or a fan or whatever, you can only be in awe of what New England and their quarterback does in crucial situations when their backs are against the wall,” Los Angeles Rams general manager Les Snead said. “Somehow they come through, Tom Brady comes through. You have to give credit to that organization.”
The Patriots first two trips to the Super Bowl didn’t go well.
The Patriots were plastered 46-10 by the historically great 1985 Bears in Super Bowl XX. The Packers prevailed 35-21 behind Reggie White, Brett Favre and Desmond Howard over the Bill Parcells-led team of 1996 in Super Bowl XXXI. Both losses came in New Orleans in the Superdome.
The Patriots assistant head coach/defensive backs in the second Super Bowl appearance was Belichick, who was coming off a failed stint as head coach of the Cleveland Browns (1981-85). He would become the head coach of the Patriots in 2000 and is set to make his eighth Super Bowl appearance.
Belichick’s only Super Bowl losses were to the Giants (after the 2007 and 2011 regular seasons).
What has made the Patriots so unique during Belichick’s tenure is his ability to craft weekly game plans and pounce on the weaknesses of the opponent.
“New England, they are very versatile,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “When Philly gets into the game with all of the scouting that they’ve done, there will be some new wrinkles on both sides (of the ball).
“We call those un-scouted looks. ... When you are playing New England, it may be one plan for one game and it looks a lot different for the next team. That’s one of the strengths of their club.”
This will be the Eagles third appearance in the Super Bowl, but first for their current regime. The Eagles reached the Super Bowl after the 1980 and 2004 seasons, but were defeated by the Oakland Raiders and Patriots, respectively.
In his second season as a head coach, Doug Pederson has masterfully guided the Eagles to the game’s biggest stage.
“I think it’s a testament to the job that Philly has done in putting together a really, really deep and impressive roster,” Lynch said. “They could stomach losing (quarterback) Carson Wentz, who was maybe the MVP of the year, and now Nick Foles is playing really well for them. It’s a very talented football team.”
The Falcons played both teams last season, losing to the Patriots 23-7 on Oct. 22 and the Eagles 15-10 on Jan. 13 in the divisional round of the playoffs.
“As you go through (the season), you really have to earn it,” Quinn said. “These two teams have done that. They’ve earn that right to play for the championship. I give credit to both of them.”
Both teams are playing well late in the season.
“Throughout the year, certain teams play better at certain times,” Quinn said. “You better be playing your best at the end of the year and into the playoffs and these two teams are.
“We played both of them so I do have knowledge of both of them. Both of them are well-coached, but they are different. The commonality is that both of them are really good with the ball. They are in the plus in turnover margin. That’s going to be a factor in the game for sure.”
The Eagles have a stout defensive unit.
“I’ve been impressed in the run game by Philadelphia,” Quinn said. “In terms of their run defense and the aggressiveness that they are playing with.”
Belichick’s teams that loss Super Bowls were mauled by the Giants’ four defensive linemen.
The Eagles’ defensive front is led by dynamic defensive tackle Fletcher Cox.
“I think the one thing, over the years, is the people that have seen Tom (Brady) is you hit him and you hit him often,” Lynch said. “Is Philly going to be able to do that? The challenge is that he gets rid of the ball so damn quick. You have to figure out a way to make that happen.
“Philadelphia has the guys who can do it. They’ve made a lot of quarterback lives miserable.”
The Eagles are deep at the defensive end position. Vinny Curry and Brandon Graham start, while rookie Derek Barnett and Chris Long come off the bench. They have combined for 23 sacks in the regular season and playoffs.
Against the Falcons, the Eagles had three sacks and 11 quarterback hits.
“The one thing that jumps out at me will be the defensive ends against the tackles of the Patriots,” said broadcaster Mark Dominik, who was Tampa Bay’s general manager from 2009-13. “They have guys who can go and collapse the pocket and really push the tackles. I want to see how good of a job and how much they are going to do to protect that knowing that Philadelphia is really talented in that area.”
Wentz suffered a season-ending knee injury against the Rams on Dec. 10, the Rams prevailed 43-35.
“It was a major shoot out with them,” Snead said. “I was able to watch the NFC Championship game and what I do know about them is that they got one heck of a defense. They’ve done a really good job on offense from their scheme to their players.”
The Eagles have continued to roll with veteran Foles at quarterback.
“They are very innovative,” Snead said. “(Pederson) is doing some things outside the box which is very impressive. I know we did well this year scoring points, but I know the Eagles were in first most of the weeks and breathing down our necks. They know how to score points.”
The Eagles’ secondary has been steady, but isn’t spectacular.
“I want to see how they handle the ... fast guys (Danny)Amendola and (Brandin) Cooks,” Dominik said. “The Patriots should be able to put guys on the move against corners who are a little bit bigger. They have bigger corners and I want to see if they can handle that.”
The Eagles also must contend with the Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski. The tight end will likely see strong safety Malcolm Jenkins and some underneath help from the linebackers.
“Overall, I think this game is going to come down to making tackles on defense,” Dominik said. “Being a good tackling team. Whoever tackles the cleanest. It sound so cliche, but the truth is there are so many hidden yards in missed tackles.
“You know the Patriots, they can win a game on the last play. When you make the right tackle and you stop them for a 1-yard gain instead of getting dragged forward for a 3-yard gain, those are the hidden yards. So, I’m going to be watching the tackling as well.”