On Sunday, the New England Patriots will play their biggest game of the season against the toughest opponent so far on their schedule: the 13-3 Philadelphia Eagles, champions and top seed of the National Football Conference. New England needs to play its best football of the season in order to come away victoriously and as Super Bowl champions for a record-tying sixth time.
In order to accomplish that goal, the Patriots need to ensure to do those eight things at the highest possible level:
Stay disciplined against the run/pass-option.
In week 14, the Eagles lost Carson Wentz for the year because of injury. From that point on and with Nick Foles under center, the team's offense relied heavily on the run/pass option. The system puts pressure on the defense because any movement or clue in either direction influences the quarterback's decision making on whether or not to hand off the football. It is therefore imperative for the Patriots that they stay disciplined against Philadelphia and not tip their hand early.
Target the middle of the field in the passing game.
The strength of Philadelphia's defense lies in its front four, one of the best units in the NFL against both the run and the pass. As strong as the Eagles are up front, though, they are vulnerable deeper down the field – and the Patriots are built to exploit potential mismatches especially versus the linebacker corps. Not only does New England have the speed and quickness at running back to win one-on-ones, the team also employs Rob Gronkowski at tight end. If Philadelphia opts to play press-man coverage on the perimeter, the slot targets could have big day.
Stay commited to running the football.
As noted above, Philadelphia has one of the best run defenses in the league. Despite this fact and the Eagles' comparative weaknesses against the pass further down the field, New England needs to stick to the ground game for two reasons: It will keep the defense honest and the talented pass rushers on the other side of the line of scrimmage on their heels, while simultaneously creating a game pace to the Patriots' liking. Furthermore, it will create play-action opportunities.
Get off the field on third down.
The Patriots allowed a third down conversion rate of 39.4% during the regular season, a number that went down to 36.7% during the playoffs. In order to keep the above-mentioned game pace in New England's favor, the team needs to continue playing sound third down defense. If the Eagles are allowed to control the tempo of the game and by extension limit the Patriots' time on the field, New England will be forced into more obvious passing situations which in turn would play into the hands of Philadelphia's pass rush.
Keep Tom Brady clean against the four-man rush.
It's simple: The Patriots offense starts and ends with Tom Brady. Naturally, protecting him will be a key for New England – and in order to do that, the Patriots a) need to incorporate their running backs as quick outlet targets, and b) block well up front against a ferocious Philadelphia pass rush that will likely try to get home with just four players. And even though the Eagles are middle-of-the-pack when it comes to sacks, they led the NFL in pressure rate according to Pro Football Focus. If Dante Scarnecchia's unit can slow down the rush, the Patriots' chances of winning look good.
Make Philadelphia return kickoffs.
The Eagles do not have a bad kick return game but it has not stood out this season: Primary returnman Kenjon Barner registered a total of 11 runbacks this year for a combined 220 yards (20.0 yds/return). For comparison, the Patriots' Dion Lewis had 26 returns for 631 yards (24.3 yds/return) and a score. Barner's relatively average numbers are something New England could take advantage of: As has been the case multiple times since the new touchback rules were enforced, the team could shift field position in its favor by kicking off just short of the goal line and betting on special teams to stop a return before it reaches the 25-yard line.