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Peyton’s place? Nah — Denver’s defense is Broncos’ best bet

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The Denver Broncos’ offense has struggled early in the season. Gary Kubiak’s schematic and personnel mismatch with what Peyton Manning has traditionally done on offense have clashed, producing an offense that has spent much of the season sputtering. A leaky offensive line has made the problem even worse.

Yet Denver is 2-0 despite opening the season against the Ravens, who gave the Patriots a stiff test last postseason, and the Chiefs at Arrowhead, where Kansas City went 6-2 last year with wins against both Super Bowl participants. How have they managed this? The offense helped come back against Kansas City, but the real key has been the defense, and specifically the pass defense.

Through two weeks, the Broncos have the best defense and pass defense in the league by Football Outsiders’ VOA metric, which adjusts for down, distance, and situation. The pass defense is especially impressive, ranking at 82.4 percent better than league average.

To put this in perspective, by VOA, the best performance by a pass defense in Week 1 was Denver’s -89.4 percent against the Ravens, and the best performance by a pass defense in Week 2 was Denver’s -75.1 percent against the Chiefs.

This early in the season, there are no opponent adjustments to VOA because we are still waiting to see just how good teams are. But last year, Baltimore was a very efficient pass offense and Kansas City a bit above average. Both teams also performed well in their other games, putting up a top ten performance by VOA. Opponent adjustments do not seem likely to dim the luster of Denver’s sterling performances that much.

Enter Wade Phillips

The man reaping much of the credit for these great defensive games is new coordinator Wade Phillips. When John Fox was fired as head coach, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio followed him out the door. Phillips arrived with Kubiak, resurrecting a partnership that immediately produced the first two playoff seasons in Houston Texans history.

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Phillips the coordinator had a strong history of being associated with defensive improvement his first year. That’s partly for obvious reasons: defensive coordinators tend to get fired after unlucky seasons, so their defenses are likely to improve the next year anyway. One area that seems to be partly that kind of luck and partly Phillips is improved turnover work, especially on interceptions.

Interceptions are a big reason why the Broncos defense has done so well early. Their four interceptions, two each of Joe Flacco and Alex Smith, are tied for the league lead. The Broncos have done that in fewer attempts than their co-leaders Jets and Patriots. An interception rate of 7.0 percent is unsustainable in today’s NFL. Last year’s leader was the 49ers at just 4.2 percent, and only one other team had a rate even half Denver’s. Still, harassing Smith into two interceptions was noteworthy, since he’d thrown just three in his past sixteen starts (including postseason).

Denver’s recent history of strong pass defense

Phillips has helped turn around some mediocre units. That was not his task with these Broncos. They had a superb pass defense in 2014, ranking fifth in the league by DVOA. The 2013 unit looks less impressive, but the overall ranking of 21st conceals an important split: with Von Miller in the lineup, they were sixth. In 2012, they were fifth once again. Their excellence through two games should have come as no surprise.

Excellent defensive personnel is the key to those rankings. The 2013 split hints at Miller’s importance. With no suspension or torn ACL to limit him, he had an excellent 2014 and has started off playing very well in 2014. A lifelong linebacker, the transition from Del Rio’s 4-3 to Phillips’ version of the 3-4 has been basically seamless. Pretty much the same is true on the other side of DeMarcus Ware, who rose to prominence in Dallas when Phillips was his head coach. Both seem poised to post double-digit sack seasons again, with a combined 3.0 in the first two games after 23.5 last year.

The secondary is also vital, and the Broncos have a trio of cornerbacks as good as or better than any in the league. Starters Chris Harris and Aqib Talib both ranked in the top six among all corners in adjusted yards per pass last year per Football Outsiders charting. Harris’s ability to play both outside and in the slot makes him especially valuable. The nickel corner is last year’s first-round pick Bradley Roby. He had the expected rookie ups-and-downs, but has already made two game-changing plays, breaking up what would have been the winning touchdown pass against the Ravens and scoring the winning touchdown on a fumble recovery against the Chiefs.

What it means

Phillips’ acumen and the personnel quality means Denver’s pass defense excellence is likely to continue. The Lions, who have been just average through the first two weeks and have a banged up offensive line, do not seem like the team to challenge that. Not until the Packers travel to Denver in Week 8 will the Broncos face a high quality passing offense. That will give them plenty of winnable games and plenty of time for Kubiak and Manning to fix the offense while continuing their winning ways.

Eagles fly to first Super Bowl win with memorable victory vs Patriots

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As their delirious fans sang their theme song and their owner lifted the Lombardi Trophy, the Philadelphia Eagles’ finally could breathe freely.

Yo, Philly, you really did beat Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in a thrilling Super Bowl that rewrote the offensive record book.

Nick Foles guided the drive of a lifetime, Zach Ertz made a bobbling touchdown catch that had to survive replay review, and an exhausted defense came up with not one but two stands in the final moments Sunday for a 41-33 victory. For the first time since 1960, the Eagles are NFL champions.

“Fly Eagles Fly,” indeed.

“We’ve played this game since we were little kids, we dreamed about this moment,” game MVP Foles said. “There’s plenty of kids watching this game right now dreaming about this moment and someday will be here.”

In a record-setting shootout between backup QB Foles and five-time champ Brady of the favored Patriots, Foles led a pressure-packed 75-yard drive to the winning touchdown, 11 yards to Ertz with 2:21 to go .

Then Brandon Graham strip-sacked Brady and Derek Barnett recovered, setting up rookie Jake Elliot’s 46-yard field goal for an 8-point lead.

Brady got his team to midfield, but his desperation pass fell to the ground in the end zone.

“For us, it was all about one stop we had to make. We went out here and made that one stop,” Graham said.

The underdog Eagles (16-3), even injured starting quarterback Carson Wentz, came bolting off the sideline in ecstasy while Brady sat on the ground, disconsolate.

It was the first Super Bowl title for Philadelphia (16-3), which went from 7-9 last season.

“If there’s a word (it’s) called everything,” Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said. “That’s what it means to Eagles fans everywhere. And for Eagles fans everywhere, this is for them.”

Super Bowl MVP Foles orchestrated the victory with the kind of drive NFL MVP Brady, a five-time champion, is known for. The drive covered 14 plays, including a fourth-down conversion.

“I felt calm. I mean, we have such a great group of guys, such a great coaching staff,” Foles said. “We felt confident coming in, and we just went out there and played football.”

The Eagles had to survive a video replay because ball pop into the air as Ertz crossed the goal line.

The touchdown stood — and so did thousands of green-clad Eagles fans who weren’t going to mind the frigid conditions outside US Bank Stadium once they headed out to celebrate. But not before a rousing rendition of “Fly Eagles Fly” reverberated throughout the stands once the trophy was presented to Lurie. Later, fans danced along with the “Gonna Fly Now,” the theme from “Rocky,” the city’s best-known fictional underdog.

The Patriots (15-4) seemed ready to take their sixth championship with Brady and coach Bill Belichick in eight Super Bowls. Brady threw for a game-record 505 yards and three TDs, hitting Rob Gronkowski for 4 yards before Stephen Gostkowski’s extra point gave New England its first lead, 33-32.

Then Foles made them forget Wentz — and least for now — with the gutsiest drive of his life.

“We couldn’t make a play to give the ball back to the offense,” Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore said.

Foles has been something of a journeyman in his six pro seasons, but he has been spectacular in four career playoff games. He finished 28 of 43 for 373 yards and three TDs.

The combined 1,151 yards were the most in any modern NFL game, and Brady’s 505 were the most in any playoff contest. The 40-year-old master finished 28 of 48 and picked apart the Eagles until the final two series.

It was such a wild game that Foles caught a touchdown pass , and Brady was on the opposite end of a Danny Amendola throw that went off his fingertips.

Eagles coach Doug Pederson brought home the championship in his second year in charge. Belichick is 5-3 in Super Bowls and his teams have only a plus-4 overall margin in those games.

So this one was in keeping with that trend: breathtaking and even a bit bizarre.

Brady and the Patriots looked ready for another comeback by opening the second half with a 75-yard touchdown drive. Gronkowski was unstoppable, grabbing four passes for 69 yards, including the 5-yard score.

Philly didn’t flinch, answering with a precise 75-yard march and three more third-down conversions; the Eagles were 10 for 16. The last was on Foles’ perfect pass to Clement over double coverage. The rookie’s reception was upheld by review, and the Eagles were back on top by 10.

Brady shrugged and, getting steadfast protection, connected with Chris Hogan from the 26 for another touchdown.

When all the Eagles could manage was Elliott’s 42-yarder for a 32-26 lead, it seemed inevitable the Patriots would go in front, then become the first repeat Super Bowl winner since they did it in the 2004 and ’05 games.

Foles, Ertz, and — at last — a revitalized defense said otherwise.

The weird image of Brady ambling downfield on a pass pattern came three plays after New England lost receiver Brandin Cooks to a concussion on a vicious but clean hit by Malcolm Jenkins in the second quarter. Amendola’s pass required an over-the-shoulder grab and the ball fell off Brady’s outstretched hands.

Brady got back to passing after a wild interception. Alshon Jeffery nearly made a spectacular catch near the Patriots’ goal line, only to juggle the ball into the air. Duron Harmon picked it off at the 10. Moments later, Brady was connecting with Chris Hogan for 42 yards.

James White broke several tackles with a brilliant 26-yard run and it was 15-12. That gave White seven touchdowns in his past three postseason games, including the overtime winner in last year’s Super Bowl.

But the Eagles still had 2:04 left in the half — and some more magic in their bag.

A short third-down throw to rookie Corey Clement on a circle route turned into a 55-yard explosion down to the Patriots 8. Philly got to the 1 and on fourth down, it was Foles’ turn to morph into a receiver.

He did better than Brady. On fourth down, Clement took a direct snap, pitched to tight end Trey Burton, and the former Florida QB hit an uncovered Foles. The Eagles were up 22-12 at halftime, the most points New England has allowed in the opening half of a Super Bowl under Belichick.

Each team started with 67-yard drives to field goals — New England had never scored a first-quarter point with Brady in a Super Bowl.

Each kicker later faltered, with Elliott missing the extra point, his fifth failed PAT this season, after Jeffery’s 34-yard touchdown. Then Gostkowski hit the left upright with a 26-yard field goal after holder Ryan Allen mishandled the snap. Gostkowski also missed an extra point.

When LeGarrette Blount, who won the title last season with the Patriots, scored on a 21-yard burst, Pederson went for 2, but the pass failed, making it 15-3.

The Eagles and Pederson brushed it off and stayed with their usual aggressive approach. Breathtakingly, it eventually paid off.

Eagles’ rush could be key vs. Patriots’ Brady

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MINNEAPOLIS — Neither New England nor Philadelphia is a tropical paradise, so for the Patriots and Eagles, the Minnesota winter weather has been pretty normal for them. That’s a good thing as both teams head into their Super Bowl LII meeting on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium trying to treat it like just another 60-minute game.

After the media circus they endured Monday in St. Paul, the players for both the Patriots (15-3) and the Eagles (15-3) welcomed the opportunity to get back to some semblance of normal game week preparation and to focus on the football, even if it’s in a new place.

“We’ve got to go out and practice and kind of get away from the madness,” said Philadelphia defensive end Fletcher Cox on Wednesday after the Eagles practiced at the University of Minnesota. “I just treat it as a regular game week. Things I would do at the facility, I’m doing here.”

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One thing the Eagles did successfully at home and on the road all season was pressure the opponent’s quarterback, and when the Patriots have faltered in two Super Bowl losses to the Giants in the past decade, a relentless pass rush has contributed. But the highly touted Eagles defense, which did not allow a point after the Vikings’ opening drive of the NFC title game, is wary about putting too much of their attention on Patriots star Tom Brady.

“It’s Tom plus 10 guys on the field. We can’t just focus on one guy, if we’re going to be real about it,” Cox said. “I think we have to focus on their whole offense, because they’ve got a lot of great players. We have to go out and be ourselves. We’ve got to go out and do the little things right and not beat ourselves in order to be victorious.”

New England tight end Rob Gronkowski, who missed the second half of the AFC title game win over Jacksonville due to a concussion, is slated to play.

“Rob’s a tough guy. Obviously, this isn’t something you can just fight through,” said Brady.

While the Patriots offense has revolved around Brady since their first Super Bowl win in 2002, the defense has been one of constant evolution, and the unit adopted yet another new look late in the regular season when linebacker James Harrison came on board after he was jettisoned by the Steelers.

“When you’re in a system for as long as he’s been, there are a lot of things that are habits that get ingrained, which they should be. Some of those things carry over. Some of them kind of don’t,” Belichick said of Harrison, who has played 178 of his 193 NFL regular-season games for Pittsburgh. “He’s done a great job of trying to separate them and do what we’ve asked him to do.”

While the Eagles will be looking for the franchise’s first Super Bowl title, having lost the big game after the 1980 and 2004 seasons, there may be more pressure on the Patriots, who will be seeking their sixth title and their second in a row, knowing that the coaching staff will look significantly different next season. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia are both widely expected to be head coaches in Indianapolis and Detroit, respectively, next season.

“I realize and I understand and I appreciate the talent in the coaches in our building. I’m grateful for the opportunity to even be coached by them,” said Patriots wide receiver Danny Amendola, sounding very much like he was saying goodbye. “Whatever their opportunities are in the future, I’ll be excited for them.”

There’s one more opportunity for them on Sunday. And it sounds plenty exciting.