Tom E. Curran

Patriots-Eagles preview: Can Pats overcome Philly's supreme talent?

The Eagles are the defending NFC champs for a reason.

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I did not have a decorated football career at Silver Lake Regional High School. I hesitate to call it a career. The main reason it fell short, at least in my mind? Tiny bastard. I was 106 pounds as a freshman, 120 as a sophomore playing tight end in a wishbone offense.

One hot-as-a-mouth August day during football camp at Governor Dummer Academy, our coach, Bones Mason, had us do a drill. He simply called it, “Tougher Than Thou.”

(Hang with me. I’m getting to the point).

The premise? Fire out of your stance. Drive the kid across from you as far as you can. Do not get put on your ass.

That’s the essence of football.  And it hasn’t changed in the nearly 40 years since Bones shook his head about his tiny tight end’s performance in “Tougher Than Thou.” I knew every play. I was actually kind of elusive and a pretty good tackler. I dominated at “Kill The Guy” throughout elementary school. Didn’t really matter. Too small. Too weak. Not tough enough.  

Which brings us to now. Sunday afternoon, the Patriots – with their patchwork, what’s-your-name-again, cobbled together, still recuperating offensive line – line up to face the diabolical front-seven and pass rush of Philadelphia.

This feels like one of those games where we’ll look back 3.5 hours after kickoff and say, “What the hell did we think was gonna happen? The Patriots weren’t ready for that.”

There may be plenty of teams the Patriots are tougher than by December. But not Philly. Not now.

The Eagles have the best offensive line in football. Their quarterback has sequoias for legs and, as a result, has no fear at all about using all four downs to get the 10 yards necessary to move the chains. He was the MVP runner up. They have one of the top three wide receiver duos in football alongside the Dolphins and Bengals. Is there a more complete offense in football?

The Patriots have gotten non-stop offseason accolades for their defense. And it is stingy, opportunistic and hard to prepare for. But elite? More evidence is needed. Where? Specifically, on third down.

Last season, the Patriots finished 21st in the NFL in third-down defense (40.25 percent opponent conversion rate) and 22nd in red zone defense (opponent touchdowns on 58 percent of red zone visits). They were 27th in the league in goal-to-go percentage (touchdowns allowed 80 percent of the time).

That third down stat was aided by a combined 3-for-28 performance from the Sam Ehlinger Colts and Zach Wilson Jets in back-to-back weeks. As for the red zone, playoff-bound teams were 17-for-22 converting touchdowns when they got inside the 20. That’s a cool 77 percent. Which is absurd.

Eagles offensive coordinator Brian Johnson did the requisite genuflecting toward the Patriots sideline because of all Bill Belichick has accomplished, saying on Thursday: “We’re playing arguably the greatest coach of all time. They have a fantastic roster with great pieces, so it’ll definitely be a challenge and we’re looking forward to that challenge. I know our guys are excited to go out there and be ready to play.”

But he undoubtedly sees what we’ve seen. A generally sound defense with an excellent pass rush and great safety play that is often over its head when a team uncorks a bottle of supreme talent on them.

Philadelphia averaged 28 points per game last year then scored 38, 31 and 35 in the playoffs. You have to figure they’re getting to 24 points. At least.

How do the Patriots -- who averaged 21 points per game (18.1 offensively) last season -- get to 24 themselves? Against a diabolical Eagles front that rolled up 70 sacks and allowed 20 points per game while finishing first in the league in pass defense?

You run it through their sternum with Rhamondre Stevenson and Ezekiel Elliott. You use the speed of the pass rush against them with tear screens to Demario Douglas and Kendrick Bourne and middle screens and draws to MondrEkiel (RhamEkiel? … still workshopping … you may never see it again).

You hit the middle of their defense with slants and get the ball out of Mac Jones’ hands lickety-split with a Brady-like efficiency to frustrate that Eagles pass rush. You run an RPO or two and see how the possible Achilles of the Eagles defense -- the linebacker level -- responds.

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You let Bill O’Brien cook and cross your fingers that the man he succeeded -- current Eagles assistant Matt Patricia -- continues his coaching cold streak now that he’s with Philly. I bring up Patricia because the Eagles have been liberal in praising his impact so far.

Asked how much he’s leaned on Patricia, Eagles defensive coordinator Sean Desai said, “Heavily, just like we've relied on a lot of these coaches heavily to kind of come up with their plan. Matt’s got a lot of insight, especially in terms of the people there, the actual personal attributes and the guys we’re playing against, because some of those we haven't seen much off the pre-season tape. But he's been great. He has been a tremendous resource.

“He was vital in terms of giving us some intel on really all their players,” Desai continued. “He was there for a bunch of years and obviously last year on the offensive side of the ball.

"So, he's been great in terms of providing information on what he thinks they do well and where we can maybe take advantage of some matchups. [Patriots QB] Mac [Jones] is a tremendous player and he's been playing at high level for a long time through college and the NFL, so it'll be a good challenge for us.”

Great. Thanks, Matt.

If this were October and the Patriots' convalescing offensive line was more battle-tested, and if O’Brien and Jones had a little more of a game-day feel for each other, and if the other team wasn’t so damn talented, I might like the Patriots' chances of pulling an upset. Especially if the cement-headed situational and pre-snap mistakes are minimized this year.

But I don’t think O’Brien’s magic wand is going to be at full operating capacity yet. And the plain truth is that, on both sides of the ball, the Eagles are Tougher Than Thou. 

Prediction: EAGLES 27, Patriots 20

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