Obvious comparisons have been drawn between the current Eagles playoff run and the last time they reached the Super Bowl, following the 2004 NFL season. The similarities are pretty striking. In 2004 they wrapped up the number one seed and home field advantage at 13-3, then faced (and defeated) the Vikings and Falcons to advance to the Super Bowl against the defending champions: the New England Patriots. When last these two teams met...
The Story was Different
When the Eagles and Patriots met in Super Bowl XXXIX 13 years ago it was the culmination of two dynasties. One was a little more decorated than the other, but it would be the peak of Andy Reid’s 14 seasons in Philadelphia and the last championship for New England until 2015. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady (and a rookie Vince Wilfork) are all that connect the two championship squads.
The Patriots had won two of the last three Super Bowls, both introducing the world to the comeback victories they would perfect in 2017 against the Falcons. By this point they were the established franchise of the NFL, though they had begun their journey as the third largest underdog in Super Bowl history (14 point dogs to the 2001 Rams.)
Throwing the word dynasty out at the early 2000s Eagles might be a bit much, but they were coming off four straight division titles, four straight NFC Championship game appearances and were, through this game, the model of consistency for an NFL franchise. Consider it a term applied relative to the 2017 birds.
Leading up to the Super Bowl in 2005, both the Eagles and Patriots won all their playoff games by more than one score. Unlike the present day incarnation, the Eagles were favorites in their two NFC games at home, by six points against the Falcons and eight points against the Vikings. Despite that, they were actually bigger dogs heading into the big game. The Patriots were favorites by seven points in 2005, compared to just 5.5 today.
But... the Teams were Pretty Similar
When you look to compare the 2017 Eagles and 2017 Patriots to their 2004 counterparts, the biggest difference and biggest similarity is immediately clear. For Philadelphia, in 2004, the Eagles had their franchise quarterback and MVP candidate under center. In 2017, he’s on the sideline with a cane. For New England, Belichick and Brady remain the faces of the organization.
Beyond the quarterback position, the current Eagles start to look a lot more like the past ones. The 2004 breakthrough was fueled by the off-season additions of Terrell Owens and Jevon Kearse. This season free-agent signings Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith both caught 40-yard touchdowns in the NFC Championship. Chris Long and Patrick Robinson recovered turnovers. In both seasons, those free agents were being added to a core forged through the draft.
McNabb, Brian Westbrook, Tra Thomas, Corey Simon, Lito Sheppard, and Sheldon Brown were all draft picks that starred in 2004. Just like Nelson Agholor, Zach Ertz, Jason Kelce, Lane Johnson, Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, Mychal Kendricks, and Jalen Mills have built the skeleton of the 2017 NFC Champions.
Both Eagles teams had veteran free agent signings that it’s hard to picture as anything but Eagles: Jon Runyan and Malcolm Jenkins. Jeremiah Trotter had come home. So has Nick Foles. Both teams got leadership from Jenkins and Brian Dawkins at the safety position that seemed more impressive with each passing game.
New England looks a little different after all these years. They rely on Brady and the passing game in a way they didn’t in 2004. Back then, threw the football 474 times. This season: 581. Their premiere pass-catcher the first time these teams met was eventual Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch. A good performance, to be sure, but a far cry from the lineup of Rob Gronkowski, Brandin Cooks, Danny Amendola, and Chris Hogan.
They were focused much more on rushing and defense. Corey Dillon had 1,635 yards on the ground for the 2004 Patriots. In the committee setting of 2017, Dion Lewis led New England with half that total. The 2004 defense featured stars at every level: Willie McGinest, Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, Asante Samuel, Rodney Harrison. The 2017 defense still has some household names in the secondary (Malcolm Butler, Devin McCourty) but lacks a single Pro Bowl or All-Pro selection. The 2004 team ranked ninth in the league in yards allowed, 2017 sits 29th.
The final similarity to 2004: the coaches. Bill Belichick is, of course, pretty similar to Bill Belichick. And Doug Pederson, rightly or wrongly, has always been viewed as an extension of and throwback to the Reid era in Philadelphia. It’s hard to put yourself back in Christmas 2015 and imagine the Eagles where they are today.