The Super Bowl is the one American sporting event each year that can count on mass global viewership. It is the NFL’s chance to show off to a world that has not proven to be particularly interested in the North American brand of football. This year, the league’s campaign is aided by the multiple intriguing storylines to follow in the big game, and (for some people, at least) by Justin Timberlake’s performance at the half time show.
The New England Patriots have been favourites to make it back to the Super Bowl ever since last year’s stunning comeback victory over the Atlanta Falcons was followed by a hugely successful free agency period, bringing in stars like Brandin Cooks and Stephon Gilmore. However, their season had more twists and turns than expected given their porous defense to start the year, and reported troubles off the field. Thankfully for them, a poor start turned into a dominant display of football over the latter part of the season.
The Philadelphia Eagles also had an impressive free agency spending spree, and complemented it well with a good draft haul. However, there were still doubts about second-year quarterback Carson Wentz’s ability to lead the team to the playoffs. Wentz silenced the doubters, arguably leading the MVP race until a knee injury ended his season.
That injury has given us perhaps the most enticing storyline to follow on Sunday Night. Tom Brady, who many consider to be the greatest of all time, will be facing Nick Foles, Wentz’s backup and not a player anyone expected to be starting in a Super Bowl. Will Foles beat expectations the way he did in the NFC championship game or will he be the limited quarterback he has often been over the last few seasons? If Foles faulters, the rest of the Eagles team will certainly have a lot to make up for.
That injury has given us perhaps the most enticing storyline to follow on Sunday Night
Many believe the Eagles to be the more complete team, and the statistics back it up. Their defense is relentless rushing the passer, a key component for any squad going up against Brady. Their offense is versatile, and, masterminded by Doug Pederson and Frank Reich, unpredictable. However, it is still hard to give them an edge over the winningest coach-quarterback combo of all time and a team that has won Super Bowls in two of the past three years, particularly when they’re missing their star quarterback.
One thing to watch will be whether Philadephia establishes the run early on. If they can push the Patriots’ front, it will take some pressure off Foles and give him more space to exploit down the field. If they cannot, Philadelphia’s fate will be left at the mercy of a mercurial backup. Personally, I believe Foles to be a decent signal caller, but the margin for error will be tiny when facing the Patriots, who are known to exploit even the smallest mistakes.
On the Patriots’ side, the area of concern will be, as it has been this whole season, the performance of this defense. Unless Tom Brady magically feels his age in the biggest game of the year, the offense can be depended on to produce. The defense, however, has to contend with an Eagles mauling offensive line, a solid rotation of running backs (including the British-born Pro Bowler Jay Ajayi) and a talented complement of pass-catchers, led by Alshon Jeffery and Zach Ertz. If the Patriots defense can limit the Eagles’ offense, then the Patriots should win comfortably.
Unless Tom Brady magically feels his age in the biggest game of the year, the offense can be depended on to produce
If Foles and the Eagles offense perform early on, we could be in for a great, competitive night. If they don’t, the Patriots could run away with the Super Bowl, particularly if unguardable tight end Rob Gronkowski clears the concussion protocol and is available to play. As has happened so often in the Super Bowls New England play in, the opposing team will have to be very near perfect to beat them, or depend on a miraculous play like David Tyree’s helmet catch in Super Bowl XLII that put the New York Giants over the top.
My prediction is that the Patriots will win a reasonably close affair, with the Eagles playing well but unable to overcome the severe limitation of having lost an MVP-caliber quarterback. Brady will have an iconic drive, and the Patriots will have a game-changing catch or turnover which puts them ahead for good. It doesn’t do well to bet against Tom Brady or the Patriots, particularly in February, so I won’t risk it.