The ambiance is evident, regardless of location in America. The drinks and food are being prepared, and in just five short days, the world will be tuned in to NBC to watch the biggest event of the year, the Super Bowl. Emanating from US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the second-year stadium has proven to have its share of big moments, none so bigger than the Minnesota Miracle just two weeks ago, when Stephon Diggs caught a 61-yard game-winning touchdown pass from Vikings quarterback Case Keenum to stun the visiting New Orleans Saints. Now, the stadium is tasked with the two best teams in the National Football League this year, as the New England Patriots will look to defend their crown against the young, fiery underdogs in the Philadelphia Eagles. This marks the fourth matchup in five seasons where the two teams fighting to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy were the respective #1 seeds in their conferences.
Philadelphia Eagles: A Tale of Flying High, Falling Low, then Soaring High Again
The Philadelphia Eagles had a tougher time making it to this position than their formidable adversary, primarily because of what the team has had to endure. Considered an early dark horse candidate by many individuals to make it to the Super Bowl, the Eagles were flying sky high, whether it was their choreographed team celebrations (bowling, anyone?), their run-stuffing defense, or their MVP-caliber quarterback, second-year quarterback Carson Wentz.
However, their season was nearly put in severe jeopardy in Week 14 against the Los Angeles Rams. While attempting to punch the ball in himself, Wentz was sandwiched between two Rams defenders, and the collision resulted in him tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, effectively ending his season. His backup quarterback, former Eagles starter Nick Foles, immediately came into the role he thrived in five years ago and struggled mightily, making many fans and analysts consider whether the Eagles could even win a single postseason game with him under center. With home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, the Eagles would have their first game against the lowest remaining seed in the dance, and to the surprise of many, that opponent just happened to be the defending NFC champions, the Atlanta Falcons. Atlanta, who for the entire season lived in infamy of “choking” away a championship to the Patriots, returned as the only team from last year’s NFC playoffs and pulled off an incredible upset over the highest scoring offense this year, defeating the Los Angeles Rams 26-13 (ironically, last year Atlanta was this year’s Rams in terms of points). In the matchup against the Falcons, Foles and the Eagles struggled early on offense, fumbling on the second play and having multiple dropped passes. However, the team flipped a switch in the second quarter, scoring on a fourth and 1 play by LeGarrette Blount and a 53-yard field goal by rookie kicker Jake Elliott that was aided by an errant throw by Foles bouncing off the knee of Falcons strong safety Keanu Neal and into the hands of Torrey Smith. Two field goals in the second half by Elliott combined with the Eagles shutting down arguably the best wide receiver in the NFL today in Julio Jones on a fourth down sprint pass, and the Eagles pulled off the upset. Not done there, the Eagles played host to the Minnesota Vikings, who were one win away from being the first team to play the Super Bowl in their home stadium (albeit as a road team), and after Keenum opened the scoring by tossing a 32-yard score to tight end Kyle Rudolph, the Eagles would score on a 50-yard interception return by Patrick Robinson and wouldn’t stop there, thoroughly defeating the Vikings 38-7 and returning to the Super Bowl for the third time in franchise history (0-2 in prior matchups).
Fun fact about the Eagles: this year’s team is reminiscent of the 1990 Super Bowl champion New York Giants. That year, their starting quarterback Phil Simms went down with an injury late in the season, leaving their backup quarterback Jeff Hostetler to carry the team in the playoffs. In said playoffs, the team thoroughly trounced an NFC North opponent and defeated the defending NFC champions by scoring only 15 points. Case in point: The Eagles lost their starter (Wentz), went to a backup (Foles), defeated the defending NFC champs by scoring only 15 points (won 15-10), and thoroughly trounced an NFC North opponent (defeated Minnesota 38-7).
New England Patriots: Greatest Dynasty in Sports History? “L.O.A.T”? You Decide
What can be said about the Eagles opponent this Sunday in the Patriots? Let’s start with the basics: The Pats are back in a familiar setting, playing in their 10th Super Bowl in franchise history. However, prior to the hiring of coach Bill Belichick and drafting of Tom Brady in the sixth round of the 2000 draft, the Patriots were 0-2 in the big game, losing to the highly dominant 1985 Chicago Bears and their formidable defense in Super Bowl XX and to Brett Favre and the Packers in Super Bowl XXXI. Since Brady and Belichick came together, the Patriots have been the recipients of five Super Bowl victories, including erasing a 28-3 deficit in last year’s Super Bowl, defeating the “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams to earn the club’s first title, and intercepting Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson on the 1-yard line. However, the team has also been the subject of major controversies, most notably Spygate in 2007 and Deflategate in 2014.
And despite those controversies, the team still made it to the big game in those years, going 1-1 in the game, losing to the New York Giants in ’07 (which also ended their bid to become the second team in NFL history to complete a season undefeated).
At the start of this season, New England’s defense was arguably horrendous, which resulted in a 2-2 record after the first month of the season and making people wonder if the dynasty was nearing its conclusion. However, if last year’s Super Bowl is anything to go by, it’s never count out New England under Belichick. True to form, the defense would tighten up shortly after, and the team would go 11-1 down the stretch en route to their 8th straight AFC East division title and second straight year of home-field advantage in the AFC. In their divisional round matchup, the Patriots played the Tennessee Titans, who were coming off a wild finish in their wild-card matchup in which they erased an 18-point halftime deficit to shock the Kansas City Chiefs, 22-21. Following an early touchdown by the Titans, New England would score 35 unanswered points and went on to win 35-14. In the AFC Championship Game, New England hosted the Jacksonville Jaguars, who were coming off an impressive 45-42 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. In that matchup, following star tight end Rob Gronkowski leaving the game with a concussion, New England would erase a 10-point fourth quarter deficit to defeat the young upstart Jacksonville defense 24-20. Some points to note about New England going into this game:
Tom Brady is 15-0 in the postseason when he faces a team he didn’t face in the regular season, and he is attempting to become the first quarterback in NFL history to not only lead the league in passing yards (which he did with 4,577) but also win the NFL MVP (he’s the favorite this year) and win the Super Bowl in the same season.
This game could very well come down to the wire, considering how both teams have performed down the stretch this year. One cannot forget that earlier this year, New England’s defense was the talk of the town, not just about the play of their 40-year-old quarterback. That said, the Eagles are not to be taken lightly, especially since two of their star players were on the Patriots last season. Numbers also seem to point in New England’s favor since they’re wearing their white jerseys, and 12 of the last 13 winners have worn white (Aaron Rodgers in 2011 being the only outlier). It’s tough for this reporter to go with the underdog Eagles because of how the Patriots always never seem to be counted out, but I feel as though Philadelphia can do what my team in Atlanta sadly couldn’t. Final Score: Philadelphia 26, New England 21.