SUPER BOWL LII: Philadelphia Eagles vs. New England Patriots, 2:30 p.m. Alaska time Sunday, TV: NBC
When asked about the dog masks that Philadelphia Eagles players and their fans have been wearing to celebrate the team's underdog status throughout the NFL playoffs, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, as he often does, swatted the question to the ground.
"They're not underdogs," he said. "They're 13-3. You can't be the underdog when you're the No. 1 seed in the NFC. There's no underdogs in this game."
Over the past few days, Brady has repeated that assertion, while adding details about Philadelphia's fantastic defense, its terrific running game and a passing game led by Nick Foles that Brady believes is more dangerous than some people think.
When looking at how Super Bowl LII might play out Sunday, Brady was not wrong about his first two points. The third point was more debatable.
When New England has the ball
Anyone who watched an Eagles game this season should be familiar with the havoc that Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham, Philadelphia's star defensive linemen, can wreak. They may not have been among the league leaders in sacks, but they were the key cogs in a defense that led the NFL with 112 quarterback hits.
There is little relief behind the defensive line, as the Eagles have standout defenders on all three levels, especially the secondary, where Ronald Darby and Malcolm Jenkins are the stars but Jalen Mills and Rodney McLeod more than hold their own.
One of the things Philadelphia did best this season, according to statistics provided by Sportradar, was limit the effectiveness of throwing into coverage. Brady was one of the most aggressive quarterbacks in the NFL this season at attempting passes to covered receivers, and that could be a serious problem against a team that allowed a 16.6 passer rating on passes in which a defender was within a yard of the receiver.
Brady is Brady, so he can be relied upon to find a way to move the ball, but tight end Rob Gronkowski's health and effectiveness are in question after he sustained a concussion in the AFC championship game. If Gronkowski is limited, Brady will try to move the ball downfield with Brandin Cooks, but will probably have to rely on running backs James White and Dion Lewis to provide a lot of his passing yardage on catch-and-runs.
It is unlikely the Patriots will get much out of their running game. The Eagles had the top-ranked run defense in the NFL, giving up an average of 79.2 yards a game. Part of that is a function of the opposition often trying to overcome a deficit, but the Eagles were sixth in the NFL in yards allowed per carry and allowed only seven rushing touchdowns. It is hard to see Mike Gillislee, Rex Burkhead and Lewis getting much traction.
When Philadelphia has the ball
Philadelphia's status as underdog rests almost entirely on which version of Foles shows up. If he is the tentative passer who struggled in the regular season and his team's win over the Atlanta Falcons in the divisional round, the Eagles are in trouble. If he is the confident, 2013 vintage Foles who tore apart the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship Game, the game is at worst a tossup for Philadelphia and at most a shocking upset.
To put so much pressure on Foles, who stepped into the starting role after a season-ending injury to Carson Wentz, is, of course, unfair. But there is an argument to be made that if Wentz were active, it would be Patriots fans raiding Amazon.com in hopes of finding dog masks.
Foles will want to build on his recent success against a terrific Minnesota secondary. He spread the ball around and appeared to have shaken off the rust that limited him severely in the previous few games. He got receptions of 35 yards or more from four different receivers and was especially good on third down; Philadelphia converted 10 of 14 opportunities.
New England's pass defense was ranked 30th in the NFL, but that was skewed by the team's struggles in the first six weeks of the season. The Patriots' secondary could struggle against receiver Alshon Jeffery and tight end Zach Ertz, but will probably not have much trouble containing Torrey Smith and the erratic Nelson Agholor.
When looking to run, the Eagles have one of the most diversified and effective attacks in the NFL. Losing the mobile Wentz was a serious blow, but a group of backs that includes Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement can run against any defense. The only thing that would slow them down is the Patriots getting off to a big early lead, which would force the Eagles to abandon the run.
If you remove the quarterbacks from the equation, the Eagles are at least the Patriots' equal, if not their superior. They were a juggernaut under Wentz and still have a loaded roster. The Patriots, for all of their recent success, are relying far more on experience and execution than overall talent. At one point, Las Vegas had the Eagles as 6-point underdogs, but that has been lowered to 4 points, which seems closer to reality. Just don't tell Brady.
"I'm not buying any underdogs," he said of the Eagles. "You're not fooling me with that."
The Eagles will fight hard, and certainly have a chance at pulling off an upset, but Brady's experience and Foles' volatility give New England a slight advantage. The Patriots won three Super Bowls in a four-season period from 2001-2004, and they appear poised to repeat that accomplishment.
PICK: Patriots 28, Eagles 26.