Finally, the build-up to Super Bowl LII is almost over.
The New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles are ready to square off at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. The Patriots are going for their third Super Bowl title in the last four seasons and sixth in franchise history. The Eagles, meanwhile, are still in search of their first Lombardi Trophy.
Will it be 2005 all over again, when New England also capped off its third Super Bowl victory in four seasons with a win over Philadelphia? Or can the Eagles undo a half century of misery on the grandest of stages?
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Here’s where each team has the edge, position group by position group, and what it all means for the outcome of Super Bowl LII.
Believe it or not, Nick Foles isn’t the worst quarterback the Patriots will have faced in a Super Bowl under Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
At least not according to passer rating. Foles has a career 87.4 rating, ahead of Jake Delhomme (81.3), Donovan McNabb (85.6) and yes, even Eli Manning (83.5). When Brady set a new NFL record in 2016 for touchdown-to-interception ratio (28-to-2), he was breaking Foles’ mark from 2013 (27-to-2).
Of course, Foles is only playing in this game because Carson Wentz got hurt. He’s been solid since taking over in Week 14, but no need to overthink this one.
Big edge: Patriots
Two very fine groups without a true No. 1 back. That said, Philadelphia rushed for the third-most yards in the league in the regular season with 2,115 for an average of 4.5 yards per carry. New England wasn’t all that bad either, featuring the No. 10 rushing offense with 1,889 yards and 4.2 yards per carry.
Old friend LeGarrette Blount led the Eagles in the regular season with 766 yards on the ground, although midseason acquisition Jay Ajayi has wrested the bulk of the carries away during the postseason. In three career games against the Patriots when a member of the Miami Dolphins, Ajayi carried the ball 28 times for a pedestrian 75 yards.
Dion Lewis had a career year for New England and has been good but not quite great in the postseason. All of the Patriots backs were neutralized by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC Championship Game, a game in which Rex Burkhead had only one carry and James White had only six touches (three carries, three receptions).
Of note: Eagles backs combined to fumble 11 times, most in the NFL, and lost five of them, tied for the lead. Lest we forget, Blount lost a fumble in last year’s Super Bowl for the Patriots.
First things first: there’s no receiver on either team more dangerous in a game of this magnitude than Danny Amendola. His presence swings the pendulum in New England’s direction from the get-go.
Philadelphia’s group undoubtedly has the height advantage, with its three primary targets (Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith and Nelson Agholor) all 6-foot-1 or taller. Smith hasn’t been the same player since he left the Baltimore Ravens via free agency after the 2014 season, but when he was there, he played particularly well against the Patriots. In five career games, he caught 19 passes for 409 yards – an average of 21.5 yards per reception – and three touchdowns.
The Eagles have a healthier group right now, too. While Amendola and Brandin Cooks have each stayed healthy for the bulk of the season, Chris Hogan has played in only three games for the Patriots since the end of October as he nurses a shoulder injury. He’s been active for each playoff game thus far, but has only three catches (on eight targets) for 24 yards. Hogan happens to be the only wide receiver on New England above six feet tall (excluding Kenny Britt, who hasn’t yet appeared this postseason).
Slight edge: Eagles
Zach Ertz is no worse than the third-best tight end in the NFL today. Perhaps Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs outranks him at the No. 2 spot, but even that may not be true.
What is true is that Rob Gronkowski, cleared from the NFL’s concussion protocol, isn’t just the best tight end in the NFL today; he’s among the best to ever play the position.
Should Gronk suffer a recurrence of concussion-like symptoms, all bets are off. Ertz will be a match-up nightmare for the Patriots regardless, but he’s still no Gronk.
Slight edge: Patriots
Each team lost a key starter along the outside during the regular season. Two-time All Pro left tackle Jason Peters was placed on IR after Week 7 with a torn ACL for Philadelphia, while New England has been without right tackle Marcus Cannon at right tackle since Week 8 with an ankle injury.
The Eagles and Patriots were neck-and-neck in sacks given up during the regular season, with Philadelphia allowing 36 and New England allowing 35. Advanced statistics website Football Outsiders ranked each offensive line slightly above average when it comes to pass blocking, with the Eagles ranked 12th and the Patriots ranked 14th in the 32-team NFL.
Football Outsiders has New England as the best offensive line in the game when it comes to run blocking, Philadelphia just 22nd.
Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox’s 5.5 sacks won’t jump off your computer screen at you, until you realize he lines up predominantly on the interior of the line – a place from where pressure has historically gotten to Brady. Defensive end Brandon Graham had a career-high 9.5 sacks for the Eagles this year coming off the edge. In Philadelphia’s base 4-3 defense, he lines up on the left of the defensive line, meaning he’ll be going against either LaAdrian Waddle or Cam Fleming on Sunday. Both players have been solid for the Patriots since stepping in for the injured Marcus Cannon, but Graham is a special player.
Trey Flowers is the best player on New England’s defensive line, making contributions both getting after the passer (team-high 6.5 sacks) and setting the edge against the run. Rookie Deatrich Wise Jr. had 5.0 sacks for the Patriots and finished strong, though he just cleared the NFL’s concussion protocol yesterday.
Philadelphia allowed the fewest yards in the league on the ground in the regular season, 1,267, and was sixth in opponents’ yards per rush at 3.8. New England allowed 1,836 for the 20th ranked rushing defense but ranked second-to-last in opponents’ yards per rush at 4.7. Defensive tackle Malcom Brown is off of the injury report for the Patriots, but if his foot is still bothering him at all that’s a concern for New England.
Big edge: Eagles
The best linebacker on either roster is a player who won’t be active for this game, in New England’s Dont’a Hightower. His tackle of Marshawn Lynch on the 1-yard line in Super Bowl XLIX and strip sack of Matt Ryan in Super Bowl LI are two of the most important plays from each of the last two Patriots Super Bowls.
Sans Hightower, Kyle Van Noy figures to be at the center of attention for the Patriots in the middle of the field. Since returning the lineup following an injury of his own, he’s been rock solid. James Harrison, who played in only 40 snaps all season long with the Pittsburgh Steelers prior to his release, has played in 27, 30 and 32 in his three games since joining the New England. Harrison, who owns the longest interception return for a touchdown in Super Bowl history (100 yards, Super Bowl XLIII), is about as fresh as a 39-year-old outside linebacker could realistically be at this point in the season.
Philadelphia counters with a solid group led by Nigel Bradham, the team’s leading tackler in the regular season with 88. He also had eight passes defended. Mychal Kendricks is right there with Bradham production wise, registering 77 tackles and six passes defended. The linebackers are just as big a reason the Eagles were among the top teams in the league in stopping the run as the defensive line.
Slight edge: Eagles
Continuity in the safeties group has to count for something for the Patriots. Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty will be starting their third Super Bowls in the last four years together, while Duron Harmon – starter or not – will receive plenty of playing time as well, just like he did in Super Bowl XLIX and LI. Stephon Gilmore is currently playing his best football of the season for New England and opposite him is Malcolm Butler, who’s been uneven at times this season but does own arguably the most iconic interception in Super Bowl history.
The Eagles secondary is decidedly less battle-tested and yet it’s impossible to ignore Philadelphia’s 31 takeaways in the regular season, 19 of which were interceptions. Both numbers were fourth in the NFL.
Slight edge: Patriots
If we’re talking experience, few players in league history have as much as Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski. He’ll be playing in his fifth Super Bowl, with a chance to move into second-place on the NFL’s all-time postseason scoring list (he needs four points to move past former Eagles kicker David Akers).
Gostkowski’s postseason sheet isn’t immaculate, with a missed extra point in the 2015 AFC Championship Game vs. the Denver Broncos and another in Super Bowl LI vs. the Atlanta Falcons the most prominent.
Still, Gostkowski has connected on 91.4 percent of his field goal attempts in the playoffs over his 12-year career. That’s even higher than his regular season clip of 87.6, which is the third-highest in NFL history.
Philadelphia kicker Jake Elliott, a rookie out of Memphis – coincidentally, also Gostkowski’s alma mater – made 83.9 percent of his field goal attempts this season and 92.9 percent of his extra points.
Each kicker has one miss in the postseason: Elliott on an extra point against the Falcons in the divisional round, Gostkowski on a 53-yard attempt against the Titans in the divisional round.
Dion Lewis is the only player on either team this year with a punt or kick return touchdown; he has one postseason career kick return for a touchdown, last year’s divisional round game vs. the Houston Texans.
Slight edge: Patriots
Doug Pederson of the Eagles has never lost a playoff game as a head coach. He’s 2-0.
The thing is, he’s not Bill Belichick, who is prepping for his 39th playoff game as head coach. He’s 28-10 in his first 38 games. Pederson could wind up being a fine head coach in this league, but he hasn’t even coached in as many playoff games as Belichick has won Super Bowls yet.
Big edge: Patriots
This is a very good Eagles roster, one which would be even more daunting with Carson Wentz under center. Philadelphia has come a long way since back-to-back 7-9 seasons immediately before this and won’t be fading away from the big stage once Wentz comes back, hopefully in time for Week 1 next season.
Even if this isn’t the best Patriots team in recent years, it still has the biggest edge where it matters most: quarterback and head coach.
No Super Bowl involving Tom Brady and Bill Belichick has ever wound up a blow out; remember, last year’s 34-28 overtime win over Atlanta was actually the largest margin of victory by either team in a Patriots Super Bowl since 2001.
There’s no reason to expect that to change this year, and it won’t.
Buckle up for another breathtaking fourth quarter, with the Patriots outlasting the Eagles, 31-27.