Monday, December 7, 2015

Patriots Lose Composure and Game, 35-28

The Patriots bumbled their way to a 35-28 loss to the Eagles yesterday, despite a furious comeback that came up just short. The loss puts them into a tie with the Broncos and Bengals for a first-round playoff bye, and shortens their lead in the AFC East to three games over the victorious Jets. Next week is a trip to Houston to take on J.J. Watt and the improving Texans.

Those who watched the Eagles game saw something from the Patriots they haven't seen in a long, long time: panic. After taking a 14-0 lead, the team tried a bizarre onside/drop-kickoff, which gave the Eagles good field position from which they scored. It felt like a panic move; strange for a team that had allowed an average of just 21 yards on the four drives the Eagles had before that play.

The Patriots also gave up on the running game far too quickly. They averaged 5.3 yards per carry in the first quarter and ran for 80 yards in the first half. In the second half they had just 8 carries for 23 yards, including 14 yards on Tom Brady QB sneaks and scrambles. Why panic and give up on something that's working?

And speaking of Brady, the number of hits he's taken are having an effect on his game play. The one trick play the Patriots succeeded with was a throw-back to a wide open Brady, who ran for 36 yards on the play. (Trivia Question: who was the opponent when Brady caught his only other NFL pass in 2001? answer below.) And the next snap, he threw a bomb to the end zone, and missed communication with receiver Brandon LaFell led to an interception.

This is exactly the kind of throw a quarterback makes when he is sick of being hit all the time. QBs tend to try chunk plays so they don't have to take as many hits in order to score. The team had the momentum finally going their way, but Brady had been hit 23 times the previous two weeks and ended up with another 13 hits and 4 sacks yesterday.

Panic makes you make mistakes, and the Patriots made enough of them yesterday to fill two scrapbooks. Panic has been a rare occurrence for Belichick's Patriots. But panic caught them yesterday, in a game they could have managed 100-times better and likely have gotten out with a win.

Special teams was the biggest problem for the Pats. The Eagles tied the game just before the half with a blocked punt returned for a touchdown. The breakdown came with two Patriots blocked one Eagles rusher and Nate Ebner (the personal protector) blocked to the right. That left a free rusher who came in clean and it was a footrace to the end zone.

Additionally, they continued to kick to Eagles returner Darren Sproles even though he was dangerously close to breaking a return. And eventually he did, jetting up the left sideline for an 83-yard touchdown. There was the blown onside kick, which Ebner kicked too shallow and not high enough. And for the Patriots, there was precious little in the kick return games.

All in all the kind of game that gets people fired. Not sure it'll happen in this case, special teams have been excellent most of the year. But not a good day to have their worst performance in about five years. Oh, and that's on a day when they did recover one onside kick, which would usually earn special teams a gold star for the day.

Quarterback play was the second biggest problem, at least for most of the game. Brady threw into traffic at the Eagles one yard-line and it was picked off and run back for a touchdown. So instead of a 17-14 lead, the team was down 21-14. And there was the aforementioned second interception, which you just can't have when you're trying to climb out of a 14-point hole.

It wasn't all on Brady. His offensive line isn't giving him time (what else is new), even against a simple three- or four-man rush. For weeks Brady has been counteracting that with quick throws, but the receivers playing in place of his injured starters just don't get quick separation to allow for those throws.

Danny Amendola faces double-teams every play and there isn't enough talent to win against man-coverage across the field. He ended up with 7 catches (on 13 targets) for 62 yards, and was actually the best of the receivers even facing double-teams. And even when tight end Scott Chandler gets open, it's less than 50-50 that he'll catch the ball.

In fact, running back James White was the receiving star of the game: 10 receptions for 115 yards and a touchdown. And without him, the Pats would never have gotten the game close late, as he made clutch catches in their final two touchdown drives. LeGarrette Blount did most of the heavy lifting in the running game (13 carries for 54 yards), but as mentioned earlier, not much running in the second half.

The defense actually played a decent game. They allowed just one long drive for a touchdown and a TD on a short field. And that was about it. The Eagles scored their other 21 points on special teams and defense. The only real complaint about the Patriots defense is their lone turnover was at the end of the game when it was a nearly impossible situation to win. But at least the got the turnover.

Linebacker Jamie Collins returned and led the team with 8 tackles, adding a defended pass and that forced fumble late. He was late on a few plays, but once he gets his legs back he should return to form. The only other linebacker notes are negative: Jonathan Freeney still gets beaten far too often, especially by back in the flat. And Jerod Mayo still isn't quite healthy; made a few plays and missed more.

The defensive line was hot-and-cold, sometimes stuffing a run for a loss, and then giving up a nine-yard gain to offset that. Rookie Malcom Brown had some nice plays, but Rob Ninkovich's one good play didn't make up for several problems on edge runs. Jamaal Sheard continues to make plays, and even dropped into pass coverage on a few zone-blitzes.

Once linebacker Dont'a Hightower returns, the defense should be in much better shape. Especially if Mayo improves with more play.

As for the secondary, they fight on every single throw. The problem yesterday was they weren't as good as usual situationally. 43% third down conversions and not really a sniff of an interception doesn't add up to a great day. Safeties Devin McCourty (7 tackles) and Patrick Chung (6) are indispensable cogs in this machine.

The coaching staff seemed to want to run the ball early. They lined up with an extra offensive lineman on the first play, and they were doing damage on the ground. That's why it's so curious that they gave up on it. And there was the onside kick call, just not a great day for the coaches.

So where does that leave us? Next week is a tough spot for the Patriots, especially against old friend Romeo Crennel, now the defensive coordinator of the Texans. A lot of this will fall on the shoulders of the Patriots defense, but the Pats can't really afford another loss. Not unless they like playing the first weekend of the playoffs.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: Only three times in NFL history has a team scored touchdowns on a blocked punt, a punt return, and an interception in the same game. All three times it was the Philadelphia Eagles. (Credit to Fox Sports for that stat.)

Non-Brady MVP of the Week: Stephen Gostkowski not only had a perfect onside kick, but his kickoffs were high and deep, leaving the Eagles with poor field position when the team actually allowed him to kick it long.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "They need Gronk and Hightower back, in the worst way."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 10-2!

PPS. The Miami Dolphins were the only other team to give up a pass completion to Tom Brady.

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