Before last Sunday’s loss to the Broncos, the Patriots had a grand total of two losses in their last 18 games. Now, with two straight losses, many will wonder if the injury attrition throughout the roster of what used to be the NFL’s best team has the Pats running around with their figurative heads cut off, looking for solutions that can’t be found. The Pats’ offensive line has been a MASH unit and a relative sieve all season, the running back position has been a problem since Dion Lewis tore his ACL in November, and the receiver position, already kind of an injury-riddled disaster, was rendered even more so by Rob Gronkowski’s sprained knee, suffered against the Broncos in that key AFC tilt.
Still, this one seemed like a gimme. The Eagles came into Gillette Stadium with one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL, and an angry Tom Brady is never a pleasant proposition for any defense, no matter how good it is. There had been more to deal with in Philly: Super Bowl favorites leading up to the season, the Eagles had lost four of their last five games and had allowed 45 points in their last two games. Defensive coordinator Bill Davis was as good as fired, and there were more people than ever who did not want to see Chip Kelly work though his five-year contract—as head coach or personnel director.
So, with that lead-in, you can guess what happened. The Patriots gave it all they had in the fourth quarter, furiously rallying late from a 21-point deficit, but the Eagles managed to walk out of Tom Brady’s house with a 35–28 upset that kept Kelly and his 5–7 team in the playoff hunt and cast some doubt on just how much adversity Bill Belichick and Brady can really recover from.
To be fair, this win wasn’t about Philly’s offense. Sam Bradford completed 14 of 24 passes for 120 yards and two touchdowns, and Darren Sproles led all Eagles running backs with 66 yards on 15 carries. This win was about returns: linebacker Najee Goode’s return of a blocked kick with eight seconds left in the first half, safety Malcolm Jenkins’s 99-yard return of a rare Tom Brady red-zone interception halfway through the third quarter, and Darren Sproles’s 83-yard punt return touchdown a few minutes later.
“I think it just shows that we are a resilient group,” Jenkins said after the game. “We believe in what we are doing, we believe in the guys that we have in the building, and it was just a matter of playing the way we are capable of playing. And we know, for our team to win, everybody has to contribute. It’s not just going to be the defense, or the offense, or special teams. We’ve all got to play together to get a win and we came here and beat a really, really good team, beat the best quarterback in the league. And that’s a tall task; they don’t lose at home. But this was a game that we needed to win, we needed this momentum, we needed this spark to kind of carry us on through the season, and games don’t get any easier for us going forward.”
Brady did as much as he could. He completed 29 of 56 passes for 312 yards, three touchdowns and two picks, and it could be argued that neither of the picks were his fault. The Jenkins interception came when Danny Amendola bobbled a catch at the one-yard line, and a later pick thrown to cornerback Byron Maxwell with 2:26 left in the third quarter happened when receiver Brandon LaFell cut his route short (not the first time it happened in this game, and a problem for LaFell all season.) Communication issues plagued Brady with his receivers, a problem compounded by all the backups and secondary-level players in the game. The Patriots’ offense is based so much on option routes—most likely more than any other team’s—and Brady was basically doomed without guys he knew and trusted. When Brady caught a pass from Amendola and scooted for a 36-yard gain, it gave the quarterback the longest reception of the day for either team, which sums it all up nicely.
Brady, as is his nature, put it on his shoulders.
“The first interception was bad quarterbacking,” he said. “The team trusts you to put the ball in your hands and make good decisions with it, and that was a terrible decision. So it’s unfortunate because those cost you the game, and I’ve got to do a better job.
Still, with the Eagles comfortably ahead and time running out, Brady did what he does, finding ways to make it work, and it almost led to the greatest comeback win of his career. Tight end Scott Chandler and running back James White became his primary targets, even as Brady had to point out the routes to his receivers as they were running them. The touchdown that cut the deficit to two scores was a 14-yard pass to Chandler, and the next was a Brady one-yard sneak on a drive in which he targeted receiver Keshawn Martin once, and Chandler and White the rest of the way. Few other quarterbacks could make expensive chicken salad out of the receiver corps Brady has been left with, but it’s a testament to Brady’s greatness that this comeback was, in a way, expected.
Down seven points with three minutes left in the game, the Pats called for an onside kick, a strategy which seemed to backfire when Bradford made his one truly clutch throw in the game, a 14-yard pass to Riley Cooper on third-and-11 with 2:49 left in the game. That would have been the proverbial dagger, had backup running back Kenjon Barner not fumbled three plays later. Tackle Malcom Brown recovered the ball for New England, and Brady had 75 yards to go with 1:02 left to tie it up.
Finally, the lack of receiving talent caught up to the Pats. Brady got the ball to his own 37 with a 12-yard pass to White, but three straight incompletions ended the team’s chances: bobbles in turn by LaFell, Amendola and Martin.
As much as the result did for the Eagles’ NFC East hopes, it put the Patriots in an unusually precarious position. In one calendar week, they’ve gone from the undefeated toast of the league to a 10–2 team with the AFC’s third seed if the playoffs began today. Seasons often swing on such tests of resilience, but if the Pats are to do what they’ve done so many times before and overcome personnel deficiencies that would leave most other teams stranded, someone is going to have to play far beyond his abilities.
Tom Brady has already proven more times than we can count that he’s capable of doing just that. But as crazy as it sounds, he can’t do it alone.
“We've got to do a better job,” Brady concluded. “I think that’s just what it comes down to. No one can do your job for you and the execution of certain plays. There’s no one, well, tonight there were a couple of people who threw it, but I’m the person that throws it the most, and I’ve got to make good decisions with the ball. If I turn the ball over twice, I don’t think we’re going to have the chance to win many games, so I think that’s what it comes down to.”
That’s how thin the margin for error is for a team that looked unbeatable not too long ago. Welcome to the NFL you already knew so well, Mr. Brady.