MINNEAPOLIS – Finally, Super Bowl LII is here, and the actual game is only hours away.
My first Super Bowl was XIII in January 1979 in Miami – the “Jackie Smith Game” – in which the Steelers survived the Cowboys, 35-31, and a couple of decades before “South Beach” was a thing.
This now is the 40th consecutive year I’ve spent trying to sort one of these babies out.
With Groundhog Day still clear in our rearview mirrors, if the Super Bowl fatigue that usually emanates from these lollapaloozas is feeling a bit like déjà vu all over again this morning, that very well may be because it is.
This one has been played before.
Super Bowl XXXIX was held in Jacksonville, much like Minneapolis an “off-brand,” if you will, as Super Bowl hosts go.
Unlike Minneapolis, which has been near flawless this past week in all of the logistics, transportation and hospitality needs that come with one of these festivals, Jacksonville – let me say strongly, a lovely place to live or visit in any other regard – sadly messed the bed.
But that’s another story for another time.
The combatants, of course, were Tom Brady’s Patriots and Donovan McNabb’s Eagles.
New England was trying to win its third Super Bowl in four years and become the first team since the 1998 Broncos to win back-to-back Lombardis, and this year’s Patriots are trying to be the first team since those Patriots to turn both those tricks.
New England was 16-2; Philadelphia was 15-3.
That one opened with the Patriots as seven-point favorites with a total of 46½; this one opened with New England as a 6½-point favorite – although it has since moved to 4½ and 48, respectively.
The story of the week leading up to XXXIX was Terrell Owens’ attempt to return from a seven-week absence with a broken ankle and play the game with two screws still inserted, and this year’s main focus was on Rob Gronkowski’s efforts to clear the concussion protocol and return to the New England lineup.
The second-biggest story was the impending departure after the game of Bill Belichick’s offensive coordinator, Charlie Weis, and defensive coordinator, Romeo Crennell. Sometime in the next 24 to 48 hours, Belichick’s current coordinators – Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia – will be named the head coaches of the Indianapolis Colts and Detroit Lions, respectively.
And Bill Murray has walked by me here in the media workroom at noon on the button every day since I arrived in town last Monday. (The Murray sightings are the only piece here that isn’t 100 percent accurate.)
The similarities between XXXIX and LII are uncanny.
The game in Jacksonville was a defensive struggle tied, 10-10, going into the fourth quarter before the Patriots scored 10 points in the first 6:17 of the final stanza and then hung on to win, 24-21.
Can these Eagles avoid a similar fate? They match up much better with this crew of Patriots than the 2004 version.
Much has been made of the season-ending injury to Eagles franchise quarterback Carson Wentz, but the reality is his backup, Nick Foles, has accomplished everything Wentz has in their respective careers – and in fact just a tad more.
Philly’s ability to win on offense will be dictated far more by the success of its superior ground game behind two-time Pats Super Bowl champion LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi and the fact that the Patriot defense has allowed 4.7 yards a rush this season but only 3.5 in the playoffs.
Defensively, the Eagles also have the best front seven on the field, and their front four is the deepest in the NFL and possibly the best at creating pressure without bringing additional rushers.
If Philadelphia succeeds in soiling Brady’s pocket and forces him to hurry throws into seven-man coverages, it will steal a page from the formula the Giants used to hand Brady his only two Super Bowl defeats, in XLII and XLVI.
The Eagles’ strongest MVP candidates are Blount, Ajayi, Brandon Graham and Malcolm Jenkins (Fletcher Cox may dominate but won’t pile up stats to snag the award).
For New England, on offense Brady and Co. just have to be themselves – control the pace with runs and short tosses to James White and Dion Lewis, split the seams with Gronkowski, hit a few plays downfield to Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan and convert third downs with Danny Amendola.
Defensively, the Pats have to limit – but not necessarily stop – Blount and Ajayi, and the secondary with Devin McCourty, Stephon Gilmore and Malcolm Butler is the best group on the field and their biggest advantage.
Which Eagles receiver actually scares a defense?
Patriots MVP candidates as always start with Brady and include Gronk, Lewis, White, Amendola, McCourty and Gilmore.
Predictions? They’re like rear ends – everybody has one and they’re only good for two things. You figure it out.
All I’ll say is I’m never picking against Belichick and Brady again until somebody beats them.
• Hub Arkush is executive editor of Pro Football Weekly. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter @Hub_Arkush.