by Vincent Verhei
Last week, we looked at the worst games New England played this year, searching for weaknesses that might cost the Patriots another Lombardi Trophy. Today, we're going to do the same for New England's Super Bowl opponents, the Philadelphia Eagles.
By DVOA, Philadelphia's worst games this season were:
- Week 2: Philadelphia Eagles 20 at Kansas City Chiefs 27. What a strange year it was for Kansas City, beating the eventual AFC and NFC champions in Weeks 1 and 2 and then going just 8-7 (including the playoffs) the rest of the way. This game was not as close as the final score would indicate; Kansas City scored two touchdowns in a little more than four minutes of game time to take a 27-13 lead in the fourth quarter before Philadelphia scored a final touchdown with just eight seconds left on the clock. (They actually recovered an onside kick, but Carson Wentz's pass on the last play of the game was incomplete.) The Chiefs got an efficient day out of Alex Smith (21-of-28, 251 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions) and big numbers from Kareem Hunt (13 carries for 81 yards and two scores; three catches for 28 yards) and Travis Kelce (eight catches for 103 yards and a touchdown). Wentz led the Eagles with 55 rushing yards. Philadelphia's top running back that day, Darren Sproles, hasn't played since tearing his ACL and breaking his arm against the Giants in Week 3.
- Week 14: Philadelphia Eagles 43 at Los Angeles Rams 35. It was thought to be the emptiest playoff-clinching victory of all time, as Wentz's torn ACL seemed certain to end the Eagles shot at a Super Bowl win. That theory proved to be overly pessimistic, but DVOA was still surprisingly unimpressed by this road win over a very good Rams team. The Eagles trailed 35-31 early in the fourth quarter, but added a pair of Jake Elliott field goals and then a fumble-return touchdown by Brandon Graham on the game's final play to ice the win. There were three fumbles in the game (one by Philadelphia, two by Los Angeles), and the Eagles recovered all of them. The Rams' Todd Gurley made a big impact on a relatively small amount of touches: 13 carries for 96 yards and two touchdowns, plus three catches for 39 more yards.
- Week 15: Philadelphia Eagles 34 at New York Giants 29. A lot happened in this game. The Giants scored touchdowns on each of their first three drives to jump out to a 20-7 lead. Philly rallied to go up 21-20, and then Aldrick Rosas put New York back in front 23-21 -- and that was just the first half. The game was close throughout the second half, realistically ending when Eli Manning's pass to Evan Engram on fourth-and-goal from the 11 fell incomplete with 48 seconds to go. Manning finished with 57 attempts, 37 completions, 434 yards, and three touchdowns, each of which was his highest total of 2017. His leading target, Sterling Shepard, finished with 11 catches for 139 yards and a score.
- Week 17: Philadelphia Eagles 0 at Dallas Cowboys 6. With home-field advantage in the NFC already sewn up, the Eagles had nothing to play for here, and it showed. Nick Foles threw only 11 passes before yielding to Nate Sudfeld. Thirteen different Eagles had at least one target; none gained more than 25 yards receiving. The defense had a much better day, forcing punts on seven straight drives at one point, but then surrendered a 99-yard touchdown drive and was fortunate when Dan Bailey missed a 23-yard field goal in the fourth quarter. Ezekiel Elliott was the offensive star for Dallas, rushing 27 times for 103 yards and catching three passes for 38.
Some readers might be wondering if it's fair to include that Week 17 game. The Eagles' next worst game was a 19-10 home win over the Raiders on Christmas night in Week 16. Philadelphia trailed 10-7 in the second half before rallying with a pair of Jake Elliott field goals and a fumble return touchdown on the last play of the game. (Yes, that actually happened to Philadelphia twice in three games.) Including that game is problematic, though, because it's not similar to the Eagles' other bad games. In the Kansas City, Los Angeles, New York, and Dallas games, Philadelphia's pass defense DVOA was never better than 5.7%; against Oakland, it was -107.9%, easily the best day they had all year. If we're looking for ways to beat the Eagles, the only lesson from this game would be "hope their quarterback has an even bigger meltdown than your quarterback has," which doesn't seem to be helpful advice for Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. So we will stick with the Dallas game, but we will also make sure to highlight that Nick Foles had a very, very bad game against the Raiders, going 19-of-38 for 163 yards with one touchdown, one interception, two sacks, and a fumble.
That said, he wasn't much better in our four-game set, going 34-of-59 (57.6 percent) for 318 yards (5.4 yards per pass) with four touchdowns, one interception, and two sacks. That's a small sample size -- two games, essentially -- but it does show that the Eagles' worst games usually included a poor performance from their quarterback. (This is true for most teams, of course.) Defenses generally gave Philadelphia problems by taking away the wide receivers. Alshon Jeffery, Nelson Agholor, and Torrey Smith each had 20-plus targets in our four-game sample, but none had a positive DVOA. Jeffery and Smith were the deep threats; the average target to each came more than 14 yards downfield, but neither had a catch rate of even 50 percent. Agholor's usage was much different. He caught 73 percent of his targets, but those targets only traveled 6.2 yards past the line of scrimmage on average. The only other Eagles player with 20-plus targets in these games was tight end Zach Ertz, and he produced with a 19.0% DVOA, but that didn't do the Eagles much good. New England's top three cornerbacks -- Malcolm Butler, Stephon Gilmore, and Jonathan Jones -- each tended to cover receivers on deeper routes this year. However, former Eagles corner Eric Rowe's average target came just 9.2 yards downfield, so Agholor might be his personal responsibility. (Rowe missed eight games in the regular season but has essentially replaced the injured Jones in the playoffs, with five tackles against Tennessee and four more against Jacksonville.) If New England can take away the deep routes of Jeffery and Smith and make their tackles on Agholor, they should be able to stifle the Philadelphia air attack.
They should also be able to stifle the Philadelphia ground attack. In their four worst games, the Eagles ran 94 times for 424 yards, an average of 106.0 yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry. Those numbers look awfully good, but they are boosted by the performance of Wentz (seven carries for 71 yards) and Sudfeld (22 yards on his one carry against Dallas). Take out the first- and third-string quarterbacks, and you're left with 86 carries for 331 yards -- 82.8 yards per game, 3.8 yards per run. Jay Ajayi, Corey Clement, and LeGarrette Blount -- the top trio in Philadelphia these days -- each had 11 carries or more, but each finished with negative DYAR and a success rate of 45 percent or worse. One would think the Eagles would have an edge against New England's No. 30 DVOA run defense, but Philadelphia's running game has hardly been dominant this season.
The ground game was especially useless in the red zone, averaging 2.4 yards on 15 carries with no touchdowns and a DVOA of -68.1%. The red zone passing attack was much more successful, averaging 4.7 yards and scoring ten times in 33 plays, with a DVOA of 118.0%. Obviously, a lot of that is Wentz. But even if we only look at Weeks 15-20, including the playoffs, the Eagles have 49.1% passing DVOA and -51.8% rushing DVOA in the red zone. When the Eagles reach the red zone in the Super Bowl, they should count on Foles to win or lose the game for them, not Ajayi or Blount.
While the Philadelphia offense had plenty of issues, things were even worse on the other side of the ball. The Eagles average defensive DVOA in these four games was 11.1%, and the average run defense DVOA was 3.3%. Both figures would have been worst in the league this year. The average pass defense DVOA was 17.5%, which would have been in the bottom ten. Alex Smith, Jared Goff, Eli Manning, and Dak Prescott combined to go 91-of-141 against the Eagles (64.5 percent) for 1,063 yards (7.5 per pass) with seven touchdowns, one interception, and eight sacks. Seven touchdown passes isn't a ton in four games, but it's more than enough considering the Eagles also gave up five rushing touchdowns. Those scores on the ground came among 91 carries for 425 yards -- 106.3 yards per game, 4.7 yards per carry.
There was no real secret about the players who had success running against Philadelphia -- each team's top back had a big day. By sheer volume, Elliott had the best performance, but at 3.8 yards per carry and a 37 percent success rate, it was hardly the most efficient. Gurley (7.4-yard average, 77 percent success rate), Hunt (6.2, 46 percent), and New York's Wayne Gallman (4.9, 63 percent) were all better by DYAR. There was no significant difference in runs by direction either. So it's not clear precisely why the Eagles struggled to stop the run in these contests, but it is clear that they were vulnerable to such plays. That might lure the normally pass-heavy Patriots into more of a ground-based attack.
There might be more to be learned in looking at the receivers who had big days against Philadelphia. We mentioned Shepard's 139 yards already; he was followed by L.A.'s Cooper Kupp (118 yards), Kelce (103), and Engram (87). That's two tight ends in the top four, which is an extremely bad omen for a team that is preparing to play against Rob Gronkowski. As far as DYAR goes, the top five wide receivers include Kupp and Shepard, but also third receivers like New York's Tavarres King (two catches for 70 yards and two touchdowns) and Dallas' Brice Butler (two catches for 50 yards and a touchdown). There might be room here for someone on the bottom of New England's wide receiver totem pole (Phillip Dorsett? Kenny Britt?) to come through with a big play. More likely, we're talking here about Danny "Playoffs" Amendola.
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Finally there's the kicking game, which also hurt the Eagles at times this year. Jake Elliott missed a 30-yard field goal against Kansas City, and the Philadelphia coverage teams surrendered a 40-yard kickoff return to Tyreek Hill. The Eagles forced five punts against the Rams, but Kenjon Barner managed only 11 total return yards on those five punts.
We mentioned last week that Philly's strengths didn't necessarily match up with New England's weaknesses, but the Patriots are a more versatile team. They have gone run-heavy at times this season, with 190-plus rushing yards against Buffalo (twice) and Miami. They will use all their weapons; witness Dorsett's three catches for 68 yards against New Orleans. And Bill Belichick has always specialized in taking away what an opponent does best. He'll likely be content to limit the Eagles' big-play passing attack and make the Eagles drive the field to get into scoring range, then clamp down on Foles in the red zone. It's all just further reasoning that the Eagles are again underdogs in this postseason -- but then, that's a role that Philadelphia has both embraced and overcome.