The country is just days away from the 52nd installment of its most polarizing sporting event, and at center stage stands one of the most polarizing athletes ever.
Tom Brady, already the winningest quarterback in Super Bowl history, continues to dominate the war against time and has his Patriots in position for a sixth Lombardi Trophy at the age of 40. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Eagles have reminded the world what it means to be a team as they eye their first Super Bowl title in franchise history with a backup quarterback.
The road to Minnesota seemed to be closed for the Eagles when their quarterback and MVP-candidate Carson Wentz was lost for the year in a week 14 win over the Rams. However, 13-3 Philadelphia then rode a dominant defense and a Nick Foles-led offense with dangerous weaponry passed the Falcons and Vikings in the playoffs. Despite playing at home, they were underdogs in each.
Whatever happens on Sunday, this run by the Eagles should never be overlooked. Not many teams could come together after a devastating injury to their leader and quarterback then still find a path to the last game of the season. You won't find someone like Tom Brady in a midnight green jersey or Bill Belichick on their sidelines this Sunday, but you will meet a strong force on both sides of the football led by Doug Pederson that will have to play united to earn a third and final upset.
The trouble is, Belichick and New England helped invent the word team. In 2001, Brady's first Super Bowl, the Patriots opted to pass on the usual tradition of individual player introductions minutes before they were to face Kurt Warner and the St. Louis Rams, dubbed the "greatest show on turf." Instead, the heavy underdogs stormed the field together as a group and proceeded to pull off one of the biggest upsets ever in the Super Bowl. The rest is history.
17 years later, it's almost laughable to think of the New England Patriots as underdogs. The thought that an analyst in 2001 might've accurately described Brady as a "glorified game manager" seems preposterous. The greatest dynasty in sports has reached the conference championship 12 times (7 straight) and brought home 5 out of 7 Super Bowls, including last year's 25-point comeback win over the Atlanta Falcons in Houston.
This year, the Patriots defended their title with 13 regular season wins and knocked off the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars at home in the postseason. The win over Jacksonville included another fourth-quarter comeback for Brady and the Patriots, who trailed by 10 with just under 11 minutes left on the clock and the league's top-ranked defense in their way.
The Patriots would be favored regardless of their opponent. Still, the Jaguars got very close to pulling off the win in the AFC Championship. On top of that, the Patriots seem to have a flair for the dramatic. All seven times the team has played in the Super Bowl in the Brady/Belichick era, the game was decided by 6 points or less.
New England has also been favored to win all of these games with the exception of their first against the Rams and Super Bowl 49 against the Seahawks, which was officially even. They were favored by 7 over the Donovan McNabb-led Eagles 13 years ago in Super Bowl 39, which they won 24-21. While it's subject to fluctuate before the game, the Patriots are currently favored by 5 1/2 points.
Philadelphia will be required to rough up Tom Brady early and often with as few defenders as possible and find a way to contain superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski, who's nursing a concussion, and the rest of New England's scrappy receiving corps. If Nick Foles hopes to outscore Brady, he will have to do it against a top defense. Due to the attention that Brady requires and a rocky start to the 2017 season, New England's defense seems to be the best kept secret of Super Bowl 52.
Foles has the pieces to get it done. The Patriots will meet targets like Alshon Jeffery and Zach Ertz and ball carriers like Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount, who was a critical piece of New England's championship a season ago.
At the end of the day, it's impossible to pick against the Patriots. With two impressive defenses, it comes down to Brady and Foles. The latter has performed admirably over the last two months and has undoubtedly rejuvenated his career. But to beat Brady and the Patriots on Super Sunday, you need to play a perfect game and find a little luck along the way. The Eagles have a tremendous fight ahead of them if they expect a fairytale ending.
As usual, the Patriots will have some margin for error because they're simply better. I expect that fans in New England will have to sweat this one out as they have for the last seven, but the night will have a happy ending for the sixth time. Their reign of World Champions will live on. I expect Philadelphia to rise to the occasion and provide us with another thrilling season finale.