The Eagles and Patriots for most of the season have been on a collision course for Super Bowl 52. The much-anticipated battle of the best representatives from the NFC and AFC is almost here, but it arrives with a twist.
Philadelphia has gone from presumed Super Bowl participant to big playoff underdog because of quarterback Carson Wentz's injury, which turned the team over to Nick Foles. New England enters Super Bowl 52 as the favorite to repeat, with Tom Brady building off an unprecedented comeback in Super Bowl 51 to have one of his best seasons, even at age 40.
The Eagles lost several other key players along the way beyond their starting quarterback, including left tackle Jason Peters, linebacker Jordan Hicks and running back Darren Sproles. The Patriots lost wide receiver Julian Edelman in the preseason and suffered a big defensive blow later with linebacker Dont'a Hightower going on injured reserve.
With who's left standing for the respective conference champions, how well do the Eagles and Patriots match up against each other, and who has the ultimate edge?
Here's a complete breakdown of both sides in what has the makings of a classic Super Bowl.
When Eagles have the ball
Jay Ajayi, acquired at midseason in a trade with the Dolphins, has emerged as the Eagles' primary ball-carrier. He touched the ball on 21 of his 30 offensive snaps against the Vikings in the NFC championship game, totaling 99 yards from scrimmage.
The Eagles were the NFL's No. 3 rushing offense in the regular season, averaging 4.5 yards per carry and 132.2 yards per game. The Patriots had the No. 20 rushing defense, giving up an average of 4.7 yards per carry and 114.8 yards per game.
Philadelphia's league-best offensive line has center Jason Kelce, right guard Brandon Brooks and right tackle Lane Johnson as dominant forces. It should come out committed to pounding Ajayi between the tackles and around Johnson.
LeGarrette Blount has seen a dwindling role but is key in spelling Ajayi and finishing drives in the red zone. New England contained Ajayi when he was with Miami, and the Pats are more familiar with Blount's deliberate running style from his days with them.
The challenge is stopping the run without needing to commit extra defenders, because unlike the Titans and the Jaguars, the Eagles have a potent, deep and versatile downfield passing game. The Eagles are better off going three wide to limit the Patriots to two linebackers, spreading the field to create more creases for Ajayi.
He has played at a high level of late, and he should have success with some chunk runs in the Super Bowl.
The Eagles found everybody and anybody streaking downfield with Foles operating like a passer possessed against the Vikings. They'll face a secondary that, on paper, almost just as strong.
No. 1 wide receiver Alshon Jeffery can line up and be effective on both sides. The Eagles need to try to get him matched up with Malcolm Butler, as Jeffery has the size, speed and hands to consistently win that battle, while's he bound to have more struggles against the Patriots' bigger top corner, his former South Carolina teammate Stephon Gilmore.
As the Patriots trust Gillmore and Butler to contain Jeffery with some safety help over the top, the focus will likely be on trying to take away Foles' security blanket on intermediate routes, tight end Zach Ertz. They can do that by mixing up coverage looks on him with the occasional double-team.
Torrey Smith won't scare the Patriots much on the outside, but they need to be more diligent in the middle of the field, where they've been burned on crossing routes. Part of that issue is tied to having a shaky slot cornerback.
The Eagles need to make throwing the ball to backs on screens and swing routes a big part of the passing game plan with Foles. Both Ajayi and rookie Corey Clement can be dangerous in the open field the way the Jaguars' T.J. Yeldon and Corey Grant were in the AFC championship game.
Eagles' best matchup
WR Nelson Agholor vs. Patriots CB Eric Rowe: Rowe is the weak link in the Patriots' secondary as their nickel back between Gilmore and Butler. Agholor has feasted on opponents who can't keep up with his speed and quickness to make big plays before and after the catch.
A former Eagle, Rowe (6-1, 205 pounds) has good size to stick with Agholor (6-0, 198 pounds), but he loses the competition in the other areas. With the Patriots locking in on Ertz, coach Doug Pederson needs to make sure Foles makes Agholor a busy target.
Eagles' worst matchup
LT Halapoulivaati Vaitai and LG Stefen Wisniewski vs. Patriots DE/DT Trey Flowers: Flowers was terrific against the Falcons in Super Bowl 51, helping the Patriots rally with 2 1/2 sacks of Matt Ryan. In this year's AFC playoffs, he had a sack of the Titans' Marcus Mariota and nine tackles against the Jaguars.
With Johnson and Brooks anchoring the right side, Flowers should work away from them, on either Vaitai or Wisniewski, as the Patriots can sometimes slide him inside to try to get to Foles. The Eagles were able to contain the Vikings' Everson Griffen, and they need to work hard to keep Flowers out of Foles' face.
Eagles' offensive X-factor
RB Corey Clement: The undrafted rookie has been throwing a change of pace at teams all season trying his best to fill in for Sproles. He got more snaps than Blount against the Vikings as a tricky young dual threat.
Clement is a better No. 3 than Grant because he can power run if needed. In the red zone, he adds the receiving element that Blount doesn't have when Ajayi is out of the game.
Patriots' defensive X-factor
SS Patrick Chung: Chung turned in another solid season with Belichick calling him one of the best safeties in the game. That said, Chung struggled a bit against the Jaguars, forced to play more like a linebacker. He's better when he can roam from his natural position to complement the corner-like skills of free safety Devin McCourty.
Chung must be a big factor in slowing down Ertz, his toughest coverage draw of the season. Another game like the Jacksonville matchup, and he'll be snuffed out as a bigger liability against Philadelphia.
When Patriots have the ball
New England was set up to have a four-man committee, but because of injuries and ineffectiveness from others, Dion Lewis emerged as the rare Patriots workhorse down the stretch, averaging more than 25 touches over the past four games, including playoffs. He managed only 66 yards on 16 touches against the tough Jaguars defense, but he still had the energy to put the game away with an 18-yard burst at the end.
Lewis has been outstanding as quick, hole-hitting option inside to add to his ability to turn the corner as an elusive, smaller runner at 5-8, 195 pounds. He'll get most of the snaps against his former team as James White plays mostly on third downs and Rex Burkhead serves as the top swing backup.
It is difficult to run on the Eagles, especially to the strongside of their front on early downs against tackle Fletcher Cox, end Brandon Graham and linebacker Mychal Kendricks. The Patriots are better off trying to get Lewis going to the left behind tackle Nate Solder and guard Joe Thuney to go after the Eagles' weakest run defender, Nigel Bradham. The Patriots will also need to use fullback James Develin to pave the way to effectiveness.
The Patriots won't love how limited they will be in the passing game if Develin and second tight end Dwayne Allen need to be in there more for a limited degree of rushing success. They're more likely to put the ball in Brady's hands more often and get the ball to their backs through the air.
Brady averaged 47 pass attempts per playoff game last year. This year, he's averaged more than 45. The Patriots are comfortable with him dropping back that many times again, as the Eagles, even with their strong front four, were tied for only 15th in sacks this season.
Brady's go-to guy so far in the playoffs, slot wide receiver Danny Amendola, draws a tough matchup with nickel back Patrick Robinson, who had a pick-six against the Vikings. Chris Hogan has seen his targets dwindle, and it won't get any easier against Ronald Darby or Jalen MIlls. It sets up another busy game for No. 1 Brandin Cooks, who had 6 catches for 100 yards against the Jaguars' tough duo of A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey, with big pass interference penalties to boot. Cooks is built to do more damage on shorter routes against the Eagles instead of deep shots.
Brady should look more to stretch the field with tight end Rob Gronkowski, who should be cleared from concussion protocol by game day. The Eagles have allowed some of the best athletic pass-catchers at the position to get vertical on them for big days. In the same vein, they can struggle to cover quick backs such as Lewis and White — see the Falcons' Telvin Coleman the Vikings' Jerick McKinnon in the NFC playoffs.
The Eagles need to somehow get consistent pressure on Brady by rushing only four, or he can sit back and pick them apart on every level. There are a lot more consistently exploitable matchups in coverage for him than there were in the Jaguars game.
Patriots' best matchup
TE Rob Gronkowski vs. Eagles S Malcolm Jenkins (or anyone else): Jenkins is a solid cover man and will do his best to use his 6-0, 204-pound frame to stay with the 6-6, 265-pound Gronkowski. But Gronk is still open when covered. He'll be a handful for Kendricks (6-0, 240 pounds), as well.
Philadelphia, like most New England opponents, isn't equipped to stop Gronk. They need to focus more on containing him so he doesn't rumble for multiple 30-yard-plus chunk plays.
Patriots' worst matchup
RT Cameron Fleming vs. Eagles DEs Brandon Graham and Chris Long: Fleming should remain the replacement starter for Marcus Cannon over banged-up LaAdrian Waddle after his solid performance against the Jaguars. Fleming will face both Graham on early downs and Long in pass-rushing situations.
Graham and Long offer their own set of challenges with their array of moves. It's an edge Philadelphia must exploit in order to get to Brady a few times.
Patriots' offensive X-factor
RB James White: He was the Robin to Batman (Brady) in Super Bowl 51, as the Falcons had no answers for White slipping out of the backfield in the second half and overtime. White hasn't had a great season since, as Lewis has been the much better overall option for the Patriots.
But White still had 7 catches for 51 yards and a TD in the AFC playoffs, and he scored a rushing TD in each game. In a matchup made for him and Lewis, it won't take many touches for White to have an impact.
Eagles' defensive X-factor
DE Derek Barnett: Barnett beat the left side of the Vikings' line for a critical strip-sack of Case Keenum in the red zone last week. The first-round rookie from Tennessee will get about as many snaps as Long in the Super Bowl, as the Eagles will try to stay fresh up front to go after Brady.
Solder has been vulnerable in pass protection, and Barnett has a better chance to beat him than starter Vinny Curry does.
The punting games are a wash with the Eagles' Donnie Jones and the Patriots' Ryan Allen. Although Jake Elliott has made some clutch kicks replacing Caleb Strugis for Philadelphia, he's still a rookie vs. well-seasoned counterpart Stephen Gostowski.
They're both pretty solid on kickoffs, but the Patriots with Lewis have the most dynamic return man in Super Bowl 52. Weather is not a factor, so it comes down to experience. Advantage: Patriots.
Pederson has been terrific in Year 2 with his new team, and if it weren't for the Rams' Sean McVay, he would be the NFL's coach of the year. Frank Reich and John DeFilippo have provided good offensive support, and Jim Schwartz has done an equally good job with the defensive front.
But the Patriots have Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia together for one last time, and they've been together much longer. Advantage: Patriots.
The Patriots are going for their sixth Super Bowl ring and have plenty of guys who have gone through winning a championships. Two of them now play for the Eagles, Blount and Long. The Eagles embraced their underdog status in the NFC playoffs, and the disrespect card will be played in their favor again.
Philadelphia has been the best NFL team from wire to wire in 2017. Its players and coaches will be eager to prove it. Advantage: Eagles.
Vinnie Iver, Sporting News