NFL expert Cameron Hogwood previews Super Bowl LII and highlights some interesting betting options.
The stage is set in Minneapolis for the final instalment of the NFL’s ‘David versus Goliath’ post-season theme.
As the New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady prepare for their eighth Super Bowl appearances, the Philadelphia Eagles’ respective opposites Doug Pederson and Nick Foles enter new territory.
Both odds and expectations lean heavily in the favour of reigning champions New England to lift the Vince Lombardi Trophy for a second consecutive year - just as they did in 2005.
With neither Eli Manning or the New York Giants to stand in his way, five-time Super Bowl winner Brady has the opportunity to consolidate his reputation as the greatest quarterback of all time at the age of 40.
In his path await the 13-3 Eagles, who enter the contest on the back of 38-7 NFC Championship win against a Minnesota Vikings team boasting the best defense in the league.
Elsewhere, the Patriots booked their place at Super Bowl 52 with a dramatic comeback win against the Jacksonville Jaguars, overturning a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to emerge 24-10 victors.
In a turnaround screening similarities to their Super Bowl 51 triumph against the Atlanta Falcons, the 10-time AFC Championship winners previewed the Eagles’ overwhelming underdog status.
A status they have so far thrived on, mind.
All eyes on Foles
Philadelphia’s hopes partially rest on the shoulders of Foles to replicate his stunning performance against the Vikings.
Jacksonville serve as a beacon of hope for the 29-year-old in that respect.
Blake Bortles' friendly play-calling from Jags offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett exhibited a patient route to success against Belichick’s men, who were forced to delve deep into their play book to fend off the AFC’s surprise package.
The Eagles’ approach with Foles has been to implement shorter throws much like Bortles, abiding by his capabilities and protecting his limitations.
Three 40-yard completions on his way to throwing 352 yards and three touchdowns against the Vikings hinted at Foles offering a sterner response to a test Bortles fell short of - breaching the safe style to produce the game of his career.
The Vikings challenged Foles to beat them, and beat them he did.
After an uninspiring close to the regular season, Foles is yet to commit a turnover in the playoffs.
With the help of left guard Stefen Wisniewski and left tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai double-teaming Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen, Foles made all the correct reads and executed simple play-action passes to perfection last time out.
Alshon Jeffrey finished the season with a team-high nine touchdowns, followed closely by tight end Zach Ertz and fellow receiver Nelson Agholor who both scored eight.
The heavily-involved Ertz, who made eight catches for 93 yards against the Vikings, is 10/11 to surpass 59.5 receiving yards in the game.
All three can be expected to be prominent as Foles looks to continue spreading the touches.
Doubts over the fitness of tight end Rob Gronkowski come as no added boost to the Eagles.
Brady is just as deadly with or without his No.1 receiver, especially with the array of weapons at Belichick’s disposal.
It’s difficult to look beyond the Patriots’ No.12 being named Super Bowl MVP for a second year in a row.
In the absence of Julian Edelman and Gronkowski, Danny Amendola has surfaced as New England’s clutch receiver in the playoffs.
Amendola recorded a career-high 11 catches for 112 yards in the Patriots’ divisional round win over the Tennessee Titans, before reeling in two fourth-quarter touchdown catches to fuel his side’s dramatic win over the Jaguars.
The distracting presence of the capable Chris Hogan and Brandin Cooks, set to engage in an intriguing matchup with Eagles cornerback Patrick Robinson, will pave the way for Amendola to enjoy another productive day.
Amendola is now 5/1 to produce over 100 receiving yards against the Eagles.
Cooks, who finished the regular season with two fewer yards than Gronkowski, is 9/4 to achieve the same feat.
New England had two 1000-yard receivers and three players with 60 receptions this season- leaving it up to the Eagles to combat a dangerously unpredictable offense.
Running game key
Philadelphia’s temptation to rely on their rushing attack could be swayed by New England’s familiarity with LeGarrette Blount, who won the Super Bowl with the Patriots last season, and Jay Ajayi, formerly of AFC East rivals the Miami Dolphins.
Whilst the Patriots allowed the second most yards per rush in the NFL, they also conceded the second-fewest rushing touchdowns.
Coach Pederson won’t, however, refrain from sharing the workload between Blount and Ajayi, in aid of pounding a route to favourable scoring range for Foles.
The Eagles’ multifaceted running game also includes undrafted rookie free agent Corey Clement, who led his side four rushing touchdowns and two receiving touchdowns during the regular season.
Despite his figures, the Wisconsin product is 4/1 to score a touchdown at any point during the game.
Belichick will undoubtedly look to incorporate his own abundance of options out the backfield.
The Patriots running-backs combined for a league-high nine touchdown receptions, making them a viable threat against an Eagles defense that finished joint-second for most touchdown receptions conceded to opposing running-backs with five.
Ex-Eagle Dion Lewis represents the versatile danger man, having mustered a career-high 896 rushing yards on 180 attempts this season, as well as registering 32 catches from 34 targets and scoring 10 touchdowns.
Nevertheless, the Eagles did enter the post season with the league’s top-ranked defense against the run.
Does defense still win championships?
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has to conjure a way of restricting Brady if the Eagles are to stand any chance of winning.
Fixating entirely on the blitz seems futile against a man who has fared so well against it throughout his career.
An array of edge-rushers grants the Eagles the fresh legs to rotate as they look to put sustained pressure on the quarterback.
This includes former Patriot Chris Long, who is 2/1 to sack Brady.
Philadelphia’s league-high 271 pressures bodes well alongside their strength in depth in making them the best equipped team to frustrate Brady.
Defensive end Brandon Graham will be a primary threat courtesy of his team-high 9.5 sacks this season, whilst defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, an interesting outside MVP contender at 50/1, also promises to be a fierce obstacle against both the pass and run.
New England’s defense is perhaps more reliant on thorough coaching than on standout personnel.
Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia may look to be creative by exploiting free safety Devin McCourty’s coverage ability to stop the Eagles’ rushing attack, as well as lining strong safety Patrick Chung up against Ertz.
Chung is a reasonable 5/1 to intercept Foles on the night.
Cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore will be tasked with shutting out Agholor and veteran receiver Torrey Smith, and pose as potential frontrunners to produce Foles’ first post-season interception.
Losing outside linebacker and star front-seven player Dont’a Hightower to injury towards the end of October visibly hurt the Patriots defense.
Teams were having freedom running the ball on the outside during the first half of the season, until the addition of former Pittsburgh Steelers veteran James Harrison.
The 39-year-old linebacker starred against the Jags’ Leonard Fournette-led running game and is a leading contender to halt Foles and the Eagles offense.
A slim 1-6 winning margin in favour of the Patriots looks solid, with the Eagles expected to put up a fierce effort against a Belichick side that refuses to quit.