The Patriots can be human, and still be great

The Patriots that lost Super Bowl LII to the Eagles are the same team that seemed destined to win.

After Super Bowl LII was over, cameras and reporters shoved in around Patriots head coach Bill Belichick at his press conference podium despite the fact that they couldn’t hear a word. Either his mic wasn’t working or Belichick didn’t care enough to lean in. Either way, if you were beyond, say, the third or fourth row of people, all you got were the low, grumpy grumblings of a disappointed old man.

Such is the deference that Belichick commands. He is the greatest ever in his profession. When someone’s that good, you shrug your shoulders and squeeze even farther up against the person in front of you on the basis that another inch forward may reveal another inch of this man’s soul.

And despite whatever cliché about “playing our game” the Philadelphia Eagles may give, they gave Belichick and the Patriots that deference, too. They beat the Patriots by treating them like the Patriots, and throwing the throttle when a lesser team might have floundered trying to hold things steady. The Eagles knew that the Pats deserve that sort of respect.

“We all know what Tom Brady can do with two minutes left, or a minute,” Eagles running back Corey Clement said after the game. “My heart was racing, I’m like, ‘Man, I hope this is not enough time to do what Tom does.’

“I just said, ‘Please lord, just allow us to bring something special back to Philly because they deserve it.”

For a moment, it seemed like the Eagles were going to lose to the Patriots in the same way all teams lose to the Patriots. The first sign of Pats-induced slow onset resignation is a fourth quarter field goal, which the Eagles kicked to give themselves a tenuous 6-point lead that became a 1-point deficit after an easy Pats touchdown drive. The second is a punt, which might have been wise when the Eagles faced fourth-and-1 on their own 45-yard line on their next possession.

In hindsight, of course don’t punt with one yard to gain near midfield while your defense is losing every one of its matchups in the secondary. But that isn’t how many NFL coaches think. In times of stress, they lose their surroundings, start making decisions in a vacuum, and do things like run on four straight first downs. Teams lose sight of the fact that the New England Patriots are the New England God Damn Patriots, and the Pats have feasted on the league because of it.

So head coach Doug Pederson opted to throw, and Zach Ertz eked out a first down that very likely would have cost the Eagles the game if he had come up short. Then Nick Foles found Ertz again on third-and-7 well into field goal range on a throw past the sticks on which safety Devin McCourty slipped, giving up the clinching touchdown.

Shockingly and for once, it was the Patriots who made the last mistake. Defensive end Brandon Graham, lined up at defensive tackle inside of Chris Long, shoved his way through to Brady on the second play of the next possession, forcing a fumble that bounced straight to rookie Derek Barnett, effectively sealing the game.

If you’d like to watch the play over and over, forever and ever, here you go:

That play was no fluke, though the Eagles pass rush had been quiet for most of the game.

“Our coach was saying, ‘just collapse the pocket, collapse the pocket, our time is going to come,’ and he was right,” Barnett said. “I think early in the game, everybody was trying to make a play. And after we calmed down and we saw what we were doing, we said we needed to make some adjustments and we fixed it.”

Chris Long explained what that adjustment was: “Just trying to rush with power and not run by him,” he said. “That’s the hardest thing about it. It’s inviting to run around the corner especially when you don’t have a chip for once, but [Graham] did his job and he’s done his job all year.”

After the game, the Patriots were the ones getting grilled for once about what the hell they were thinking.

Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia got much the same treatment that Kyle Shanahan did after last year’s Super Bowl, being forced to answer the same question over and over like he was under an interrogation lamp. At times, the exchanges got heated. The questions boiled down to this: Where was usual cornerback Malcolm Butler?

“We were just trying to run some packages that we had, you know, run through the gameplan, and those guys who were out there were out there for the situations that we needed them,” Patricia said. “It turned out that way, and with the game the way it went, the situations that came up, it just got away from us.”

A reporter chimes in: He started 17 out of 18 games for you, it seems just bizarre that he couldn’t find his way on the field, and they’re putting up 42 points. It’s got to be more than that.

“We’re just trying to put everybody in the right spot to make plays …

By having him on the sideline?

… you know the guys who we thought could make plays in those situations.”

But does it seem weird that you kept him active but you didn’t play him in the position that he’s best at?

“Well obviously we need enough guys active for the game …”

Patricia’s players couldn’t answer for him. They refused to make substantive comments about their teammate. Safety Duron Harmon initially told reporters, repeatedly, that they “gotta ask coach,” when asked about Butler. Eric Rowe, who started in Butler’s place, said, “I don’t ask questions.” Safety Devin McCourty went nihilistic: “It doesn’t matter. It happens. No point even talking about that.”

Harmon opened up only somewhat later: “My feelings don’t really matter,” he said. “I’m asked about that, and I just play the best football I can play. And that’s all I can try to focus on.”

Butler couldn’t keep his feelings hidden, telling ESPN, “They gave up on me. Fuck. It is what it is,” before backtracking his words. Meanwhile, Belichick and Patricia leaned on the explanation that Butler wasn’t right for the scheme they were deploying, ignoring the question of how, exactly, anyone can be the wrong person for a defense that gave up 538 yards and 10-of-16 on third down conversions.

Yet despite every hint of sarcasm you probably thought you heard suggesting that something is internally wrong, the Patriots were the Patriots from kickoff until the last member of the team stepped off his interview podium. Brady threw for 505 yards and three touchdowns and the Pats came back from a double-digit second half deficit yet again. If the Eagles don’t make one or two fourth quarter plays, there is every reason to believe that an unceasing Patriots offense would have won the game.

And for all the simmering tensions in their non-responses, the players remained on message throughout their post-game availabilities. They rarely analyzed the game much beyond, “the other team made plays,” and they refused to show any demonstrative sign of emotion. There were no tears, no one pounded a table; no one mustered much more than a sigh, really, before mentioning all the hard work they’re ready to take on to get back to this game next year.

They did none of the self-psychoanalysis that sometimes takes place in this space. It was only football talk, and some reflection that it sucks not to get to go to the party you wanted to go to.

“It hurts just because you see the confetti coming down, and you’re not a part of it,” Harmon said. “As a defensive player you let them down, you let the team down. You didn’t do anything that we wanted to do, and you didn’t talk about. And it stings, it stings bad.”

The Patriots are still the Patriots. Forty-year-old Tom Brady will be just as good at 41 next year, the Pats will still have cupboard full of mismatches on offense, and Bill Belichick and his new defensive coordinator will have turned the defense into a humming, RPO-stomping machine by September. Nothing that happened Sunday disproved what the Patriots have always been under Belichick and Brady.

What we did learn is that our assumptions about the Patriots are a little askew — that those fourth quarter comebacks aren’t inevitable, only likely; and that they don’t have exclusive rights to the their formula. We learned that the Patriots are perfectly capable of being out-Patriots’d.

The perfect example was the twin trick plays in the first half. Brady dropped a receiver reverse pass from Danny Amendola that might have scored a touchdown. Foles, conversely, caught a touchdown pass from tight end Trey Burton late in the first half on nearly the same play.

“Danny made a good throw,” Brady said. “I just didn’t make the play. It was there to be made and I missed the play.”

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