How great is J.J. Watt?

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Despite playing with a broken hand, J.J. Watt, the Houston Texans’ All-World defendsive end, will be the biggest challenge the New England Patriots’ offense will face this Sunday. Since his breakout pick-six in Houston’s playoff win over the Cincinnati Bengals as a rookie, the fifth-year defensive end developed into one of the league’s best defensive players. Just how good is he, and how does he compare to some of the greatest defensive players of the recent past?

Sacks, Sacks and More Sacks

The most visible number for Watt’s dominance is his sack total. He had 20.5 his second season, 20.5 again in 2014, and has 13.5 in 12 games this year. His 36.5 sacks in his first three seasons are the seventh-most since the NFL started officially keeping track of stats in 1982. His 57 sacks in his first four seasons is the third-best total. With four games left to play in his fifth season, he is already at 70.5 career sacks. The only other player with at least 70 sacks in his first five NFL seasons is Reggie White, who had the benefit of playing two USFL seasons first. Just three other players have had at least 60 sacks in their first five seasons, though Von Miller will likely join that group. By any standard, Watt is off to the best start to his career of anybody in the history of the official sack metric.

Watt’s five-year streak has been impressive not just for a rookie, but for any player at all. He is just the sixth different player since 1982 to have at least 70 sacks in a five-year period at any point in his career. (Table 1.)

Table 1. 70-plus Sacks in Five-Year Span, 1982-2015

Player Years
Jared Allen 2007-2013
Bruce Smith 1986-1990
Lawrence Taylor 1984-1990
DeMarcus Ware 2006-2012
J.J. Watt 2011-2015
Reggie White 1985-1992

More Than Just Sacks

It would be one thing if Watt was just a pure sacker, or if he was converting pressures to sacks at a particularly high rate. He is not. Even in his modest, 5.5-sack rookie season, he was tied for sixth in the league in quarterback hits. In each of 2012, 2013, and 2014, he led the league in combined sacks and quarterback hits by at least 10 each season. In 2014, he had a combined 54 sacks and hits, a whopping 23 more than second-place Elvis Dumervil. Like his 13.5 sacks so far, his 42 quarterback hits also leads the NFL. He is also getting near the passer when he does not hit him. According to Football Outsiders data, he was fifth in the NFL in hurries in 2012, fourth in 2013, and first in 2014.

Watt also excels at winning when he does not get near the passer, by getting his hands into passing lanes and deflecting passes. His most impressive season in that category was 2012 when he tipped 18 passes at the line of scrimmage, per Football Outsiders, more than twice as many as any other defender. In 2013, he was one back of the league leaders in that area, and he again topped the league in 2014. This season, his five passes defensed lead all defensive linemen.

His Position Makes His Production More Impressive

What makes Watt’s productivity even more impressive is where he’s doing it from. The lists of the top sackers and hurriers, both present-day and in the past, is full of edge-rushers, 4-3 defensive ends and 3-4 outside linebackers. Watt’s versatility has increased in recent years, but he has spent much of his career as a 3-4 defensive end while playing defensive tackle in sub-package situations. The interior line is the shortest path to the quarterback, but it also tends to be the hardest one. The only other non-edge rushers among the historical lists of the top sackers are Bill Pickel, a 1980s Raiders nose tackle who excelled early, and Bruce Smith.

Great Run Defense As Well

The criticism, fair or not, against many interior linemen who do get pressure, from the modestly successful to Hall of Famers like John Randle, is they are not good run defenders. Watt is almost undeniably a superb one, ranking first in the league in run tackles for loss in both 2012 and 2014 and third in 2013. His particular specialty is making plays from the backside of runs, where he excels at getting inside and forcing the runner to bounce the run to avoid being taken down in the backfield.

The Difficulty of Putting Watt in Perspective

Unfortunately, some of the stats that show Watt’s greatness make it hard to compare him to other players. Sacks were not an official stat before 1982. Passes defensed are not widely available before 2001. Quarterback hits go back to 2006. Hurries and other unofficial stats are about as old. Tackle totals still vary widely between scorers, and they were worse before the mid-1990s. This makes it hard to more precisely compare Watt to greats like Bruce Smith, Lawrence Taylor, and Reggie White.

The most comprehensive measure we have may be Football Outsiders’ defeats, which goes back to 1996 and includes sacks, tackles for loss, forced fumbles, interceptions, and third-and-fourth-down tackles short of the sticks. Watt’s 56 defeats in 2012 is the most by any single player in that time span. His 43 in 2014 ranks fourth. His league-leading 34 through 12 games this year puts him on pace to match Ray Lewis’ third-highest total of 45. By almost any measure Watt is the most consistently impactful defender of the past 20 years. His only challenge now may be sustaining that greatness for the rest of his career.

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.