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The return of Fitzgerald

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You could be forgiven if you wondered just how good Larry Fitzgerald would be in 2015. Coming off an injury-plagued 2014 where he didn’t even have 800 receiving yards, and with quarterback Carson Palmer coming off a torn ACL, it seemed unlikely the 32-year-old would put up big numbers. Yet, that is precisely what he has done. His 706 yards are just 78 short of 2014’s total, and he is on pace for a career high in receptions. By Football Outsiders’ numbers, he is the most valuable receiver in the league. How has Fitzgerald confounded our expectations?

Rediscovering the End Zone

Young Larry Fitzgerald was one of the best red zone threats in the NFL. Four times in five seasons, he caught at least ten touchdowns. Lately, six-point plays have been much harder to come by for the University of Pittsburgh product. In the previous four seasons combined, he had just 24, or less than he had in two seasons at his best.

In 2015, Fitzgerald is finding the end zone again. His seven touchdowns in the Cardinals’ first eight games are tied for second in the NFL, behind only Cincinnati Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert. By Football Outsiders’ numbers, he is the most valuable wide receiver in the league in the red zone.

Several things stand out about Fitzgerald’s red zone work. First, the Cardinals are relying on him a lot in goal-to-go situations in particular. His seven targets there are tied for fourth. Second, he is extremely reliable. Just two of the ten passes thrown in his direction have been incomplete, best among the 25 players with ten or more red zone targets. Third, the Cardinals are spending a lot more time in goal-to-go this year. Arizona receivers have been targeted 20 times in goal-to-go situations this year, compared to 19 all last year.

The Impact of the Quarterback

The last stat brings up an important point. The 2015 Cardinals are better on offense than the 2014 Cardinals were, but the 2014 Cardinals also had three different quarterbacks start. Drew Stanton did not play as well as Carson Palmer did, and Ryan Lindley was worse. How much did playing with Stanton and Lindley hurt Fitzgerald’s numbers in 2014?

The answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, is quite a bit. Table 1 has the details, relying on Football Outsiders’ cumulative DYAR and per-play DVOA statistics:

Table 1. Larry Fitzgerald’s Production by Quarterback, 2014-15

Season/QB DYAR/game DVOA Catch Pct.
2014/Palmer 27 41.3% 80%
2014/Not Palmer -15 -34.1% 48%
2015/Palmer 31 32.3% 79%

This says what Fitzgerald has done this year with Palmer is just a continuation of what he did in Palmer’s six starts last year. The red zone numbers were not the same because Palmer was not as efficient throwing to other Arizona wide receivers last year.

Palmer was injured at midseason and Fitzgerald suffered an MCL sprain two weeks later that caused him to miss the next two games and be hobbled afterward. How much did that hurt his performance, rather than the quarterback play? Only some of it. Even in Stanton’s early season appearances, Fitzgerald was not nearly as efficient as he was with Palmer.

Targets, the Lifeblood of Production

The decline in Fitzgerald’s numbers did not come from less usage. Both Stanton and Lindley actually targeted him more frequently than Palmer did. He was thrown the ball on 17.8 percent of Palmer’s attempts last year, compared to 18.5 percent for Stanton and 20 percent for Lindley.

This is one of the ways things have changed in 2015. Last season, Palmer and Stanton targeted Fitzgerald and four other players regularly, generally at least 10 percent of the time. This year, the Cardinals have concentrated on targeting Fitzgerald, John Brown, and Michael Floyd much more heavily. One reason Fitzgerald has put up such numbers is he has been targeted on 26.7 percent of Palmer’s throws.

The Return of Prime Larry Fitzgerald

The target data is just one more way 2015 Larry Fitzgerald looks like 2008 or 2009 Larry Fitzgerald. Those were Kurt Warner’s last two seasons and the last time Fitzgerald played with a veteran quarterback in the midst of an outstanding season. His 2015 target percentage is right in line with how often he was targeted in those seasons. Target percentage is just one number, but high volume and a good quarterback can go a long way.

Another way this looks like prime Fitzgerald is his red zone dominance. Playing with Warner, Fitzgerald led the NFL in receiving touchdowns in both 2008 and 2009. The rise of tight ends might mean he doesn’t do the same this year, but his six touchdowns from the 10-yard line and in are the most he’s had 2009. The numbers are not quite the same (his red zone catch percentage was not close to what it had been with Warner the past two years), but they are close enough you could say this is the same Fitzgerald we’ve seen before.

What It Means Going Forward

We have seen Fitzgerald do this before, so we know he can continue to do it. For him to continue his great season, health is paramount. The table makes it clear Carson Palmer’s presence is vital. Fitzgerald’s own health is of course also exceedingly important.

Arizona’s shift to a three-headed passing game means the health of the other passing game pieces is important. Fitzgerald is the most valuable receiver in the league by FO numbers, but John Brown is second, and he ranks ahead of Fitzgerald outside the red zone. The much-improved offensive line is also key. If the good health continues, Fitzgerald should continue his late-career resurgence even if his red zone numbers decline.

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.”

Road to Super Bowl LII: Stream, start time, highlights and more

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.