New England Patriots v Philadelphia Eagles
Sunday Feb 5th, 23:30 GMT
Live on Sky Sports and BBC
Philadelphia are the number one seeds and the team I tipped mid-season to take the title. But then quarterback Carson Wentz got injured and I reneged on my support. To be fair, I wasn't alone. But we've all been left with egg on our faces, because the Eagles have since proven themselves to have strength in depth and probably the best back-up QB in the NFL. Here's how the Eagles stack up:
The most important position on the team. And the reason why many thought the end of Carson Wentz meant the end of Philly's season. But in came Nick Foles and steered them to the Super Bowl. Sports journalism is very reactive. Have a good game this week and you're hailed a world beater. Have a bad game next and pundits will say you should be dropped. But just about everyone's guilty of having short term memories when it comes to Foles.
In 2013, in his first season as a regular starter, Nicholas Edward Foles became the first ever quarterback to have a perfect passer rating of 158.3 while also throwing for seven touchdowns. That's history right there folks and nobody can take it from him. Foles had such a great season in fact, he went to the Pro Bowl that year, where he was named offensive player of the game. You don't do any of that unless you have serious talent. How quickly we forget.
Philadelphia have quietly assembled an awesome set of receivers to rival any in the NFL. Zach Ertz has been perhaps the outstanding tight end in the league this year, scoring as many touchdowns as Rob Gronkowski, from two fewer games. Nelson Agholor has improved steadily through three years with the Eagles and is enjoying a breakout eight-touchdown season. And the 24 year old is complemented by the experience of Torrey Smith and Alshon Jeffrey. Signed from the 49ers and Bears respectively, they've scored between them three TDs this postseason, proving the value of experience.
At running back, the signing of Jay Ajayi has shown two things - that the Eagles' back office are playing a huge role in their success, and also the club realised they had a shot at the title this year. The mid-season move for Ajayi was a sign of intent, and it's paid off. The running back's averaged 5.8 yards a carry. After letting him go, Miami must feel like they've been mugged. The fleet-footed Ajayi offers the perfect complement to the boulder on wheels that is LeGarrette Blount. I said mid-season Blount was playing much better than his stats suggested - as he was near leading the league in yards after contact. Blount may not be pretty, but he does damage - sapping the defense of energy with bulldozing runs, before Ajayi injects the pace. Together they are a highly effective combination.
Jim Schwartz was brought in as defensive coordinator in 2016 and turned this unit around. Using the same players who'd struggled under previous coach Chip Kelly, Schwartz changed the defense to a 4-3 base and so the improvement began. Among the stars are three-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and two-time Pro Bowl safety Malcolm Jenkins. Before Schwartz, the Eagles ranked 30th in yards allowed. This season they led the league at stopping the run. Of concern will be the number of big scores they conceded in the regular season. But the defense seems to have peaked at the right time, allowing just 17 points in their two play-off games.
Doug Pederson is in his first year as an NFL head coach. A former quarterback for the Eagles, he's a home team favourite. With his only experience coming as offensive co-ordinator for Kansas, his liking for aggressive offensive play-calling has been evident. But he remains an unproven and unknown quantity.
As top seeds, the Eagles should have been one of the favourites heading to the postseason. But because of the loss of Wentz, they've been underdogs all the way. Nick Foles is a franchise quality quarterback and Philly have great balance between offense and defense, and youth and experience. The Head Coach is in uncharted territory. But he has the talent at his disposal to cause a Super Bowl upset.
*Read Mark Kirwan's Team Preview of the New England Patriots