Don’t underrate the Eagles’ defense. But here are two observations on each side of the ball that give the Patriots an edge:
1. On defense, Belichick takes away the other team’s strength, and force them to find other ways to move the ball. The Eagles’ strengths are its running game and TE Zach Ertz. And the Patriots have been relying on a defensive scheme all year designed to take on tight ends: the “Big Nickel,” 5 defensive backs, but instead of a standard 3 cornerbacks and 2 safeties, the Pats make it a “big” Nickel with 3 safeties. Safeties are better at covering tight ends and stopping a running game than smaller cornerbacks. Devin McCourty will play deep, but Duron Harmon and Patrick Chung will combine to cover Ertz and play closer to the line. At the same time, the Pats will also rely on its base 4-3 defense and will rotate linebackers depending on the situation. Van Noy is healthy and will play in most situations. Elandon Roberts is better against the run, Marquis Flowers can cover running backs and a second tight end, and Harrison is an extra pass rusher. So I imagine the Pats will rely on Roberts more to limit the run and challenge Foles to pass. That will force the Eagles into 3d and long, and then they’ll shift to nickel with two linebackers rotating from Harrison, Marquis Flowers, and Van Noy. This flexibility should limit the Eagles’ strengths, and force Foles to carry the team. The Pats’ secondary is unlikely to have the same breakdowns on extended plays and deep throws that Foles used to burn the Vikings. I don’t think Foles will be terrible, but I think his great game against the Vikings was an outlier.
2. The Eagles defense is excellent, but they were far better at home than on the road, more than the splits one usually sees. Home field helped them upset the Falcons and Vikings. How will a neutral field affect them? They also are weak against running backs in the passing game, a particular strength of Brady, with Janes White, Dion Lewis, and Rex Burkhead as excellent receiving backs. If the Eagles try to take away Gronk, Brady will find Amendola and the backs. I also can see the Pats keeping three TEs active (with Allen and Hollister) and playing two TEs more today than usual, to establish the run and take advantage of the Eagles’ relative weakness at linebacker.
I predict Patriots 24, Eagles 20.