Missing in action: Can Patriots replace Julian Edelman?

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Julian Edelman immediately became Tom Brady’s favorite receiver when Wes Welker left New England. He led all Patriots receivers in catches in 2013 and 2014, highlighted by catching the game-winning touchdown pass in Super Bowl XLIX. He is also out for likely the rest of the regular season, so New England has to try to continue their undefeated ways without him. Can they?

Edelman’s Role in the New England Offense

Julian Edelman was largely a short-area receiver for New England this season. Over half of his targets came no more than five yards beyond the line of scrimmage. He was especially popular on passes beyond the line of scrimmage but no more than five yards downfield. Those passes are sometimes designed to create yards-after-catch opportunities. Sometimes, they involved finding a soft spot in zone coverages. In others, they relied on separation in tight spaces.

One place Edelman didn’t factor that much was in New England’s deep-passing game. Brady struggled to connect with him more than 15 yards downfield, and Edelman was New England’s eighth-most valuable receiver on deep passes by Football Outsiders’ numbers when he went down. Brady has already found Brandon LaFell, who started the season on the physically unable to perform list, on more deep completions than he did Edelman.

Though deep passes were not his forte, Edelman was so helpful to Brady because he could work all areas of the field. He lined up in the slot or outside on either the left or the right and ran both inside- and outside-breaking routes with success. This versatility is what made him so valuable.

New England’s Depleted Passing Targets

Like many teams, the Patriots often throw many of their passes to a small number of players. In 2013, only Edelman had more than 54 catches. Last year, just four players had more than 27 catches. This year, again just four players have at least 18 catches. Two of them are now injured. Edelman seems likely to return at some point, but running back Dion Lewis tore his ACL and is out for the season. Brady has just two high-volume targets left.

There are several silver linings to this story. First, Brady still has Rob Gronkowski, the most valuable receiving tight end in the league, according to Football Outsiders. Second, we have seen great quarterbacks with just two volume receivers before. Just look at Aaron Rodgers last year, when he threw half his passes to Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson. Third, the cumulative season totals underrate the return of LaFell, whose improved performance coincided with the offense’s overall improvement after early-season struggles last year.

A Ready-Made Replacement, If and As Long As He Is Available

The fourth silver lining for New England and Brady is the other remaining target, Danny Amendola. Edelman’s production took off when Wes Welker left, but Amendola drew the big free agent contract presumably to do that exact job.

Amendola basically fits the Edelman mold to a tee. He does not have the same numbers, but his overall statistical profile is very much the same. An even bigger share of his targets come no more than five yards downfield, and he plays both the left and right sides and runs both inside- and outside-breaking routes. Importantly, Amendola is in his third season in New England. He might not have the same intuitive understanding Edelman did with Brady, but they have some rapport.

One downside of Amendola is he has a significant injury history. He played every game just twice in six seasons. He filled in the Edelman role admirably in the Bills game, to the tune of nine catches on 12 targets for 119 yards, but came out of it with a knee injury. That leads into the biggest concerns.

Where Edelman’s Absence Could Hurt

Early reports on Amendola’s injury said he was not expected to miss significant time. That is particularly important because there is no other player on the roster who could be expected to fill that role successfully. LaFell and Aaron Dobson are both outside receivers who complement the Edelman/Amendola role. In-season acquisition Keshawn Martin fits the physical prototype, but he struggled to find the field in Houston or succeed when he was there. Undrafted rookie Chris Harper spent most of the season on the practice squad. Neither is likely match Amendola’s chemistry with Brady, let alone that of Edelman.

The Patriots’ offensive line woes make that chemistry particularly important. Brady spent most of his career as one of the least-sacked quarterbacks in the NFL. By Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate metric, he ranked in the top ten least-sacked passers every full season from 2004 to 2014 — but not 2015. New England currently ranks 22nd by ASR. That puts added importance on the safety-valve receiver. Even if many of those short passes are not very productive –and they were not for Edelman, or Amendola, or even Brady in general — they can be very important in key situations and are better than just taking a sack.

That is the real downside, if the Patriots are forced to rely on Martin, Harper, or even a player like tight end Scott Chandler: the pressure will get to Brady and he will either have to force passes to LaFell or Gronkowski or take sacks. Cincinnati and Denver’s struggles give the Patriots the inside track to a bye and home-field advantage. Those same struggles, though, show the thin line between winning and losing in the NFL, and New England’s potential downside.

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.