The two-week wait for the final football game of the season is almost over.
The Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots are deep in preparations for Super Bowl LII at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
New England is in search of another feather in the cap of its dynasty, while the championship-starved Eagles are vying for their first NFL championship since before the Super Bowl era.
Most of the attention during the week’s festivities in Minneapolis has revolved around the right hand of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, the Eagles being thrust into the underdog role once again and the health of Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.
If you dig deeper, there are plenty of other stories worth paying attention to if you’re a fan of either team, or patiently waiting for the game to kickoff.
Date: Sunday, February 4, 2018
Time: 6:30 p.m. ET
Live Stream: NBC Sports Live Extra
Odds: New England (-4.5); Over/Under: 48
Is the New England Defense Really as Bad as People Think?
Entering the postseason, almost everyone had something bad to say about the performance of the Patriots defense that ranked 29th in the NFL during the regular season.
The Patriots were supposedly weaker than in years past because they were 30th in the regular season in passing defense, as they gave up 251.3 yards per game.
After two victories over AFC South foes, the dynasty seems as strong as it has been in the past, and the Patriots are on the verge of winning their sixth Super Bowl in the Brady era.
Contrary to the belief of some, the Patriots still have strengths on defense, and one of those comes in the red zone.
Despite giving up plenty of yards, the Patriots were fifth in scoring defense at 18.5 points per game. Only the Minnesota Vikings, Jacksonville Jaguars, Los Angeles Chargers and Philadelphia had better marks.
Patriots defensive back Eric Rowe, who is one of three Patriots who used to play for the Eagles, talked about the red-zone mentality that’s helped the team, per NFL.com’s Kevin Patra.
“Obviously we don’t want to give up all those yards,” Rowe said. “That just sucks in the first place. But when we get down to the red zone it’s like we all understand that if we can just hold them to three points, they’re not going to beat us kicking field goals. Everyone’s alertness goes up. Sometimes no one even says anything. Everyone’s body language just tightens up.”
If the Patriots are able to keep the Eagles out of the end zone in the first half and force a few field-goal attempts, it would deflate the confidence of the NFC champions, and it could help the defending Super Bowl champions take care of business without relying on Brady’s fourth-quarter heroics.
Will LeGarrette Blount Make a Bigger Impact Than He Did A Year Ago?
Eagles running back LeGarrette Blount experienced a fate few ever want to go through in Super Bowl LI, as he saw limited action for the Patriots after his second-quarter fumble.
The 31-year-old ended Super Bowl LI with 11 carries for 31 yards, but he was unable to make a significant contribution with James White featuring in a starring role out of the backfield.
Although he hasn’t been the star back for the Eagles during their run to Super Bowl LII, he has been a reliable member of the offense near the end zone, pounding in a touchdown each against the Atlanta Falcons and Minnesota Vikings.
With Jay Ajayi enjoying most of the carries and Corey Clement being used more on third down due to his pass-catching ability, Blount will be seen in spurts on Sunday.
However, when he does touch the field, Blount should be an impact player for the Eagles, and he could make one of the game’s biggest plays on a short-yardage down in the fourth quarter if the teams are separated by one possession.
Look for the Eagles to call on Blount in short-yardage situations to pick up a key first down, or to barrel into the end zone if the Patriots defense locks down on quarterback Nick Foles’ targets.
Blount’s been efficient this postseason when he’s touched the ball, as he has 15 carries for 40 yards and two touchdowns.
How Effective Will Gronkowski Be?
Brady’s largest target, and potentially the Eagles’ worst nightmare, was cleared to play in the Super Bowl on Thursday.
NFL Network’s Ian Rapaport first reported on Thursday that Gronkowski was cleared from concussion protocol as he was allowed to meet with the media for the first time since landing in Minnesota.
Gronkowski confirmed the conclusion of his time in concussion protocol during his media availability, per ESPN’s Mike Reiss.
“I officially got the word today that I was cleared, so it was super nice to hear from the doctors going through the whole process,” Gronkowski said. “I’m ready to roll.”
Now the questions surrounding Gronkowski will feature his role on the field in Sunday’s contest, an event he missed a year ago due to injury.
In his 12 career postseason games, Gronkowski’s averaged 14.5 yards per catch, a total that should strike fear in the Eagles defense.
Philadelphia doesn’t have a perfect solution for the problem created by the size of the 28-year-old tight end, who has been targeted over eight times in eight of his postseason appearances.
Expect safety Malcolm Jenkins or a linebacker to cover Gronkowski, who should receive attention from Brady early and often in an attempt to exploit the mismatch the tight end presents.
The only effective way for the Eagles to diminish the production of the tight end is to rush Brady at the line of scrimmage and force the quarterback into quick throws before his tight end completes his route.
If the Eagles are able to get to Brady, it would hand them an advantage in field possession, but it could also force the Patriots to turn to the passing game more in the second half, a shift that would benefit Gronkowski.
The realistic goal for the Eagles is to contain Gronkowski’s production and make sure he doesn’t earn big gains to flip field possession and touch the ball in the red zone.