Offensive line key to underdog Eagles having their day
As the jubilant Philadelphia Eagles celebrated their 15-10 NFC Divisional Round win over the Atlanta Falcons, it was perhaps fitting that it was Lane Johnson who sent a message by doing so while wearing a dog mask.
For all the deserved plaudits Nick Foles has received, it is right tackle Johnson and the rest of the offensive line who have played perhaps the most pivotal role in the Eagles' ascendancy from top-seed underdog to a team one win away from a first Super Bowl title.
And, in order for the Eagles to end their long wait in Super Bowl LII against the New England Patriots, the O-Line must produce another performance that will allow Foles to flourish.
Lost in the astonishment at Foles throwing for 352 yards and three touchdowns as the Eagles thrashed the Minnesota Vikings and their vaunted defense 38-7 in the NFC Championship Game was the fact Foles was sacked just once.
The Falcons were also able to get Foles on the ground on only one occasion and both of the Eagles' playoff games have been an exhibition of excellent run-blocking, center Jason Kelce and guard Brandon Brooks demonstrating almost ballet-like mobility in opening up holes for Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount.
Should they do the same in the Super Bowl and allow their running backs to control the pace of the game while keeping Foles clean, then the Eagles will be very difficult to stop.
Yet, while the Patriots defense is far from the level of that of the Vikings, it is a unit that has continued to make strides after some early-season struggles.
The strength of the New England defense is on the back end with cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore and safety Devin McCourty, but the numbers suggest the front seven should prove a formidable challenge for the Eagles' O-Line.
Missing star linebacker Dont'a Hightower, the Patriots have some underrated pieces up front in defensive linemen Malcom Brown, Deatrich Wise and Trey Flowers.
And they have shown up in the postseason. The Patriots have 11 sacks in their two playoff games, though eight came in the Divisional Round win over the Tennessee Titans, and have allowed just 3.5 yards per carry in the run game.
The strength against the run was evident in the AFC Championship Game defeat of the Jacksonville Jaguars, whose rookie running back Leonard Fournette enjoyed success in the first half, but was kept in check in the second as the Jaguars struggled to moved the ball and collapsed from 20-10 up to a 24-20 defeat.
Ironically, it is Blount, a player who won the Super Bowl with the Patriots last year, who could be the man who prevents New England from successfully defending the run.
Ajayi boasts an impressive combination of burst, agility and power, the latter being the primary asset of Blount, helping him serve as the hammer whose physical style enables the Eagles to wear down defenses, with rookie Corey Clement the speedier change-of-pace option.
Lacking a truly dominant pass rusher off the edge, getting to Foles is absolutely key for the Patriots if they want to stop the Eagles from controlling the clock and grinding down the defense.
However, there has been little vulnerability in the Eagles' O-Line to suggest they will be able to do so.
Another performance from Johnson and Co. akin to those they produced against Atlanta and Minnesota and the underdogs may well have their day, and a maiden Super Bowl title.