The New England Patriots head to their eighth Super Bowl in 16 seasons as [1.52] favourites to lift the Lombardi trophy. Stories of trouble between Tom Brady, coach Bill Belichick and the team owner have spiced up recent weeks, but they have not affected the team on the field, writes Mark Kirwan...
"Beyond Brady, the Patriots have built as diverse an offence as they've ever had. Brady at 40, as shown in the comeback win over Jacksonville, is still capable of dragging the best out of this team when it matters."
Philadelphia Eagles @ New England Patriots
Sunday February 4, 23:30 GMT
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The emergence of reports from behind the scenes at Foxboro of ego clashes is surprising because New England teams throughout the Belichick and Brady era have been defined by a business-like approach and air-tight operation in terms of leaks.
Even if tensions have affected reltionships in New England, those issues haven't led to dropped games in an under-strength AFC. Though tested by the Steelers in week 15 and the Jaguars last week, their Divisional round meeting with Tennessee is emblematic of the weakness of the Conference. That win looked a formality, and took place between heavy favourites Pittsburgh and Atlanta losing to big underdogs, while the fancied Vikings were saved by a miracle play. The Pats could've had tougher runs to the season finale.
The Jimmy Garoppolo trade allowed a tantalising glimpse of the post-Brady Patriots, and it did not look pretty. The build-up and fallout from the move has shown the Patriots' leading figures are human - or at least more sophisticated humanoid cyborgs than previously thought.
Tom Brady's health regime is supposed to see him play for another five years, but no one can defeat time. Bill Belichick has traded away the future face of the franchise and, possibly, his shot at dominating the league for another decade.
There have been whispers that Belichick's staff have seen slippage in Brady's play this year, heightening the stakes in the Jimmy G drama. If they have, it was not evident last week when Brady picked apart the league's best secondary in the fourth quarter with his leading receiver sidelined and 12 stitches in his throwing hand.
The Jacksonville defensive line got to Brady in the first half but tired last week. Philly can rotate more because of their depth, so could sustain pressure for longer. If they can, they hold the key to containing the Pats offence.
Beyond Brady, the Patriots have built as diverse an offence as they've ever had. Brady at 40, as shown in the comeback win over Jacksonville, is still capable of dragging the best out of this team when it matters.
That win was all the more impressive because he'd lost tight-end Rob Gronkowski to a concussion before half-time. Gronk's physique and speed allows the Patriot's to pull defences apart, creating opportunities for other receivers and forcing big plays against over-matched coverage.
His health has been a consistent issue, and keeping him fit for the playoffs has been an overarching concern this season. He is expected to be available for the Super Bowl, though the concussion protocol means doubt could linger.
In his absence, Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola made huge plays. Cooks forced mistakes from Pro Bowl cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and AJ Bouye repeatedly. Both Bouye and Ramsey were flagged for pass interference calls on Cooks that led to scores, and he found plenty of space to make catches too.
Amendola picked up two touchdowns in the fourth quarter and made massive conversion on 3rd-and-18 that signaled the Patriots fight back. The array of running-backs they've accumulated - Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead and James White - sum up the versatility of their offence, each back offering plenty and making game-planning for any opponent that bit more difficult.
Defensive Coordinator Matt Patricia is set to leave for Detroit after the Super bowl, and his work on this defence over several seasons has definitely earned him that shot.
The Patriots defence opened the season getting torched by passing offences. Stephon Gilmore was their marquee defensive signing, and Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler was retained despite interest from New Orleans. They have experienced safeties too, so New England's defence should not have been giving up over 450 yards per game after four games, but it was.
Since then they've steadily improved as unheralded linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts have grown into roles as defensive leaders. Along the line, Trey Flowers has emerged over the last two years, leading the team in sacks and making big plays in the postseason.
Following that poor start they've gone 12-1, and held opponents to 17 points or less in ten of those 12 wins. They've been helped by a weak schedule against a lot of mediocre quarterbacks, so the improvement has to be read with caution, but they've also consistently come up big in the red zone, where they rank fifth in terms of scores allowed.
Teams may move the ball on the Patriots, but they're not getting scores. The defence is the definition of bend but not break, which gives the loaded offence every chance to win games.
What more can be said except he's best in the business? Bill Belichick will go down as one of the all-time greats, every move he makes from this point is about piling up the legacy points against other great coaching names in league history. The meticulous planning and unforgiving atmosphere around the Patriots, as well as the (putting it nicely) abrasive media presence, means Belichick is not for everyone, but these are minor quibbles given the pantheon of great coaches he resides among already.
The Patriots have the great quarterback, the best coach, an array of attacking options and improving defence. What can possibly go wrong? Well, quite a lot. Jacksonville had the Pats' number for three quarters last week, and the Philly defence merits comparison with the Jags, and could have a better depth along the defensive line. If they can get to Brady, less mobile than ever, they can follow the game plan of the Giants in their two Super Bowl victories over Belichick and Brady. Gronk opens up so many options for Brady, so his health is also a possible stumbling block, and the defence, while it has improved, has not played many good offences. The question as to which Nick Foles shows up in Minneapolis will determine a lot. The Patriots are warranted favourites, with plenty on their side, but they are not perfect and the Eagles have a defence that could deny Brady ring number six.
The trend in recent Patriots playoff games has seen them driving late in the game to win. The Eagles showed an offensive edge last week that had been lacking since Carson Wentz was lost for the season. Assuming the Eagles can mimic the Jags last season, I would expect the Pats to need to win the fourth quarter to win the game, so would look at the Patriots in the Fourth Quarter Winner market on the Exchange if you think this game can be close.
For touchdown scorer interest on the Pats side, Danny Amendola has been rechristened "Playoff" by the always imaginative Gronk because he always makes plays in the postseason. If the Pats win, there's no more likely scorer than Amendola, and [3.5] looks a reasonable price on the To Score a Touchdown market.
I also like James White to score, and like him in the Last Touchdown Scorer market because he can take advantage of tiring defences when the game is on the line. He's also shown up in the Super Bowl before, so he has the nerve to make a big play when needed. At [11.0] he looks a nice price to me.