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Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by CarMax: Eagles fly or fall with Foles

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BLOOMINGTON, Minn. - Super Bowl Sunday is almost here.

Whatever slogan you’ve preferred in the run up to LII, it’s finally about to come to fruition.

The Blitz for Six. #NotDone. Mission Minnesota.

Are all will come to a head Sunday evening at U.S. Bank Stadium as the Patriots and Eagles prepare for a Twin Cities Super Bowl rematch 13 years in the making, a sequel to New England’s 24-21 win over Philadelphia in Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville

It’s Tom Brady’s No. 1 offense vs. Fletcher Cox and his defense that’s No. 4 in both points and yards allowed.

That’s the marquee matchup, but there is also the complementary battle between Philly backup Nick Foles’ offense and a Patriots defense that’s underrated given its No. 5 spot in points allowed.

The matchups are a many, including Bill Belichick leading his team into the big game for the eighth time while newcomer Doug Pederson has the Eagles vying for a Lombardi Trophy in just his second season as a head coach.

“They’re pretty good at everything,” Belichick said in the final practice pool report of the week. “Just the volume of it all. It’s not like one thing you have to stop because there’s 10 things you have to stop. So everybody is going to have to do a good job. You can’t just rely on one guy or thing.”

Trying to defend its title and win a third title in four years – and double-up on both feats against Philly for the second time in less than 15 years -- New England obviously has experience on its side.

The Eagles have been rallying around Foles and the underdog status the team acquired when second-year MVP QB candidate Carson Wentz was lost to a late-season torn ACL, personified by the dog masks fans and players alike have been wearing this postseason.

It’s the Super Bowl. It’s the biggest game in all of sports. Its result will make history, either extending the ridiculous run of success for the Patriots dynasty or stamp Foles among the great underdog, comeback stories in sports.

“You gotta bring it,” Brady said of the big game that less than two days away, crazily heading into his eighth Super Bowl in 16 seasons as a healthy starter. “You gotta match energies. There is a different intensity in this game. Some of the hardest hits I’ve seen came in this game.”

“I think they’ve been focused, no question,” Belichick said of his players in the pool report. “I think we’ll be ready to go and we’ll go out there and do the best we can.”

“I’ll be fired up Sunday. I know that. I don’t think emotion will be a problem in this game,” Brady concluded. “I understand what we need to do, hopefully we can go out and do it.”

As the final hours count down until Super Bowl LII, here are some potential keys to the latest edition of the biggest game in all of sports.

RPO! – RPO was the acronym of the week in Minneapolis. It’s the term for the run-pass options that the Eagles use so effectively under Foles. At the line he has the option of a run or a pass. Defenders explain the best way to diagnose a true RPO is to watch to see if the offensive line gives mixed signals with one side showing pass protection and the other a run-blocking look. Sometimes the team is given credit for an RPO on what’s a traditional play-action pass or audible. According to Pro Football Focus the Eagles have 93-percent completions on RPOs this postseason. Some of it is myth. Some of it puts a decent amount of stress on New England’s linebackers and safeties. RPOs will be a part of Super Bowl Sunday. How much? We’ll see.

Foles flying high – Foles may be a backup who pondered retirement just a few years ago, but he’s put up big numbers this postseason to get Philly to the cusp of a title. He’s playing more like the guy who threw 27 touchdowns compared to just two picks in 2013 than the guy who was floundering a couple years later. In two playoff games he’s thrown three touchdowns and no interceptions, has completed 78 percent of his passes and owns a rating of 122.1. If he continues to play that way, he’ll have the Eagles fighting. When he’s at his best he’s making quick reads and throws. The Patriots may try to play coverage and make Foles go through his progressions, which may not play out the way he wants it to. Regardless, Foles and the Eagles offense will have to find a way to score points against Brady and Co.

Peak protection – The Eagles have an impressive front four, led by the Pro Bowler Cox. The interior force is more disruptive than his 5.5 regular-season sacks might indicate. But the real strength of the front is the depth. Coordinator Jim Schwartz rotates a handful of guys through to stay fresh, though the rotation has been tightened up a bit in the postseason. Brandon Graham led the team with 9.5 sacks during the regular season. The group also keys the NFL’s No. 1 rush defense, which could push the Patriots into a more pass-first game plan. Either way, New England’s offensive line will be in the spotlight on Sunday, as it’s been in past Super Bowls. It will be particularly notable how center David Andrews and his guards deal with Cox. If the line is up to the challenge, it will be a very good first step for Brady and his skill players’ quest to put up points. If the Eagles control the LOS, especially early, it could be alarming as the classic recipe to upset Brady and Co.

Third down/red zone – Whichever offense stays on the field and maximizes its scoring chances will be in very good shape. The Eagles defense is tremendous at forcing three-and-outs, more than 40 percent, as the No. 3 third down defense in football. The Eagles offense converted 71 percent of its third downs in the NFC title game against a vaunted Vikings defense that was historically good on the money down. The teams have two of the best red zone offenses in the league (Patriots No. 1/Eagles No. 5) while New England (No. 4) as the better red zone D with the Eagles in the middle of the pack at No. 20. Beyond points and turnovers – the Eagles tied for fourth in the NFL with 31 takeaways this season – third down and the red zone are major indicators on the way to victory.

Gronkowski’s big day – Rob Gronkowski was cleared from the NFL concussion protocol and declared himself “ready to roll” against the Eagles. His status as one of the most unique matchup problems in the game likely ate up lots of Schwartz’ time this week. Veteran safety Malcolm Jenkins and Co. will be intent on taking away New England’s biggest weapon, but that’s easier said than done. Gronkowski sounded like a caged animal looking to get free when he met with the media late this week. He’s a star playmaker who comes up big in big games. There is no bigger spot than Sunday evening. As far as non-QB MVP candidates go, Gronkowski might be a good bet.

Get backs to it – Certainly the Eagles have an impressive run defense. It wouldn’t seem overly likely that Belichick and Josh McDaniels will be looking to run the ball to victory. Rather, Dion Lewis, James White and Rex Burkhead could be passing options against a Philly defense that’s had its issues with backs catching the ball this season. White was a record-setting hero in this game a year ago for New England. He and Lewis, after finding the going a bit tough against the Jags speed defense in the AFC title game, could be effective options for Brady to get rid of the ball quickly and productively against the talented Eagles pass rush.

Super start – Everyone knows by now that the Patriots have not scored a point in the first quarter of the team’s past seven Super Bowl trips with Belichick and Brady. That was certainly not by design and the team would love to end that quirky streak against Philly. The Eagles played from ahead most of this season. New England getting an early lead would put some obvious pressure on Foles in the biggest, most stressful game of his career. We know that Brady can come back to win – look no further than the AFC title game for the most recent example or to last year’s Super Bowl for the most incredible one – but there may not be as much confidence and composure on the Eagles sideline. Coming out with an aggressive game plan to spread out the Eagles and maybe add some tempo to try to get the Eagles defense on its heels on the way to an early score might just be an ideal start to another Super day.

Prediction: There are so many signs to indicate that the Patriots are the favorite in this historic battle. Belichick and Brady bring a massive advantage in terms of experience and confidence. Pederson and Schwartz may be up to the challenge of in-game adjustments, but they still must prove it. Brady has massive advantage over Foles, entering the Super Bowl as hot as he’s been in any postseason. Both teams have a deep crop of offensive weapons, but New England’s is better overall with Gronkowski, Brandin Cooks (who could get down the field against suspect corners), a hot Danny Amendola, Lewis and the rest. As good as the Eagles defense is, it’s hard to imagine them shutting down Brady or even keeping the score down. Their personnel is certainly no better, overall, than Jacksonville’s two weeks ago. It’s almost equally as hard to imagine Foles keeping up with Brady on the scoreboard against a New England defense that believes it’s underrated and ready to play some of its best football of the year. It says here that the Patriots score first in the first quarter and build an early lead of 10-14 points to control the game out of the gates. It says here that Foles isn’t ready to lead the comeback on the biggest stage in sports. It says here that New England collects its record-tying sixth Lombardi Trophy with a businesslike 27-17 victory that doesn’t go down to the wire like past Super Bowl trips but is just as enjoyable for Patriot Nation nonetheless.

What do you think about our keys and prediction? Let us know with a comment below!

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