Is the NFL in the bag for the Pats? The Eagles' band of brothers. And what the NFL really thinks of its college counterparts. All this and more in this week's 10-Point Stance.
1. The Patriots, Crackpot Ideas and the Truth
This is the age of conspiracy theories, and in the NFL, there is no bigger tin foil hat than the one worn by those who espouse the conspiracy that everyone from the refs to the league office to the media is in on the New England Patriots.
Each time I write about the Patriots, or tweet about them, there are thousands of conspiracy theorists who respond that the league is rigged in favor of the Patriots.
These are people with jobs and fully functioning brains. And yet they believe game officials, urged on by the league office, don't call penalties on the Patriots, which helps the Patriots win games. The league office, the thinking goes, gives the orders to the refs. And the media, hungry for big ratings and page views, ignore the strings apparently being pulled by the refs and league office.
These conspiracy theories intensified a thousand fold after the Patriots' title game win against Jacksonville. As evidence, fingers were pointed to an image of an official seen laughing with the Patriots after they scored a touchdown.
Then, after the game, cameras caught game official Clete Blakeman congratulating Tom Brady as if the official were a kid about to ask for an autograph.
As if those weren't enough, the conspiracy contingent offered its final piece of evidence: The Patriots were called for just one penalty for 10 yards.
Log on to YouTube, and you can't help but stumble on numerous videos about the Patriots, cheating and conspiracies. One carries the subtle title "Patriots cheating in AFC Championship vs Jaguars." Some of the conspiracy chatter is even going mainstream. I watched one of the smartest people in sports journalism, Max Kellerman, an Ivy Leaguer, say the refs gave the Patriots a crucial pass interference call because the Patriots needed help after Rob Gronkowski was knocked out of the contest earlier. C'mon.
Why does all this matter? Numbers, that's why.
There are team and league officials who believe the conspiracies are becoming so prevalent, and thick, it is affecting ratings outside New England. These same people also feel these theories are draining the popularity of the Patriots. (Though they acknowledge the Patriots' constant winning may cause many to turn the television off when they're on.)
Still, there's no proof these theories affect ratings. The SportsBusiness Daily reported the AFC title game drew a 27.3 rating, down 0.1 from last year's Packers-Falcons game on Fox in the same late afternoon spot.
But once one conspiracy gains legs, it's only a matter of time before it intersects with other conspiracy theories. And then that gives birth to another conspiracy theory. And then you get a conspiracy theory. And she gets a conspiracy theory. And he gets a conspiracy theory. We all get a conspiracy theory.
Let's take a quick minute, however, to debunk these theories, one by one:
The refs want the Patriots to win. This is stupid. Why? The officials just don't care. It's also virtually impossible to rig a game with replays and so many eyeballs watching every move.
Officials are graded tougher than any other group in football. Tougher than players, even. If there was some conspiratorial group of them, or just one of them, it would be rooted out by the league or someone else.
The Patriots don't get flagged as much as other teams because they're good, they're disciplined.
The league office wants the Patriots to win for good ratings. No. The league genuinely hates the Patriots—despises them. Remember, the NFL launched Spygate and Deflategate. The latter was one of the most divisive and ugly moments in league history. Why would it want to reward the source of all that trouble?
The media wants the Patriots to win. Hahahahaha.
(Takes a deep breath.)
The majority of the media dislikes the Patriots because the team is slightly paranoid and sometimes hostile to the media. Not all of us feel that way (the team has always been incredibly good to me), but many do. There are media members who would rather eat Tide pods than see the Patriots in the Super Bowl again.
In truth, there's only one reason the Patriots win so much, and it's not because of rigged games or mysterious directives from the league office.
They win because they are damn good.
2. Nick Foles Is in a Zone Like None Other
The Eagles are in the Super Bowl not despite Nick Foles but because of him. Want proof? Take this statistical item from the great Randall Liu, the NFL's senior director of communications:
Think about all the great throwers who appeared in multiple playoff games, like Joe Montana and Ken Stabler.
Foles is besting them all.
"He is truly an example of a quarterback just being in the zone at exactly the right time," Steve Beuerlein said on NFL Monday QB on CBS Sports Network. "[Foles] was moving around in the pocket, buying time, pushing the ball up the field, making uncharacteristic big plays himself. And I think it was a result of Frank Reich, his offensive coordinator, and Doug Pederson being in his ear all week. ... He responded. He had the game of his life, and it could not have come at a better time."
3. Always Get to the Finish Line
Foles, obviously, isn't the only quarterback playing well right now. Former Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon talked on NFL Monday QB about what makes the man Foles will play, Brady, the best quarterback of all time:
"It's amazing to me the consistency in which this guy plays week in and week out. The great thing about it is he makes players around him better. That's not a dominant offensive line. They roll running backs through there right and left. The receiving corps is not one of the premier groups in football. He was without Gronkowski in the second half. And he never panics. He always gets his team to the finish line."
4. The Eagles' Secret Formula
Perhaps one of the Eagles' greatest accomplishments this season was maintaining confidence once they lost Carson Wentz for the season with a torn ACL against the Rams. After the Eagles polished off the Vikings in the NFC title game, owner Jeffrey Lurie reflected to reporters after the game on how his franchise handled what could have been a death blow to their season:
"Well, you can imagine. You have the player you think is the best young quarterback in the NFL, and suddenly you feel like you played a great game in L.A. You have the best record in football, and you lose your most valuable player, or maybe the league's most valuable player. However, we made such a concerted effort to make sure we could get [Foles] back on the team. Who knew it would come to this? We prioritized more money for the second quarterback position than most any other team in football. We even were willing to eat a lot of the contract we had so we could go out and get Nick.
"We've always had so much confidence in Nick. His Rams experience we thought was an outlier. He's a wonderful person, and we knew he would be great with Carson. Who knew we would have to rely on him? I'm honestly not surprised how terrific he played once he got some time with our players in terms of training. It was like going through a training camp the last three, four weeks. He hadn't played with the first team the entire year. He's been doing it, and there's nobody I'm happier for."
5. Blount Keeps Making History
Philadelphia running back LeGarrette Blount has 10 rushing touchdowns in his playoff career.
According to the Eagles, that is the seventh-most all time behind Hall of Famers Emmitt Smith (19, played from 1990 to 2004), Thurman Thomas (16, 1988-2000), Franco Harris (16, 1972-84), Terrell Davis (12, 1995-2001), John Riggins (12, 1971-85) and Marcus Allen (11, 1982-97).
There's a chance Blount could pass Allen, Riggins and Davis in the Super Bowl. That would be a nice accomplishment for an underrated player.
6. The Truth About College Football
New Titans coach Mike Vrabel pulled back the curtain a bit on what people in the NFL really feel about college athletics when he was asked at his introductory presser about what college systems he might bring to the Titans:
I've heard this kind of talk privately from coaches and team officials before, but rarely publicly.
Finally, some honesty for all to hear.
7. Philadelphia Love Story
Fans of the Eagles get a bit of a bad rap. OK, some of it's earned. They can be rough. I've been around them for decades and seen them do some, well, interesting things. Like the one time I emerged from covering an Eagles game to see a guy urinating near (on?) my car. On Sunday, at the title game, I was greeted by a man urinating in the press parking lot. That brings the total number of Eagles fans I've seen peeing in the parking lot to about a half-dozen. That leads the league. Life is one big circle.
But, bathroom issues aside, it's rare to be around a more passionate and knowledgeable fanbase. I covered the Eagles a lot in the late 1980s when Buddy Ryan was coach and some of the key players were Reggie White, Jerome Brown and Randall Cunningham.
There were few stronger connections between fans and a team than that one. It was incredible to see.
This year's team and fanbase, however, might have an even stronger bond than that one, and that's because both the players and the fans have simultaneously embraced the underdog role. There's no greater unifier of players and fans than, "No one expects us to win."
Eagles fans will take over Minneapolis. They'll go with tickets. Or without. They'll brave the 5 trillion-below-zero temps. They won't care. And they'll love it almost as much as they love a franchise making only its third appearance in the Super Bowl.
8. Get Your Football PhD from Professor Bentley
LeCharles Bentley is a former NFL offensive lineman and now a trainer of athletes who play the position. Watching his videos about offensive line play is a must if you're a football nerd like me. In almost every one, you'll discover how important technique is and how even small adjustments can make dramatic differences.
Check it out when you have time. It's an invaluable resource for those who want to learn about an undercovered but essential aspect to the game.
9. Chris Long Calls Out the NFL
Several weeks ago, the Eagles started wearing dog masks as a way to mock the fact they were underdogs to the bookmakers in Las Vegas and those elsewhere. The masks have caught on with fans (they were everywhere Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field).
Not surprisingly, the NFL has jumped in to try to monetize the mask movement. After all, the NFL would try to monetize a runny nose. What is eye-opening is that Eagles defensive lineman Chris Long clapped back with this tweet:
Long's response is one of the reasons he is a favorite of so many players and others. He donated his entire salary this season to various charities and efforts, and now he's asking the NFL to do the same with its profits from a movement his team started.
10. Swimming with the Sharks
I've written extensively about former Ravens running back Justin Forsett's ShowerPill company. The cornerstone of ShowerPill is a product called The Body Wipe. It's an extra-thick, disposable wipe that works like a washcloth to clean your entire body when you don't have time or access to a shower. He recently donated 20,000 body wipes to Puerto Ricans without access to clean bathing water following Hurricane Maria.
Now he and his company may get a big boost after they appear on ABC's Shark Tank. It's a huge moment for Forsett and one I hope he dominates like he has so many things.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.