Championship Weekend Recap and Super Bowl LII First Look

The match-up is set.  The Patriots and Eagles will face off in Super Bowl LII.  Today I will address how they got there, and give you your first look at the match-up.

But first here is the official schedule for my Super Bowl LII Preview. This will be part of each Preview article and will include links to the articles that are finished.

Super Bowl LII – Patriots vs. Eagles: Boston Sports Mania Preview

Monday, Jan. 29: Championship Weekend Recap and Super Bowl LII First Look

Tuesday, Jan. 30: The Case for the Patriots: How They Can Win, Keys to the Game

Wednesday, Jan. 31: The Case for the Eagles: How They Can Win, Keys to the Game

Thursday, Feb. 1: Super Bowl Fast Facts and Their Significance

Friday, Feb. 2: Super Bowl LII: The Final Pick and Projected Stats

Saturday, Feb. 3: Super Bowl LII Video Preview and iMovie Trailer

Sunday, Feb. 4: Watch the big game and stay tuned for my Recap!

How They Got There

Patriots

 

The Pats won in comeback fashion again, this time against the Jacksonville Jaguars, 24-20.  Early on, Blake Bortles, Leonard Fournette, Corey Grant, and the rest of the Jaguars offense dominated, taking a 14-3 lead and challenging the Pats for their chance at making it to their 10th Super Bowl, and their 8th with Tom Brady.  The Pats were unable to stop this powerful Jags offense for most of the 1st half, although they did narrow Jacksonville’s lead with a TD before the half, making it 14-10.  The Jaguars’ powerful pass rush also got on Tom Brady’s nerves in this half.

By halftime, Pats fans were getting worried, and some (but not me) gave up hope.  But the 2nd half brought a turn-around for the Patriots.  In the 3rd quarter, we began to see a better defensive performance by New England, as they held Jacksonville to just a measly 3 points in that quarter.  Lawrence Guy was able to sack Bortles as he led the Pats defense to begin to get pressure on him.  The Jags scored another field goal to begin the 4th and led 20-10.

But better defense set the Pats offense up to come back in the 4th quarter.  Despite TE Rob Gronkowski being ruled out with a concussion, the Pats came back, led by Brady, Danny Amendola (who scored both 4th quarter TDs) and Brandin Cooks.  The Pats came out of nowhere after being down by 10, scoring 14 unanswered points to win the game and advance to the Super Bowl.  But how will they fare against the Eagles, who obliterated the Vikings?

Eagles

 

The Vikings got off to a fast start as Case Keenum connected with TE Kyle Rudolph for a touchdown.  But after that, Nick Foles broke out, leading the Eagles offense to blow away an otherwise unstoppable Vikings defense.  He somehow tossed 3 TDs and 352 yards against the typically dominant Vikings D.  I also don’t know how this defense gave up 38 points.

Not only did Foles do well, but his top four receivers (Zach Ertz, Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith, Nelson Agholor) all had over 50 yards receiving, combining for 306 of Philly’s receiving yards and all 3 receiving TDs.  The combination of end zone back LeGarrette Blount and lead running back Jay Ajayi also had a big game compared to recent performances.

After that win, the Eagles truly do deserve to fight for that Lombardi Trophy in Minneapolis, although it would have been cool to see Minnesota win it at home, or be stopped by the Patriots dynasty.  But will the Eagles put up the same numbers against New England, who has far more experience in the Super Bowl?  Many of New England’s players don’t even know what it is like not making the AFC Championship game.

A First Look at the Big Game

With TE Rob Gronkowski on the practice field as of Saturday the 27th, it’s a good sign that Gronk will be able to clear the concussion protocol and play by Sunday’s big game. Gronk’s status will help determine New England’s offensive schemes against an Eagles defense that can be tricky at times.

Either way, especially with T Marcus Cannon injured, DT Fletcher Cox and the Eagles’ defensive line could pressure QB Tom Brady and hit him a few times. But I do think Brady should be able to find his receivers against the younger, but still powerful Eagles secondary. With or without him, Gronk will have to get past Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins among others as they will likely keep the star tight end double covered.

Brady will have to mix it up a little, not only passing to Gronk, and dependable passing backs James White and Rex Burkhead, but also to his wide receivers who helped him win with Gronk and Burkhead out late into last week’s game. Brandin Cooks, Danny Amendola, and/or Chris Hogan could have a big game here. But will we see the Eagles look like their inconsistent selves again, or will we see QB Nick Foles and the Eagles offense pick up where they left off?

If they can, they will significantly challenge the Patriots, whose pass rush has struggled to pressure the QB at times this season.  However, it has gotten better since LB James Harrison joined the Patriots.  Not only has he himself made an impact, but he’s also made an impact on other players’ performances, serving as a veteran influence.  The Pats sacked Jags QB Blake Bortles twice last week.  One was by Harrison, and the other by DT Lawrence Guy.  However, the Eagles give Foles better protection than Bortles gets with their strong offensive line.

This also helps running backs, who the Pats have struggled even more against.  In their Week 7 win against Atlanta, their big flaw was giving up big plays to Devonta Freeman.  It cost them in Week 1 against Kareem Hunt.  Can RB Jay Ajayi be next?  Will end zone threat Blount Force Trauma get revenge on his former team?  Or will it be younger RBs like Corey Clement and Wendell Smallwood who thrive?

The good news is, despite their front seven woes, they have maintained a strong secondary all season long, and don’t be surprised if they annoy Foles’ receivers and pick Foles off a couple times. I do think Foles will continue to thrive though, finding his receivers for most of the game, but making brutal mistakes against this strong secondary that cause the Eagles offense to trail a little behind the “Brady Bunch.”

Who will win Super Bowl LII?  What is the game plan for each team?  What Super Bowl and season-long stats will burden, encourage and/or influence each team?  Find out this week as I release more articles each day.

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Scouting Report: San Francisco 49ers

Welcome to my preseason team by team scouting report series.  Each day in August and September 1, I will be previewing one team’s season, making bold predictions, answering team questions and telling you what sleepers and rising players to focus on.  I will also give my input on the team’s schedule and remind you of my season prediction for that team.

 

The 49ers may be one of the most stuck teams in the NFL.  Even the Browns have a better shot of bouncing back from these tough times.  The Niners have minimal defense, declining offense, and overall aren’t looking great. Chip Kelly doesn’t look to be the answer.  But could there be some positives hidden between all the misery?  How do I know?  That’s one of many things I will show you today.

 

3 Players to Watch For

1. Aaron Lynch, OLB

I could say the entire linebacker corps should be monitored.  They may not have stellar defense, or many stars, or enough to win more than 4 or 5 games, but they have some decent pass rushers all around.  They actually ranked 18th in total defense last season. DeForest Buckner could make an impact as a rookie, veteran Ahmad Brooks and Michael Wilhoite could also step it up beside NaVorro Bowman, even guys like Glenn Dorsey or Arik Armstead.  But I chose Lynch because of all these linebackers, Lynch has the most breakout potential.  Lynch put up decent numbers in his first two seasons, and 2016 could finally be the year for him to pile up some sacks.  Still, this defense isn’t great otherwise.

2. Bruce Ellington, WR

Although he is more established as a special teamer, and he’s playing behind Torrey Smith and Quinton Patton, Ellington could be a deep sleeper.  The 49ers could use another weapon for whoever starts at QB.  It will make up for the problems at quarterback.  Torrey Smith can’t do what he used to do anymore, and Quinton Patton never really established himself as a quality starter.  Sure, he had 394 yards and 30 receptions in 2015, but that’s nothing for an NFL starter.  If Ellington could do what he does on special teams on offense, that would be helpful.

3. Colin Kaepernick, QB

I know, Kaepernick has done nothing to prove himself in the last two seasons, and Blaine Gabbert looks to be the favorite to start unless training camp position battles change things, but if Kaep can get it done in training camp, he could win his job back.  Then comes the big question.  Will he ever return to his 2013, even his 2014 state?  I think if he works hard enough in the preseason and regular season in the next year or two, that could eventually happen.  Honestly, I think Kaep’s the starter around here.  He’s the fan favorite, Chip Kelly’s favorite, and in the few scenarios where he does bounce back to his 2013 or 2014 form, it pays off.

 

3 Questions That Must Be Answered

1. Who will win the battle at quarterback?

Personally,  I think that this is Colin Kaepernick’s job to win.  If he can have a strong preseason and stay in shape, I think he will win the job.  It doesn’t matter how well Blaine Gabbert does, he’s not fit for a starting job.  Kaepernick was once a quality starter, he just needs to prove he still has any willpower at all.  A few years ago this wouldn’t have even been a discussion!  I think Kaepernick will have a strong preseason, and things will come close, but in the end, Kaepernick will pull ahead and prove he’s still in starting condition.

2. Will we see major defensive improvements, finally?

I think we will see some guys step it up this season.  When they were good, the Niners had a powerful offense, and not the greatest defense, but they have a decent group of pass rushers, some veterans like NaVorro Bowman and Antoine Bethea, and an overall acceptable defense.  They haven’t lost much since then, except quality plays from the same group of guys.  I could see DeForest Buckner having an awesome rookie season, maybe Aaron Lynch or Ahmad Brooks and NaVorro Bowman will each give you a half dozen sacks, but nothing major.  The 49ers are already in hot water on offense, it would sure be helpful to have an above average defense again.

3. Will the offensive line make things even tougher under center?

The quarterback holes are already an issue.  If the offensive line continues to have problems too, it wouldn’t be any help.  They do now have Joshua Garnett at guard where Alex Boone was.  Joe Staley is still in the mix at tackle.  But there are still some problems on the right side, even though Kaep’s blind side is taken care of.  Anthony Davis was reinstated after coming out of retirement, but is he still elite, and will he be in football shape?  Who do they have behind him, Trenton Brown?   Zane Beadles will be a help, but the issues surrounding him at right tackle and center will definitely make things tougher under center if they don’t take the next step.

 

3 Bold Predictions For The Season

1. Not one, but two running backs will rush for 500+ yards

When someone asks me about Shaun Draughn, I would say, big sleeper.  Carlos Hyde is already a workhorse RB when he’s healthy.  He was the next man up when Frank Gore was still here.  He’s healthy, now it’s time to shine.  You can’t expect too much from Carlos Hyde in his first full season as a starter, no more Reggie Bush, and hopefully no more injuries.  But 500 yards isn’t too much to ask from a 2014 2nd round pick.  Shaun Draughn may also get some time in the backfield, especially if Hyde is still developing or getting hurt.  This guy has been bouncing from team to team, being cut numerous times, maybe he’ll finally have a nice stay with the 49ers and work some yardage as a handcuff to who was once one of the top breakout candidates in the NFL.

2. Three of the four 49ers starting linebackers will rack up at least 8 sacks

I know I only said minor improvements but come on!  Eight sacks is nothing, at least for two of them, NaVorro Bowman and Ahmad Brooks.  The wild card here, Aaron Lynch.  I mentioned his name yet again.  This guy got 6 and 6.5 sacks in his first two seasons, it’s time for him to make the leap.  I could see 9 or 10 sacks out of him.  Bowman and Brooks could even rack up 11, 12 even 13 or 14 for Bowman.  I think the defense, especially the pass rush, could be the reason the 49ers win these games, at least the three I think they will manage to win.

3. Vance McDonald or Garrett Celek will lead the Niners in receptions

Half of you may have never even heard of one or both of these guys.  Neither of them are elite tight ends like Rob Gronkowski or Greg Olsen.  The 49ers just lack a wide receiver so badly that a low end tight end has a better shot at 750 yards than their #1 wide receiver.  I actually think the tight end two are a pair of sleepers, that could easily beat out Torrey Smith for the most receptions on the Niners.  I think which one of the guys leads in receptions has to do with who starts at QB.  It seems like Kaepernick prefers McDonald, but Blaine Gabbert threw to Celek more.  Will this happen?  I’m pretty convinced.

 

Schedule Breakdown

Any team at the Niners’ level’s schedule could be considered tough, but the 49ers do have a few winnable match-ups.  The Niners open up the season hosting the Los Angeles Rams.  The Rams have a strong pass rush but have holes scattered around the defense, especially in the puzzled secondary.  Todd Gurley leads an offense that lacks receiving weapons for rookie quarterback Jared Goff.  Tavon Austin had a decent 2015 season, but hasn’t fully proven himself yet.  With the home field advantage, the 49ers should be able to use their own pass rush and rushing game to get past the Rams.  I don’t actually see much the Rams have that the 49ers don’t, but both teams will have a tough time in 2016.

After that comes a 4-game stretch against some of the NFC’s best, Carolina, Seattle, Dallas and Arizona. They have decent match-ups against Buffalo and Tampa Bay after that, but they won’t get the W on the road, and the underrated Bucs should edge them.

Then comes another NFC South team, the Saints.  The Panthers and Bucs are out of the way, and personally, I think those two teams are the division’s only contenders.  They have both acceptable offense AND defense, so they will thrive.  Colin Kaepernick and Carlos Hyde should be all over the Saints D, and again they have home field, they’ll pick up the win.

After two more tough match-ups comes two road games, against the Dolphins and Bears.  Neither team is dominant, but both have the weapons to pick up a few wins themselves, and San Francisco will fall to them without home field advantage on their side.  The easy end of their schedule continues, but they might actually have a chance in the second part because in between two pairs of road games is a home game hosting the Jets.  Resigning Ryan Fitzpatrick will help the Jets, but the few 49ers sleepers should edge out the Jets D and win.

The Falcons and Rams are up next after that, on the road.  Neither of those teams are very good, but they should edge out the 49ers, considering they have home field advantage, and personally, I think the 49ers are the worst team in the league, despite having the ability to pick up a few wins.  In Week 17, even though the Seahawks may not need the game to make the playoffs, they’ll go for it and take down San Francisco to get past the Cardinals for the division win.

My Season Prediction

The 49ers won’t do much without a reliable QB or receiver, plus poor defense, but with a reasonable schedule, I think they pick up 3 or 4 games and make sure the worst team in the league has at least one win.  The 49ers should be able to pick up a few wins with a reasonable schedule, but you never know with this bad a team.

Projected Finish: 3-13, 4th In NFC West

 

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The 49ers are still an NFL team, but they won’t replicate one very well, and may have regressive offensive struggles throughout the season despite slight improvements on the defense, which was already close to average.