|RED 15, BLUE 32! IT'S THE BLACK TABLE SUPER BOWL PREVIEW!|
First of all, I am an idiot. Several weeks ago, I predicted that Atlanta and Pittsburgh would be playing in this week's Super Bowl. The most predictable Super Bowl matchup since at least 1998 when Denver and Green Bay played -- and I couldn't pick either team.
So I wouldn't blame you one bit for just skipping right over what I have to say about the Super Bowl. I clearly don't know what I'm talking about.
Believe me when I say that Sunday's Super Bowl between the defending champion New England Patriots and NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles will not be the blowout that everybody else seems to assume it will be. Will the Eagles win? We'll get into that in a second. But I am taking the seven points Las Vegas is giving me and running all the way to the ATM.
This is a fascinating matchup right down the line. Both teams are very, very good; the recent trend of a Cinderella story making the
Super Bowl ended this season. We have the best team in each conference -- probably the best organization in each conference -- squaring off.
By and large, the NFL has decided that letting one man make all the decisions for a team -- coaching and personnel -- does not work, so the trend is to hire separate people for each job. Here we have two coaches, Bill Belichick and Andy Reid, who also are their teams' general managers. Each has a lot of help, but these are two of the few with final say in their organizations and they're winning every year. These are the two best teams in the NFL since 2001.
The Patriots have the natural edge because they have won two of the past three Super Bowls, eight playoff games in a row and seem virtually invincible. So be it.
But to say the Eagles don't have a chance? Please. The Eagles have been crushing teams all season. Granted, the NFC is the ugly stepsister in the NFL these days, and there is that whole Terrell Owens issue. But when you open up your newspaper on Sunday morning and you see those little graphics in which each of the NFL writers or columnists pick the game, you're going to see one Patriots logo after another. Nobody -- except maybe me -- is picking the Eagles to win.
And that probably is the biggest reason the Eagles will win.
They are not a one-trick pony -- like the Panthers or the Falcons or the Ravens -- that got here by some fluke. T.O. or no, they are a very good team. Go ahead, name a weakness. I'll wait. OK, maybe kickoff and punt returns, but the Eagles are even talking about trying to rectify that.
There's the quarterback who is one of the best in the NFL. There's the running back who causes everybody huge matchup problems. There's the NFL's most physical - and maybe best - secondary. There's the strong defensive line that will rotate eight players and not lose a beat. There's a run defense that looked OK at the end of the year (16th) but is more than good enough to stop Corey Dillon thanks to the midseason promotion of linebacker Jeremiah Trotter to the starting lineup.
So go ahead and laugh at me and my ridiculous postseason picks record, but I like these Eagles to give the Patriots a heck of a game and maybe even win it. Let's take a closer look.
What New England does on defense is take away your best threat on offense. Which is what makes having Terrell Owens less than 100 percent so vital.
The Patriots will focus on stopping Michael Westbrook. He is an adequate runner at times, especially when the passing game is clicking, but the Patriots should be able to contain the run in the normal course of their defense. When Westbrook is split out as a wide receiver, New England may almost have to double-team more often than not, covering him with a linebacker off the line and a safety covering him deep, basically bracketing Westbrook.
And that's where Owens' injury hurt. With Owens at full speed, he almost demands a safety to guard him over the top. That safety can bracket Westbrook without much fear if Owens is limping around. Westbrook busted all kinds of single coverage when Owens was healthy.
One thing to remember about Westbrook is the comparisons to Marshall Faulk, the Rams' aging star who was at least as much of a threat as a receiver when the Rams played the Patriots in the Super Bowl after the 2001 season. The Patriots manhandled Faulk in that game. They didn't merely jam him at the line; one enduring image of that game is Willie McGinest picking Faulk up and essentially tackling him at the line. That might not go this week with the refs calling more illegal contact, but it is an interesting reference point.
New England had some problems against the run during the regular season, but the Patriots always stiffen during the playoffs. Don't expect Westbrook to be a big factor on the ground unless the Eagles spread out the defense effectively with the pass. Dorsey Levens has been an adequate short-yardage back, both in goal-line situations and on third- and fourth-and short.
If Owens is limited, the other receivers will have to play larger roles. Tight end Chad Lewis, who caught two TD passes in the NFC title game, is out because of a foot injury, but replacement L.J. Smith actually is a better receiver. Smith's problem is fumbling, not blocking. The Eagles don't ask their tight ends to block much.
As the week has gone along, I have come around to the belief that Owens might make an impact in this game. There really is no reason for Owens not to play this week. Some people cite the fact that he might injure himself more severely as reason not to play. Don't risk being able to walk in 20 years just to play in this game.
I don't subscribe to that at all. If you're not going to risk everything for this game, when would you ever want anybody to play football? Think of the greatest career accomplishment you could achieve and try to visualize what you might risk for that. Is it worth risking a leg injury to reach that ultimate goal -- bearing in mind that there is a considerable risk of getting hurt anyhow, regardless of the stakes?
If Owens were 100 percent, this might be a slam-dunk game for the Eagles. They were that good for much of the season. Yes, most of it was against generally inferior opponents, but they were drilling people. I think that even a mediocre day from Owens will put enough pressure on the Patriots defense for this game to be competitive.
Much has been made about the Eagles' defense; they've rightfully earned the moniker of one of those bend-but-don't-break defenses. The good people at coldhardfootballfacts.com have a good analysis of this here.
But the Eagles' defense was remarkably similar to the Patriots. New England was ninth in the regular season at 310.8 yards allowed per game; the Eagles were 10th at 319.7. Both teams allowed 260 points. Sure, New England played a tougher schedule, but forget this myth that the Patriots are the going to be the only team out there on Sunday with a good defense.
Let's look at what the Patriots' offense did in its two playoff games. Against the Colts in the divisional round, they relied heavily on a ball-control offense and kept the ball for more than 37 minutes. Against the Steelers, Corey Dillon had an acceptable day (73 yards, 25 on one play), but the Patriots did most of their damage on big plays against Pittsburgh's overmatched secondary.
The Patriots should not have either of those advantages against the Eagles. Philadelphia possesses one of the best and most physical secondaries in the league. Brady will complete some passes on them, but the Eagles will thump the Patriots' smallish receivers (like New England's defenders frequently do to defenders), and they do not get burned for big plays like the Steelers' did. And the Eagles run defense, thanks to Trotter's exceptional linebacker play, ought to hold Dillon in check.
New England's offense, led by mostly brilliant offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, is one of the most flexible in the NFL. They are patient, they literally will take what the defense gives you and they will beat you that way.
But what will the Eagles give them? The only meaningful game Philadelphia lost was when the Steelers ran over them for 252 rushing yards in a 27-3 win in early November. That prompted the turnaround in the Eagles' defense. With Trotter, they are too physical to allow a consistent running attack.
In the passing game, the Eagles generate tremendous pressure on the quarterback, finishing second to the Atlanta Falcons in sacks this past season with 47. Defensive ends Jevon Kearse and Derrick Burgess were magnificent against the Falcons and will be big factors again against the Patriots. New England's tackles are solid in the run game but only adequate defending the pass rush. If Matt Light and Brandon Gorin struggle against the rush, and the Patriots are required to keep an extra blocker in, that will give Philadelphia a significant advantage in defending the pass.
On the other hand, New England's combination of receivers, from the bigger David Givens to the small, quick Deion Branch to red-zone targets Daniel Graham and Mike Vrabel present a diverse array of options for Brady. They will require the full attention of the secondary and some underneath help from the linebackers. Philadelphia's outside linebackers, Mark Simoneau and Dhani Jones, are not great at dropping into coverage, so one option for the Patriots might be attacking that intermediate area and not even try to push their receivers into the secondary. The problem with that is that: the longer you do that, the closer to the line the safeties creep, and that makes running even more difficult.
The Eagles defense does pose some matchup problems for the Patriots. Weis is smart enough to find holes, and to exploit them, in any defense. I just don't think those cracks are going to be very big, and that the Patriots are going to be lucky to get above 21 or 23 points.
For two great teams, the special teams units are extraordinarily uninteresting aside from the kickers. New England's Adam Vinatieri and Philadelphia's David Akers are two of the best, strongest and most consistent kickers in the league. Vinatieri has the history of two Super Bowl-winning kicks in the past three years and has a ton of headlines. Akers actually has a higher career accuracy rate (83.2 percent -- 82.1 percent), but both are among the top five all-time in the NFL. The Patriots have a minimal edge there.
Both teams' return games and their return coverages are remarkably unremarkable. If either club makes a play either way in that part of the game, that could be a determining factor. Don't bet on that happening; the Eagles are considering using Brian Westbrook on punt returns. I question the wisdom of using a player in the Super Bowl who had two returns for 14 yards in the entire 2004 season. That smells like a good way to brew up a fumble.
I'm going to be the fool and take the Eagles. If you look hard enough, you can find an almost 3.5-1 payout for taking the Eagles to win. For a team that lost one meaningful game during the regular season and is getting its star receiver back in some capacity, that's an excellent payout.
The Patriots have destiny on their side. Their two past Super Bowls were dramatically different games, and they found a way to win each by a field goal. No matter the obstacle, they find a way to get over the hump, sometimes just barely. I will not be surprised at all if they do so again -- probably again by a field goal.
I do, however, really like the Eagles' matchups and the problems they will give New England. What everybody would call a giant upset will not, in my eyes, be much of an upset at all. The smart money is on New England to win, but I expect the Eagles to neutralize Dillon and, if they do that, they have an excellent chance to win.
PITZER'S PICK: Eagles 23-17.
Matt Pitzer is an editor and fantasy football expert at USA Today Sports Weekly. In his first-ever Black Table story, he correctly predicted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to defeat the Oakland Raiders in the Super Bowl. Pretty much everything since then has been wrong.