Eagles vs. Patriots in Super Bowl LII — What to Watch 4

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Rob Gronkowski returned to practice Thursday. (Getty Images)

Four things to watch for in the Super Bowl:

Key matchup

College teammates for three years at South Carolina, Eagles receiver Alshon Jeffery and Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore never have faced each other in the NFL. That will change Sunday, and it might decide the game.

Despite his pedestrian regular-season stats, Jeffery has been unbeatable in the postseason. Eagles quarterback Nick Foles has a perfect 158.3 passer rating when targeting Jeffery during the playoffs. The Patriots signed Gilmore to a massive contract last offseason — $65 million over five years, with $40 million guaranteed — for precisely this moment.

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The Patriots will look to become the first team in 13 years to win back-to-back Super Bowl titles. The last team to do it? The Patriots, when they beat — you guessed it — the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX.

Key player

The Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski practiced in full for the first time Thursday since leaving the AFC Championship Game with a concussion. The Patriots’ passing attack will benefit with his return, but their running game should be better, too. The Patriots had only 19 carries for 46 yards in their 24-20 victory against the Jaguars. They were more efficient in their first playoff game, totaling 101 yards on 27 carries against the Titans.

‘‘I know [Gronkowski] gets a lot of credit for catching passes and scoring touchdowns and those kinds of things,’’ Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. ‘‘But he’s an incredible blocker that we count on a lot in the running game.’’

X-factor

The Patriots, who will be playing in their eighth Super Bowl in 17 years, know how to plan for the circuslike quirks of America’s most-watched sporting event. Halftime will be 30 minutes, up from 12 during the regular season; the time between pregame warmups and kickoff almost doubles, too.

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has played in as many Super Bowls (seven) as everyone on the Eagles’ roster combined. So the Eagles actually practiced a 30-minute halftime at the midpoint of their practice Wednesday. Coach Doug Pederson thought they were sloppy after the break, but the Eagles didn’t seem worried.

‘‘We talked about it like if it was a regular game, but we’re still having fun, man,’’ Jeffery said. ‘‘It’s all about having fun and enjoying the moment.’’

Follow me on Twitter @patrickfinley.

Email: pfinley@suntimes.com


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