I've watched every Super Bowl for the past thirty years and I can't remember a single one I had a stranger
feeling about beforehand. I've made predictions, I've been right, I've been wrong, but rarely have I been so confused. There's a lot of weird stuff happening around this game.
It's weird, the Nick Foles of it all. Is Nick Foles good
? If Nick Foles is good, why was he buried
on the Rams’ depth chart two years ago? Why couldn't he find a starting job in the NFL after his breakout 2013 season, when he threw for a frankly astonishing twenty-seven touchdowns against only two interceptions? That's Hall Of Fame stuff. Nick Foles is big and strapping. He seems like a nice guy with elite arm strength and suitable athleticism. He was a third-round draft pick who has benefited from the tutelage of superb offensive minds like Andy Reid, Chip Kelly, and now Doug Pederson. Is Nick Foles a franchise quarterback who simply hasn't found the right circumstance? We don't know what we don't know about Nick Foles. And on Sunday he starts in the Super Bowl.
What's going on with the Patriots? Here they are again, the defending champions, favored to win their third championship in four years and sixth overall. From a distance, they resemble the same juggernaut that has terrorized the NFL for going on two decades. Same legendary coach, same ageless quarterback, same tactical proficiency on both sides of the ball. Still, something feels different. Intimations of a major rift
between Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and owner Robert Kraft have left an impression of accumulating dissension within an organization legendary for its stability. Both offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia—longtime stalwart Belichick lieutenants—have already accepted head coaching jobs elsewhere after the season. What do they know that we don't? Are the Patriots at their Abbey Road phase? Do they all know it's over, even if the rest of us aren't clued in?
That is the essence of Sunday's Super Bowl matchup. We are unsure of so much. Truth
seems impossible, the universe random. My gut tells me the Eagles should win. I'm picking the Patriots.
The Pats opened as six-point favorites, but that number is down to four, as much of the public seems to believe the Eagles are the winning side. The drift in sentiment is understandable, following the Pats’ unexpectedly tense AFC championship game triumph over Jacksonville and Philadelphia's shockingly simple trouncing of the favored Vikings in the NFC. A tough Eagles defense led by ornery coordinator Jim Schwartz possesses many of the same attributes that the Jaguars used to slow Brady and company for much of their contest. An outstanding pass rush featuring interior line badass Fletcher Cox and speed rushing terror Brandon Graham figures to spend plenty of time in the New England backfield. On the rare occasion that Brady struggles, he struggles under pressure.
I'm picking the Patriots.
On offense, the Eagles unique collection of weapons animates a multifaceted and fascinating attack. Big-play receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith can concentrate on stretching the field, benefiting from the dependable, chain-moving talents of tight end Zach Ertz. A throwback-style, multi-back ground
game does a terrific job of highlighting the diverse skill set of talented runners like Jay Ajayi, Wendell Smallwood, and former Patriot LeGarrette Blount. Belichick, the incomparable chess master, will find ways to neutralize these weapons over the course of the full sixty minutes, but it won't be easy and it won't come immediately. Don't forget that the Patriots had to rally from 28–3 down against the Falcons last year before finally solving their opponents.
I'm picking the Patriots.
Great nations rise and fall. Some dynasties in faraway places have lasted two thousand years or longer. In sports, we've seen icons thrive over the course of a dozen or more years and never seem to waver or give quarter. You'd swear they could go on forever, without interruption. But then, inevitably and suddenly, decay sets in. Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Willie Mays: it's always painful to see the last gestures of a dwindling legend, even if in your heart you always knew it was coming. Remember brave Joe Montana as a Kansas City Chief, suffering that last, desperate concussion against the Bills in Orchard Park? When you're a forty-year-old NFL quarterback—even the greatest NFL quarterback—this can really only end one way.
Still, I'm picking the Patriots.
I'm picking the Patriots for two of the worst reasons a person can ever hang their hat on:
stubbornness and magical thinking. This is how gamblers go broke. I've seen the Patriots do insane, unthinkable things so many times in the past decade and a half. I've seen them do it with Troy Brown and Deion Branch and Malcom
Butler and Julian Edelman, and I saw them do it with Danny Amendola two weeks ago. I'm hardwired in the manner of one who has watched a million Bond films and understands that 007 always escapes. I know that goofy Eli Manning somehow snuck by the Patriots twice to win championships, but this somehow only undergirds the mystical character of my belief system. Beating the Patriots in the Super Bowl, for baffling ontological reasons, is a power only Eli Manning possesses.
Having conceded a thin strand of rationality, here's how I think it will work. Belichick and his staff have had two weeks to watch every second of film in existence on Nick Foles. They have combed through his college days, they have done background checks. If his grandmother was a seamstress and his great uncle fought in the Korean War, they will know that and use it to their advantage. They will find looks and coverages he hasn't seen—maybe that no one has seen—and they will force him into one or two costly mistakes. I believe the Eagles will have success moving the ball, and that Foles will mainly acquit himself well, but ultimately he will make a bad throw in a key situation and that will be enough.
On the offensive side of the ball, the difference will be the only other current Pats future Hall Of Famer besides Brady and Belichick. I refer, of course, to the human think tank known as Rob Gronkowski. A fully healthy Gronk, having recovered from a concussion suffered against the Jaguars, will be the focus of the Patriots’ passing game. The Eagles will know this and try to bracket him with two and even three defenders, but the Patriots will find innovative ways to get him open in space. If they don't succeed at that, and Gronk is covered, he will catch the ball anyway because ... Gronk. He is ultimately the one skill player on the field for whom there is no real answer, and Brady will not fail to get him the ball early and often. My guess is that,
trailing late, they make a play on the goal line to win New England one last ring.
The final score: 20–17.
Finally, I'm rooting for the Patriots. It's a funny thing. I have no allegiance to New England regionally or otherwise and share the same low-to-acute level of resentment toward the organization that most fans of other NFL teams understandably do. And yet there is a Big Yellow Taxi component to all of this, a powerful nostalgia that has gripped me unexpectedly. Maybe it's Stockholm syndrome—we’ve been under their thumb for so long—but I want to see Belichick and Brady do that funky thing one more time. I want to see the gamesmanship
, the game plans, the perfect calls, the bullshit trick plays
, and the inexplicable game-turning moxie
And then I never, ever want to see it again.