Five biggest early storylines for Super Bowl LII

New England Patriots vs. Philadelphia Eagles features familiar faces, history on the line

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Here’s a quick look at five big storylines we’ll be tracking as we count down the days to Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis’ US Bank Stadium on Feb. 4 between the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles.

History vs. Legacy

The Patriots are going for their sixth Super Bowl victory, which would tie them with the Pittsburgh Steelers for the most in NFL history. Tom Brady will now play in his eighth Super Bowl; no other player has played in more than six. In fact, Brady’s eight Super Bowl appearances are as many as any other team — excluding the Patriots, who will be in their ninth Super Bowl all time.

The Eagles are chasing their first Super Bowl victory — one of 13 NFL franchises that have not won one over the past 52 years. They’ve lost both of their prior appearances, the first one coming in Super Bowl XV following the 1980 season and the most recent in Super Bowl XXXIX in 2005 against … the Patriots.

New England won, 24-21, as Brady outplayed Donovan McNabb.

Bill Belichick passed Chuck Noll for the most Super Bowl victories by a coach last year with his fifth and has a chance to add to that record, also winning two as an assistant coach. That gave him seven, which ties former scout Neal Dahlen for the most ever by one man. Belichick would take the lead with No. 8.

Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson will be coaching in his first Super Bowl, but he won a title as the backup QB to Brett Favre on the Green Bay Packers’ Super Bowl XXXI team — the one that beat the Patriots and Belichick, who was that team’s defensive coordinator.

Backup QB narrative

Nick Foles was terrific in the Eagles’ NFC championship game victory, building off a solid game the week prior. But there were plenty of doubters following the season-ending injury to Carson Wentz, as Foles struggled badly in the Week 16 and 17 tune-ups leading into the postseason.

Foles has ended that chatter for now, and he has a chance to be the 10th backup quarterback to win a Super Bowl. The first was Earl Morrall in Super Bowl V, and it most recently was accomplished by Trent Dilfer in Super Bowl XXXV.

The year before Dilfer? It was Tom Brady who stepped in for an injured Drew Bledsoe in Super Bowl XXXIV in a massive upset over the St. Louis Rams.

But Brady and most of the other backups on that list had a lot longer to prepare than Foles has. He will be the fourth QB to start a conference championship game after starting three or fewer games in the regular season. Of the first three, two — Jeff Hostetler and Doug Williams — would go on to win the Super Bowl. The other one, Roger Staubach, lost.

Gronk’s health

All eyes will be on the injury report this week and next as it pertains to Rob Gronkowski, who was knocked out of Sunday’s AFC championship game with a vicious second-quarter hit from the Jacksonville Jaguars’ Barry Church and placed into the concussion protocol.

We know how this one will play out: There will be two weeks of breathless Gronk concussion talk and lots of deflection from the Patriots’ side. Expect them to milk it for all it’s worth and for the Eagles to blow off most of it and expect Gronk to be out there Feb. 4.

Everyone knows how important Gronkowski is to the Patriots’ offense, which made losing him and still winning against a great Jaguars defense all the more miraculous. Gronkowski missed last year’s Super Bowl with a season-ending injury and was very limited in his first Super Bowl game against the New York Giants in XLVI.

But he did play a big role in the Patriots’ Super Bowl victory over the Seattle Seahawks following the 2014 season and was the Patriots’ 2017 leader in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns.

Gronkowski returned to the practice field for the first time Saturday since suffering the concussion. He's yet to clear concussion protocol, but getting in even a limited practice bodes well for his availability Sunday.

Assistant coaches on the move?

The last time the Eagles met the Patriots in the Super Bowl, it was the final game for both Patriots’ coordinators, Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis. This time, the Patriots expect to lose offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia in similar fashion.

McDaniels had a second interview with the Colts last week and is widely expected to take their head-coaching job. Patricia is roundly believed to be the next head coach of the Detroit Lions. The Patriots actually could become the first team ever to lose three assistant coaches to head-coaching jobs in a single offseason; linebackers coach Brian Flores remains in the running for the Arizona Cardinals’ vacancy.

And in a weird bit of symmetry, former Lions head coach Jim Schwartz is now running the defense of the Eagles. Another Eagles assistant, QB coach John DeFilippo, also interviewed for the Cardinals’ vacancy. The job that DeFilippo has done with Wentz and Foles, it’s easy — as it is with all the other assistants in this game who have been sought elsewhere — to see why he’s in demand.

Atmosphere

LII will not feature the first home game in Super Bowl history, and it’s sure to create a fascinating setting as hoards of Eagles fans are sure to make their way into enemy territory. Patriots fans might not travel as well as they used to, but it could be a strange mix of depressed Vikings fans walking around their hometown while fans from two other franchises are going for a ring. There also will be some connections on the teams’ rosters.

The Eagles have a few familiar faces who played roles in the Patriots’ most recent Super Bowl victory in LI vs. the Atlanta Falcons. Both Chris Long and LeGarrette Blount played big roles for New England last year and the Eagles this season after they joined the team this past offseason. Two Patriots players, Dion Lewis and Eric Rowe, started their NFL career in Philadelphia.

Pro Football Weekly