For the Patriots, Getting the Top Seed Back Now The Priority

Bob George
December 7, 2015 at 9:01 am ET

FOXBOROUGH – This goes way beyond “Any given Sunday”.

You perhaps haven’t seen the Patriots play like they did on Sunday night in this new millennium. In fact, the last time a team scored 35 unanswered points on the Patriots, Bill Parcells was the head coach. This game had three Patriot onside kicks, a blocked punt return for a touchdown, a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown, a punt return for a touchdown, and a furious Patriot comeback that came up just short. The Patriots lost back-to-back regular season games for the first time since 2012, as the Philadelphia Eagles shocked the Patriots, 35-28 at Gillette Stadium on Sunday afternoon.

Leading 14-0 in the second period, a curious special teams decision sent the Eagles off on a 35-0 run, the first time since Bill Parcells’ first season with the Patriots that the hometowners have given up 35 unanswered points. Looking for perhaps an early kill shot but instead coming off as arrogant, Bill Belichick called for Stephen Gostkowski to “snap” the ball to Nate Ebner, a rugby player at Ohio State. Ebner dropkicked a pooch kick to about the Philadelphia 40-yard line. Seyi Ajirotutu fell on the kick, and the Eagles promptly embarked on an eight-play, 59-yard drive culminating with a Sam Bradford touchdown pass to Zack Ertz from five yards out. It was still 14-7 Patriots, but the momentum the Patriots had was lost for good.

Some Eagle players commented on the Ebner pooch punt. It was simply Belichick seeing if he could catch the Eagles napping, and a chance to take firm control of the game early. But player comments centered mostly on something along the lines of their manhood being called out, and they became a much more determined team after that. And that turned out to be the case, up until the final few minutes of the game when the Patriots made a rally which came up just short.

It wasn’t only the Eagles playing inspired football. Tom Brady made two terrible throws that were picked off in the end zone. The Patriots gave up their first blocked punt return for a touchdown since 2009. Much has been made about the injury to Rob Gronkowski, but not nearly as much attention has been paid to the loss last week of Dont’a Hightower, and how much the run defense, especially edge containment, has suffered. Basically, special teams was a disaster for the Patriots most all game long. It might have been the linchpin for the Eagle victory, but it also proved decisive.

The Patriots were all set up for their double dip, scoring at the end of the first half and the beginning of the second half. They began what was supposed to have been their final drive of the first half at their own 13 with 1:32 remaining. Two Brandon Bolden runs produced a first down, but a sack of Brady by Brandon Graham made it third down and five at the 38. Brady overthrew Scott Chandler on a left sideline pass, and the drive unexpectedly ended there. Lining up in punt formation, Chris Maragos burst through unblocked and smothered Ryan Allen’s punt. Najee Goode picked up the ball at the 24 and took it in for a touchdown to make it 14-14 at the half.

It was the Eagles that did the double dip, but not on consecutive drives. The Patriots opened the second half with Brandon LaFell getting stuffed by Walter Thurmond for eight yards on third and nine. The Patriots got the ball right back on a three and out and got the ball at the Eagle 44, terrific field position. Brady drove the Patriots to the one-yard line. Easy touchdown.

Not. James White (not LeGarrette Blount) got the call on first down and was obliterated by Malcolm Jenkins for a four-yard loss. After an incompletion which brought up third down, Brady rolled to his right and tried to force the ball to Danny Amendola into double coverage. Jenkins picked it off at the goal line and ran it back the distance (officially it was 99 yards). Patriots now trailed, 21-14. Patriots Nation probably figured they had someone slip them a mickey.

The Patriots got the ball back, but a sack of Brady by Graham killed the drive, and Allen came in again for a punt. Darren Sproles fielded the ball at the 17 and took it back all the way, 83 yards. Patriots now trail, 28-14. Boy, that was some mickey.

The next drive looked like all this Eagle nonsense would finally be quashed. Starting at their own 18, it was third and three at the 25. Brady lined up behind center, then went in motion to the right side as the ball was snapped to James White. He took off to his left and handed the ball to Amendola on a reverse. Rolling to his right, Amendola fired downfield…to Brady. Brady hauled in the pass and rumbled 36 yards. It was his first pass reception since 2001, when he hauled in a pass from Kevin Faulk against Miami on a similar play.

The crowd was going crazy. So what does Brady do? On the very next play, he play fakes to Blount and fires a deep ball towards the right side of the end zone. LaFell, the intended receiver, somehow pulled up and didn’t finish the route. Byron Maxwell hauled in the pass in the end zone, and the crowd shrieked in astonishment. The Eagles took over at the 20 and drove 80 yards in 12 plays, with Jordan Matthews hauling in a 10-yard scoring pass early in the fourth quarter. Patriots now trailed, 35-14. Gillette Stadium begins emptying out.

The Patriots got to this point playing as if they were disguised as one of their opponents. Not all of this can be blamed on injuries. Brady made some terrible throws, especially both interceptions, which in his postgame press conference he blamed the 99-yard pick on “bad quarterbacking”. The offensive line once again had bad moments, allowing four sacks of Brady and committing some costly penalties. The Eagles gained more net yards on the ground (128) than through the air (120), with Sproles and Kenjon Barner both averaging over four yards per carry.

The Patriots did make it interesting in the end. Following an exchange of punts, Brady did lead the Patriots on a 71-yard, seven-play drive which culminated in a 14-yard scoring pass to Chandler. Gostkowski pulled off a successful onside kick, as the ball bounced through the hands of Ertz and was recovered by Rashaan Melvin. Brady then led the Patriots on a 56-yard, nine-play drive highlighted by a 25-yard pass to White on fourth and twelve. Brady sneaked it in from one yard out and it was a one score game, 35-28. Another onside kick didn’t work, so Philadelphia took over at the Patriot 46.

But missing out on a chance to put the game away, Barner fumbled the ball on third and nine at the 28 and Malcom Brown recovered. Brady had no timeouts, 1:02 left and 75 yards to negotiate to tie the game.

Brady’s receivers betrayed him in the end. After White caught a 12-yard pass for a first down, LaFell, Amendola and Martin all had drops to end the game.

The Patriots travel to Houston next week. Last time they played there, they lost Wes Welker for the season. The Texans are improved under backup T.J. Yates and still have J.J. Watt. And they have this new nose tackle named Vince Wilfork.

Suffice it to say that Denver is completely in the rear view mirror. In the front windshield has to be getting the top playoff seed back.



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