FOXBOROUGH - The natural question following the Patriots' nail-biting win last night is: Has a blueprint been created to finally slow them down?
After running roughshod over their opposition - outside of the Colts and in one half against the Cowboys - the Patriots faced a stiff challenge from the Eagles. So, how did the Eagles do it?
Those looking for the simple answer can fall back on this: it was complementary football executed at a high level, a blend of offense, defense, and special teams coming together the way coaches hope it will when the plan is drawn up early in the week.
They possessed the ball on offense, thus keeping the Patriots' explosive offense - which had just eight total drives - off the field. That meant third downs were converted (8 of 13) against the NFL's top-ranked third-down defense. New England's normally aggressive pass rush never truly got in gear - and the secondary paid the price.
The Eagles masterfully mixed their pressure on defense, sometimes coming with blitzes and overloading certain sides of the field, while other times dropping seven players into coverage. They played fast and without fear - blitzing on about 50 percent of Patriots pass plays. Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson said the Eagles' top two goals were pressuring quarterback Tom Brady and not letting receiver Randy Moss get behind the defense for big plays.
And on special teams, the Eagles played clean and gutsy. Despite one offside penalty on a second-half punt that ultimately didn't hurt them, the Eagles played to a stalemate in the field-position game, and even recovered a first-half onside kick.
The Eagles, who were called for just three penalties in the game, came with all they had last night, and if not for two Asante Samuel interceptions, perhaps they would have sprung the upset. While it wasn't the Patriots' best night, a lot of that was because the Eagles took it to them.
"They gave us a number of problems in all three phases of the game," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said.
While the Eagles' offense and special teams did their part, the segment of the Eagles' plan that will surely be inspected by NFL coaches around the league was the team's defensive approach.
It was all about getting to Brady.
"We felt the only chance we had was that we had to pressure," Johnson said. "That was our game plan. We didn't know if they were going to run the ball, but we knew they were going to throw it. Even if we didn't get to him, we had to throw off his timing and make him move around the pocket a little bit. At times, we did."
The Patriots opened the game in a no-huddle, four-receiver set, with a lone running back. That meant they were determined to throw, playing mostly six-man pass protection.
Favoring an all-air approach, the Patriots (25 passes, 2 rushes) had some success in building a 24-21 halftime lead, but make no mistake, the Eagles still made life quite difficult for the offense, something no defense outside of the Colts had consistently accomplished.
The Patriots went away from the four-wide packages in the second half, but the pressure never stopped coming.
The Eagles' most significant wrinkle was using linebacker Chris Gocong as their "joker" - a cross between a defensive lineman and linebacker. The idea was to confuse the Patriots by mixing up Gocong's responsibilities.
"That was our game plan, to use him to drop into coverage and blitz, and he did a good job," Johnson said.
In all, the Eagles had three sacks of Brady and were credited with four quarterback hits. Considering Brady had been sacked just 10 times in 348 dropbacks entering the game, the second-best percentage in the NFL, it was a solid night's work.
Yet while all teams would like to dial up pressure, the concern is committing too many players to the rush, and thus leaving the back end of the field vulnerable. Johnson was concerned about that against the Patriots, specifically with Moss, and had J.R. Reed playing a deep safety on Moss's side to provide help.
"That was the biggest thing, we took their deep ball away," Johnson said.
The Patriots still finished with 380 passing yards, and 48 rushing yards, but it still seemed as if there was a bit of a dent in their armor.
So if future Patriots opponents watch the film of the game, might they be able to follow a blueprint to slow down New England's explosive offense?
"I think the blueprint is that you can't allow [Brady] to sit back and throw the ball," Eagles linebacker Takeo Spikes said. "If it's a 7-on-7 drill, you'll never win. They have too many great athletes. Like I said before earlier in the week, the hardest thing coming into this game is the matchups they present. I felt we matched up pretty well. It was just [making] the plays. We competed. Nobody worried about giving up the play.
"We played it how it was supposed to be played."
Mike Reiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.