We did alright here last week, didn't we? Pats-Jags under, Eagles-Vikes over (the Eagles got within half a point all by themselves) and the Eagles on the money-line. Which sets up the Eagles and the Pats in the big one.
It isn't the dream match America supposedly wanted: the home-town Vikings team becoming the first to play the Super Bowl in their own stadium against the team that unites America in hatred, the Patriots. The Eagles are in one sense plucky underdogs against the perennially successful Pats, but in another, they rank among America's least-likeable fan bases. They are the ones who attacked Santa Claus with snowballs. Whose stadium was the first with its own on-site night court to deal with drunken assaults and the like. I once described Philadelphia fans (in the context of baseball, but still relevant) by pointing out that in other places, New York for example, fans threw batteries at the opposition's outfielders. But only in Philly did they boo the thrower if he missed.
The Eagles require respect
Joking aside, Philadelphia has a point about not getting enough respect, not least from the bookies. They were the top seeds in the NFC, but underdogs at home against both Atlanta and Minnesota. They could easily have lost to the Falcons, whom they outplayed but allowed four chances at a winning touchdown from inside the ten yard line. They emerged with a 15-10 win: and both Atlanta scores came off punt turnovers that handed them great field position.
Minnesota was a different story. What seemed to be a balanced match-up of great defenses and effective offenses, both operating with backup quarterbacks, turned into a rout. The easiest explanation is that the Vikings' D was built not to give up the big play, especially on third down, and once the Eagles hit on a couple of those, their offense wasn't geared to come back from way down. Any time your offense becomes one-dimensional, your defense can get better, and that's what happened.
Brady carries Pats back from the brink
In the other Conference Final, the Jags seemed to have the Pats on the ropes. Their defense, up there in the same discussion as Philly's and Minny's, stifled them throughout the first half, until at the two minute warning, they retreated slightly, and Tom Brady carved them up for a TD in just over a minute.
Then came an inexplicable bit of coaching, as the Jags, their lead reduced to 14-10, and with 55 seconds and two time outs, elected not to pursue further points. To me, this seemed like running up a flag of truce in the middle of the battle. The Eagles, up 21-7 with even less time in their first half, would march downfield quickly and get a field goal to extend their halftime lead. That the Jags wouldn't try the same spoke of caution, if not fear.
And so it played out. Protecting the lead, as they had in the last two minutes of the first half, created vulnerabilities in the Jags' defense. The Pats, as they usually do, adjusted at halftime; their defense played better even as the Jags' offense became predictable. And Brady, throwing with remarkable accuracy, brought them home with the win.
Special kudos to Danny Amendola, who caught the final two touchdown passes, the second with a balletic toe-touch in the end zone, returned a punt 20 yards to set up a score, threw a 20 yard completion to Dion Lewis (which Lewis 'fumbled' in the game's most controversial play) and threw a key block on the James White's TD run in the first half. My one-time BBC Super Bowl partner had a pretty good game.
Early Bowl money comes for Philly
The opening line on the Super Bowl settled quickly at the Patriots minus 5.5, which seemed to still be undervaluing the Eagles. Most of this is down to quarterback bias; Nick Foles is a quality back-up (who had a great year in his first year as a starter under Chip Kelly in Philly his first time around there) but he is a backup, and he has limitations.
The Eagles have a five point win and the Pats a four point win among their four playoff victories. Given the similarities between the Eagles and Jags, 5.5 seemed worth taking with the Eagles. It is likely to go down as money flows in on Philly (in fact, there was a huge bet at one casino in Las Vegas which drove their line down a full point) but we'll look at the game again next Friday, and some of the ancillary bets on offer too.