When it comes to revisiting and dissecting the New England Patriots’ 2015 season, whether that happens during a celebratory viewing of Vol. 5 in the 3 Games to Glory DVD series or following a distressingly premature exit from a postseason for which they still have yet to clinch a berth, much will be made of what took place in Foxborough on Sunday.
For better or for worse.
Just when the 35-28 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles was shaping up to be every which way just as bad — perhaps even worse — than New England’s infamous gag last season in Kansas City, perhaps the Patriots once again came away with something from a flaming dumpster fire of a performance that will last longer than the resulting stench that emanated through the general area surrounding Route One for much of the afternoon. After all, it was the 41-14 loss to the Chiefs in 2014 that served as an eye-opening experience for Patriots head coach Bill Belichick last season, offering a fuller glimpse of the character of a team that would eventually become Super Bowl champions.
Either way, Belichick can point to one, lone reason why this one was even remotely close in the end: Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
Less encouragingly, Brady is also one of the handful of reasons why the game got so out of hand.
The Patriots’ quarterback made his share of mistakes, including throwing a pair of ghastly interceptions, one of which the Eagles brought back for a touchdown after a debatable instance of pass interference went uncalled. The other interception, thrown into the waiting arms of Eagles cornerback Byron Maxwell in the end zone, came one play after Brady caught a pass from Danny Amendola for 36 yards, making the quarterback the team’s fifth-leading wide receiver on the afternoon.
But Brady wasn’t the one responsible for the atrocious clock management at the end of the first half, leading to the Eagles blocking a punt and scoring the game-tying touchdown. He didn’t think a Nate Ebner drop-kick would be a cute way to turn a 14-0 lead into an unraveling ball of incompetence while standing on the Patriots’ sideline.
In the end, the Patriots coaches and New England’s special teams, in particular, had simply burrowed themselves so deep into the turf at Gillette Stadium that not even a valiant, 14-point, fourth-quarter effort from Brady could save them.
As a coach who regularly trumpets the importance of special teams play, Belichick’s grimace must be wrinkled into all sorts of contortions after surrendering two touchdowns thanks to the punting unit. With another Eagles touchdown coming on the arm on Brady, New England’s defense actually ended up allowing 14 points in this one, not exactly a silver lining.
“Overall, we obviously didn’t do anything well enough today,’’ Belichick said during his post-game press conference. “We competed and sort of had a chance there at the end at a comeback, but you give up 21 points when your defense isn’t on the field, you lose about 98 percent of those games.’’
Unlike after the defeat in Kansas City, there won’t be a knee-jerk cacophony of panic-induced delusion in the wake of the loss to Philadelphia. The only people calling for Jimmy Garoppolo to get the nod next Sunday night against the Houston Texans will be Jimmy’s immediate family, and, possibly, ESPN’s Skip Bayless. Brady gave it away, but he also mounted a comeback sans Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman, his two security blankets in the passing game who were inactive due to injury. Those stalwarts have been replaced by the inconsistent Scott Chandler and the clueless “NoNo’’ LaFell, both thrust into more pivotal roles.
“The first interception (returned 99 yards for a touchdown by Eagle Malcolm Jenkins) was bad quarterbacking,’’ Brady said. “The team trusts you to put the ball in your hands and make good decisions with it. That was a terrible decision. It’s unfortunate because those cost you the game and I‘ve got to do a better job.’’
The Patriots are in as much trouble as a 10-2 team can be in at this stage of the year. If the season ended today, New England would be the No. 3 seed in the AFC behind the victorious Denver Broncos and Cincinnati Bengals. They would host the New York Jets on Wild Card weekend, not exactly the scenario many fans envisioned when the 10-0 Patriots headed to Denver last weekend. For the second-straight week, valid criticism can be levied at Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels for the way they handled the play-calling in key moments, exhibiting a curious lack of conservatism that speaks in some way to their lack of faith in the current personnel.
The Bengals and Broncos still have to play each other later in the season, so one of them is guaranteed a loss (barring an improbable tie). But the Patriots, as currently constituted without Gronkowski, Edelman, and Dont’a Hightower, face a December schedule that is no longer the slam dunk it was supposed to be. New England failed to clinch the AFC East title for a second-straight week, and now have the 6-6 Texans to deal with, a team fighting for its playoff life after losing to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday. The 7-5 Jets are still looming with a playoff berth a very real possibility for them. While a 12-4 record was good enough to earn the Patriots a first-round bye a year ago, it might not get you more than an extra, unwanted date at home come January 2016.
Whatever these Patriots ultimately become, this loss will help define them one way or another.
“We had some good plays in the game,’’ Belichick said. “We just didn’t have enough of them. We had too many bad ones. Just, it’s not good enough.
“There were a lot of plays in the game that I’m sure all of us would like to have back — all of us that played, all of us that coached.’’
The Patriots are on to Houston. The rest of us are going to be stuck on this one for quite some time.
PHOTOS: Patriots vs. Eagles