Is Sam Bradford suddenly … better?

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When we last visited Sam Bradford‘s performance as Philadelphia Eagles quarterback, it wasn’t at all clear that the decision to trade Nick Foles for him was correct. Chip Kelly recently doubled down on Bradford’s performance, declaring he saw improvement on a weekly basis that got Kelly excited. What might Kelly be seeing, and what context can we add to Bradford’s performance?

The Contrast with Sanchez

One thing we’ve seen lately that we didn’t see earlier in the season was the Eagles’ 2015 offense with another quarterback. Mark Sanchez started two games and finished a third as Bradford suffered a shoulder injury and a concussion. While playing half the season in 2014, Sanchez was, on the whole, roughly as good as Foles was. In his playing time this season, Sanchez has been a significant downgrade from Bradford. Table 1 shows the statistical details, using adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A) and Football Outsiders’ metric DVOA.

Table 1. Mark Sanchez vs. Main Starters, 2014-15

Year QB DVOA ANY/A
2014 Foles 1.8% 5.93
Sanchez -1.4% 6.18
2015 Bradford -11.3% 5.50
Sanchez -43.8% 4.62

Two specific areas stand out as major issues for Sanchez. First, he has continued the trend from most his career of throwing interceptions at a rate above the league-average while Bradford has taken better care of the football. Sanchez’s interception rate is 4.4 percent, compared to Bradford’s 2.8 percent.

Second, the Eagles’ offensive line has been much more problematic for Sanchez in pass protection. His adjusted sack rate, as calculated by Football Outsiders, is 9.0 percent, the seventh-highest rate of the 40 passers with at least 100 dropbacks this season. Bradford’s, by contrast, is just 4.9 percent, the tenth-best rate in the same group, even though he started both games the Eagles played without Jason Peters. Quarterbacks can do a lot to control this number, as Denver’s similarly contrasting numbers with Brock Osweiler and Peyton Manning and many other examples show, and Bradford is helping the line in a way Sanchez is not.

This contrast suggests that even though Bradford’s production is down from what Foles did in 2014, this could be the result of broader offensive issues which Bradford is doing well to mask.

Bradford Is Playing Better

Bradford’s numbers since returning from injuryare better than the ones he had earlier in the season. His DVOA earlier was -17.9 percent. Since then, it is 2.5 percent, better than the league average. His game against the Bills was his worst in the last four contests; on a per-play basis, it would have been his third-best performance in the first seven games.

One other thing Bradford is not doing is running. He has just one actual rushing attempt in the past couple games, while most of his nominal carries have been aborted snaps or kneeldowns. This is important, because he was not an effective runner when the Eagles tried to use him as one in the option game.

Finding the Range Downfield

The biggest development in Bradford’s game of late has been the deep pass. His performance on short throws has been roughly the same as it was earlier in the season, with a DVOA of -1.9 percent compared to -0.2 percent over the first seven games. If anything, he has been less consistently productive on them, posting a success rate of 39 percent compared to 47 percent earlier. Only throwing fewer interceptions has saved the numbers from being worse.

Where Bradford has improved the most has been on deep throws. This was where the great Foles-led offense of 2013 made most of its hay, and it was a big struggle for Bradford earlier in the season. He had the sixth-worst success rate of the 32 passers with the most deep attempts earlier in the season. Over the past six weeks, he has the second-best success rate, 60 percent, and the third-best DVOA among the 32 passers with the most deep attempts.

The easy response is to say that this is a fluke due to a small sample size, the product of a limited number of games and passes. What makes Bradford’s performance so encouraging, though, is he has been doing it at multiple levels. His numbers are better on throws 11-15 yards downfield, 16-20 yards downfield, and even that 21-25 yard area where he did not have a single completion on 18 attempts in the first seven games, while he has continued to enjoy success on very deep throws like his 53-yard touchdown pass to Nelson Agholor last week.

Going Forward

The numbers suggest Kelly was not just blowing smoke, that Sam Bradford has been playing better of late and may well be doing much better than Nick Foles would have done for the 2015 Eagles. Kelly still has a problem, though: the Eagles are still a below-average offense. Looking just at the last four games Bradford has played, they are 20th in DVOA and just 17th in passing DVOA. Even if Bradford is in fact the answer, Philadelphia still has offensive problems to address.

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.