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Pats survive, Eagles coast to Super Bowl LII

BY SIMON BRADY

This NFL season has been filled with unique storylines both on and off the field, such as this year’s MVP race. Through Week 14 it was a two-horse race between the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles quarterbacks Tom Brady and Carson Wentz. The teams of the two leading candidates for the MVP will be represented in this year’s Super Bowl in Minneapolis, but not in the way anyone could have possibly foreseen.

The second year quarterback Wentz was running away with the MVP late in the season. He compiled 3,296 passing yards, 33 touchdowns and just seven interceptions, carving up NFL defenses week in and week out. Then in a high scoring road game against the Los Angeles Rams, Wentz suffered an ACL tear while diving for the goal line late in the game. Backup quarterback Nick Foles would have to take command of the Eagles offense.

Many wrote the Eagles off for reaching the Super Bowl with Foles replacing Wentz, as he can’t extend and make big plays the same way Wentz can. But with a pro bowl season under his belt in which he threw 27 touchdowns to just two interceptions, Foles and his teammates believed he could step in and get the job done.

On the other hand, the Patriots were trying to reach their eighth Super Bowl in the last sixteen years on Sunday. Behind head coach Bill Belichick and Brady, this is business as usual for New England. Minneapolis is the site for what will be an exciting Super Bowl LII. The fashion in which the two teams got there is extremely different.

AFC Championship: Patriots Defeat Jaguars 24-20

The first game of Championship Sunday featured an ultimate David vs. Goliath matchup in terms of experience. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick coached his 38th career playoff game on Sunday, holding the record for most all time. In addition, it was Brady’s 36th career playoff game and 12th AFC championship game.

On the other sideline, Jacksonville’s starting quarterback Blake Bortles and first year head coach Doug Marrone had never made the playoffs until this season. The huge discrepancy in experience paid off for New England, as they overcame a slow start and outplayed the Jags on both sides of the ball in the second half.

In the first half, Jacksonville leaned on a solid run game, spearheaded by rookie sensation Leonard Fournette and their astounding defense which has All-Pro players at all three levels to take an early lead.

The Patriots’ offense could only muster one touchdown drive in the first half, and it was highlighted by huge penalties on Jacksonville. Jags’ Safety Barry Church was called for targeting Patriots’ star tight end Rob Gronkowski. Later on, All-Pro cornerback and critical offseason signee AJ Bouye had a pass interference on Patriots speedy receiver Brandin Cooks.

The Pats capitalized on the Jacksonville penalties and running back James White powered his way into the end zone from one yard out for a touchdown. The Patriots stole the momentum as they headed into the locker room with a mere four-point deficit. This crucial touchdown drive toward the end of the half came at a price for New England, as Gronkowski would not return to action as he suffered a concussion on the Church hit.

The second half was night and day for defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and his unit. In the first half New England was unable to generate a consistent pass rush or stop the Jags passing game, particularly on critical third downs. The Pats defense gave up just 3 points to Jacksonville in the second half, containing Fournette and making Bortles uncomfortable operating in the pocket.

On the flip side, Brady and the New England offense finally got it going in the fourth quarter. This is routine for Brady, as Sunday was his 54th comeback victory and his 11th in the postseason.

In the beginning of the fourth, Brady conducted an eight-play, 85 yard touchdown drive over 3:19 of gametime. The most important play of the series came on a third and 18, as Brady connected with receiver Danny Amendola in the middle of the field for 21 yards.

Amendola had a huge day for New England, coming up with big plays all day long compensating for Gronkowski’s absence. A few drives later, as the game was coming to a close and the Pats had one last shot to claim the lead, Amendola came up clutch yet again. This time he’d do it on special teams, sparking the Patriots’ game winning drive by returning Jacksonville’s punt 20 yards to the Jacksonville 30 yard line.

Brady now had a short field to work with plenty of time on the game clock. After four plays, the Pats grinded their way to the 4-yard line, needing one more well-executed play to take their first lead of the game since the first quarter when they led 3-0.

Once again, Amendola would be the guy Brady trusted late to deliver the goods. On the second and goal Brady found Amendola in the back of the endzone for a touchdown with just under three minutes to go. New England took control of the game once again, leading 24-20, and would never look back.

After forcing Jacksonville to punt and picking up one more first down to run out the clock, the Patriots would seal a dramatic victory and punch their ticket to Super Bowl LII.

For Belichick and Brady, this will be the tandem’s eighth career Super Bowl appearance, and the legendary coach and quarterback combination will try to add to their legacy by winning a sixth Super Bowl.

NFC Championship: Eagles Defeat Vikings 38-7     

Unfortunately for NFL fans outside of the city of Philadelphia, the nightcap of Championship Sunday was was not nearly as dramatic as the AFC championship, and completely lopsided.

The mantra for this Eagles team has been defying all of the doubt that has come their way during this playoff run. For the first time in NFL history, a one seed would play as the underdog in the Eagles divisional round game when they defeated the Atlanta Falcons 15-10.

Despite coming out victorious against the defending NFC Champs and red-hot Falcons, the Eagles were underdogs for a second straight week against Minnesota. With the less talented quarterback in Nick Foles taking over for the injured Wentz, oddsmakers felt the Eagles would be going home early. The Eagles overcame all of the doubt and throttled the Minnesota Vikings 38-7, who ironically were starting a once backup quarterback themselves in Case Keenum.

Similarly to Philadelphia, the Vikings have relied on smart coaching and a sound defense that has great talent at all three levels to help them each win 13 games this year. The difference in this game was the play of the two former backup quarterbacks, as Foles shut all of the critics up as he tore up a vaunted Minnesota secondary. Foles finished with an incredible 141.4 passer rating on the day, completing 26 of 33 passes for 352 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions. His counterpart, Keenum, did not play nearly as clean of a game. He threw two interceptions and completed just 58 percent of his passes.

One of his turnovers was the critical turning point of the game, a “Pick 6” to Eagles cornerback Patrick Robinson, who returned it 50 yards for the first Philadelphia touchdown on the day.

This score for the Eagles was the beginning of 38 unanswered points following a Vikings touchdown and the only score for them on their opening drive. Eagles wide receiver and key offseason signee on the offensive side, Alshon Jeffery, had a huge part in the Eagles blowout win Sunday, catching five passes for 85 yards, including two touchdowns.

Philadelphia will now play in its third Super Bowl in their franchise history. The Eagles lost Super Bowl XV in 1981 to the Oakland Raiders, and lost Super Bowl XXXIX  to the New England Patriots.

Twelve years later, the Eagles will try to win their first Super Bowl in franchise history against Belichick and Brady, who have remained with New England when they defeated Philadelphia the first time around.

Simon Brady can be reached at simon.brady@theminaretonline.com

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