When the Eagles run: The numbers look great, but don’t tell the whole story. Philadelphia ranked third in the league with 132.2 yards per game in the regular season and fourth in yards per carry at 4.5, but haven’t had as much success in two playoff wins, averaging just 3.3 yards per carry. One thing Philadelphia loves to do is run “trap” plays, which analytics website Pro Football Focus defines as a play that leaves an interior defensive lineman unblocked by the opposing offensive lineman and picked up instead by a different offensive player. According to PFF, the Eagles ran more trap plays (43) for more yards (280) than any other team during the regular season. Jay Ajayi, acquired in a midseason trade with Miami, has shown in his time playing against the Bills he can be explosive, but does have issues with fumbling (seven in the last two years). LeGarrette Blount averaged 3.49 yards after contact per carry, according to PFF, which means he’s tough to arm tackle. The Patriots gave up 4.7 yards per carry in the regular season, which ranked 31st in the NFL, but have given up an average of just 83 yards per game in their two playoff wins. EDGE: Eagles.
When the Eagles pass: Nick Foles stepping in for the injured Carson Wentz was supposed to spell the end of Philadelphia’s run, but that hasn’t happened. Foles played a brilliant game in the NFC Championship against Minnesota, so good, in fact, that analysts debated whether Wentz would have been any better. Foles’ favorite target since taking over has been tight end Zach Ertz, who sees the ball on nearly 1 out of every 4 routes run. Ertz and No. 1 receiver Alshon Jeffery have teamed up with slot receiver Nelson Agholor to make 25 touchdown catches, including 19 in the red zone. Veteran Torrey Smith had a 41-yard touchdown in the win over the Vikings and still has speed the Patriots will have to respect. New England’s secondary is led by former Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who will likely match up with Jefferey, while former Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler might bump inside to take Agholor given that slot cornerback Eric Rowe has struggled lately. The Patriots’ pass rush is led by Trey Flowers, who has seven quarterback hits in the playoffs. EDGE: Even.
When the Patriots run: What started as a committee approach gave way to more of a featured back approach as Dion Lewis emerged. He led the team with 896 yards on the ground, averaging 5.0 yards per carry. Lewis was one of three players with at least five rushing touchdowns. Even though they run on just 40 percent of their plays, the Patriots still produced 16 rushing touchdowns in the regular season, which tied for the sixth most. The Eagles were so good against the run, teams barely bothered to try. Philadelphia faced an average of just 21.1 rushing attempts per game, and allowed just 79.2 yards per game. Of course, those two go hand in hand. EDGE: Eagles.
When the Patriots pass: Patriots quarterback Tom Brady's fourth quarter against Jacksonville (10 of 14, 140 yards, two touchdowns) was just another example of why he's the best player ever. Assuming he passes concussion protocol, Amherst native Rob Gronkowski will be a huge part of New England's passing game. An amazing 57 of the tight end's 69 catches in the regular season produced a first down. The Eagles have struggled against some of the better tight ends in the NFL this season, and Gronkowski is the best. Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz rotates heavily on the defensive line. Philadelphia was the only team in the league to have five players with 10 or more quarterback hits this season. Schwartz depends on getting pressure with the front four, and likely won't blitz much against Brady. EDGE: Patriots.
Special teams: If it’s a close game, the Patriots have to feel good with Stephen Gostkowski on their side. The 12th-year veteran did not miss a kick from inside 40 yards this season. On the other side is rookie Jake Elliott, who took over after an injury to Caleb Sturgis in September. Elliott missed five field goals in 15 games. How will he handle the pressure of the biggest stage in sports? Lewis averaged nearly 25 yards per kickoff return. Philadelphia’s primary kick returner is Kenjon Barner, but he did not have a good year, averaging less than 20 yards per attempt (he was better on punts, averaging nearly 9 yards per attempt. Overall, the Patriots ranked third in Football Outsiders’ special teams rankings, while the Eagles were 16th. EDGE: Patriots.
Coaching: Bill Belichick can become the first person in NFL history with eight Super Bowl rings with a win Sunday. That includes two as an assistant and would be his sixth as the head coach in New England. The Patriots will see both of their coordinators, Josh McDaniels (offense) and Matt Patricia (defense) leave to become head coaches of the Colts and Lions, respectively. The Patriots finished third in fewest penalties taken in the regular season, with a feature story in The Ringer this week saying that Belichick studies the rule book closer than any coach in the NFL to know what his players can and can't get away with. Eagles coach Doug Pederson comes from the Andy Reid coaching tree. He's surely consulted with Reid on how his Chiefs were able to have so much success against New England in a dominant Week 1 victory. Offensive coordinator Frank Reich has utilized run-pass option plays well for Philly. EDGE: Patriots.
Prediction: Patriots 25, Eagles 20.