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Every great team has a game in which they simply face-plant. Short on weapons, and victimized by two big special teams plays, Sunday was that game for the Patriots, and nothing more

By Andy Benoit
December 07, 2015

FOXBORO — When the Patriots lost their second game of the season a year ago, the sky was falling. They’d been manhandled on the Monday Night stage at Arrowhead and even New Englanders were starting to write the team’s obituary. One reporter had the gall to ask Bill Belichick if maybe it wasn’t time to sit Tom Brady and give rookie Jimmy Garoppolo a look. (Belichick kindly said nothing in response. Literally. With the question hanging in the air, he just stood there, wearing the type of smirk you’d expect from a Hall of Fame coach who’s been asked about benching his Hall of Fame QB for a guy who’d yet to throw a meaningful pass as a professional football player.)

In today’s advanced world of HOT TAKES! and INSTANT REACTIONS!, it’s easily forgotten that good, even great, teams have bad days. Simple as that. Go back and look at the game-by-game of every Super Bowl champion and you’ll find at least one face-plant performance at some point the season.

The sky obviously stayed above in 2014, and it isn’t going to fall now. Does that mean this Patriots team is also Super Bowl-bound? Not necessarily. What it does mean is their back-to-back losses have not uncovered any damning chinks in the armor. They were just losses. Last week at Denver was a hard-fought road defeat against an outstanding opponent. Sunday’s 35-28 home loss to Philadelphia was this year’s face-plant performance.

Look at the game’s four biggest plays:

Najee Goode’s punt block return touchdown

Darren Sproles’s 83-yard punt return touchdown

Malcolm Jenkins’s 99-yard interception return touchdown

Byron Maxwell’s end zone interception

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New England’s blunders were aberrational. Or at least that’s what history says. November 22, 2009 was the last time they were victimized by a blocked punt return TD. And Brady, over the past five seasons, averaged nine interceptions per year. He had only four on the season heading into this game.

“We’ve got to do a better job, that’s just what it comes down to,” Brady said at the podium afterwards (wearing, by the way, what apparently are very fashionable snow boots with the laces undone). “If I turn the ball over twice, I don’t think we’re going to have the chance to win many games.”

There wasn’t much Brady could do on Sunday besides watch one slip away.
Charles Krupa/AP

Make no mistake: both interceptions were bad quarterbacking. On the Jenkins pick, Brady forced the ball into too tight of a window in the shallow red zone, where everything is sped up and precision is more important.

“That was a man coverage where we had both safeties sitting around the hashes,” said one of those safeties, Walter Thurmond, who helped close the window. “Brady thought it was open because we were in a man coverage concept, he thought it was a blitz coverage… Danny [Amendola] kind of stopped a little bit and I was able to make a play.”

On the Maxwell pick, even Maxwell himself was at a loss. “I have no idea,” when asked what he thought Brady saw. “He just lofted it up. I think 19 [Brandon LaFell] was surprised too.” Brady’s explanation was that he was trying to throw it away. Eek.

Based on historical evidence so overwhelming it equals common sense, Brady will not have these sort of gaffes on a regular basis.

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One of the first questions Brady was asked afterward was how much the team missed Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman. “I think every team would love [to be healthy] at this point, but it’s just not the reality, so it’s tough. You’ve got to find ways to adjust, and we do plenty of good things.”

So true. The Patriots were very good defensively and still topped 100 yards rushing and 300 yards passing on Sunday (albeit in 86 plays). They had a lot of success with their motion-to-stack releases, where the outside wide receiver motions down behind a slot receiver, compelling defenders to back off (less they run into one another) and giving the receiver a clean release off the line of scrimmage. The Patriots also found a useful weapon in running back James White, who has been cast in the Dion Lewis role. (Lewis is out for the season with a torn ACL.) White had 10 receptions for 115 yards and a touchdown, often working against Philly’s linebackers but at times showing he could even beat their dime safeties.

So does it even matter who plays receiver for the Patriots?

“We know the system and we know Tom’s going to take the mismatch that he wants,” Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis said afterwards. “So I don’t know. They do such a great job coaching and putting the next man in. We know Tom Brady is going to get that ball to the mismatch that he thinks is best.”

With Gronkowski out, there’s obviously one less mismatch at Brady’s disposal. (The Next Man Up mantra can only go so far.) One area where the Patriots’ offense did dry up was at the intermediate levels. What success they had here often came out of structure, not within the timing of the play. The Eagles employed a lot of split-safety looks, which is a good way to defend the seams and also provide help against skinny posts (two Patriots staples).

Because both safeties were in coverage, there was little to no blitzing. The Broncos took a similar approach in last week’s game, as well, though in their case they have the dynamic pass rushers to make it viable. The Eagles have a formidable interior D-line but no edge threats aside maybe from an ascending Brandon Graham. (Connor Barwin is a productive player, but no NFL offense treats him like a dangerous edge-bender.)

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Some might think that the defense eschewing blitzes in order to focus on coverage takes the pressure off New England’s makeshift offensive line. But it’s just the opposite. Leaving seven, sometimes even eight, bodies in coverage, the Eagles forced Brady to hold the ball. Which meant his line had to sustain its pass blocks longer. Much longer, in fact, given how accustomed this team is to quick strikes off of three-step drops. More often than not, New England’s linemen held up. There were several instances during which Brady worked through all of his progressions and still had space and time to throw. In fact, on Sunday Brady probably made more plays late in the down than he typically does over the course of a month’s worth of games.

Of course, working late into the down also means your receivers aren’t getting open. Put this in the column for things to take away and work on. It helps that Gronk will be back in a week or two, and Edelman maybe in a month. (Edelman was reportedly seen walking to the Patriots locker room with only a faint limp.) Until then, with the Patriots system, and with Brady running it, the sky is staying right where it is.