There will be, at most, 92 players taking the field for the Patriots and Eagles on Sunday. But in Super Bowl LII, Bill Belichick vs Doug Pederson could very well be the matchup that ultimately decides the contest.
The Eagles boast plenty of talent in key areas. That is, areas where they can exploit the Patriots and match up well, particularly against Tom Brady. Their defensive line depth screams “mismatch.” But the big question is, can they exploit that matchup for 60 full minutes? If they bring a lead into the fourth quarter, can they hold off Tom Brady until the clock reads triple-zero?
It’s an incredibly tough proposition, beating Bill Belichick in your first game against him as a head coach. It’s only gotten harder as time has gone on. Belichick is 12-1 (.923) against head coaches facing him for the first time since the start of the 2015 season, and was 74-20 overall in the Tom Brady era. That’s the kind of challenge ahead for Pederson.
Does Pederson Have What It Takes?
Pederson has certainly said all the right things ahead of the game. He indicates that he’s at least aware of what he needs to do in order to win the ultimate chess match against the ultimate chessmaster.
“It’s obviously a challenge to go up against a very smart coach, an intelligent coach, a coach that’s going to have his team well-prepared,” said Pederson, via ESPN’s Tim McManus. It’s not just the X’s and O’s, it’s the situational aspect of the game: timeouts, fourth downs, red zone, punt situations, all kinds of things that we’ve seen from them that I have to be prepared for and talk to our staff about.
“Try to anticipate the best you can and try to put your guys in the best possible scenario and situation on game day to expect certain things.”
He also sounded like he learned from past mistakes, like when he and Andy Reid had some classic Reid-esque clock mismanagement in the Chiefs’ loss to the Patriots in the 2015 AFC Divisional Playoff game. (Pederson was the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator at the time.) He knows the Eagles need to play a near-flawless (if not 100 percent flawless), “full ballgame” in order to dethrone New England. But even if he has the team prepared for every possible situation, as always the players will need to execute.
A “Faceless Opponent”
One former head coach who knows what it’s like to beat Bill Belichick as a first-timer is Hall of Famer Tony Dungy. He didn’t hesitate to point that out during his Tuesday media availability at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn. But that game was literally Belichick’s first game with the Patriots. Week 1, 2000. Besides that pesky 2006 AFC Championship Game, it got a lot harder for him once Brady came along.
Still, Dungy’s point is a salient one. In that 2000 game, he had a team that went 11-5 and played in the NFC Championship Game in the previous season. Belichick, meanwhile, was just starting to clean up a disorganized pre-Brady operation that he inherited from Pete Carroll. Dungy strongly believes that the club with the better players on the field will decide the game, regardless of coaching decisions.
“I think it’s when you have the better team,” said Dungy, on what makes it so hard to beat a Belichick-coached squad. “One thing Doug [Pederson] told me is ‘I know I’ve got to stay aggressive. [The Patriots] are not going to lose games. We’ve got to beat them. We’ve got to play our game.’ And that’s what you’ve got to do.
“I think [the Eagles] have taken that approach, with the faceless opponent that they’re talking about. They are not playing against New England. They’re not playing against Belichick. They’re trying to do what they do well.”
That’s one big check mark for Pederson. At least we know the Eagles will play to win, and won’t “play not to lose.” Or maybe he’s just saying that. We’ll see what he does when he’s actually in these situations.
The Patriots Mystique
Perhaps one big intangible as to why so many inexperienced coaches fold so easily against Belichick is that they can’t help but be intimidated by the Patriots “mystique.” It felt like that had started to wane before the 2014 season. But as Brady has taken his game to another level in recent seasons, the mystique has come roaring back.
Pederson’s comments this week are nonetheless consistent with what Dungy said the Eagles coach told him. He knows the Eagles can’t play scared and they need to attack as often as they can. They can’t do what the Jaguars did and take knees at the end of the half or try to milk the clock up only 10 points.
“I approach each game the same,” said Pederson on Wednesday. “I’m going to try to stay as aggressive as possible, be smart, try to put our players in successful positions, and try to maintain that. So I hope this game doesn’t change that.”
Belichick, ever the prepared situational coach, is certainly expecting that aggressiveness on Sunday.
“Very aggressive, well-balanced,” said Belichick on the way Pederson coaches the Eagles. “They use a lot of personnel – all of the receivers, all of the tight ends, all of the backs. [Pederson] gets a lot of people involved. Very aggressive getting the ball down the field … He’s done a great job.”
Pederson does appear to understand what it will take for the Eagles to be prepared enough to survive a 60-minute battle against the Patriots. But saying the words and actually executing them on the field are, of course, two entirely different things. It remains to be seen whether Pederson and quarterback Nick Foles (who, by the way, is also facing the patriots for the first time) will have the right mix of aggressiveness, smarts, discipline, and situational awareness to overcome the usually-impeccable Belichick and Brady.
Better Team = Better Game?
Perhaps Dungy’s statements will ring true on Sunday. Outside of the quarterback mismatch (which is no small thing), one might argue that the Eagles boast a better, deeper roster than the Patriots. Even Belichick will tell you that it’s the players, not the coaches, who will truly decide the Super Bowl.
But ultimately, it’s up to the coaches to have the players prepared to do things the right way. For 60 full minutes. It remains to be seen whether Pederson can stay aggressive without being stupid. Whether he can approach every situation correctly and adjust accordingly when he needs to do so. And whether he can do it with a lead until the very end.
The history doesn’t look good for Pederson. He has some long odds to overcome, and has to do it on the biggest stage of his career. The players are the ones that will take up most of the screen time in the Super Bowl, but perhaps the biggest match of them all will come on the sidelines.
— By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at email@example.com.