It's been almost three years since the Patriots last lined up against Philadelphia. But this matchup promises to be more than just another speedbump on New England's quest for perfection. This one is personal.
It's been almost three years since the Patriots last lined up against Philadelphia.
That game had a little more significance, with New England taking a 24-21 win in Super Bowl XXXIX to cap its third title in four years.
Tonight, the Pats face Philly again (8 p.m., Ch. 7). There won't be a championship on the line, though the 10-0 Patriots certainly seemed destined to add another Lombardi Trophy to their mantel before the season is over.
But this matchup promises to be more than just another speedbump on New England's quest for perfection. This one is personal.
The Eagles made a major tactical error early this year when they publicly questioned the legitimacy of New England's win in that Super Bowl in the wake of the Spygate scandal.
Safety Brian Dawkins stated that "now there's always going to be questions about the situation. Was it great adjustments or what?" Punt returner Reno Mahe went even further, saying, "I think they should forfeit, man. We won the Super Bowl."
There's little doubt those statements have been discussed plenty in the Patriots' locker room, though the Pats were coy about the controversy this week.
"It doesn't matter," said safety Rodney Harrison. "What's done is done. What happened in the past, happened in the past. We're moving forward and preparing for Philly. It doesn't matter what's said, it's all about what happens between the lines on Sunday."
Linebacker Junior Seau wasn't on that Super Bowl team. He joined the Pats last season, but has had no problem adopting the team's tight-lipped approach.
"We're just going to focus on what we do," Seau said. "We don't control what other folks feel about us. ... We have enough to worry about. We're not going to dramatize this. This ain't Dr. Phil or any kind show were you can rehash the past. We're not here about the past. We're here for the future."
For their part, the Eagles have tried to downplay their earlier accusations. No doubt the prospect of imminent retribution has a bit to do with the revisionist history.
"I've never really felt that way," insisted standout Philadelphia running back Brian Westbrook on a conference call with New England media this week. "I felt that they deserved it. They won that game fair and square and I believe that. To be honest with you, that Super Bowl is a long, long way off in the past. That was two or three years ago, so it's not really one of those big deals to us at this point anymore. I think we're more focused on the things that we have to do in this game and try to win a football game."
That won't be an easy task. These Pats have a long memory when it comes to past slights, and they feed off any form of disrespect.
"You know this team doesn't forget," said quarterback Tom Brady in a radio interview this week. "Everyone knows what people say and think. Some of it's motivation. It doesn't really affect how you play once the game starts, but it does maybe heighten your focus or motivate you during the week in practice. We've got a lot of reasons to be motivated. We love it when people give us extra motivation."
The more things change ...
That Super Bowl in February 2005 might still be fresh in the minds of both sides, but the reality is these are two very different teams taking the field tonight - at least personnel-wise.
The Eagles have just 15 players remaining on their roster who played in that Bowl, while the Pats have only 19 holdovers on their 53-man roster, plus Troy Brown, who remains on the physically unable to perform list with a knee injury.
There's been plenty of turnover for the Eagles, but a veteran nucleus remains with Westbrook, quarterback Donovan McNabb and tight end L.J. Smith leading the offense and Dawkins, defensive end Jevon Kearse and cornerback Lito Sheppard keying the defense.
"We haven't seen them for a little it, but they have a lot of familiar faces, a lot of great players, some of the best players in the league that have been around for awhile and know how to win," said Pats coach Bill Belichick. "They've got some very experienced players and they also have a very good scheme. They're a hard team to get ready for."
But the Patriots at least have the advantage of knowing what's coming, and that's not because of any signal stealing. Many of the players have changed, but the Eagles still operate the same schemes on both offense and defense.
"The philosophy hasn't changed," said Pats veteran running back Kevin Faulk. "The players have changed. They've got some young guys there now, but they've still got those veteran guys that know the system, and that's what counts."
The Patriots, meanwhile, have retooled extensively since that Bowl clash, especially on offense. While only linebackers Roman Phifer and Willie McGinest are gone from that defense, the offense has just Brady and linemen Dan Koppen, Matt Light and Stephen Neal back from that night's starting lineup.
The changes, particularly an entirely new receiving corps led by Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte Stallworth, have paid off immensely, with the Pats perfect through 10 games with an average margin of victory of 25.4 points.
The Pats goal this season has gone beyond simple respect. They want opponents resigned to defeat long before the game ever starts, which is part of the reason Brady and Co. have stayed on the field long after the game was effectively over in their many blowout victories.
"You do want teams to be intimidated," Brady said. "You want teams to come into your stadium and (think), 'How the heck are we going to go into Foxborough in January and win?' That's the kind of presence I think this team is hoping for. The only way we can do it is to continue the way we're playing."
Winning isn't enough anymore. It's as if Belichick has created a team full of Ivan Dragos, with the club motto now "I must break you." Only this time, don't expect the underdog from Philly to score the upset.
The Eagles insist, however, they're not coming into Foxborough afraid of the big, bad Patriots.
"We're not intimidated by them," Westbrook said. "As a football player, you don't go into the game intimidated. We respect what they've done, we respect the fact that they've scored a lot of points, and it's up to us to neutralize their scoring ability and put some points on the board ourselves."
Philadelphia's ability to put up points has been modest this year. The Eagles exploded for 56 points against Detroit in Week 3, but only topped 20 points in two other games.
And that was with five-time Pro Bowler McNabb behind center. McNabb was declared out yesterday after missing practice all week with thumb and ankle injuries. That will force Philly to turn to A.J. Feeley, a familiar face for New England, as he spent time in the AFC East with Miami.
"As always, we'll be ready for both of them," Belichick said. "Feeley beat us down there in Miami a couple years ago, so we have a lot of respect for him and a lot of respect for McNabb. They're both outstanding quarterbacks.
They both can run the system and Feeley got in there and ran it last week in Miami after McNabb went out. He played it very well. I think that they can keep it rolling no matter who's in there."
Feeley saw his first action in relief of McNabb last week, completing 13-of-19 passes for 116 yards and a TD as he led the Eagles to a 17-7 win at Miami. It was a familiar setting for Feeley, who has also experienced going up against the Pats as a major underdog before.
In December 2004, he led the 2-11 Dolphins to a shocking 29-28 win over the 12-1 Pats, completing 22-of-35 passes for 198 yards with no picks and a game-winning 21-yard TD pass to Derrius Thompson on fourth-and-10 with 1:23 left.
"They're two different types of leaders," said Seau, who played with Feeley in Miami. "(Feeley's) a passer, and McNabb can do both (run and pass). We're going to study A.J. a little bit more this week."
Douglas Flynn covers the Patriots for the Daily News. He can be reached at 508-626-4405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.