New England’s run to an eighth Super Bowl appearance in the last 17 years has been accompanied by a narrative of friction between their leading architects – owner Robert Kraft, coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady.
Prior to this post-season, the three men issued a joint statement attempting to dispel the notion of a rift, but their response to the reports may have spoken volumes.
With a 40-year-old Brady defiantly playing into older age, while Kraft and Belichick perform a balancing act of power, a breakup of the dynasty may be near.
Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles is as unlikely a Super Bowl QB as Brady is an inevitable one. The 29-year-old Foles, who once considered retiring during an uneven career, was thrust into the starting role for Philadelphia when signal-caller Carson Wentz went down with an ACL injury in early December.
Foles has responded with a pair of strong playoff wins but he will face the test of his career on football’s biggest stage. He will also try to become the first backup QB to triumph in the title game since Brady pulled it off in Super Bowl XXXVI.
New England’s indestructible tight end was concussed against the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC Championship but has been cleared to play after passing the NFL’s concussion protocol. Gronkowski’s physical presence further tilts the balance of the game New England’s way. If he is less than 100%, the Eagles dodge one of the Patriots’ key weapons.
Philadelphia running back LeGarrette Blount and defensive end Chris Long each won last year’s Super Bowl as members of the Patriots. Both had an opportunity to return to the Patriots, but chose a move to the NFC and can now join Ken Norton and Deion Sanders as players who won back-to-back Super Bowls with different teams. Brady jokingly said he hopes Long respects his elders and does not hit him too hard, but there will be no mercy shown between friends turned foes.
New England is a heavy betting favourite over the underdog Eagles, but the Patriots’ history suggests late drama may be on the horizon. The Patriots’ come-from-behind 34-28 overtime triumph over Atlanta in Super Bowl 51 was the largest margin of victory in any of their last eight Super Bowl appearances. Whether a late field goal, or miracle catch, the Patriots have a knack for being a part of theatrics under the bright spotlight.
The Londoner left for the States when he was seven, but is the poster boy for the sport in his homeland. Ajayi was a mid-season pick up for Philadelphia and will share the load with ex-Patriot LeGarrette Blount, but will still see plenty of the ball, particularly if New England do not establish a big lead early on.
The half-time show garners just as much interest as the game itself and this year’s performance may elicit even more intrigue, given Justin Timberlake’s last Super Bowl performance. It was Timberlake who ripped Janet Jackson’s top, briefly exposing a breast covered by a nipple shield, in a moment that stunned the world.
However, Timberlake has already ruled out any special guests this time around, so the possibility of yet more controversy looks highly unlikely.
NFL fans have been spoiled in the sport’s showpiece event in recent years. Last February’s contest featured a record comeback that was completed in overtime, while three years ago New England snatched victory from the jaws of defeat with a last-gasp goal-line interception from Malcolm Butler. Only one of the past 14 Super Bowls have been decided by more than 14 points, so history suggests these contests usually come down to the wire.
Super Bowl LII (52): New England Patriots v Philadelphia Eagles
US Bank Stadium, Minneapolis, 11.30pm (Irish)
Sky Sports, BBC 1
New England 1/2, Philadelphia 13/8