SUPER BOWL LII: Eagles win the battle of wits

What a game that was! Super Bowl LII broke all sorts of records and was a thriller from start to finish. And like in all the best tales, the underdogs won. It was an unusual game, too. Here’s our take on a great night for the NFL.

In the end, the unthinkable happened. Bill Belichick blinked first.

Not only that, but the most phlegmatic man in football blinked so early, he did so before the game even started. And in doing so, he blew his own hopes of a sixth Super Bowl ring, Tom Brady‘s hopes of the same, and the Patriots chances of making history. That chance may well be gone forever.

In ditching starting cornerback Malcolm Butler before the kick off, the Patriots destabilised a defense which, whilst it had not been brilliant, was still in the top ten in terms of points allowed. Belichick has, on the whole, earned the right not to have his decisions questioned, but on this occasion Patriots fans have the right to ask what in the name of Lombardi he was thinking.

You can tell what a faux pas it was from the fact that the Patriots’ media machine has gone into overdrive. On Sunday, Belichick denied that Butler’s benching was for disciplinary reasons. Eric Rowe, who replaced Butler, said that the decision was made hours before the game. Butler said that the franchise gave up on him.

But now the word being put out by the organisation is that Butler – who didn’t play a single defensive snap in a game where the secondary was being stripped bare, and where the team’s best defensive player was a 39-year-old who wasn’t even with them at the start of December – was dropped for breaching team rules and practising poorly. If that’s not a disciplinary reason, then we don’t know what it. Which means that either Belichick was lying on Sunday, or everyone else is lying now.

Which isn’t to exonerate the rest of the defense. Only James Harrison (the aforementioned 39-year-old), safety Patrick Chung and corner Stephon Gillmore came out of the game with credit. In the studio for Sky Sports, Washington cornerback Josh Norman accused New England defensive coordinator Matt Patricia of having “…one foot in Detroit*” and he wasn’t far wrong. It was a shockingly poor showing.

It isn’t just Patriots fans who have a right to be angry. Their offense do, too. They struggled manfully after the unfortunate injury which took Brandin Cooks out of the game in the second quarter, but when you leak points this badly on the other side of the ball, you don’t have a hope in Hallas of winning. Indeed, it is to their credit that they came within 2.03 minutes of doing so.

None of which is to take anything away from Philadelphia. This was a truly magnificent victory. Underdogs throughout their playoff run, they were simply better in every facet of this game. True, they got a little lucky. On another day, Corey Clement‘s touchdown would not have stood – and it will be debated for a long time whether he ever had control of the football. On another day, Zach Ertz comes down on top of the ball before, not on, the goal line and that isn’t a scoreline.

But on the other hand, what a performance. On defense, they did exactly what they needed to do, and more. They not only did the things that were necessary to beat the Patriots, they did more than that – they did things that they simply could not have expected. The knock on New England, especially on the evidence of their two losing Super Bowls, was that you put pressure on Brady and waited for the mistakes. For two whole quarters, the Eagles did the exact opposite. They (largely) sat back, let Brady do his thing, and gambled that whatever they gave up, they could get back on offense.

And then, all of a sudden, they flicked a switch. Suddenly, they got stud defensive end Brandon Graham lining up over an interior lineman. Brady never really saw him coming before he knocked the ball loose. With less than three minutes to go, it was the game’s first sack. Rookie Derek Barnett, after spending most of the game having his inexperience highlighted by the likes of Nate Solder, did the most mature thing he could’ve done and fell on the ball. Eagles turnover. Game over. Almost.

A quick three-and-out and Brady had the ball again, but backed up to his own goal line. Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz dialled up the same play, but from the opposite side of the line. This time it was Fletcher Cox who burst into Brady’s line of vision and forced not only an incompletion, but almost a safety. Although the Patriots still moved the ball, there was no time for them to get even close to a score.

And yes, we really have got this far without mentioning Doug Pederson or Nick Foles. Both were absolutely magnificent. Foles, the back up, the underachiever, simply grew on the biggest stage of all. At no time did he lost control of the game. Helped by the twin punch running back duo of LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi, Clement’s career day as a runner and receiver, and the oft-criticised Nelson Aglohor playing out of his skin (especially considering that he had been on an IV only days before), he simply out-managed the Patriots.

Pederson, meanwhile, was doing what he had quietly done all season – taking calculated risks and watching them come off. No coach had rushed more on third down. His opening play of the game wasn’t a nice, safe, run between the tackles, but a four yard pass. His next two plays were passes, too. And then there was that play.

Nothing in the NFL says ‘stuff you’ to an opponent than running the same play as them and doing it better. Add to that running a gadget play, on fourth down, from the one yard line, that works better than your opponents and you have something really special. In fact, you have the NFL equivalent of not only sticking two fingers up at your opponent, but doing so whilst sleeping with their sister and emptying their bank account. And then making off with their Lombardi trophy.

Move over, Ron Rivera, there’s a new high roller in town, and his name’s Doug Pederson. And he just led the Eagles to their first Super Bowl.

Richard O’Hagan

 

*Patricia was confirmed as new Detroit head coach on Tuesday, shortly before offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels announced that he wasn’t taking the top job in Indianapolis after all.

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Richard O'Hagan
Writer on such diverse topics as sport, music, theatre, law and politics. Author of 'Eddie the Sheep'. Supporter of underachieving teams, including the Chicago Bears from before that brief, heady, period in the mid-1980s when they were actually any good. All I want for Christmas is a Jim McMahon away shirt.
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