Super Bowl LII: Eagles vs. Patriots position-by-position breakdown

Comparing Brady to Foles, Belichick to Pederson, lineup to lineup — which team ranks better?

NFL: Super Bowl LII Opening Night
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The only time Nick Foles and Tom Brady will be on the field together during Super Bowl LII is during the coin toss (maybe) and when they shake hands after the game.

It’s important to remember that while the two QBs are leading their teams into the championship game, they will not actually face each other. Foles has the task of confronting Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia’s Patriots defense, while Brady will hold forth against Jim Schwartz’s Eagles defense.

And yet, it’s fun to compare apples to apples, Super as they all may be. Here’s a position-by-position breakdown of the Eagles and Patriots, to see which team has the edge.

Offense

NFL: Oakland Raiders at Philadelphia Eagles
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The Eagles had the third-ranked scoring offense and the seventh-ranked offense in terms of yards per game in 2017. The Patriots have the second-ranked scoring offense and were top in terms of yards per game. Here’s a breakdown of each offensive unit.

Offensive line

Eagles: Say what you will about Pro Football Focus — they pretty much hated on Carson Wentz and Nick Foles all year — but they love the Eagles offensive line. The unit was ranked as the best in football, led by Jason Kelce, who had a resurgent season.

Football Outsiders ranked the Eagles as the 12th-best unit in pass protection, allowing 36 sacks in the regular season. In terms of the rushing attack, the Eagles ranked 22nd in adjusted line yards, and were near the top in open field yards, which means the rushing attack relied far more on the backs than the line. Getting the backs in space and into the second level could be a key to the Eagles’ success in the Super Bowl.

Patriots: The Patriots ranked No. 1 in adjusted line yards in the NFL, per Football Outsiders, but just 14th in terms of pass protection, allowing 35 sacks. PFF graded out the Patriots line as above average, but they haven’t faced too many defensive lines as stout as the Eagles boast.

Advantage: Eagles

Wide receiver

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Green Bay Packers
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Eagles: Fun fact: Nelson Agholor lead all Eagles receivers in catches with 62 on 95 targets. Per Pro Football Reference, Alshon Jeffery was next with 57 catches on a crazy 120 targets. That was the lowest catch percentage of any receiver in the NFL with more than 80 targets.

Torrey Smith could be a factor, and don’t be surprised if Pederson tries to get the ball in the hands of Mack Hollins at least once during the Super Bowl. But the Eagles had 341 receptions during the 2017 season, and just 178 went to the wide receivers. The offense is more focused on balance, and that hurt the overall receiver production.

Patriots: New England’s offense is similarly balanced. The team had 389 receptions in 2017 and 174 went to wide receivers, though Brandin Cooks was in the top 20 in the NFL in targets and 11th in receiving yards. Cooks is certainly the Patriots’ best receiver, though Danny Amendola has always proven to be a pest to defenses, catching 18 passes for 196 yards and two scores in the playoffs this season.

Advantage: Patriots, though it certainly helps who is throwing it to them.

Tight end

NFL: AFC Championship-Jacksonville Jaguars at New England Patriots
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Eagles: Zach Ertz is the Eagles’ best receiver. He led the team with 74 catches and was tied for second with eight touchdowns. He’s become one of the top receiving tight ends in the NFL. Ertz was the fifth-ranked tight end per Football Outsiders, and was third in yards and tied for first in touchdowns at the position. Trey Burton could be a Super Bowl factor as well, as he caught 23 balls this season. Add in Brent Celek’s 13 catches and the Eagles tight ends nabbed 100 passes and 14 touchdowns.

Patriots: This sums up how good Rob Gronkowski is:

That the Patriots managed to come back against Jacksonville without Gronkowski on the field was incredible. With him, their offense is markedly better. He was the top-rated tight end by Football Outsiders as well.

Advantage: Patriots, though if Ertz were being compared to any other tight end in football he might have the advantage.

Running back

Dion Lewis

Dion Lewis

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Eagles: It’s hard to put into words how big of an upgrade Jay Ajayi was for the Eagles during the 2017 regular season. He had just 408 rushing yards and 91 receiving yards, scoring only two touchdowns, but his impact on the backfield rotation allowed Doug Pederson to do so much more with both the running game and the passing game. It’s also allowed LeGarrette Blount to fill a more natural role of bruiser and short-yardage back, while giving Corey Clement the spotlight as a change-of-pace option.

Ajayi averaged 5.8 yards per attempt with the Eagles and 9.1 yards per reception in his seven games. He had just under 100 yards of offense in each of the Eagles two playoff games. Expect him to be a huge part of the plan for the Eagles offense, even when he’s not the one in the backfield.

Patriots: Dion Lewis is the Patriots’ top running back. He’s shared time all season and started just eight games, but Football Outsiders has him ranked as the top running back in the NFL according to their DYAR, or defense-adjusted yards above replacement. Per FO, “This gives the value of the performance on plays where this RB carried/caught the ball compared to replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent and then translated into yardage.” And Lewis was ahead of Todd Gurley, Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt, Le’Veon Bell and everyone else in the NFL.

According to their ‘success rate’ metric, which tracks a back’s consistency, Lewis ranked 4th in the NFL. Ajayi ranked 30th. Blount ranked 33rd.

Advantage: Eagles. I know, the numbers lean Patriots — I didn’t even mention the value of Rex Burkhead and James White — but I’d rather have the Eagles backs in one game over what the Pats have.

Quarterback

NFL: NFC Divisional Playoff-Atlanta Falcons at Philadelphia Eagles
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Eagles: Nick Foles had two of the worst games in the history of quarterbacking to end the regular season. Then he had two of the best playoff games in the history of quarterbacking. This is weird.

Patriots: [Goat emoji]

Advantage: Patriots

Defense

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Philadelphia Eagles
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The Eagles had the fourth-ranked scoring defense in the NFL at 18.4 points per game, and they’ve given up just 17 points in two playoff games, combined. The Eagles also had the best rushing defense in the NFL, the fourth-best in overall yards per game and the 17th in passing yards.

The Patriots bend and rarely break. They gave up just 18.5 points per game, despite the 29th-best defense in terms of yards per game.

Defensive line

Eagles: Two of the top five graded players in the Super Bowl are on the Eagles defensive line. Per Football Outsiders, the Eagles had the best defensive front against the run, though just the 19th-best in terms of sack rate. This unit getting pressure on Brady is the key to the Eagles winning the Super Bowl.

Patriots: The Patriots were 31st against the run, yet 10th in terms of rushing the passer. Yet they are effective when they need to be.

Advantage: Eagles. Not close.

Linebackers

NFL: New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Eagles: Nigel Bradham has stepped up since Jordan Hicks went down for the season, and Mychal Kendricks has had another underrated season, but gosh the Eagles have zero depth otherwise. Dannell Ellerbe, who signed late in the season and has been himself injured for weeks, is supposedly the starting middle linebacker, with Najee Goode playing that role in the NFC title game. This is a problem.

Patriots: On the Patriots depth chart they list four defensive linemen, two linebackers, two cornerbacks and three safeties as starters. Which is to say, that’s a lie. James Harrison is third on the depth chart at linebacker, but he was playing meaningful snaps two weeks after joining the team. Neither team’s linebacking corps at this point in the season is a strength compared to the rest of the roster, but the Pats seem a least a little healthier.

Advantage: Patriots

Cornerbacks

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Washington Redskins
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Eagles: Ronald Darby was an upgrade this year, while Patrick Robinson has proven to be an enormous part of the secondary in nickel packages. Jalen Mills, the guy with the green hair, is at times both underrated and overrated. The Eagles corners are okay as a unit, coming up with big plays but also getting burned for large chunks of yards.

Patriots: Stephon Gilmore was in the secondary with Darby in Buffalo last year. He’s the better former Bill. Malcolm Butler is better than than Mills or Robinson. This doesn’t feel close, and yet the Patriots did give up a ton of passing yards.

Advantage: Patriots

Safeties

Malcolm Jenkins and Devin McCourty

Malcolm Jenkins and Devin McCourty

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Eagles: This is a strength of the Eagles, with Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod both healthy. The Eagles have very good safeties, with few teams boasting better.

Patriots: The Patriots might be one of the teams that can boast better. Patrick Chung has had a resurgence under Belichick and Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon have been mainstays in the secondary during this unprecedented Patriots run.

Advantage: Patriots, slightly.

Offense vs. Defense

The real question is if the Eagles offense is better than the Patriots defense, and if the Patriots offense is better than the Eagles defense. Objectively both offenses look to be slightly better than both defenses, and of the four units, the Patriots offense is probably the best, though the Eagles defense will have something to say about that, surely.

The Super Bowl will certainly be strength against strength when the Patriots have possession of the football.

Special Teams

Kicker

NFL: NFC Championship-Minnesota Vikings at Philadelphia Eagles
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Jake Elliott hit 26 of his 31 field goal attempts and 39 of his 42 extra points. In the playoffs he hit all four of his field goals, but missed one of his six extra points. He had six kickoffs against the Vikings, all for touchbacks.

Stephen Gostkowski has been the kicker for the Patriots since 2006. He’s had some success in his career, to say the least.

Advantage: Patriots

Punter

Donnie Jones averaged 45.3 yards per punt for the Eagles this season, with a 40.6 net. Patriots punter Ryan Allen averaged 43.4 yards with a 40.5 net.

Advantage: Eagles

Returns

Kenjon Barner wasn’t even on the roster to start the season but has become the team’s primary kick returner. Lewis returns kicks for the Patriots, while Amendola is the primary punt returner.

Advantage: Patriots

Coaching

NFL: Super Bowl LI-New England Patriots vs Atlanta Falcons
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Doug Pederson vs. Bill Belichick.

Pederson and Frank Reich’s offense against Belichick and Matt Patricia’s defense.

Josh McDaniels’ offense against Jim Schwartz’s defense.

Advantage: Patriots. How is this even a question?

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