Before making a pick, it’s time to look at the Patriots’ Super Bowl history
When Drew Bledsoe went down in 2001, Patriots fans started talking about the NFL Draft.
Back then, the Pats were easly the fourth team on the Boston Sports Totem Pole, lagging behind the Red Sox’ stranglehold on New England’s imaginations by miles. New England’s football history was mostly miserable, and entirely free of the folklore that defined the cursed Red Sox, the Celtics of the Red Auerbach and Bill Russell days, and the Big Bad Bruins. Add to that how far Foxborough actually is from Boston and the Patriots were an afterthought.
It makes me feel old to know that people I have worked with in a professional capacity are too young to remember any of that. There are people old enough to legally buy tobacco and vote who have only known the New England Patriots as a dynasty.
Yesterday I took some old Super Bowls and used them to explain ways the Eagles might be able to win the Super Bowl. To preview the Patriots, I need only look to the games they’ve won. This will be the eighth Super Bowl to involve the Belichick/Brady Patriots. That’s as many appearances as any other organization has made. So what do their five wins say about them?
Super Bowl XXXVI: Attention to Detail
Looking back on it, the unit that’s most responsible for the Patriots’ first Super Bowl run is their special teams.
Obviously Adam Vinatieri played a major role, having probably the best postseason a kicker will ever have. Kick returner and wide receiver Troy Brown played his part as well, returning a punt for a touchdown in the AFC Championship to send the Patriots to play the Rams in New Orleans.
Tom Brady wasn’t yet the player he would become. There was no Gronk or Randy Moss on that 2001 team, with the workmanlike Brown being the best pass target at the time. At the time, the New England offense was defined largely as a “dink and dunk” group.
The defense was solid, led by Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison, was important but not quite the unit they would field in 2003 and 2004. They came up big in the big game, with Ty Law returning an interception for a touchdown to bring the Patriots their first score.
What the Patriots excelled at in 2001 was attention to detail. They took fewer penalties than the Rams in that Super Bowl, and didn’t turn the ball over while the Rams lost the pigskin three different times. They beat St. Louis on the ground, and didn’t ask the passing game to do too much. Tom Brady won the MVP, but only threw for 145 yards on the night.
Takeaways: Bill Belichick teams don’t let little things slip. It seems that just about any lapse in concentration in the big game against the Patriots will cost a team, no matter how potent that team can be.
Super Bowl XXXVIII: Don’t Let New England Get The Ball Last
If you go back and look at the box score from Super Bowl XXXVIII, it looks by most angles like the Carolina Panthers really should have won the game.
The Panthers intercepted Tom Brady and didn’t allow Jake Delhomme to throw one away. On just sixteen carries, they managed 92 yards on the ground. Carolina scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter, including one with just 1:08 to go in the game.
What happened instead is, of course, history. The Patriots and Tom Brady got the ball one more time, drove down the field, and won on another walkoff field goal from Adam Vinatieri.
Takeaways: While it’s often said that “Tom Brady wasn’t Tom Brady yet” in 2003, one of the essential parts of his living legend is his ability to score on the last drive, and 2003 was one of the best instances of that. Carolina was in the Super Bowl largely because of a dominant defense led by Julius Peppers, but Brady and Troy Brown cut through it like a hot knife through butter on the final drive. If the Patriots can beat you on the last drive, they will.
Super Bowl XXXIX: Every second counts
The Philadelphia Eagles of the early 2000s are among the greatest football teams to never lift the Lombardi Trophy. Andy Reid transformed the franchise with Donovan McNabb at quarterback and the legendary Jim Johnson as an aggressive defensive coordinator. Buccaneers fans remember this team well, both as the team that ended the Dungy era and became the stepping stone between the Bucs and their Super Bowl two years prior.
While the game was rough for Philly, trailing throughout the second half after four turnovers, the Eagles looked like they just might be able to come back and win in the fourth quarter. Down 10 points, Philadelphia went down the field on a long drive that resulted in a thirty yard touchdown reception by Greg Lewis to make it a one score game.
Of course, that drive left 1:48 on the game clock. The Eagles did get the ball again, but by then it was too late to run their preferred offense and they ran out of clock. This became a familiar sight for coach Andy Reid, for whom clock management is essentially kryptonite.
Takeaways: There is really no margin for error when it comes to beating the Patriots in a Super Bowl. The four turnovers really doomed Philadelphia, but add to it a lapse in clock management late and the Eagles were never going to win that football game.
Super Bowl XLIX: Do NOT try to outsmart Belichick
The famous Malcolm Butler Play that brought Super Bowl XLIX to a close makes some sense in the context of Patriots football. With the ball deep in Patriots territory and no margin for error, Marshawn Lynch up the middle was the obvious call, but the case could be made without much trouble that it is never wise to call the obvious play when Bill Belichick is on the other sideline.
It was that line of thinking that got Pete Carroll to outsmart himself, opting instead to call a quick pass. Whether the Patriots saw that exact play coming, or whether Butler just made a great play on the ball, the fact is that we’ll look at the decision to pass on that play for the rest of Super Bowl history.
Takeaways: If I were coaching a team facing the Patriots, I would simply assume that they know every play we have ever thought about running. In sixteen years of Brady and Belichick, that team has really never looked surprised by any development the NFL can throw at them. They’ve been beaten, but in the games they lose it often comes down to somebody on the other side simply making a great play. Try to get clever, and Bill Belichick will embarrass you.
Super Bowl LI: Know when to accept victory
In last year’s famous comeback, the Patriots simply had to keep fighting, because the Atlanta Falcons were not going to accept their win until the final whistle. As it turned out, this cost them the win.
With a 28-3 lead, it might be tempting to keep one’s foot on the gas. The Falcons had the newly crowned MVP after all in Matt Ryan, and their best offensive players were part of the passing game. While in hindsight it looks like a disaster of a decision, the case could easily be made that giving the ball to your best players is exactly how to finish a championship season.
Granted, when a team has a lead, their best teammate in the second half will always be The Clock.. Dan Quinn didn’t trust The Clock, keeping it on the bench throughout the second half. We all know what comes next. In passing the ball with a gigantic lead, the Falcons were not able to run down the clock, giving Tom Brady and company a chance to come back on them.
Had Atlanta run the ball in the second half with any success, the Falcons would have won Super Bowl LI and done so by a considerable margin. Just a little success on the ground would have put the Patriots in a position where they couldn’t come back simply because there would never be enough time to do so.
Takeaways: Victory laps are for parades. To beat the Patriots, press any advantage. With a second half lead of more than three scores, that advantage is time. The Falcons left New England enough air to breathe. That turned out to be a mistake.
The bottom line with all of this is that, while the Patriots can be beaten, the formula for doing so involves no shortcuts.
To win, a team must knock Tom Brady down. They cannot outsmart themselves or give the Patriots a chance to press any advantage they have. Attention to detail is paramount.
The good news for people who are tired of the Patriots is that the Philadelphia Eagles fit the profile of a team that can beat them.
Consider that Nick Foles might turn out to be a strength and not a weakness here. While Carson Wentz is much more talented, and in fact could have been MVP had he stayed healthy, Wentz leads an offense to want to press their luck and test their limits. Against the Patriots, as we’ve seen time and time again, this is a bad idea. Foles, on the other hand, gives a more limited skillset but has proven a master at taking what a defense gives him. If he’s on his game, Nick Foles will not give the football away. In this situation, a “game manager” like that can be an advantage.
Because the passing game will not be a big advantage for Philadelphia, the Eagles will have to run the football and display a balanced offense. They have the elements for it, with a strong offensive line and multiple effective running backs. In other words, they’ll be poised to hold onto a lead if they should get one.
The defense also gives some hope to Eagles fans. If pressure on Tom Brady truly beats the Patriots, Philadelphia’s pass rush suggests they’ll have a good shot at it. The Eagles will be in Tom Brady’s face on Sunday, and Brady is a different guy when pressured.
Outside of the quarterback matchup, the Eagles are the better team. New England’s defense has been inconsistent, while Philadelphia’s is among the best in the game. The Eagles do as much with two running backs as the Patriots do with four. Even with Rob Gronkowski, any Pats advantage at tight end is minimal with Zach Ertz lining up for the Eagles. In fact, at most positions, you would take the Eagles’ player over their New England counterpart.
Making a pick for this game, then, is tough. On paper the Eagles should win, Tom Brady or no. In practice, they’ll have to play a near perfect game to beat New England, if seven (!!!) Patriots Super Bowl appearances under Belichick are any indication. If Nick Foles comes out with jitters, the Eagles lose. If they let Gronk get open in the fourth quarter, they lose. If it comes down to a game of coaching prowess, they lose. If it comes down to quarterbacks, they lose. If it comes down to special teams, the Eagles probably will lose.
This is the Super Bowl. Teams do often play their best game on this stage. So I decided I’d make my pick based on the idea that both teams play their best possible game. Thus, my pick is Eagles 27, Patriots 24 with Zach Ertz taking MVP honors. The logic is, if both teams get what they want, the Eagles have more weapons, and I don’t know if the Patriots have anyone who can handle Ertz.
Enjoy the big game on radio! Sports Talk Florida is your home for Super Bowl LII coverage, with the game airing on Sports Talk 1040 Tampa Bay, Sports Talk 1080 Orlando, News Talk 820 Tampa Bay, News Talk 98.3 FM Pinellas County, and News Talk 1060 Orlando.