Grant Cohn: Patriots have the history, but Eagles have the talent
The Philadelphia Eagles will beat the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.
I never intended to write that sentence.
When I sat down in front of my computer, I planned to merely make a case for the Eagles. For the sake of argument. That's it. Because we all want to see them be competitive in the interest of drama.
Most people don't expect they'll win. Especially without their starting quarterback and MVP candidate, Carson Wentz.
As I researched the teams and broke down the stats to make my case for the Eagles, I realized I have more than just a case. I have the winner. At least, I'm pretty sure I do.
I might be crazy. So, before I tell you why I'm picking the Eagles, let me present the counter arguments in favor of the Patriots so you can see my thought process and judge for yourself.
WHY I MIGHT BE CRAZY.
It's the freaking Patriots.
They have arguably the best head coach (Bill Belichick), quarterback (Tom Brady) and tight end (Rob Gronkowski) of all time.
The Eagles have no all-time greats. They don't even have their starting quarterback. Wentz tore his left ACL and LCL Week 14. The Eagles are playing their backup quarterback, Nick Foles.
Tough to beat Belichick, Brady and Gronkowski with a backup quarterback.
The Patriots have championship experience. Most of their players and coaches were on the team during last year's Super Bowl victory against the Atlanta Falcons.
The Eagles lack championship experience. Only two Eagles have participated in a Super Bowl — running back LeGarrette Blount and defensive end Chris Long. Both played for the Patriots last season. The rest of the Eagles players and coaches will be entering the biggest game of their lives with zero experience in a game of this magnitude. Even they don't know how they'll respond to the pressure.
The Patriots defense has been dominant recently. In the Patriots past three games, the defense has given up an average of just 13.3 points. And it has completely shut down opponents' rushing attacks, allowing only 3.1 yards per carry. The Patriots defense will force the Eagles offense to pass.
The Patriots defense also will take away the Eagles' primary weapons in the passing game — tight end Zach Ertz and wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. Belichick is known for forcing opposing offenses to feature their secondary receivers. Foles will have to complete difficult, narrow-window throws to Nelson Agholor and Torrey Smith.
Based purely on the matchup between the Patriots defense and the Eagles offense, it's impossible to pick the Eagles to win. Well, that's what I initially thought.
WHY THE EAGLES WILL WIN.
Their defense is way better than you think. Better than that Jaguars defense the Patriots faced in the AFC championship game a couple of weeks ago. Better than the Patriots defense has played recently.
The Eagles have given up only nine points per game in their past three meaningful contests (not counting Week 17. Most of the Eagles starters played fewer than a dozen snaps that week. I'm counting Week 16 and the two playoff games).
In those three games, the Eagles defense faced three quality quarterbacks — Case Keenum, Matt Ryan and Derek Carr. Those three combined to post a completion percentage of just 57.5, a miniscule average of 5.5 yards per pass attempt and an embarrassing quarterback rating of 67.
The Eagles' best defensive player is 27-year-old tackle Fletcher Cox. He is one of the 40 best players in the NFL and the second-best defensive tackle in the league after Aaron Donald of the LA Rams.
Cox will face the Patriots worst starter — left guard Joe Thuney. Cox will manhandle that nobody and prevent Brady from stepping forward in the pocket. Brady tends to struggle when he can't step forward and, instead, has to move side to side or backward. Interior pressure makes him seem mortal.
The immortal Brady will seem mortal against the Eagles defense.
The entire Eagles team is fantastic. If you were to take away the coaches and the quarterbacks on both teams and focus just on the rest of the rosters, the Eagles would far outclass the Patriots. The Eagles have six Pro Bowlers. The Patriots have three, and two are Brady and Gronkowski.
The Eagles are the most talented team in the NFL.
Even recently with Foles at quarterback, the Eagles have been just as good as the Patriots. Maybe better. Check out how similar their stats have been.
During their past three meaningful games, the Patriots have averaged 6.4 yards per pass attempt and the Eagles have averaged 6.5. The Patriots have averaged 3.5 yards per rush attempt and the Eagles have averaged 3.4. The Patriots and Eagles both have given up exactly 888 total yards, and the Patriots and Eagles both have outscored their opponents by exactly 40 points.
The main difference between these teams is their ability to stop the pass. The Eagles stop it very well, and the Patriots don't. The past three quarterbacks the Patriots faced posted a cumulative passer rating of 90. Foles, a quality journeyman, will look fantastic against the Patriots defense and may even outplay Brady.
The Eagles defense will be the best unit in the game. Foles will surprise a lot of people and win the Super Bowl MVP. And the final score will be Eagles 24, Patriots 23.
Grant Cohn covers the 49ers for The Santa Rosa Press Democrat and Pressdemocrat.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.