By Matt Citak
After an exciting three weeks of playoff football, the matchup for Super Bowl LII is finally set. Both No. 1 seeds will be battling for the Lombardi Trophy as the Philadelphia Eagles take on the New England Patriots at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota on Sunday, February 4th.
The Eagles played one of their most well-rounded games of the season last weekend against the Minnesota Vikings. Nick Foles, filling in for the injured Carson Wentz, had possibly the best performances of his career, completing an impressive 78.8 percent of his passes for 352 yards, three touchdowns, and zero interceptions. What made this stellar outing even more amazing is the fact that it came against Minnesota’s defense that ranked second in the NFL during the regular season in passing yards allowed (192.4) and first in points allowed per game (15.8). Foles was able to lead the Philadelphia offense to 456 total yards of offense and a perfect 2-for-2 in red zone scoring, and has now completed over 76 percent of his passes in two consecutive games.
In addition to the great quarterback play, the Eagles’ defense has also looked outstanding in the postseason. After holding the Atlanta Falcons to just 10 points and 281 total yards of offense in the Divisional Round, Philly’s D shut down Case Keenum and the Vikings this past weekend. Keenum, the postseason’s Cinderella darling, was able to complete just 28-of-48 passes (58.3 percent) for one touchdown and two interceptions, one of which was returned for the Eagles’ first touchdown of the game. The Eagles also held Minnesota’s run game to 70 yards on the ground, more than 50 yards below their regular season average (122.3 per game), and did not allow the Vikings to score in any of their three trips to the red zone. Philadelphia will look for one more standout performance from its defense next Sunday against the Patriots high-scoring offense.
New England opened its postseason play with a 35-14 shellacking of the Tennessee Titans. Tom Brady threw for 337 yards and three touchdowns, and the Patriots defense was able to hold Marcus Mariota and the Titans offense to just 267 total yards of offense. However last weekend’s victory over the Jaguars was not nearly as easy for the defending Super Bowl Champions. New England was down 20-10 early in the fourth quarter before Brady led two drives that ended with touchdown passes to Danny Amendola to give the Patriots the 24-20 win. While the Jacksonville pass defense finished the regular season allowing a league-best 169.9 passing yards per game, the unit allowed the 40-year-old Patriots quarterback to throw for 290 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions.
The Patriots were able to come from behind to secure their second consecutive trip to the Super Bowl, but will need a better game from its defense next week if they want to be crowned champions again. New England allowed Blake Bortles to throw for 293 yards and a touchdown, while surrendering 374 total yards to the Jaguars offense (Jacksonville actually outgained New England 374-344 on Sunday). With the way Foles has been playing over the last two weeks, this sort of performance against the pass will not be enough to slow Philadelphia down. However, New England was successful in slowing down the Jaguars running game, as Leonard Fournette carried the ball 24 times for just 76 yards (3.2 yards per carry). The Eagles finished the regular season ranked third in the NFL with 132.2 rushing yards per game. Limiting the production of running backs Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount, and even Corey Clement will be crucial for the Patriots defense next Sunday.
INSIDE THE NFL analyst Ray Lewis weighed in on last weekend’s Conference Championships, and looked ahead towards next weekend’s Eagles-Patriots Super Bowl LII matchup.
Lewis, along with Phil Simms, Boomer Esiason, Brandon Marshall and James Brown break down this and other NFL storylines all season long each Tuesday night at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime’s Inside The NFL.
CBS Local Sports: How was Nick Foles able to have so much success throwing the ball against Minnesota’s top-ranked defense last weekend?
Ray Lewis: Sometimes you scheme certain teams. Minnesota plays a certain style of defense. When you looked at the route combinations that were drawn up, everything the Eagles did was pretty much quick-hitters. I said this a while ago, but let’s not act like Nick Foles cannot throw the football. Nick Foles was one of the hottest quarterbacks in the league when he first entered the NFL. You ask yourself, “How did he do it?” There were a lot of selfish mistakes made by Minnesota. They did not play as a unit. Minnesota played as a bunch of individuals, and that’s what happens when the game is big and you get frustrated. Credit to Nick Foles, but with the Minnesota defense, there was a lot of individual play.
CBS Local Sports: How were the Patriots able to limit Leonard Fournette and the Jaguars running game to just over 3 yards per carry on Sunday?
Ray Lewis: I didn’t understand the style of offense that Jacksonville ran against the Patriots. One of Blake Bortles’ abilities is running the ball. When you put him in that zone read concept, you’re supposed to get an extra man out of the box. Jacksonville never got that extra man out of the box. They even brought fullbacks into the game, which brings more guys to the party. I never understood what they were trying to do. They did New England a favor by bringing that many players into the box. If you look at the plays that Leonard Fournette was making, he was spinning off defenders and making guys miss. If that’s a seven-man box instead of an eight-man box, he may be bursting out of the gate on three or four of those runs. I didn’t like Jacksonville’s game plan.
CBS Local Sports: What will Philadelphia’s defense need to do to slow down Tom Brady and this high-powered New England offense?
Ray Lewis: It’s really interesting when I hear the phrase “high-powered.” It’s not high-powered, it’s consistent. To be a consistent offense like that, you have to be able to match the routes. If you look back to the Super Bowl against Atlanta last year and the game against the Jaguars this past weekend, you see the Patriots are running the exact same routes. [The Eagles will need to] turn around, look up the man, and cover him. But people tend to get mesmerized watching the game. If Philly really wants to have a chance, they’re going to have to realize that Tom Brady has not thrown a targeted pass over 40 yards since Randy Moss [was on the team]. So where are his passes going? Most passes are in the meat of the box. Those are the route combinations that the Eagles need to study. If they don’t study those route combinations, Brady’s going to [pick the defense apart] all day.
CBS Local Sports: How important will it be for the Patriots pass rush to get some pressure on Foles, who’s only been sacked once in each of the Eagles’ first two postseason contests?
Ray Lewis: Nick Foles will have a lot more success than people think. The Philadelphia Eagles are going to put up [a lot of points]. It’s going to be a shootout. [Look at] what Jacksonville was able to do against New England’s defense. The Eagles have a lot more weapons, and from a backfield perspective, they have a different mentality. LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi- those two will be crucial.
Matt Citak is a producer for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter or send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.