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Feb. 2, 2005

Super Bowl Prediction

by Pratik Bhandari, Page Editor
And so we come to it at last. The Super Bowl. The great spectacle that has become, undoubtedly, one of the great events of the year. Most likely, over 40 million people will see the Philadelphia Eagles take on the New England Patriots February 6 at AllTel Stadium. So, let's get to it.

Patriots Passing Attack vs. Eagles Secondary:
Any talk of the Patriots passing attack must begin with the man who gets the ball in his hands every play. Tom Brady, a sixth round draft pick out of Michigan, is a real life Cinderella Story. After playing sparingly his rookie season, Brady has gone on to become a two-time Super Bowl MVP as well as accumulating an 8-0 record in the playoffs. Most people agree that he is just about the best clutch quarterback in the NFL.

The Patriots flaunted their offensive prowess against the Steelers in the AFC Conference Championship, lighting them up for 41 points, the most allowed the whole season by Pittsburgh. Most people thought that the Halloween game where the Steelers beat the Patriots was an anomaly because the Patriots didn't have Corey Dillon. The game was an anomaly, but more importantly, the Patriots also did not have their outstanding wide receiver Deion Branch that day. In the AFC Conference Championship, Branch had 116 receiving yards and one touchdown to go along with another 37 yards and a score on the ground. The Steelers were the number one defense in the league during the regular season, mostly because nobody could handle the pressure that was generated by their very aggressive defense. However, the Patriots had an offensive line capable of handling the rush and exposing the weakest part of Pittsburgh's defense: their secondary. Now ordinarily, Chris Hope, Troy Polamalu, Deshea Townsend and Willie Williams are a pretty good bunch, but not when you have to cover someone with the speed of a Deion Branch or David Givens. The Eagles, however, with a secondary that has three out of four players going to the Pro Bowl, are much better suited to the task. I have no doubt in my mind that if necessary, Sheldon Brown, Brian Dawkins, Michael Lewis and Lito Sheppard can cover Branch, Givens, David Graham, David Patten and even Kevin Faulk out of the backfield (who was ridiculously effective against the Steelers). With this obvious advantage in the secondary, the Eagles will be free to use their front seven to not only bottle up the running game, but also to try and put some pressure on Brady and force him to make bad throws.

Patriots Running Attack vs. Eagles Front Seven:
Corey Dillon is a beast. I mean, he is one of the best contact runners in the game with a rare mix of both size and speed that allow him to push the pile for another two or three yards or to bounce it outside for a big gainer. The only thing that he can't do is to catch the ball. Even this season, he only had 15 catches for 103 yards. Some good receiving backs, like Brian Westbrook of the Eagles, can put those kinds of numbers up in a single game. However, the Eagles are one of the few teams that can take on the Patriots wonderful offensive line and shut it down. The left side of the Patriots offensive line, in particular, is very good with Matt Light at left tackle and Joe Andruzzi at left guard. The right side of the Eagles defensive line (which is the side that faces the left side of the offensive line) isn't their strongest what with Derrick Burgess at right end, but the Eagles can always shift Jevon Kearse over to left end and with their deep lineup of defensive linemen, they can constantly rotate them in and out to keep the front line pursuit fresh. The Eagles linebacking corps was in a bit of turmoil early on in the season with Mark Simoneau starting over Jeremiah Trotter at middle linebacker, but Trotter is in the starting role now, giving some much needed experience and patience to the fast, young outside linebackers Keith Adams and Dhani Jones. With the Eagles defensive line tying up the Patriots offensive line, and the linebackers providing run/short pass support, Philadelphia has a chance of containing the Patriots running game.

Eagles Passing Attack vs. Patriots Secondary:
The Patriots have had a dominant secondary most of the year, even with injuries to key players like Ty Law and Tyrone Pool. Most teams, after losing players of their caliber, would be forced to play more and more zone defense to cover up the liabilities of the new players. Not so with the Patriots, however, as Troy Brown (the Patriots very own "Jack of all Trades") Randall Gay, Asante Samuel and Eugene Wilson have done a masterful job with their coverages, often making plays that could be considered better than those that either Law or Poole could have made. With that being said though, I still believe that the secondary is the weakest part of the Patriots defense and that it should be the number one choice of where to attack. Obviously they have great talent in the secondary what with Rodney Harrison and all, but I think that this particular part of their defense is more susceptible than the others because all of these players do not have the same level of comfort that comes from hundreds of games in the same system or with the same people as both the linebacking corps and the defensive line do.

Let's not forget that Donovan McNabb is a bona fide star in his own right and that, with a little support from the players around him, he can lead his team to victory. In the NFC Championship game against the Atlanta Falcons, McNabb, without one of his most potent offensive weapons in Terrell Owens, proved that he was a star by making the players around him better. He made Freddie Mitchell look as if he was an All-Pro receiver, but most importantly, he found a way to win and prove that he could get things done in big games. After reaching the NFC Conference Championships the last three years but failing to go on to the Super Bowl, Andy Reid, Donovan McNabb and the rest of the Eagles got there once more this year and finally won.

There has been a lot of talk over the past week about Terrell Owens and whether or not he should play or even if he can play in the Super Bowl. My take on the situation is that if he is healthy enough to make the Eagles passing attack better, there is no reason for him to be kept out of the Eagle's roster. Let's face it; whether or not you personally approve of his touchdown celebrations or his on and off the field antics, he is flat out one of the best receivers in the NFL. There are very few people with his rare combination of size, speed, hands and passion, and when he is on a roll, he can put up a load of points in a hurry. Furthermore, the secondary effects (pun intended) of having him on the field are innumerable. The defense may have to roll a safety towards him, freeing up the other receivers. Or the defense, being too preoccupied with how to stop T.O., will get burned by someone else.

But for argument's sake, I'll assume that he won't play or that if he does he will have a minimal impact on the game because he won't be in perfect health. The Eagles can still get away with having their second and third string receivers and attacking the Patriots. The key lies in Brian Westbrook. He might as well be considered a receiver who occasionally runs, what with his 73 receptions. In fact, he has 812 rushing yards compared to 703 receiving yards! Westbrook, when matched up against either a linebacker or a safety, presents problems for the Patriots. Primarily, he is incredibly fast and I have no trouble seeing him burn anyone of the Patriots linebackers or maybe even the safeties a couple of times. Then, after he catches the ball, not only does he have the speed to outrun anyone on the field to the house, but also the power to muscle through the secondary, if need be. Ultimately, the Eagles may find that it is Westbrook's receiving abilities that will be more valuable to them than his rushing abilities.

Westbrook, being a focal point of the Eagles offense, should be a main priority for the Patriots defense as well. But if they spend too much time worrying about him, Freddie Mitchell and Todd Pinkston will burn them. Todd Pinkston is a first round draft pick that hasn't lived up to expectations, but it doesn't matter now. He is tall and lean at 6'3", 180 lbs., but that's okay because he mainly goes on deep routes near the sidelines where either he gets the ball or no one does. Freddie Mitchell, on the other hand, is more of a bruiser at 6'0", 195 lbs. He isn't scared to take it across the middle and get laid out by a linebacker. His biggest claim to fame is as the recipient of the infamous 4th and 26 at Lambeau that kept the drive alive for the Eagles, and that epitomizes who he is. He is a role player that will step up in the clutch and produce. He doesn't have the blazing fast speed of say…a Deion Branch, but he runs clean, precise routes and catches the ball when it comes to him, which is more than you can say about Pinkston.

Mitchell did provoke New England safety Rodney Harrison, which probably isn't a smart thing to do, by insinuating that he has something for him and by saying that he can't identify the New England secondary by name, only by number. Harrison fired back by saying, "That's pretty funny coming from a guy who doesn't even start unless someone goes down."

Ultimately, the Eagles will have to rely a lot on Mitchell and Westbrook to move the ball, with L.J. Smith, the Eagles tight end, playing a role as the dump off receiver in preparation for the blitz and with Todd Pinkston catching the occasional ball as the deep threat. If the Eagles don't get too far behind early and have a good mix of run and pass, then they can move the ball against the Patriots, although it will be tough for Andy Reid to outfox Bill Belichick.

Eagles Rushing Attack vs. Patriots Front Seven:
The Patriots front seven is one of the most dominant that's come by the NFL in a while. Their stats may not show it, but nobody on offense wants to face these guys. The problem for the offense is that the Patriots three down linemen and four linebackers have been so thoroughly trained in Belichick's system that they are almost instinctual in their movements. Against the Colts they diagnosed just about every single one of the offenses plays with an accuracy and speed that bordered on psychic. Not only that, but they executed those plays so perfectly that they simply made the Colts offense look like they were purposely throwing the game or something. The perfect illustration of what I'm talking about came on the one play where Tedy Bruschi diagnosed that Dominic Rhodes was angling out into the flat for a pass. Bruschi trailed the play the whole time, waited until Rhodes got the ball and then simply took it away from him. And to prove that they can stop the run, not only did they basically shut down both Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis, but they also held Edgerrin James who was having something of a career year, to 39 yards. I conclude that Westbrook doesn't have a chance against this defense, at least not rushing anyways. The best thing for Reid to do is to use the run to keep the Patriots honest and ensure that McNabb gets some time when he drops back to pass.

Special Teams:
David Akers may be a good kicker, but he is no Adam Vinatieri. By any stretch of the imagination, the advantage has to go to the Patriots here. Vinatieri is the most clutch kicker in the history of football. I have no doubt in my mind that he will become the second kicker inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Prediction:
So with all of that longwinded analysis behind us, let me proceed to predict that the (insert drumroll here) Philadelphia Eagles will be the champions of Super Bowl XXXIX, 31-28.



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