Photo courtesy Nancy Lane/Boston Herald

When the 2018 Super Bowl kicks off Sunday in Minnesota, it won’t only be a matchup between two rival NFL teams. It will also be a matchup between some of Texas’ best players in the last decade and a half.

For New England, it will be a much sought after sixth title reign under Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. For Philadelphia, it will be a journey to possibly its first championship in more than 50 years.

Five storylines may dictate which team will win and which will inevitably take the long trod towards the off-season to rebuild and retool for 2019.

1. JAY AJAYI NEEDS TO BE A WORKHORSE, MAKE AN IMPACT

Photo by USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps more than Foles, Alshon Jeffrey, and the Eagles receiving core, the London-born and Frisco, Texas-raised Jay Ajayi will have to be more than a footnote in Philadelphia’s quest to win a Super Bowl.

During an eight-game stretch between Nov. 5 and Dec. 31 and after Ajayi was acquired from Miami for a fourth-round pick, the Eagles went 6-2. The Frisco Liberty High School alumnus gained 70 or more yards rushing in four of those matchups and an average of 42.5 during the other three.

Philadelphia’s margin of victory sits at 22 points when he eclipses the 70-yard threshold and plummets to 9.5 points when gains 50 or fewer. The number of carries, too, may play a part in Ajayi’s effectiveness in the NFL’s penultimate matchup.

In his seven games with the Dolphins, he rushed for 465 yards. Two-hundred and fifty-two of that total — 122 against San Diego during a 19-17 win on Sept. 17 and 130 during a 20-17 victory against Atlanta on Oct. 15 — came during two games. He also had 77 yards after a six-point victory against Tennessee.

Ajayi averaged 26 carries in each of those matchups. Since Oct. 26, he’s only had more than 15 once. He had 18 carries for 73 yards during the 38-7 NFC Championship win against Minnesota.

2. DANNY AMENDOLA WILL BE VITAL IN THE ‘WES WELKER,’ ‘JULIAN EDELMAN’ ROLE

Danny Amendola catches a pass against the Falcons in during a 2016 game. John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Rob Gronkowski will do what he does, punishing linebackers and defensive backs with routes across the middle and streaks down the middle of the field. In the midst of this damage, men like former Patriot Wes Welker and current but injured Patriot Julian Edelman act like hidden daggers and pierce the weak spots of opposing defenses.

With Welker an afterthought and Edelman on the shelf after a torn anterior cruciate ligament during the preseason, Danny Amendola is New England’s razor-sharp edge.

That makes the Woodlands High School product arguably the most important Patriot on the field. Especially after his 84-yard and two-TD performance against Jacksonville in the AFC Championship.

It’s not just a measure of revenge against an Eagle team that cut him, resigned him to its practice squad, and never played him in 2009 that may make him the most deadly component to New England’s game plan.

With Philadelphia likely double covering Gronk to eliminate him from a winning equation, Amendola will have to find mismatches against slower linebackers and less disciplined defensive backs and exploit them. The same way he did against Xavier Rhodes, Andrew Sendejo, Harrison Smith, Trae Waynes, and the Vikings’ George Edwards-led defense.

3. THE EAGLES MAY HAVE TO NOT ONLY BEAT BETTING ODDS TO CLAIM ITS FIRST TITLE IN 58 YEARS

Nick Foles, a former Austin Westlake star quarterback, played arguably the best game of his career Sunday at the Link, tossing three touchdowns and more than 300 yards passing. Photo courtesy Philadelphiaeagles.com

Philadelphia is not only an underdog in terms of experience in the championship game, it’s also one in prop bets and long odds.

In many betting sites, the Patriots are 4.5-point or higher favorites in Super Bowl LII as they compete for the sixth title in franchise history. That’s despite the Eagles’ rebound from two miserable regular season-ending offensive performances against the Oakland Raiders and Dallas Cowboys.

Foles’  352-yard, three-TD performance in the NFC Championship game, too, had no effect on Philadelphia’s odds to win its first Super Bowl since 1960. Per mytopsportsbooks.com, Brady’s chances to take home the game’s MVP (5/4) are markedly better than Texas bloodlines Ajayi ((22/1), Amendola (18/1), and Foles (7/1).

They are also projected to score a total of 48.5 points combined and 12.5 points by halftime.

4. WILL FOLES OUTDUEL TOM BRADY?

Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports

Ajayi’s impact could be a game changer, but the way Foles balances the offense with decisive downfield passing walks hand-in-hand with the Eagles’ fate.

Foles shredded Minnesota, the NFL’s No. 1 defense to the tune of 300-plus yards and a trio of touchdowns. It was arguably the best performance of the Austin native’s career.

It was also a return of sorts to his 2013 season with Philadelphia, when he threw for 2,891 yards, 27 TDs and only two interceptions and completed 64 percent of his passes. Foles’ ability to invent a time machine and travel back to his second year in the league is not only imperative, its vital to the Eagles’ survival.

His performance against master strategist Bill Belichick and his trusted right-hand man Matt Patricia, however, must be nearly flawless. Mistakes committed against any Patriot defense can be fatal, more so in a second half New England is most deadly.

5. THE SECOND HALF WILL BE MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE FIRST

New England’s Bill Belichick. David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports

In seven Super Bowl appearances, New England has never scored in the first quarter.

According to information taken from teamrankings.com, the Patriots are No. 10 in the league (11.9) in terms of points scored during the second half. Only Seattle, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Detroit, Jacksonville, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Baltimore, and Tampa Bay — in that order — ranked above them. New England was fifth in 2016 (13.7), third in 2014 (14.2), sixth in 2004 (12.6), and 10th in 2003 (10.8).

Each of those years resulted in a Super Bowl title.

Per ESPN, the Patriots also threw for 512 yards and five touchdowns in the final two minutes of games this season. Belichick and Brady are adept to luring teams into a false sense of security — take last year’s Atlanta implosion as an example — and using that comfort to find weak spots in defenses resorting to prevent tactics and play-not-to-lose mentalities. Brady’s 42 career fourth-quarter comebacks are second to only Peyton Manning since 1960.

Philadelphia should be wary of a repeat of history, too. The former University of Michigan “Comeback Kid” led a game-winning drive the last time the Eagles reached the Super Bowl in 2004.

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Marcus Matthews-Marion is the managing editor of TexasHSFootball, covering prep football throughout the Lone Star State and collegiate and professional football throughout the country. Follow him on Twitter, @TheMJMatthews, and read more of his content here.

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