Ah…would that it were that simple. Since 2001, the Patriots have a regular season record of 48-16. The Eagles? Well, they’re 48-16 in that same time period. Yes, you read that right. The perception arises from the two teams’ enormous difference in postseason success – while the Pats have made the Super Bowl their personal home away from home, the Eagles were on the outside looking in, having lost three consecutive NFC Championship games before finally taking that next step this season.
Fans of Bostonian franchises should take a moment to remember that their two great dreams came to fruition in the face of very heavy odds. The Pats, after all, were 14-point dogs to the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, and we all know how THAT turned out. And who on earth would have picked the Red Sox to end their eternal shnied when they were down 3 games to 0 in the 2004 ALCS?
Perhaps someone who respects the idea that once the gun goes off, anything can happen.
So, with that in mind, here are six matchups the Eagles must win if they hope to pull this off and shock most of the world:
Corey Dillon vs. Jeremiah Trotter: Dillon is well known as one of the best post-contact runners in the NFL (in other words, you’d better get more than one hat on him, or else the first hit just doesn’t mean that much), but there are few linebackers able to bring contact like Trotter. At 6’1” and 262 pounds, Trotter is almost exclusively a runstopper. The idea is to have Trotter extinguish the Main Man on the ground while everyone else deals with the pass. It’s worked through the postseason, because Trotter has been playing out of his mind. He’ll have to continue that trend against a Patriot gameplan that will almost certainly feature a great deal of #28. These two will have their hands full with each other.
In addition, both men come to their first Super Bowl with extreme motivation. Dillon is looking to complete the greatest season of his career (actually it’s more than that…Dillon has undergone what could almost be called a spiritual epiphany) after seven years in Bengal purgatory. He wants to thank Bill Belichick for a lifetime of professional validation in one single year.
Trotter wants to culminate a season that saw him starting out as a vet minimum special teams gunner, and ending it as the very face of his defense. He wants to thank Andy Reid for giving him a second chance when 31 teams couldn’t be bothered.
This matchup is the game’s focal point…the eye of the hurricane. If Trotter is able to keep Dillon under wraps, it’s bye-bye, Belichick extendo-drive…bye-bye, play action and misdirection…and hello, big fat Eagle blitz. If Dillon gets 25+ meaningful (4 yards per or more) carries?
Brian Westbrook vs. Just About Everybody: What Troy Brown is to the Patriots overall in Swiss Army Knife multiple value, Westbrook is to the Philly offense…in spades. The NFL’s leading receiver among running backs in 2004 (73 catches for 703 yards and 6 touchdowns), Westbrook is the guy who makes the brainy side of Philly’s offense go. New England could see him in the backfield running or blocking, or as a receiver in the slot or split wide. Bank on seeing it all as the Eagles look to try to confound the Pats with uneven matchups and multiple pre-snap looks.
Westbrook is not really a between-the tackles-runner (they have Dorsey Levens for that, and they’ll use Levens on short-yardage rushing downs). What Westbrook will do is run outside or catch screens amidst some very creative blocking assignments. As a receiver, he’s too fast for most linebackers to cover, which makes assigning a man to him more difficult. If T.O doesn’t make a big splash in this game, Westbrook is the key to everything. Even if Owens is an impact player, Westbrook is always an integral part of this offense…never more so than on Super Bowl Sunday.
T.O. vs. No T.O.: Without Terrell Owens in the lineup (or if he has a greatly reduced role), the Patriots can replicate the game plan they’ve used to great effect so many times. They’re a fine blitzing team when the mood strikes them, but New England’s defense is based more on serious disruption of the wide receivers at the line of scrimmage, perfect positioning in the middle, and a two-deep safety shell up top. To assume that Belichick and Romeo Crennel are building two entirely different schemes – one with T.O. in mind and one without – is probably a bit of a misnomer. They don’t have to build a new monster if he’s not in the game.
Assuming that Owens will be healthy enough to play a significant role is where it gets interesting. Disrupting Owens at the line is absolutely crucial – if he’s allowed free releases into a secondary without Ty Law and Tyrone Poole, there isn’t a gameplan good enough to shut him down. Owens can be taken out of his game via frustration, and man press aggressiveness is the way to do it.
Covering Owens when he does get free could require a safety obligation out of that two deep zone, backing up Assante Samuel or whoever would man up on him at the line. Where New England has an enormous advantage is that there is no better team in the NFL when it comes to handing off zone assignments. Owens has lived the high life running through seams in a zone, but he won’t get that chance here. To crack the Belichick/Crennel code, he must get off the line in a hurry, catch the quick ball, and use his physical skills to break through the web.
Philly Wideouts vs. the First Five Yards: As to the rest of Philly’s receiver corps…there are issues. One issue that will likely not present itself as much as people think is a physical manifestation of the Freddie Mitchell/Rodney Harrison back-and-forth. Teams coached by Bill Belichick do not exact personal vendettas on the field – they prefer to kung-fu your collective butts into oblivion and let the final score do the talking. Those who are waiting for Harrison to blow an assignment to put Mitchell in the hospital will probably have to simulate THAT on their respective PlayStations.
Philly’s receivers are not noted for matching up well against physical coverage, and this must change. Mitchell and Todd Pinkston have to be up to the task. Mitchell has difficulty getting free from any resistance, but it’s really Pinkston who has the chance to send the world a big “neener-neener!” when it comes to the perception that he develops alligator arms and cement feet when any defender bears down on him. The Eagles will need to spread New England’s defense out – show them multiple looks to avoid the Pats being able to dictate from the word go – and without at least one legit wideout threat besides Owens, it isn’t going to happen. One of these guys has to step up.
The New Donovan McNabb vs. The Old Donovan McNabb: If there was any quarterback that needed to take the step forward into the elite more than Donovan McNabb in 2004…well, there wasn’t. Fortunately for his team, McNabb did just that, finishing 2004 with the best numbers of his career (300 of 469 for 3875 yards with 31 touchdowns and only 8 interceptions) both with and without his new best buddy, Mr. Owens.
McNabb can still get around, though he’s not exactly Michael Vick. His mobility has become more of an adjunct to the big picture as his overall game improves. Where some defenses have goofed is in making the common assumption that as a quarterback becomes more intelligent and effective, he somehow becomes a “pocket passer”, as if John Elway never existed. Make no mistake – McNabb can still pull the ball down and make a difference if need be. But if he has to revert to running as an alternative to a passing game that has been checkmated by the Patriots…well, #5 might as well take a seat on the bench and wait for the team mom to come around with the Chunky Dead Quarterback Soup.
Weis/Crennel vs. Childress/Johnson: The matchup between Bill Belichick and Andy Reid is the obvious tête-à-tête (and less of a mismatch than some would have you believe), but the most interesting cat-and-mouse games will be going on between the respective offensive and defensive coordinators.
The Patriots have two of the best in offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel. Both men will be coaching their last games under Belichick – Weis is headed to Notre Dame, and Crennel’s appointment to the Cleveland Browns’ head coaching position appears to be nothing more than a postgame formality. As farewell tours go, it’s difficult to imagine better performances. In the divisional playoff, Crennel’s defense completely decimated the Colts’ wide-open offense, limiting a team that scored 522 points in the regular season to a field goal. And in the AFC Championship game, Weis’ offense put up 41 points on Pittsburgh’s top-ranked defense. Put simply, both of these gentlemen have repeatedly proven themselves to be the class of the league.
Childress, Reid’s offensive coordinator, is one of the most respected assistants in the NFL. Reid learned the West Coast Offense under Mike Holmgren in Green Bay through the 1990s, and Philly installs West Coast variants with some unique wrinkles in the vertical passing game. The subject of several head coach-related rumors himself, Childress will have his hands full against the uber-disciplined New England defense.
Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson is known for one thing – sending blitz packages from just about every conceivable area – but there’s more to Philly’s defense than bringing pressure. Three of their four defensive backs (cornerback Lito Sheppard, along with safeties Brian Dawkins and Michael Lewis) were voted to the Pro Bowl, and Johnson’s strategy against the Falcons and Michael Vick in the NFC Championship game bears mentioning. When everyone thought the Eagles would blitz Vick to kingdom come (leaving open the possibility of huge rushing lanes for the frighteningly mobile QB), Johnson went “read-and-react” most of the day, bottling Vick up in a corral of spies and forcing him back into the pocket when he tried to get outside. This forced Vick to beat the Eagles with his arm…which wasn’t going to happen. Look for the Eagles to send much more heat against Tom Brady.
Summary: How can the Eagles win? The same way any team beats the New England Patriots…wait for a mistake, capitalize when it happens, win the battle of the clock (this is key to avoiding last-minute desperation), and dictate scheme and tempo on the line. It will take a masterpiece of football fundamentals for this to happen, but it is possible.
Is it probable? Well, I
have the Pats winning 31-21 with Corey Dillon as your Super Bowl MVP…so
I guess Philly would be shocking me too. But make no mistake – the Eagles
have earned their position and place in this game, and they’re no pushover.
Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET. Feel free to e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.