Patriots Are Too Much for Eagles to Handle

<p>The New England Patriots flew to Pennsylvania early to avoid a winter storm that could have disrupted preparations for their AFC Championship game against the Steelers. They traveled to Jacksonville on a more normal schedule to prepare for the other team from PA. Having to face the two best teams in the NFL back to back weeks is no easy challenge. </p> <p>Do the Patritos have what it takes to accomplish what many thought impossible, winning two in a row?</p>

Patriots Are Too Much for Eagles to Handle
By John MacKenna

The Philadelphia Eagles are a great football team, but they will be overmatched Sunday night in Jacksonville when they face the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX. The Patriots, provided they play well, are simply too good to lose, even to the Eagles.

The signs are everywhere that the Patriots have taken their game to a whole new level this postseason. In games against the Indianapolis Colts and the Pittsburgh Steelers, arguably the second- and third-best teams in the NFL, New England won by a combined 61-30.

The Eagles might put up a tougher fight than the Colts or the Steelers did, mostly because they are more balanced than those teams: better than the Colts on defense and better than the Steelers on offense.

Philadelphia has some great weapons. In Donovan McNabb, they have a strong-armed, cool-headed quarterback capable of taking over a game. Brian Westbrook is an elusive running back who can make big plays passing or running. The defensive secondary is as good as any in the game.

For all their strengths, though, the Eagles are a flawed team. They lack a power running back that can dominate a game. Their receiving corps, aside from Terrell Owens, is mediocre. Their defensive line is small.

Like the Patriots, however, the Eagles are a smart team that formulates excellent game plans and wins by executing those plans while keeping mistakes to a minimum, Expect Head Coach Andy Reid to have the Eagles well prepared on Sunday night.

The problem is that the Patriots are just too good, and they probably will play an excellent game. This New England team is more potent than their predecessors that won two of the last three Super Bowls. Here are the differences.

  • Corey Dillon. The Patriots' refugee running back has transformed what was a middling offense dependent on the pass into a lethal attack capable of exploiting any weakness that a defense presents. In Dillon's first season here, New England went from 27th in the NFL in rushing yards to seventh.

  • Experience in the receiving corps. New England's top two receivers, Deion Branch and David Givens, were second-year players last year. Now they have three years in the same system with the same quarterback and the same offensive coordinator. They know QB Tom Brady, and he knows them. Brady, Branch and Givens showed how dangerous they are together when they combined to burn the Steelers on a 60-yard pass play in the AFC Championship game. Branch caught the ball and scored the touchdown, but Head Coach Bill Belichick said that the play succeeded because Givens ran a perfect route that lured an extra defender to him and left Branch in single coverage in the middle of the field. That kind of cohesiveness makes the New England passing attack even better than the sum of its talented parts.

  • A better offensive line. Tackle Matt Light and guard Joe Andruzzi are each enjoying another excellent season on the left side, and they have more help than they did last year. Center Dan Koppen has really come on in his second season, and right guard Stephen Neal is a rising star. A former champion wrestler who never played college football, Neal is already one of the league's best pulling guards in just his first full season. When Branch ran two reverses against the Steelers, Neal took on a cornerback both times and helped spring Branch for gains of 13 and 23 yards.

  • Greater resourcefulness on defense. The Patriots' defense is at the peak of its powers, and the recent improvement is due in large part to the experience gained while coping with a succession of injuries to key defensive players this season. The team won both its playoff games without injured Pro Bowl DE Richard Seymour and has been playing without both its starting cornerbacks, Ty Law and Tyrone Poole, for the last 10 games. The replacement cornerbacks, Asante Samuel and Randall Gay, also both missed time due to injuries. The Patriots responded to these crises by devising a succession of innovative game plans predicated on near-perfect cooperation and execution. Their success under duress-the Patriots have won nine of their last 10 games--gave the defensive coaches the confidence to scheme like never before.

  • Improved coaching. The idea that the New England coaching staff could be improving after all these years together might seem far-fetched, but Offensive Coordinator Charlie Weis is still learning the intricacies of the well-balanced offense after years of coaching without a superior running back like Dillon. The offensive game planning is still getting better every week.

When the Patriots have the ball, look for them to try a little of everything. Weis is a master of surprise, and he undoubtedly will pull a rabbit or three from his hat in his final game with the Patriots.

The maddening part for opponents is that Weis's trick plays don't even have to work for New England to succeed. Simply by forcing defenses to guard against multiple possibilities on every play, Weis compels them to spread themselves thin. If, for example, New England sends FB Patrick Pass out into the right flat, the Eagles either have to account for him with a linebacker or a cornerback or risk an easy 10-yard gain. Case in point: Linebacker Mike Vrabel has caught three touchdown passes in the last two years. If a defense has to account for a linebacker playing tight end, they have to account for everyone. In light of Branch's successful reverses against the Steelers, the Eagles are already on guard for receivers crossing the backfield. Weis will force them to overextend on Sunday night.

Sunday's surprises could include a touchdown pass to little-used receiver Bethel Johnson and short passes to tight ends Daniel Graham, Christian Fauria and Jed Weaver.

New England surely will run the ball on Philadelphia's undersized defensive front. Don't be surprised to see Dillon going straight at MLB Jeremiah Trotter.

The Eagles' run defense is underrated, having held opponents to under 100 rush yards in seven of their last nine games, but New England will succeed by being physical and unpredictable. Dillon will get his 20 carries, but there also will be some surprises, including runs by Pass.

The Patriots won't gamble much in the passing game. Brady will throw long, but he will pick his spots, looking for opportunities created by superior execution and/or defensive breakdowns. If Dillon rips off some big runs early, Brady will wait for the Eagles to crowd the line of scrimmage and make them pay.

On defense, the Patriots should control the Eagles quite easily. There is no big, powerful running back, so New England can spread it defense vertically and horizontally. Look for outside linebackers Mike Vrabel, Willie McGinest and Rosevelt Colvin to play wide and force McNabb and Westbrook inside, where LB Tedy Bruschi and safety Rodney Harrison can bring them down.

McNabb is a great passer, but his receiving corps is unspectacular, and it got thinner in the NFC Championship game when tight end Chad Lewis suffered a season-ending injury. Wideouts Todd Pinkston and Freddie Mitchell are mediocre on a good day, and they will wither against New England's physical secondary.

Which brings us to Owens, who really is the Eagles' only hope. If he is near 100 percent, he could change the game by forcing the Patriots to double him and create openings elsewhere. If Owens plays at much less than full strength, though, his return will hurt the Eagles more than it helps them.

Prediction: Owens is ineffective. McNabb can't find open receivers and gets sacked five times. Dillon runs for 150 yards, and Brady throws two touchdown passes and no interceptions. Patriots 31, Eagles 16.

John is a regular contributor to the Patriots Insider. You can reach him in the forums under the name: oldnslow. You can also find archives of his columns on the Insiders by searching for "John MacKenna" or send him an email here

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