MINNEAPOLIS — If you analyze this Super Bowl matchup long enough, you always come back to one question: How can Nick Foles beat Bill Belichick, especially when Belichick has two weeks to prepare?
Well, let’s ask this instead: Why can’t Nick Foles and the Eagles beat the Patriots?
It’s a lot more likely than it seems. The Patriots have won so many Super Bowls during the Belichick era—five, so far—that we act like they win it every year. They contend every year, but even the best franchises lose sometimes. Let’s look at the Pats’ history under Belichick.
They have lost playoff games to Mark Sanchez, Joe Flacco twice, Jake Plummer and Peyton Manning in Manning’s last season, when he was one of the worst quarterbacks in the league.
When Eli Manning took his first Super Bowl snap against the undefeated 2007 Patriots, he had a career record of 30-25, career completion percentage of 54.7 and career passer rating of 73.4. Manning, of course, went on to beat the Patriots in another Super Bowl. But Foles’s career passer rating is still higher than Eli’s.
We have conditioned ourselves into thinking that only great quarterbacks win Super Bowls, and so it makes sense that only great quarterbacks beat the Patriots. History tells us the opposite: New England has done pretty well against Philip Rivers, peak Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck and Matt Ryan last year. The Patriots have not really struggled against anybody, but they have had some difficulty against deep, versatile, balanced teams with great defenses.
Eagles center Jason Kelce says a lot of interesting things. He is an interesting guy who wore an interesting hat, one of those furry, flappy hats that looks good on 0.02% of the population and ridiculous on everybody else. If you are 300 pounds and have a big beard, that’s your hat.
Anyway during Tuesday’s media availability, Kelce was asked to sum up the Patriots in one word, and he said “dominant.” That sounds right, but it isn’t. NFL teams are rarely dominant—the last truly dominant NFL team was probably the 2007 Patriots. The Patriots have been great, but calling them dominant both overstates and minimizes their greatness. They have won a lot of games over the years when they didn’t dominate. They have been great because of some combination of talent, craftiness and adaptability, driven by the best quarterback and coach in history.
We seem to have lost sight of that, and I think it goes back to last year’s Super Bowl. In case you don’t remember, the Patriots came back from a 28–3 late third-quarter deficit to beat the Falcons.
Most of us figured, logically, that Atlanta’s 28–3 lead was safe. When Tom Brady finished that comeback, it was not just an amazing sports night—it made us feel that no matter what happened, the Patriots would win anyway. Questioning them about anything ever again felt silly.
And when the Patriots came back against Jacksonville two weeks ago, that just confirmed our suspicions that nothing can stop them.
Well, we’ll see. Maybe Foles will throw three interceptions and the Patriots will blow out the Eagles. Predicting football games is a good way to shrink your bank balance.
But the Eagles have some of the qualities that we have often seen in teams that beat the Patriots. They are probably better on both lines than New England. Their offensive coaches, led by head coach Doug Pederson, are willing to make radical changes—they went from conservative against Atlanta in their first playoff game to airing it out against Minnesota in their next.
Their defensive coordinator, Jim Schwartz, is willing to blitz when necessary but he has had a lot of success by pressuring the quarterback without blitzing. That is the same approach that the Giants famously used in both of their Super Bowl wins against New England.
Schwartz talked this week about depth on the defensive line—he compared it to a baseball team having a lot of relief pitchers who throw in the mid-90s. You just bring one after another late in games to finish off your opponent.
The Patriots never surprise anybody when they win. The Eagles surprised a lot of people this year, but they did not surprise themselves. Schwartz said the talent on the defensive side was one reason he took the Eagles job before the 2016 season. That season ended with a 7-9 record, but a plus-36 point differential and a lot of optimism.
“In training camp … Doug made this comment: This team is more talented than the Super Bowl team he was on in Green Bay,” Kelce said. “A lot of people kind of (laughed) at that at the time. For all of us that were there, you could see that we had the players. We had the guys there to do it. As you win and play each game … guys that have been together for multiple years, we felt that building.”
It kept building, even after Carson Wentz went down. With Wentz, the Eagles would probably be the favorite this week. Without him, they look like a few other teams that weren’t supposed to beat the Patriots, but did.