Full of intrigue

Feb 1, 2005 1:59 PM

New England has become the first defending champion to make it back to the Super Bowl since Denver won consecutive pro football titles six seasons ago.

Philadelphia is making its first appearance in the Big Game in nearly a quarter century. Back in SBXV the Eagles lost to Oakland 27-10 in then coach Dick Vermeil’s fifth season. Vermeil got his Super Bowl win nearly two decades later with the St. Louis Rams. How time flies!

This game is as intriguing a matchup as there has been in years for many reasons. As a result it becomes a very difficult game to handicap. Most years there has clearly been one side to back. That side has not always won or covered, but was a sensible team to back. For the Patriots versus the Eagles, there is plenty of point counterpoint material.

New England fashioned a second straight 14-2 regular season and enters the Super Bowl winners in 31 of 33 games. The Patriots are seeking a third Super Bowl title in four seasons. A win over Philadelphia would cement the Pats as the latest in a short list of NFL dynasties. Considering the economic environment surrounding the current day NFL, their accomplishment would be as impressive as those of the Packers, Steelers, 49ers and Cowboys over the past four decades.

New England has been even better this season. In the 15 consecutive games the Pats won following their 2-2 start of 2003, eight were by less than a TD. Of New England’s 16 wins this season, 12 came by double digits and only two by less than seven. Though not thought of as a dominant team, a dozen double digits wins is as close to being dominant as it gets.

Philadelphia has been almost as impressive, going 15-3 to reach this game. Two of the three losses came in the final two weeks of the regular season when most of the regulars were rested. Eleven of the Eagles’ 15 wins have been by double digits with five by at least 21 points. All three losses were by double digits. The only relevant defeat was a 27-3 setback in Pittsburgh, a week after the Steelers hammered the Pats. Of course the Pats got their

-revenge when it mattered most, in the AFC Championship game.

The Super Bowl will be watched by millions of people all over the world and the total betting volume will be in the billions worldwide and likely in the range of $85 million statewide in the legal sports books.

The experience factor greatly favors New England. RB Corey Dillon is the most significant newcomer to the Pats, joining the team following last season, and his impact has been huge. Philadelphia finally advanced to the Super Bowl after three consecutive failures in the NFC title game. The nucleus on offense has been pretty stable in recent seasons although the major addition of WR Terrell Owens greatly bolstered productivity.

Owens’ late season injury has him quite questionable. The Eagles did win their playoff games over Minnesota and Atlanta with Owens in street clothes. Still, it’s a big leap going from playing in a conference championship game to a Super Bowl.

Fortunately, Eagles head coach Andy Reid has prior Super Bowl experience from being with other organizations and his steady leadership might go far in helping the players deal with the expected nerves and distractions this week.

Normally it would be easy to just say New England has a huge advantage over any opponent, with Coach Bill Belichick consistently showing he and his staff can design game plans that succeed. But in Reid, he faces a coach nearly as successful. This is best illustrated by Reid’s 9-0 straight up record (7-2 ATS) following a bye week. While Belichick has the advantage, the gap is not as great as might widely be perceived.

The Super Bowl is handicapped unlike any other game played during the regular season or the playoffs. There is finality to the season following this game. The winners are champions and the losers must settle for playing the "what if’’ game during the offseason. Often these games become one sided, as the trailing team ultimately accepts the inevitable while the leading team continues to play with purpose. Mistakes, penalties and especially turnovers become magnified.

Keys to success often lie the ability to run the ball on offense and to defend against the run on defense. The ability to avoid turning the ball over on offense is also key.

New England has statistical edges in most categories, though quite slight. But the Patriots do have a decided edge in the running game on both sides of the ball. New England is averaging 31 yards per game more rushing yardage gained and allows 17 yards per game less than Philadelphia. The Pats have committed four more turnovers, but defensively they have forced a dozen more opponent turnovers than Philly.

The value lies with the underdog Eagles. Even if you allow a point or two for Owens potential absence, the line of New England -7 represents a huge adjustment for a spread that had been pretty stable much of the season.

In nearly four decades of the Super Bowl, there has never been back to back years in which the game was decided by single digits. New England defeated Carolina by three points last season. And their earlier win over the Rams was also by three points.

Although this fact might point towards a New England blowout, don’t forget that this ”˜trend’ can also remain intact with the Eagles winning in a blowout. And in QB Donovan McNabb, Philly has a big play player. McNabb had the NFL’s play of the year in Philly’s Monday night win at Dallas with that lengthy scramble and downfield completion to WR Freddie Mitchell.

Part of New England’s success in designing game plans has been an ability to take away the opponent’s strength and force them to win with their weakness. The Eagles are a reasonably well balanced team, relying neither on the run nor the pass to any great extent. With RB Brian Westbrook (also expected to handle kick returns) the Eagles have a versatile weapon, who can run and catch the football. If New England tries to contain Westbrook, the Eagles will turn the game over to McNabb. And vice versa.

New England QB Tom Brady is well on his way to the Hall of Fame and a third Super Bowl win would virtually guarantee induction. RB Corey Dillon adds balance to the offense.

Both teams have played excellent defense all season, tying for second fewest points allowed behind Pittsburgh. New England had the more productive offense, outscoring the Eagles by just more than a FG per game.

New England also played a much more demanding schedule, facing not only better football teams but more of them. Including both playoff wins, New England was 6-1 against teams that finished the regular season with 10 or more wins. Philadelphia was 3-1 in similar contests and its win in the divisional round against Minnesota came against an 8-8 team.

The AFC won 44 of 64 interconference matchups during the regular season — better than two of every three such games. Equally as impressive was the 42-21-1 pointspread record in those games. The average margin of victory in the 44 AFC wins was 15, nearly double that of the NFC’s average margin.

New England continues to play with a chip on their shoulder. Their accomplishments over the past three plus seasons have been extraordinary. Perhaps if they were a flashier team such as the 49ers of the 1980s or the Cowboys of the early 1990s or if defensively dominant as the Steelers of the 1970s or the 1985 Bears they would be double digit favorites.

New England has excelled at scoring first and protecting the lead. Both defenses have played well all season, yielding yardage but stiffening inside the 20. The total of 48 seems high for the quality of defenses, but the one sided history of the game makes a case for a high score. Still, the fundamentals suggest that both defenses will have success in limiting the number of big plays.

In the final analysis it’s hard to go against the Patriots. Playing in the tough AFC, the Pats have gone 16-2 SU. More remarkable is the 13-3-2 ATS record and an average margin of victory of nearly 12 per game. They have been tested by better teams than has Philadelphia. The Eagles is stepping up in class and although talented enough to pull the upset, history suggests it will not happen. We like the score 27-13. NEW ENGLAND, UNDER.

Shop for props

The best advice for playing the props is to shop, shop and shop some more. The preference here is to look for head to head props as opposed to selecting one result from a list of five, 10 or even more possible outcomes.

Among the props to consider are that the first pass of each QB will be incomplete rather than complete. Since the ”˜incomplete’ is a plus price for each QB, you need only have one falter on his initial pass to show a profit. Over 3½ field goals (+130 at one locale) is also worth your attention.