BLOOMINGTON, MN – Sometimes individual matchups are made up of more than just one-on-one showdowns but rather consist of one team's concept going head-to-head with another. Sunday could feature one such instance at U.S. Bank Stadium depending on how the Patriots choose to attack the Philadelphia secondary.
One of the more underrated elements of the Patriots passing attack this season has been Brandin Cooks' ability to draw penalty flags. In addition to the 1,082 receiving yards he piled up during the season, Cooks also was responsible for 141 yards from pass interference penalties. That was a huge part of the Patriots comeback in their AFC title game win over Jacksonville as the wideout picked up two more flags for 68 yards.
The Eagles secondary, featuring cornerbacks Ronald Darby, Patrick Robinson and Jalen Mills, has been susceptible to the deep ball at times this season, and penalties have been a problem. While that trio has combined for 10 interceptions this season (and Darby missed more than half the season with an ankle injury), teams have occasionally gotten them with deep balls.
Cooks is obviously the Patriots weapon of choice in this department.
"We always want to go into every game wanting to do things in every area of the field," wide receiver Chad O'Shea said. "Whether it's our short passing or intermediate or down the field. Certainly Brandin factors a lot into that. When you throw the ball down the field there are some good things that can happen. You can get a completion, you can get a pass interference call, which we've had a lot of, and Tom's had some success with Brandin doing that this year.
"We've always looked at when he's able to draw those penalties down the field as it's a completion. He's done a great job of generating those plays. It's something we work really hard on and he's certainly not disappointed us in this area. Whenever he can draw a penalty or we can get a completion those are big gains for us and it's very beneficial to the offense."
If the Patriots are able to get Cooks matched up against Mills specifically that could be the ideal situation. Mills committed nine penalties this season – four for pass interference and five for holding.
"It's just all part of the game. I don't really pay attention to [flags]," Cooks said. "Things happen so fast it's not like you go out there and purposely try and do that. I'm more focused on trying to make the catch and tracking the football. You can't worry about flags or anything else."
Cooks averaged 16.6 yards per catch this season and is coming off arguably his best game as a Patriot against the Jags when he caught six balls for 100 yards in addition to the two huge penalties he drew.
"What he's done for our team in his first year is really incredible," Tom Brady said. "I haven't seen it very much from anybody [in their first season in the Patriots system] to come in and make the kind of contribution that he's made in his first year. He does it in his own style too. He's not trying to mimic anybody. It's just him."
It will be interesting to see if Cooks can build off his solid effort against Jacksonville after finishing the season a bit slow. In the last seven games including the playoffs Cooks had three or fewer catches in four of them and he failed to reach 80 yards in six of them.
Cooks' resurgence against the Jags bodes well because Brady will definitely take some shots downfield. His ability to make a play – or draw a flag – could be vital to the game's outcome.