Patriots fans certainly don’t need or even want a reminder of the last time New England faced the Eagles.
Bill Belichick’s squad put up a valiant effort in the 41-33 Super Bowl LII loss to Philly in Minneapolis.
It was an exciting shootout with trick plays, little defense and, after Tom Brady’s fumble in the waning seconds, a painfully disappointing finish.
Now, a season-and-a-half later, the Patriots (8-1) are once again on a path to compete for yet another Super Bowl ring. Meanwhile, the Eagles (5-4) are fighting for their midseason lives in the highly-competitive NFC playoff race.
It’s a new season. The teams have had plenty of personnel turnover.
But, Brady and his teammates have admitted they still haven’t gotten over that shocking loss to an Eagles team then led by backup quarterback Nick Foles.
“I think any time you play in that game – I still remember [Super Bowl> XLVI when we lost to the Giants, still remember when I lost the state championship when I was 12,” Devin McCourty said. “You don’t forget any time you play for a championship and you don’t win it. It’s just something that sticks with you. You always want plays back; you want to do things differently. It doesn’t control your day-to-day, but you always think about it.”
This week’s matchup with Philly is indeed a reminder. Though Carsen Wentz is now running the offense, there is still plenty of carryover for the Eagles in terms of personnel and scheme.
“I wouldn’t say that it’s in the back of my head all of the time, but it’s obviously something that I remember,” James White said of the Super Bowl LII loss. “It was a good football game. They outplayed us that night, and a lot of the same guys are on the team now, some of the same coaching staff. So, they do some similar things, but obviously they can bring anything to the table. They have two weeks to prepare just like we do, so we’ve got to be ready for anything, but it’s going to be a good football game.”
As White alluded to, both teams have had two weeks to prepare for this battle, much like they did the last time out. The Eagles hit the bye with a two-game winning streak and starting to get healthier. New England is coming off its first loss of the season. The Patriots once again go on the road to a hostile environment as the second half of the schedule continues to bring new, stronger challenges.
Super Bowl LII may not be forgotten by the losing squad, but that doesn’t mean it’s an actual factor this Sunday evening, either.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s motivation or anything. I think guys are motivated on their own. It’s a new season,” White concluded. “Like I said, we have new players; they have new players. It’s a new season, so guys will be motivated regardless of what happened two years ago. It’s going to be a good atmosphere out there. Philly fans are rowdy, so it’ll be a great game.”
There may not be a championship on the line but it’s still a big regular season, interconference matchup. The Patriots are a measuring stick for every opponent they face. Meanwhile, New England is looking to bounce back from a tough outing in Baltimore.
Leading up to this Super Bowl rematch, here are a few key areas to focus on Sunday evening in Philly.
A running challenge – Last we saw the unit, New England’s supposedly historic Boogeymen defense was getting run all over by Lamar Jackson, Mark Ingram and the Ravens. There is little doubt that the Eagles 11th-ranked rushing attack – led by a backfield combo of veteran Jordan Howard and rookie Miles Sanders – will attempt to run the ball on the Patriots to see if the issues on the ground have been tightened up at all during the bye. Both average 4.4 yards per carry. The challenge for New England’s defense also includes Wentz running some RPOs and maybe running some himself. It’s on Lawrence Guy, Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins and the rest of the Patriots front to improve its run fits, improve its tackling and prove that its issues defending the run are in the past.
Defend the entire field – The ground game is far from the only weapon that Doug Pederson’s offense brings to the field. The Eagles have a pretty diverse attack, although health issues for Alshon Jeffery will cut into the aerial arsenal. Philly’s passing game is led by the tight end position, where Zach Ertz paces the team with 46 catches and Dallas Goedert has another 21. Sanders is a contributor with 22 catches out of the backfield. As the Patriots defensive backs discussed this week, even with two tight ends and a back on the field the Eagles can essentially line up in a 5-wide formation. New England’s impressive pass defense will have to deal with the short and intermediate passing game as well as Wentz’ varied combination of skills. Might we even see Stephon Gilmore matched up with Ertz? Regardless, covering horizontally and tackling well will be keys to the pass defense.
The short and the short of it – The reality right now is that the Patriots offense is based almost primarily in the short passing game. Tom Brady has fed Julian Edelman and James White early and often most weeks. Of late, Mohamed Sanu has entered the mix. The Eagles have an impressive, aggressive pass rush led by Brandon Graham, who has six sacks over the last five games. But he’s far from the only guy who’ll be looking to make Brady’s life tough, as Derek Barnett, Fletcher Cox and Vinny Curry are among the many bodies that Philly defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has at his disposal. The New England offensive line, including left tackle Marshall Newhouse, remains a question mark. Look for Josh McDaniels to dial up a number of quick, short throws to jumpstart the passing game early and keep the Eagles at bay. The short passing game has to continue to produce for the Patriots.
Coach better – Belichick and his assistants had the extra time of the bye to self-scout and figure out where the team is headed after the week off. Pederson had the same luxury, one he put to good use the last time the team’s faced off. Belichick made it clear he and his staff were at least partially at fault for the loss in Baltimore. Schematically, Philly can throw a lot at an opponent on both sides of the ball. Belichick and his staff need to be ready to match that better than they did in Super Bowl LII and better than they did last they took the field.
Wild about Harry! – It’s taken a while, but it kind of sounds like first-round rookie wide receiver N’Keal Harry may be active and play for the first time in his NFL career. Though the youngster is obviously trying to play catch up after missing the first half of the season on injured reserve, he has the potential to add a new dimension to the New England offense. He has the size and contested catch ability to be a factor on the outside and in the red zone. Expecting too much of him is probably unfair, but expecting him to suit up and contribute isn’t. As the old saying goes, better late than never.
Prediction – Overreaction to their first loss aside, the Patriots proved over the first half of the season to be a consistently better football team than the Eagles. But Philly is getting healthy and has plenty of talent on both sides of the ball. This game could very well come down to two key areas: turnovers and the battles in the trenches. If the Patriots get pushed around up front on both sides of the ball, it could be a long night. But, if New England continues to take the ball away at an elite level (plus-17 on the season) against an Eagles team that’s minus-1 on the year, the visitors will be well on their way to victory. New England needs to get off to a better start than the hole it dug for itself in Baltimore. In the end, look for the Brady-led short passing attack to get the job done. Look for the Patriots defense to return to form and force Wentz’ squad into a few key mistakes. Look for New England to get back on the winning track with a 24-20 win in the unfriendly confines of Lincoln Financial Field.