No, this isn’t the definitive end of the line for a Patriots dynasty which has spanned nearly two decades. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick aren’t going anywhere, so neither is New England’s status as perennial title contender.
But Minnesota will be the last stop for the best coaching staff in the league, as Belichick, Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia will preside over their final game together before parting ways.
After forming a dynamic duo with Brady and helping shape a dominant offence, McDaniels will head for Indianapolis for his second crack at a head coaching job. Patricia, meanwhile, has parlayed his defensive coordinator position into the head coaching gig in Detroit. Both have learned and developed under the tutelage of Belichick and both are poised to succeed outside of his shadow.
After Friday’s meeting, the Colts intend to hire Patriots’ OC Josh McDaniels as their HC after Super Bowl LII, per sources.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 28, 2018
Patriots expected to lose OC to Colts, DC Matt Patricia to Lions, while respected special teams coordinator Joe Judge on expiring contract. Changes.
For the Patriots, however, their departure will leave a sizeable void on the sidelines, not too dissimilar to the coaching exodus back in 2005. The parallels to that year are remarkable: New England again face the Philadelphia Eagles as they go for their third title in four years, with both their offensive and defensive coordinator set to leave, like Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel did in 2005.
Maybe it was just a coincidence, but after Weis and Crennel chose to follow their ambitions, the Patriots didn’t lift the Lombardi Trophy again for another decade. Neither had sustained success in their new surroundings, so it’s fair to wonder how much cause and effect was at work for the Patriots’ title drought.
Belichick is the greatest football coach ever, but his coaching tree hasn’t been so fruitful, at least not when the branches have broken off. Even after Weis and Crennel, former defensive coordinator Eric Mangini flamed out as head coach of the New York Jets, while McDaniels lasted only two seasons in charge of the Denver Broncos in his first go-around.
It does feel like the Patriots are built the same way on the field and on the sidelines. The players around Brady continue to change, but as long as he’s there, Super Bowl appearances are a regularity. Ditto for Belichick, who seemingly has the ability to mold young coaches into rising stars.
However, that doesn’t mean the journey hasn’t been rocky at times, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the loss of McDaniels and Patricia translates into a bit of a drop-off for New England going forward. After all, Belichick has enjoyed six years of stability with both of them flanking him. Some adjustment is inevitable.
Shoes to fill
Their replacements are unknown as of now, but if history is any indication, Belichick will likely promote from within to preserve the Patriots Way.
The most obvious candidates appear to be Chad O’Shea on offence and Brian Flores on defence. O’Shea is currently the receivers coach and the red zone coordinator, so he’s well-versed in what McDaniels has already established. Flores is the linebackers coach and even interviewed for the Arizona Cardinals’ head coaching vacancy.
It’s also possible Belichick wears multiple hats next season, as he’s done before, and takes on play-calling duties on either side of the ball. But considering Belichick’s likely desire to leave the Patriots in a position where they can sustain success after he’s gone, it makes more sense to hand over some of the reins now and allow the next coordinators to gain experience.
The price for that may be growing pains, at least in the short term. Offensively, what happens if Brady finally begins to show his age and starts to decline? And will the same defensive adjustments that have seen the unit turn it around towards the end of the season the past few years be applied without Patricia?
These are first-world problems that for every other team in the league, would be far down the list of pressing questions. When you’re a dynasty though, these types of cracks can eventually splinter the entire foundation.
There will be an entire offseason to worry about that and Super Bowl LII could be another moment of pure bliss if it ends in Belichick, McDaniels and Patricia hugging it out again. But eventually, all good things must come to an end.
When you think of the players who will likely play the biggest roles in determining the Super Bowl on Sunday, the obvious candidates immediately come to mind.
Let’s take a look at the 10 most important players that will be on the field on Sunday, ranked in order.
1. Nick Foles
There’s no bigger wildcard in the Super Bowl than the Philadelphia quarterback, who showed in the NFC Championship Game he can do a fine Carson Wentz impression. If he plays like that again, the Patriots’ biggest advantage in the game suddenly disappears, making the Eagles extremely hard to beat.
2. Tom Brady
He’s the greatest quarterback of all-time, so yeah, he’s pretty important. The question isn’t really whether Brady will play well, but if he’ll get enough time in the pocket to make his throws. If Philadelphia can generate enough pressure without having to blitz, Brady won’t look so superhuman.
3. Rob Gronkowski
The Patriots tight end is coming off a concussion suffered in the AFC Championship Game, but all signs point to him being good to go. When Gronkowski on the field, he’s as big of a difference maker as there is for any skill position player. Even if he’s not getting the ball, the mere threat of him will draw enormous attention.
4. Fletcher Cox
The secret to beating New England isn’t really a secret. Pressure Brady up the middle and take away his clean pocket to make him uncomfortable. Cox is more than capable of doing just that as a defensive tackle who can cave the interior of the line. If he can get to Brady enough, that will tilt the axis in the Eagles’ favour.
5. Trey Flowers
New England’s pass rush doesn’t exactly light the world on fire, but Flowers is easily the best of the bunch. In all likelihood, the Patriots will dare Philadelphia to throw the ball, but that strategy is predicated on getting at least a little bit of pressure on Foles. If Flowers can’t, it’s unclear who else on New England can.
6. Malcolm Jenkins
Talk about a challenge. The Eagles safety is expected to spend most of his time covering Gronkowski, as well as helping out near the line of scrimmage against New England’s run game. Jenkins is used to corralling tight ends on his own, but Gronkowski is in a stratosphere of his own.
7. Brandon Graham
While Cox dos his work inside, Graham wreaks havoc on the outside in Philadelphia’s wide-9 alignment. A two-pronged attack on Brady will be key and Graham is always a threat for a strip sack. Expect New England to use their running backs and tight ends to help right tackle Cameron Fleming handle Graham.
8. Patrick Chung
Similar to Jenkins, New England’s strong safety will often have his hands full against a deadly tight end in Zach Ertz. He’ll also be used at times as a slot cornerback, as well as a stuffer against Philadelphia’s ground attack. Versatility is the Patriots’ calling card and there are few players on their roster as versatile as Chung.
Patrick Chung vs. tight ends this season, including playoffs:— Jeff Howe (@jeffphowe) January 24, 2018
23 receptions on 42 targets (54.8 completion percentage), 235 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception, 2 pass breakups, 77.0 passer rating.
That’s an average of 1.3 catches for 13.1 yards per game.
9. David Andrews
It’s not often that a centre is one of the most important players in the biggest game of the year, but protecting Brady from pressure up the middle isn’t just important to New England, it’s a priority. Andrews will be needed to be on top of his game in one-on-one situations and as a helper to the guards.
10. Zach Ertz
The Eagles’ leading receiver this season was none other than Ertz, who is a mismatch nightmare for slower linebackers and smaller defensive backs. He’s not on the same level of Gronkowski, but he can affect the game in similar ways, especially on third down and in the red zone.
‘You want to treat us like underdogs? We’ll give you underdogs.’
Despite tying for the best record in the NFL this season and earning the top seed in the NFC, Philadelphia haven’t been given the proper respect that typically comes with those accomplishments. They were considered underdogs twice on their home field in the playoffs, against reigning NFC champions Atlanta in the divisional round and against the Vikings on the heels of the ‘Minnesota Miracle’ in the NFC Championship Game. Both times they defied expectations and advanced.
And now their underdog status has reached its zenith, with the mighty New England Patriots‘ dynasty standing in the way of the franchise’s first Super Bowl title in a contest many are viewing through a David vs Goliath lens.
But there’s a reason why the Eagles are here, and it’s not to serve as fodder for someone else’s storybook ending. This is the rare case where the consensus underdog may actually be better than the favourite and end up proving it.
As charming as it might be to associate the Eagles with one of their city’s icons and the ultimate underdog, Rocky Balboa, this team is fittingly more of a Philly Shell fighter than a brawler hoping to connect on a haymaker.
Philadelphia have arguably the most talented roster in the NFL, from top to bottom. Their athleticism and depth, wielded by strong coaching, is why they won 13 games this season and looked like the clear-cut best team in the league before their most important player was taken away.
If the Eagles have anything in common with Rocky, it’s their ability to get up after being knocked down.
When Carson Wentz tore his ACL in Week 14, Philadelphia not only lost their starting quarterback, but a player who was the frontrunner for MVP. It was just assumed that their Super Bowl hopes were dashed in an instant and that a regular season full of promise had gone up in flames.
But the Eagles have lost just one game since and that too was a meaningless match-up in Week 17, at which point they had already locked up the one seed. That’s just not possible to do with a back-up quarterback unless the rest of your team is incredibly well-rounded and capable of mitigating the blow.
It’s completely reasonable to point to Nick Foles as the reason why Philadelphia are underdogs. But there’s another way of looking at it and that is by recognising that the Eagles have minimised how crucial of a role their biggest weakness plays. Quarterback is undoubtedly the most important position in football, but what Philadelphia have done is make Foles’ production a byproduct of their success, not the catalyst.
They actually can. Philadelphia don’t necessarily need Foles to play well if they can get pressure on Brady and reduce his effectiveness. And if Foles does channel his inner Wentz and play like he did in the NFC Championship Game, nothing less than another heroic effort by Brady will be needed for the Patriots to lift the Lombardi Trophy again.
New England have the biggest advantage at the most important position, but if that is somehow neutralised, the Eagles have the talent and ability to capitalise everywhere else.
While that doesn’t mean the roles should be reserved and Philadelphia be considered the favourites, it is time to kill the underdog narrative.
There’s a still a good chance, however, we see the dog masks one last time.