Columnists, Sports

Between the Lines: The Eagles might actually stand a chance against the Patriots. Here’s how.

Conference championship Sunday is the best day in the NFL season. From the matchups to the storylines, fan bases are injected with a next-level excitement, knowing their team has the chance to punch its ticket to the Super Bowl right here and right now.

I’ve been to two AFC championship games: one in 2015 when Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos beat the New England Patriots 20-18 and Sunday’s 24-20 Patriots victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars. The electricity exuding from the crowd makes these games an unforgettable and enjoyable experience, whether your team wins or loses.

As a Patriots fan, I am spoiled.

In the last seven years the Patriots have made it to seven straight AFC Championship games with four wins and two Super Bowl titles. Even the biggest Pats homer from Southie can see why the Patriots are the most hated team in the NFL. But you’ll still have to sit through the hour rant on why Tom Brady is the GOAT.

I am one of those homers, too. Even though I grew up in California, I was the West Coast version of your least favorite Boston sports fan.

You know the guy. The “Tom Brady is a God” and “Fenway Park is holy grounds” kind of guy. However, what always drew me toward Boston sports in the early 2000s was the underdog spirit of the teams.

The Patriots hadn’t won anything, the Red Sox were peaking in curse angst and the Celtics were a team with “rich history,” which is sports code for “they were good a long time ago, but not anymore.”

Now there are kids in Boston who have been to nearly as many championship parades as years they have been alive, and another one could be on its way down Boylston Street in a few weeks.

Boston was once the underdog, but now it has lived long enough to become the villain.

And as the media cycle keeps turning leading up to Super Bowl week, America will rally behind the Philadelphia Eagles. Why?

Their young, electric starting quarterback Carson Wentz tore his ACL and a largely maligned veteran has taken his place and led them to the Super Bowl. Their fans are restless and hungry for a championship, and they even have accepted the underdog label and have taken it to a whole new (and somewhat creepy) level. And if that didn’t have the casual fan sold on who to root for yet, this will: their opponents are the Patriots.

The better question would be, why not?

But don’t just take Philadelphia and write it off as a great story who will be crushed by the evil genius Bill Belichick and his 40-year-old avocado-ice-cream-eating football assassin. The Eagles are only underdogs by name and a really, really good football team.

This might be the Patriots’ toughest Super Bowl matchup to date, which says a lot about Philadelphia. Not only did they have to deal with St. Louis’ “Greatest Show on Turf” in the 2001 season, but they got the modern day version of them last season with the Atlanta Falcons’ high-powered offense.

Philly will come in on Super Bowl Sunday with the same formula that led it to the No. 1 seed and best record in the NFL this season: control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and excel on third downs.

The Eagles have a stingy offensive line that kept Nick Foles upright versus the Minnesota Vikings, and should be able to do the same against a Patriots front four that struggles to get to the quarterback consistently.

And speaking of front fours, Philly’s is absolutely dominant.

Fletcher Cox, Chris Long, Brandon Graham and Timmy Jernigan combined for 22.5 sacks and seven forced fumbles this season. They terrorized Case Keenum all night on Sunday and will be a headache for Brady and his offensive line the entire game. Step one in stopping the Patriots has always been putting pressure on Brady with your front four.

While this is easier said than done, the Denver Broncos have done it in two AFC Championship games and the New York Giants have done it to the Patriots twice in the Super Bowl, so it can happen.

The Eagles also know how to extend drives, converting on 10 of 14 third-down attempts against the best third-down defense in the NFL since the statistic emerged in 1991.

The Jaguars converted 6 of 5 third-down attempts against the Patriots on Sunday, and many of those failed attempts came in the second half when trying to run out the clock with conservative play calls as much as they could. The Patriots also allowed 10 of 16 conversions on third-down attempts against the Pittsburgh Steelers back in December, so the Patriots have trouble getting teams off the field.

New England will also have a problem with the offensive identity of the Eagles.

Philadelphia coach Doug Pederson ran the offense in Kansas City with the Chiefs from 2013 to 2015 and then brought over the West Coast Spread system to Philly in 2016.

Just like the Chiefs on opening night when they defeated the Patriots, the Eagles thrive on making their opponent’s defense defend multiple things at once. They use run-pass options (RPO’s) with jet sweep and screen actions to stretch the defense horizontally, which gets players in space and allows you to take shots vertically as well. It worked for Kansas City, and Philly hopes it will work for them, too.

So while the Eagles might be the underdogs, they might just have the perfect mix of talent and scheme to knock off the Patriots in Super Bowl LII.

This Eagles team is radiating with “team of destiny” feelings, so grease up your light poles, Philly, because your Eagles are here to prove they aren’t underdogs after all.

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