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February 04, 2018

First half observations: Eagles 22, Patriots 12

After 13 years away from the Super Bowl, the Eagles showed up for the first half of Super Bowl LII and looked like they never left. Big plays, blown coverage, and the always aggressive Doug Pederson starred in Philadelphia's first half, and the Eagles entered halftime with a 22-12 lead.

Thirty minutes away from the first Super Bowl in franchise history. Hold on to your butts.

The Good

•  Doug Pederson came into the Super Bowl with a backup quarterback who had never played a game of this magnitude before. All he did was sling the rock on his first three plays, forcing Foles to step up and get in his comfort zone early.

There are two keys to any big game from Foles: getting him into a rhythm and making sure he has enough protection.The Eagles accomplished both in their very first series, asking Foles to get the chains moving and make several tough throws to drive into New England territory.

He certainly got a little help from his friends. After dropping a tough play on the sideline the play prior, Torrey Smith had his name called immediately on the next play, and he came through for his QB in a big way.

Despite the anti-climactic end to the first possession, the Eagles can be proud of that start. They ate up a bunch of clock, drove deep into Patriots territory, and proved they are in this to win it.

• Wag that finger, Jalen Mills. Wag that finger.

That's probably a matchup the Patriots will expect to win more often than not, but credit to the young corner for coming up with a play in a huge spot. He carries himself as if he believes he's one of the top corners in the league — realistic or not — and that's the sort of attitude you need guys to have in the Super Bowl. No fear.

Not to be relegated to a single stop in the first quarter, Mills came up big again against Gronkowski in the second quarter. Belichick finally decided to play with some cojones after leaving them in the parking lot earlier in the game, but Mills kept up with a streaking Gronkowski down the sideline and ended New England's threat.

•  A lot of Chip Kelly's beliefs and philosophies have been debunked over time, to the point that he is a hated figure in Philadelphia. But if there was one thing from his tenure that holds true today, it is a simple maxim: "Big people beat up little people."

True to their gunslinging philosophy, the Eagles went deep to their massive No. 1 wide receiver, and Alshon Jeffery went up and tortured former Eagles cornerback Eric Rowe at the top of his jump.

After a sluggish start to his carer in Eagles green, Jeffery came alive in the second half of the season and is looking every bit like the franchise wideout Howie Roseman thought he was getting. He has a size advantage on basically any corner he goes up against, and the Eagles need to be more willing to toss him jump balls when he's in one-on-one coverage.

• Rodney McLeod made an absolutely game-changing play early in the second quarter, saving a touchdown and eventually preventing a New England score altogether. With Patriots wide receiver Brandin Cooks in the open field and moving toward the end zone, he attempted to hurdle the Eagles safety and turn McLeod into a permanent fixture on his highlight reel. Cooks made the wrong decision.

With Bill Belichick playing uncharacteristically conservative, New England botched the ensuing field goal attempt and wound up coming away with nothing for their drive. Short of ripping the ball out of Cooks' hands, McLeod ending the series with that ridiculous tackle could not have been a bigger play.

•  Playoff football has long been about trusting the big guys out front to get it done and wearing your opponent down with the run game. He may not be a big-play threat, but there are few better equipped to be a human battering ram than LeGarrette Blount.

•  A whole lot of credit is due to the defensive line for their first-half performance because Tom Brady had very little space to work in the pocket to step into throws. It led to some uncharacteristically bad passes from Brady and helped cover up for some pass coverage that was fairly spotty through two quarters of play.

Teams win championships not by worrying about the greatness of their opponent, but by continuing to do and believe in what they do best. The Eagles have looked undaunted by facing one of the best pro athletes ever.

• What a finish to the half by New Jersey's own Corey Clement. He came up with a massive reception down the sidelines to extend Philadelphia's drive to close the half, which was huge both for how it helped Philadelphia and how it hurt New England.

If Clement doesn't make that play, New England has tons of time to work with on top of getting the ball at halftime. That's a recipe for disaster against Brady and Belichick, and it was part of how Jacksonville choked away their lead in the AFC Championship game.

It takes every last man on a roster to win a Super Bowl. When your third running back is coming up with plays like this, it's a great sign.

• If I've said it once, I've said it all year: I absolutely love Doug Pederson going for it on fourth-and-goal and New England backed up into their own end zone. I don't care about the result, I want a team and a coach playing like they have nothing to lose.

And on top of executing for a touchdown, Doug Pederson beat Bill Belichick, perhaps the greatest coach in the history of the NFL, with his own damn play on fourth down, a set New England failed with when Brady dropped the pass earlier in the game.

Start appreciating what you have in Philadelphia. The Eagles have a leader and an innovator. 

The Bad

•  How do you take a false start penalty inside the five-yard line? That's exactly what Zach Ertz did on the first possession, and it was a back-breaking penalty for the Eagles.

The Eagles were set up with second-and-goal on the two-yard line, and the extra five yards completely changed the dynamic of the series. Philadelphia passed on each of the next two plays, both of which ended in incompletions in the end zone. There was a lot less variety available to them, and it ended up costing them an extra four points.

Would they have scored without the penalty? There's no guarantee of that. But it sure would have been nice to find out.

•  The Eagles strength comes from the defensive line, in part because they are constantly subbing guys in and out to keep legs fresh. That's why it was so disappointing for the Eagles to look as unprepared as they did for New England's tempo in the first quarter, with Brady catching Philadelphia off guard on the first series for the Patriots.

They would recover to get it done at the end of the series, but picking up a 12 man on the field penalty on the first defensive series of the game is pretty disappointing.

• Philadelphia tends to play softer coverage than a lot of fans would hope for, but that's not a problem if you're in a position to take advantage of it. Unfortunately for the Eagles, they also didn't do that great a job of actually covering guys despite playing off the line of scrimmage for a majority of the time.

A better throw from Brady — granted, he was under duress — would have resulted in a touchdown down the sideline for Danny Amendola, who found himself all by himself following blown coverage from the Philadelphia secondary. Brady is a master of recognizing and picking apart zone coverage, and while it's understandable to try to take away the big play you still have to actually execute.

• Alshon Jeffery had a Super Bowl MVP caliber performance in the first half of play, but man, he's going to want this one back when he looks back at the film following the game.

It's hard to fault the guy too much when he was inches away from making an unbelievable circus catch and putting the Eagles close to another touchdown, but that one hurts. You can't give New England extra possessions because they will come back and bite you eventually.

Speaking of things that will come back and bite you, the Eagles would have had New England off the field after a Jalen Mills pass breakup midway through the second quarter. But because of a defensive holding call, the Patriots found new life, and would eventually score on a run play from James White in which tackling appeared to be optional.

Mistakes will kill you in any football game, but especially against a team that is all-time great at punishing yours.

The Ugly

• The Patriots came out of the tunnel to the tune of "Crazy Train" by Ozzy Osbourne. What decade are we living in? Did I mistakenly waltz into an NHL All-Star game in the mid-90's and not realize it?

Ozzy is great and music can be timeless, but it's such a bland and generic choice from a franchise that systematically sucks the soul out of everything it touches. Try again.

• On the one hand, Malcolm Jenkins laying out Cooks was a tone-setting play and one that sent Eagles fans into hysterics all over the world. The kid in me who grew up watching football loved it, and I wasn't the only person reminded of Brian Dawkins.

On the other, oof man, Cooks got absolutely crushed and did not look like he was in good shape afterward. Seeing him lay there motionless on the turf took a decent amount of enjoyment out of the hit, and if anything you want the Eagles to beat the full-strength Patriots so there are no excuses in the end.

(Can't lie though — I may have jumped out of my seat when that play happened, and I recognize the contradiction in reactions is why football continues to thrive even as we learn more about all the health issues it causes.)