THE G.O.A.T. VS. THE DOG - Sports Illustrated Vault |
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A clash between a high-octane offense and a swarming defense will have a familiar result

Tom Brady has reached a level at which simply pressuring him is not enough. You must pressure him with only a four-man rush. Your other seven defenders are vital in coverage; blitzing even one of them can leave too many one-on-one matchups and too much downfield space for him to exploit. Plus, Brady identifies pressure concepts so well before the snap that he'll often throw before your blitzer can arrive. With seven bodies in coverage, you have a chance to at least make Brady hold the ball. It's no coincidence that his only two Super Bowl losses have come against the two best four-man rushes he's faced: the 2007 Giants and '11 Giants.

Remarkably, Brady, at 40, has played better not just mentally, but also physically, than he did in '07 and '11. The Patriots' quarterback football IQ now tops most coaches', allowing the Pats to run the league's most expansive offensive scheme.

In recent seasons that scheme has included more downfield passes, and when Julian Edelman tore his right ACL last August this became a full-fledged vertical offense. Wide receiver Brandin Cooks is a speedy deep threat who is lethal on deep curl routes and comebackers. Wideout Chris Hogan is an underestimated vertical weapon who can burn an unsuspecting defense outside or from the slot. And of course there's tight end Rob Gronkowski, maybe the best vertical inside weapon ever to play at the position.

True to what we've come to expect from a Bill Belichick--coached team, the 2017 Patriots are not totally dependent on their new predominant style of play. In fact, they beat the Titans in the divisional round by returning to their Edelman-styled spread formations, creating mismatches inside and moving the ball in five-to-eight-yard increments. (Danny Amendola plays the Edelman role.) That pristine dink-and-dunk passing game, which also contributed to New England's fourth quarter comeback over Jacksonville, is what Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz will focus most on stopping. That's because Schwartz must operate under the assumption that his defensive line, which has been the NFL's best all season, can disrupt Brady on its own. If it doesn't, Philly's chances of success shrink significantly.

Stud utility defender Malcolm Jenkins can be an effective blitzer, but it's hard to envision his rushing Brady in the Super Bowl given that he's the defender best equipped to cover Gronkowski. It wouldn't be a pure one-on-one battle; the Eagles play a lot more zone than man-to-man, and guarding Gronk and Amendola inside will be a collective effort. The only straight one-on-one matchups will occur on the perimeter, with Ronald Darby at right corner and Jalen Mills at left corner. You can bet Cooks will execute one or two of the double-moves that Darby and Mills struggled against in December.

The tendency is to think that you must change things up against Brady; some defensive coaches believe he is truly unstoppable if he knows what coverage you'll employ. But not Schwartz. Instead of trying to play smarter than history's best field general, Schwartz will try to play faster. That means straightforward but aggressive zone concepts. This is the best chance at making Brady hold the ball and contend with Philly's four-man rush.

As recently as two years ago, Brady's holding the ball against a dominant pass rush would present optimism for Patriots opponents. But given how well Brady has navigated messy pockets and thrown even when under duress this season, it's likelier that the G.O.A.T.'s sixth Super Bowl title will simply be achieved in even more impressive fashion than the first five.

THE PICK: Patriots 27, Eagles 16